According to the CDC, at least one in 1,000 babies are born with a hearing loss. Historically, a hearing loss could go overlooked in a baby for months and even years, but fortunately, at present approximately 98% of infants are screened for a hearing loss. Identifying a hearing loss in infants is critical, because the first three years of life are crucial for speech and language development and it’s important for all children to have linguistic input from birth. Without exposure to language within this time period, learning to read and write becomes significantly more difficult. To find out detailed information regarding speech and language milestones, visit the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Being categorized as Deaf refers to a wide array of people; the hearing loss varies from person to person and can change over time. For example, an individual could grow up hard of hearing, with a mild hearing loss, and then completely lose their hearing later in life (also known as a progressive loss). Not all hearing loss is the same and some types of hearing loss include the following:
- Severe to profound loss
- According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), a severe to profound loss is when the degree of loss determined by the audiologist conducting the hearing test finds that the Decibel (dB) loss is 71 or higher, meaning that something has to be at least 71 dB loud, or louder, in order to hear it.
- Moderate to moderately severe loss
- This means the individual can only hear sounds when they are between 41-70 dB.
- Slight to mild loss
- This means the individual can only hear sounds when they are between 16-40 dB. An individual who can hear 15 dB or below is categorized as having typical or normal hearing without a loss.
- Functional loss
- This type of loss refers to an unexplained hearing loss.
- Progressive loss
- As stated earlier, a progressive loss refers to a change in hearing loss over time.
- Auditory neuropathy
- This is a disorder in which the inner ear detects sound, but is unable to process the sound normally.
How to Help a Deaf Child Become a Reader
Regardless of the cause or type of hearing loss, children need exposure to language. Deaf children with Deaf parents will have exposure to sign language immediately from birth. Deaf children born to non-signing hearing parents (or signing parents who lack fluency), on the other hand, will be at a disadvantage since their parents will likely be unprepared to expose them to a fluent language at birth.
To learn to read, hearing children match sounds they hear (often speech) to print. Thus, they are using spoken language to learn written language. Deaf children also need to access language to learn to read. This access to language comes in various forms, depending on the type of hearing loss and family preferences, which can include the following:
- Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants
- These can facilitate hearing and speech for some individuals who have specific hearing losses and are eligible for the technology. This allows children to match spoken language to printed language as they learn to read.
- American Sign Language
- Signing allows for parents and children to communicate through constant exposure to language regardless of the type and severity of hearing loss. This allows children to match signs with printed words when learning to read.
- Although quite difficult because only about 30% of spoken English can be read on the lips accurately, lipreading is used by some individuals.
Whether using spoken language or sign language, all children learn to read using the same techniques. They need:
- Constant exposure to language, in any form.
- Picture books and other visuals during young age to match visuals with language.
- Letters – magnetic, foam, flashcards, or other forms – to learn the alphabet and practice making letter combinations to form words.
- Access to vocabulary.
- Sign and/or speak words to expand vocabulary.
- Point to objects, people, photos, etc. and identify them.
- Label objects so children can match written words with tactile objects. Children can make their own labels, too.
- Fluent reading models.
- All children benefit from having fluent readers read to them. Deaf children can be read to through sign language.
- Practice reading.
- Use traditional books, cook books, game directions, and anything else with print.
- Choose books that are at the appropriate developmental and cognitive level of your child. Don’t forget, younger children have shorter attention spans.
- Read to children often.
- Let children read, by either speaking or signing what they see written.
- Read and then reread materials.
- Make all learning interactions and activities positive experiences.
When incorporating sign language to learn to read, make sure that both languages (ASL and printed English) are visible. The written words do not need to be translated word for word; translating the English to ASL makes the story more interesting and engaging and still connects to the English print. Don’t be constrained by the text, thus, convey the story by describing the visuals as well as the text. Expand on concepts that are implied- make them explicit. Just like reading can be varied with voice intonation, adjusted signing style can serve the same purpose. Engage the Deaf child whenever reading aloud to them and share a love for books.