Deaf Education Reconsidered

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.

Here is the simplest way to remember ASL grammar... The TNAV rule ...

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.


red" American Sign Language (ASL)

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.

7 thoughts on “Deaf Education Reconsidered

  1. jackkirschner

    I didn’t t realize that there was such an issue with the learning of deaf children in high school. Thanks for bringing attention to how deaf children learn and how they learned Latin to understand English is incredible. Great post!

  2. kaygoss

    Really cool! My husband has been deaf in his right ear for almost his entire life and has been losing his hearing in his left over time. It is interesting to learn about how kids usually learn words through phonics. Even though he wasn’t completely deaf at the time, he still had difficulty understanding sounds. Even now he can’t fully understand someone unless he is able to see their mouth movements.

  3. julianv

    This was actually a super fun read. Definitely a lot of new information there that I hadn’t come across before, even as someone who used to work with special needs kids, which included some who were hard of hearing. I didn’t even realize how difficult it would be for them to begin learning how to read until you pointed out all of the hurdles that they would have to jump in order to get them started. I question though, how did them learning latin help them better understand English structure? Not doubting anything at all, more just curious as to what cognitive processes or moment so eureka they had that made things “click” as they say. Either way, thank you for sharing!

    1. maggierush Post author

      Thanks for the comment. To answer your question I’m not quite sure. I’m assuming though it has something to do with how second languages are taught. Like I said originally learning to read/write in English teachers have assumptions of knowing how to speak a sentence. Maybe since Latin isn’t a spoken language anymore it’s taught with the mindset that people go into it knowing nothing and build it up from there. I never took Latin so I don’t quite understand how the sentence structure mimics English sentences but I would assume it has more similarities than ASL grammar and English.

  4. adill98

    I loved reading this and I liked how you tied this blog post to family. One of my good friends in high school was deaf but cochlear implants put in which now help him have the ability to hear. He still focuses on mouth movements though just out of habit and it still helps him to this day understand what others are saying.

  5. victoriarulapaugh

    This was very eye opening and I am really glad you posted about this! Such a great topic and something tha should be noticed by so many people

  6. victoriarulapaugh

    This was very eye opening and I am really glad you posted about this! Such a great topic and something that should be noticed by so many people

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