How to Teaching Deaf Students to Read Essay Topic

“Deaf children read, on the average, at the fourth grade level when they graduate from high school.” (“Why shared reading?”, 2000, p. 1) This statistic is both troubling and predictable. It is troubling, because Deaf persons have an intellectual ability range similar to their hearing peers. It is predictable because according to Gail Brand, American Sign Language instructor at Northwest Indian College, Deaf culture doesn’t understand “Hearing” nuances of English language that include idioms and metaphors. “Signers” of ASL communicate with a great deal of clarifying contextual clues.

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Problems with language usage and comprehension of abstract topics can occur when teaching Deaf students to read. (Smith, Polloway, Patton, & Dowdy, 1998) Marie Clay identified four cues that strategic Hearing readers use: meaning, visual, letter sounds and language structure. When adults read to children regularly in the preschool years, they develop concepts about print such as directionality and punctuation (an aspect of language structure) by listening to an adult reading fluently. (Clay, 1993) They learn comprehension strategies and vocabulary when an adult discusses the story with the child. (Armbruster, Ph.D, Lehr, & Osborn, M.Ed., 2001) This discussion of strategies recommends three to help overcome reading difficulties. They are using specific techniques when reading to Deaf students, developing phonological awareness in profoundly deaf children and using miscue analysis to assess and plan for instruction for Deaf readers.

For the purposes of this discussion, I spelled Deaf with an upper case D that refers to the Deaf as a culture instead of a disability. I spelled Hearing with an upper case H to refer to Hearing culture.
Deaf Adults Reading to Deaf Children

“Comparative studies of deaf children with hearing parents and deaf children with deaf parents show deaf children with deaf parents are superior in academic achievement, reading and writing and social development.” (Schleper, 1996, p. 1) At Gallaudet University, in the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, fifteen principles were developed using the expertise of Deaf adults. Deaf readers:

(a) translate stories using American Sign Language; (b) keep both languages visible (ASL and English); (c) are not constrained by text; (d) re-read stories on a storytelling to story reading continuum; (e) follow a child’s lead; (f) make what is implied explicit adjust sign placement to fit the story; (g) adjust signing style to fit the story; (h) connect concepts in the story to the real world; (i) use attention maintenance strategies; (j) use eye gaze to elicit participation; (k) engage in role play to extend concepts; (l) use ASL variations to sign repetitive English phases; (m) provide a positive and reinforcing environment; (n) expect the child to become literate. (Schleper, 1996, p. 1)
These principles can make a difference in academic achievement if used by Hearing parents and teachers when reading to Deaf children.

The Shared Reading Project at Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center makes these assumptions:

• Deaf adults have experience sharing books with Deaf children.
• Book sharing with ASL builds a bridge to reading English.
• Finger spelling is important in learning how to read.
• Book sharing is an important parenting skill.
• Work with families where they are.
• Respect the language and culture of the family.
• Parents who learn about Deaf culture will have more positive interactions with their children.
• Showing people how to do it is better than telling them how to do it.
• Reach as many families as possible.
• Evaluation informs ongoing Shared Reading development.
(“Why shared reading?” 2000, p. 3)

At Home the project trains teachers and parents how to apply the principles. Fun, predictable children’s books, read by culturally diverse Deaf readers are video taped. Deaf tutors visit homes once a week with a tape and demonstrate how to sign the stories. The family uses tapes and books along with a guide of activities for parents to practice the story throughout the week. (Schleper, 1997) At School the fifteen principals enhance the framework for teaching reading in the regular education classroom and make it appropriate and effective for deaf students. A lesson plan for Shared Reading for Deaf students showed that concepts about print (directionality and punctuation) as well as highlighting new or difficult vocabulary are taught using ASL and finger spelling to connect print to concept. The teacher uses ASL in role-playing and discussion of the story to help make what is implied explicit. Many regular education teachers will recognize activities such as Author’s Chair and K-W-L charts in this Shared Reading lesson plan developed for Deaf students. (Love, 1998)

English as a Second Language strategies can provide extra meaning and context clues for Deaf students also. According to Gail Brand, Northwest Indian College American Sign Language instructor, hands on activities that utilize pictures and objects to increase comprehension of new vocabulary are common to ESL lessons. An effective ESL lesson makes a contextual and visual map or pattern for ESL students to use. Based on the assumption that Deaf students will often be strong visual and contextual learners it is clear that ESL strategies will be common in effective reading instruction for Deaf students.

Students in the regular education classroom could benefit from these modifications for Deaf students. Teaching finger spelling and ASL to all students in the classroom has several advantages. Using movement when teaching helps the brain remember the sounds and words being spoken. ASL is the fourth most used language in the United States. Regular education students that leave school with a skill such as “speaking” a second language will experience a higher quality of life. Deaf students will experience social and emotional benefits and feel included and more alike their peers than different. (Smith, el al., 1998)

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to isolate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. (Cunningham & Allington, 1999) Children with phonological awareness understand how to use visual (alphabetic) cues along with meaning and structure cues. It allows an emergent reader to connect sounds to letters, decode words and ultimately derive meaning from print. The visual processing is as important for Deaf children as it is for Hearing children. David Dolman, Ph.D., the coordinator of the deaf education program at Barton College, in Wilson, North Carolina compiled a list of activities to teach phonemic awareness to Deaf children. Most of the phonological awareness activities listed, such as counting syllables, exploring alphabet books and making letter books, take place in a regular education Kindergarten that uses the components of a balanced literacy approach. Two of the activities geared specifically towards Deaf students are:
“The IBM Speech Viewer, a tool that transforms spoken words and sounds into graphics provides a wide variety of phonological awareness activities presented in an engaging, interactive way. These include counting syllables in words, identifying beginning and ending sounds, blending sounds, demonstrating alliteration and syllable deletion and rhyming.” and “With a tactile-kinesthetic phonics strategy, deaf readers use their tactile-kinesthetic knowledge of how the letters of the alphabet are pronounced to sound out unfamiliar words. While word recognition for hearing readers depends on auditory feedback, deaf readers match the tactile sensations produced in the vocal tract by pronouncing the unfamiliar work with meaning previously attached to that vocalization. Comprehensive speech training is prerequisite of the successful use of this strategy.” (Dolman Ph.D., 2000, p. 3)

A study in the United Kingdom found that some Deaf children could develop phonological awareness through experiences with language. “Young deaf children had to pick a nonsense word that ‘sounded’ like the name of a picture. For example, under a picture of a door was a list of nonsense words from which the correct homophone had to be picked. The children’s accuracy rate was 64 percent, which was far above the 25 percent chance level.” (Stern, 2001, p. 2) With a significant amount of experience with literacy, phonological structures will develop for both sign and oral languages.

Miscue Analysis

Miscue analysis and Running Records, familiar to regular educators, are strategies used to determine which cueing systems a student is using to read text. The student reads the text and the teacher records and codes any errors they make. Coded errors include substitutions, repetition, omission and insertion. When the codes are analyzed the cueing systems are revealed. With this information the teacher can design further instruction to expand on these strategies and strengthen others the student doesn’t use too well.

This strategy has been modified for Deaf readers to accommodate a number of additional reading behaviors Deaf readers have. Other types of errors are analyzed such as the use of finger spelling, sign choice and word segmentation. The student is videotaped as the teacher writes in code exactly what the reader signed and said in response to the text. The teacher views the tape later to record any additional behaviors, analyzes the miscues and plans for further instruction.

“In doing this, we have been struck by the wealth of cueing systems available to our students form both spoken and signed language. We understand better the ways deaf readers are different from their reading peers, and equally important, their profound similarities.” (Gennaoui & Chaleff, 2000, p. 5)

Personal Connection

My mother was a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the hearing impaired while I was growing up. Consequently, at an early age, people who were deaf or hearing impaired were a part of my life and though my mother never learned sign language she was able to work with persons who were deaf or hearing impaired and help them with job training and job searching. Her work helped me understand I can teach these special students in my regular education classroom.
Because of my personal experience, I have become familiar with some characteristics of deaf and hearing-impaired students such as poor speech production and voice quality. Some strategies, such as peer support and accommodated seating arrangements are part of my regular education classroom management but I have never had the pleasure of teaching a Deaf child. Presently, I am on the way to fulfilling a childhood dream to learn American Sign Language by taking my first course this semester.

As a reading specialist, I have grown more curious about phonological awareness and profoundly deaf students. When finding solutions to reading problems for Deaf students, all aspects of language acquisition need to be evaluated as well as the role that Deaf culture may play. The strategies described here and many others I found when doing research, made me realize how lucky everyone involved would be if my regular education school or, in my case, a reading program, included Deaf students.


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