Can you imagine entering high school at a 2nd grade reading level, just because your teachers didn’t know how to teach you? Sadly this is a reality for many deaf children. According to Kelly & Barac-Cikoja (2007), only 5% of deaf kids graduate high school at a reading level of 12th grade or above. These statistics however aren’t reflective of deaf individuals’ intellectual ability, but instead come down to core issues on how teaching reading is approached. The most commonly used method for teaching students how to read is the phonics approach, where a sound and the appropriate letter is presented, this however doesn’t work very well when the student doesn’t hear or use the sounds presented.
I have two cousins who are deaf, that each have more degrees than I think I ever will, and after seeing these statistics it led me to question that if high level reading abilities are so uncommon then how did they do it?
Reading is typically learned after kids can proficiently communicate in their spoken language, which taught us word recognition and syntactic structure of phrases in our spoken language. Basic knowledge of phonemes, morphemes, syntax, and semantics is commonly used as the building block for teaching the written language. For many deaf Americans their first language is American Sign Langue (ASL), and this language is very different from English. They are not only different in the fact that one is a verbal/written language and one is visual, but they also have completely different vocabulary and grammar structure. In ASL there isn’t always a specific sign for some words we have in English.
These differences of ASL and English make it very difficult for deaf students to learn written English. Kailyn and Brian were given an adapted approach to teaching reading. One example of this is in primary school they began ‘reading’ video books, where there was a person signing the book in ASL and then the English words were written below. This helped them learn word recognition, for example they were able to recognize that the sign for the color red was the same as “RED” written out.
From what we learned in Cognitive Psychology, it seems that Kailyn and Brian used an adapted whole word learning approach to learn how to read. They were presented words in their spoken language, ASL, and that was paired with the written English word. Kailyn said that the hardest part of learning how to read was understanding sentence structure and grammar. In high school they were encouraged to take Latin because it wasn’t a spoken language, they found that taking Latin actually helped them better understand English sentence structure, Kailyn said, “learning Latin grammar and writing helped me pass my (English) writing SOL”.
Phonics is often the best approach for students who can hear normally, but schools should have measures put in place to adapt to a new kind of learning for students who are deaf. Common ideas we have for how reading comprehension largely has to do with phonological knowledge doesn’t work for everyone. The current standards of teaching and learning reading clearly doesn’t account for deaf students, but we can all agree that there are plenty of ways to adjust the typical approaches so it can work for everyone. I think as a whole we need to reconsider this idea in education that one way works the best for everyone, because clearly that is not the case. I think we have come a far way in having appropriate accommodations available for disabilities, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Kelly L, Barac-Cikoja D. The comprehension of skilled deaf readers: The roles of word recognition and other potentially critical aspects of competence. In: Cain K, Oakhill J, editors. Children’s comprehension problems in oral and written language: A cognitive perspective. Guilford Press; 2007. pp. 244–279.