New parents are always such an endearing and amusing sight. They cannot yet look at their babies without an Olympic-sized grin and a monumental show of pride as if their child just became the only infant in history to win a gold medal. Even better than the uncontrollably-affectionate facial expressions is the baby talk. Ahh, yes, the baby talk. It can be really annoying when your aunt still speaks to you this way at the age of 12, but for some reason, adults can’t seem to control this form of speech when there is a chubba-cheeked-wittle-guy in front of them. Even though we would like to think we are delighting children with the exaggerated fluctuation and changes in tone, some parents might not realize that their baby can’t actually hear them.
“Hearing loss affects 12,000 children born in the United States each year, making it the most common birth defect” (Source). Nowadays most newborns are screened for hearing loss, but infants in the 90’s – and a small percentage today – often wouldn’t be identified as deaf until the age of 2 ½ or even 3 as their parents started to realize they weren’t speaking. Parents who later found out that their children were deaf reported that their babies babbled (ba-ba, ma-ma, etc.) just like a hearing baby would. Experts often address these reports by adding that even though vocal babbling may occur with deaf infants, it is minimal and doesn’t continue to develop the same way a hearing baby’s babbling would. Nonetheless, it is still difficult for hearing parents to identify their child as deaf if they aren’t aware, and the first three years of life are the most critical for speech and language development, which are important for learning to read and write.
“With appropriate early intervention, children with hearing loss can be mainstreamed in regular elementary and secondary education classrooms. Recent research has concluded that children born with a hearing loss who are identified and given appropriate intervention before 6 months of age demonstrated significantly better speech and reading comprehension than children identified after 6 months of age” (Source). There are different causes behind why a person may be deaf or hard of hearing. The degree of severity can range between mild to profound deafness, which also affects the way a child’s language will develop. For example, people who are pre-lingually deaf were born profoundly deaf and they are likely to learn sign language as their form of communication. No matter what type of intervention a deaf child receives, it is so important that deaf children do develop a language. Just like a hearing child, deaf children need a language that they can draw from for understanding and expression, especially during the process of learning to read. Deaf children born to hearing parents are often disadvantaged by the fact that they are not exposed to a fluently-spoken language (such as American Sign Language) and thus do not develop language fluency during the most crucial years. Deaf children born to deaf parents do not have this problem – they are exposed to fluent communication constantly if the parents sign.
Hearing children learn to read by making the connection between the spoken language they have learned and the words they see printed on a page. Children use the knowledge they gain about phonics to decode words and then use their knowledge of the world gained from listening and speaking to help make the connection between the printed word and what it represents. This is called print-sound mapping. Deaf children need a language to draw from when learning to read as well, which is why early intervention is so critical – be it hearing aids or cochlear implants to facilitate hearing and speech or lipreading and signing to facilitate visual communication. They too have to make a connection between either a spoken word (if possible) or a signed word to a word printed on a page.
Here are some guidelines for the parents of deaf children to remember as their kids are learning to read:
Learn to sign. Parents need to be able to teach their children how to communicate and then be able to communicate with them. Learning to sign is very important because children need constant exposure to the language they are learning, especially in the home.
Focus on visuals. Picture books are great for helping a deaf child learn to read. Sign-spell the word to your child, point to the printed word and the accompanying picture, and then use the sign for the word. If you are teaching your child to read lips, have the child point to the picture, point to the word, and then watch your mouth as you slowly and deliberately speak the word.
Use letter cards. Another way to help children develop language and reading skills is to use letter cards. Letter cards can be used to demonstrate how individual letters form words. You can even make a phonics word wheel to help! Demonstrate the difference between vowels and consonants by putting letter card combinations into different piles. Then you can also show how a vowel often follows one or two consonants. You could aim to teach your child a new combination every day.
Build vocabulary. Just as you should with any child who is developing their language fluency, try introducing a new vocabulary word ever day. Work that word into conversations and display the word on your fridge or a wall next to a picture of the signed letters for the word.
Focus on the positive. Instead of concentrating on the disadvantages of being deaf, think of the child as “seeing” instead of “hearing.” Being deaf makes your child unique and gives them an outlook on life that most people don’t get to see. Remember that just because you have to use a different approach to teach reading skills doesn't mean deaf children can’t be successful.
Adjust your environment. Deaf learners need a visual environment to thrive. A helpful activity might be to help your child label items in their room and around the house—such as doors, mirrors, bed – with a label that has the written word on it. If you are doing activities with your child (especially for homeschool parents) incorporate a lot of visual aids into the lessons.
Test for comprehension. Remember that good signing skills are not a reflection of good reading skills, though it helps. Make sure that your children understand what they are reading by pointing to a picture or a printed word and having them give the sign back to you. As language and reading skills advance, ask you children questions about the characters and plot of a book. For some additional tips that you can use to help make reading enjoyable and accessible for ANY child, click here.
Reading Horizons programs offer a lot of advantages and approaches that help deaf learners become fluent readers, including a pronunciation tool that visually shows the proper tongue placement when sounding out letters of the alphabet.
A couple of weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Christian Home School Conference in Pennsylvania… Many of the homeschoolers knew about the benefits of an Orton-Gillingham-based program. They were looking for something that was multi-sensory and research-based… I spoke with another mom whose children were all partially deaf and had to use cochlear implants. I showed her the portion on the software that shows a video of a live, human mouth forming and pronouncing all of the 42 Sounds, which she loved… Since our program represents everything auditorily and visually, even those with hearing issues are able to have great success. It is hard to describe how wonderful it was to help her, and I felt like I had given her something she could really use. It seemed like a burden had been lifted off of her and she was filled with hope.
--Shantell Berrett, Reading and Curriculum Specialist