When teaching a hearing child and a deaf child to read, a person will have to take two very different approaches beginning the process. English will, more-than-likely, be an American hearing child’s first language. English is a deaf child’s second language. American Sign Language should be a deaf child’s first and natural language. The best way to teach a deaf child to read is using the bilingual approach.
Being able to read and write is very important to a deaf person. Many deaf adults communicate with people who are unable to sign by writing notes back and forth to each other. How are they supposed to communicate with people that can hear if they cannot read or write? Deaf people do not “talk” on cell phones, but they do text each other. One should not forget they need to read and write for all the same reasons that people that hearing people do. It is harder to get far and be successful in life if one is unable to read and write.
How is teaching a deaf child and a child that can hear different? The approach with children that can hear is using phonetics. “Phonetics is the study of speech sounds. The communication of meaning through a sequence of speech sounds involves the following: First of all, a speaker encodes meaning into sounds, which he or she produces using the tongue, lips, and other articulatory organs. These sounds are transmitted through the air to reach the hearer. Then, the hearer perceives them through auditory processes; finally translating them back into meaning” (Clayton Valli) . A hearing child will take the letters in the word and sound them out to make a word. They will figure out what the word is, once they sound the word out. A deaf child cannot do this. Since the deaf child cannot hear, parents and teachers need to take a whole different approach when teaching a deaf child to read. “Unlike children who hear the spoken word and use phonics as a method to learn to read, deaf children will relate words to corresponding visual items” (Taylor).
The very first thing that a deaf child needs in order to be successful is a language. They need to be fluent in a language. Think about it. If a child does not understand what a person is talking about, then how is the child supposed to learn. It is easiest to teach a child something in the language that they are fluent in. If a child barely knows how to speak German and a person is trying to introduce a new complex concept to them, how will it turn out? That person will, most likely, be wasting their time. “In order to acquire first language fluency in a natural manner, a child must have clear, consistent, and complete access to the linguistic model. Deaf children, whose parents are fluent in ASL, acquire ASL as a first language through natural, ongoing communication at home with their family members. These children typically achieve academic success at a level higher than that of their deaf peers from homes where signed language is not a primary language” (Stephen M. Nover). A deaf child needs to be exposed to American Sign Language as much as possible. American Sign Language is a deaf person’s natural language, not English. Parents who are hearing want their child to be “normal”, so they think that if a deaf child can lip read, it will make them that much closer to being “normal”. There are a few deaf children that become deaf at an earlier age who are able to pick up on lip reading, but the majority of deaf children are not successful at lip reading or at speech.
“Many studies have shown that deaf children cannot understand their teachers’ language on their lips or speak it intelligibly. Nevertheless, it is the teachers’ language that is used in class, and so education fails miserably” (Lane, 1992). Knowing this, one would think that education would change, and schools would start teaching deaf children how to sign, but instead we prohibit sign language in the classrooms. I have seen kids start to sign when doing math or something, and the teachers stop them from signing. A lot of teachers, themselves, do not know sign language, let alone American Sign Language. When the Oral method started coming out “ASL was prohibited, even outside the classrooms. Children’s hands were tied, to prevent signing” (Neisser, 1996).
Children who are fluent in American Sign Language are better readers, but sadly, “90% or more deaf children are born into hearing families where ASL is not an option for communication. In most cases, these children are not exposed to a complete visual language until they enter school, if at all” (Stephen M. Nover).
There was a study done at Metro Deaf School (MDS), “a bilingual program situated in St. Paul, Minnesota” (Bailes). A bilingual program is a program that focuses on American Sign Language as the natural language of the deaf. This is the language that they communicate in. But by no means do they ignore English. Bilingual programs focus on English in its written form. These schools believe that English is very important for deaf to learn, but American Sign Language is an equal to English. “Deaf children should be consistently exposed to complete forms of both ASL and English from an early age, calling attention to the “separate but equal” features of each language and stating that deaf children who are afforded” opportunities to acquire American Sign Language naturally at an early age, and (who) are made aware that English is the language of speech, story books, and other situations, should be able to acquire parallel competence in both languages with success” (Bailes). They teach English literacy through American Sign Language. English was never ignored in teaching deaf children in any of the grades.
The teachers read the stories to the children; they signed the stories in American Sign Language, not in English word order. They got the meaning of what the story was talking about and then signed the sentence in ASL. Then children were asked to read stories to their peers. They did this by one sentence at a time. They read the sentence, got the meaning of the sentence and then signed it in ASL. This way the children understood what was actually happening in the story. “The children learned by example what it meant to live literate lives as bilinguals” (Bailes).
When the students first started out reading “the kindergarten teacher stated that she spent a great deal of time making her student aware that when they signed, they were using ASL, and when they read books, they were reading English” (Bailes). The study showed that children who had Deaf parents who used ASL at home, did better with reading and writing. Deaf children whose parents could hear and did not use ASL on a regular basis struggled with reading and writing. They could not focus on English as much as they wanted to, until the child could master ASL.
In this bilingual approach, “children were expected to also demonstrate the ability to distinguish between ASL and English as distinct language….the teachers switched back and forth between the two languages, making explicit comparisons between their rules and structures. They clearly bridge the two languages by signing, fingerspelling, writing, and pointing to printed English in subsequent and varying turns” (Bailes). This is a very important concept. Deaf children need to see it in ASL, showing them that this sentence is actually making a meaning of something. But then show on the paper the written words, showing the child where they got that information. “Reinforce the written word with sign language. A deaf child depends upon relating the corresponding hand sign with the written word” (Taylor). For example, in using the sentence “The duck is swimming in the pool,” one would first say it in ASL to get their attention, so they know what to look for. Then, sign the word “duck” pointing at the word at the same time. Then sign the words “in pool”, pointing at that word. Now, one would have the subject and where it is. What is the duck doing? Show the word “swimming”. Show the child that the duck is swimming in the pool. Another thing that one would then need is to explain to the child what does “the” mean in this sentence? People that can hear, use the words “the, is, are, am, ing, ed” etc., without really knowing what the meaning is. Since ASL does not have words or suffixes like this, we need to explain to the child what “the” actually means in a sentence. One needs to explain that “the” means it is this duck, not another duck, and it is only one duck that is swimming in the pool. Explain that “ing” means that the duck is swimming right now. He is not going to swim, he is not finished swimming, but the duck is swimming right now. Then, the word “is” is connecting the sentence, bringing the duck and the pool together. After that process, one would need to sign it in ASL again. That is an example of going between the two languages, and connecting them together.
After one has done all this, a parent or teacher needs to increase the child’s vocabulary by “adding new words daily. Repetition and committing basic words to memory is the key to reading success for any child and deaf children are no different in that manner. As you introduce new words, take the time to refresh previous words and build a large written vocabulary” (Taylor).
I think this is the best way to teach a deaf child to learn to read and write. A deaf child needs ASL, before anything else, to be successful at reading. Yes, there are some exceptions on lipreading and children learning to read and write, but to reach the most amount of deaf children, and not take a chance, a deaf child needs American Sign Language to be able to be successful in school and everyday life. In my opinion, and studies have shown, the best way to do this is by using the bilingual approach.
Bailes, Cynthia Neese. "Integrative ASL- English Language Arts: Bridging Paths to Literacy." Sign Language Studies (2001).
Clayton Valli, Ceil Lucs, & Kristin J. Mulrooney. Linguistics of American Sign Language An Introduction. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1992.
Stephen M. Nover, Kathee M. Christensen, Li-Rong Lilly Cheng. "Development of ASL and English Competence for Learners Who are Deaf." (1998).
Taylor, Glenda. How to Help a Deaf Child Learn to Read. 2010. 12 2010