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What Makes Some Deaf Children
(But Not Others) Good Readers?

Marc Marschark is a Professor and Director of the Center for Education Research Partnerships at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college of Rochester Institute of Technology, and Honorary Professor in the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh and School of Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.  His book, Raising and Educating a Deaf Child: A Comprehensive Guide to the Choices, Controversies, and Decisions Faced by Parents and Educators is a guide through the conflicting suggestions and programs for raising deaf children, as well as the likely implications of taking one direction or the other.  In the excerpt below Marschark looks at why some deaf children are much better readers than others.

Perhaps more than any other area, the reading and writing abilities of deaf children have been the focus of attention from educators and researchers for decades.  Taken together, the results and conclusions of relevant studies provide an enlightening, if disappointing, picture of deaf children’s skills in this regard.

Many of the errors that deaf children exhibit in reading and writing are the same as those made by people learning English as a second language.  A variety of programs therefore has been been developed to instruct teachers of deaf children in methods like those used in teaching English as a second language…  Although their reading behaviors and their writing may look similar to second-language learners, we need to remember that most deaf children will come to school without true fluency in any language.  As a result, second-language learning methods may be inappropriate or only address some of deaf student’s needs.  While the priority should be to ensure that deaf children acquire first language fluency during the preschool years, teachers still have to teach them to read and write in English, regardless of their prior language experience.  So, we might as well face up to the issues.  First, we have to take into account the variation among deaf children and the influences of early language environments, types of hearing loss, and factors like parent and child motivation.  Considerable resources and effort devoted to improving deaf children’s literacy have gone into trying to teach them the skills and strategies that work for hearing children, even though it is apparent that deaf and hearing children often have very different background knowledge and learning strategies…  Perhaps as a result, despite decades of concerted effort, most deaf children in this country still progress far more slowly than hearing children in learning to read.  This means that deaf students leaving school are at a relatively greater disadvantage, lagging farther behind hearing peers, than when they entered.  At the same time, there are clearly many deaf adults and children who are excellent readers and excellent writers.  What accounts for the difference?

A variety of sources claim that deaf children of deaf parents, on average, are better readers than deaf children of hearing parents…Why? Deaf children’s relative lack of early language fluency when they have hearing parents clearly plays an important role in their reading difficulties, and several investigators have found a relationship between deaf children’s ASL skills and their reading levels…These studies have all been correlational, however, demonstrating that high or low levels of performance in one of these domains are often accompanied by similar levels in the other.  Similarly, other investigations have shown a similar link between speech and literacy skills in deaf children with deaf or hearing parents who use unspoken language…In some of those studies, the contributions of greater residual hearing and speech skill have not been distinguished, but the larger point is that early access to fluent language is central to deaf children’s gaining literacy skills.  For those children who are not able to benefit fully from spoken language, an early foundation in language through ASL or another natural sign language would appear to be a promising alternative.  But the situation is more complex.

…there are other differences between deaf and hearing parents other than their primary mode of communication.  The two groups may have very different expectations for their deaf children in terms of academic achievement.  They also may differ in their ability to help their children in reading-related activities, and we know that children whose parents spend time working with them on academic and extracurricular activities are more motivated and have greater academic success.  Is there some reason to believe that it is parental hearing status rather than early language fluency that enable some deaf children to be better readers?

In an earlier book, Psychological Development of Deaf Children, I reviewed 30 years of studies concerning the reading abilities of deaf children of deaf parents as compared to deaf children of hearing parents.  The results were surprising because I fully expected that deaf children with deaf parents would always come out on top as a result of their early exposure to language.  Well, deaf children of deaf parents have been shown to be better readers than deaf children of hearing parents in some studies, but others have shown no difference.  Importantly, none of the studies to date have considered the reading skills of parents, and those investigations that have included deaf parents largely have been conducting in places known for having relatively high numbers of educated deaf adults.  It therefore seems likely that any generalization about a link between children’s reading abilities and parental hearing status per se will be extremely limited.  After all, if 50 percent of deaf and hard-of-hearing adults read below the fourth grade level, how can they be good reading models for their deaf (or hearing) children?

Indeed, it now appears that regardless of whether their parents are deaf or hearing, deaf children who are better readers turn out to be the ones who had their hearing losses diagnosed earlier, had early access to fluent language (usually via sign language), and were exposed to English.  At the same time, having a mother who is a good signer appears to be more important than whether she is deaf or hearing or the precise age at which a chld learns to sign, as long as it is early…Regrettably, there is no single predictor of reading success that applies to all deaf children, and the combinations of factors that positively and negatively influence reading development are not yet fully understood.  It may be, for example, that different environments lead to different strengths and weaknesses (for example, big vocabularies but little grammatical knowledge) depending on when, where, and from whom children learn their first and second languages.  Thus, deaf children of hearing parents tend to have better speech and speechreading abilities thatn deaf children of deaf parents, but those abilities do not seem linked to better reading or other academic achievement even though they would seem to support the phonological part of reading… Furthermore, while it is tempting to assume that a deaf child’s early exposure to language through their deaf parents would provide a considerable advantage in learning to read, this advantage may be offset by the fact that ASL vocabulary and syntax do not parallel those of printed English…

Recent Comments

  1. mollymooly

    I wonder if experience varies at all in non-anglophone countries. English spelling is less phonological than Finnish but more so (or at least differently so) than Chinese. Other pedagogical differences might make comparisons complicated.

  2. […] Makes Some Deaf Children (But Not Others) Good Readers? What Makes Some Deaf Children (But Not Others) Good Readers? : OUPblog Marc Marschark is a Professor and Director of the Center for Education Research Partnerships at […]

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