The Challenge of Literacy for Deaf Children

UNESCO (Education Counts, Toward the Millennium Goals, 2011) has informed us that, globally, a child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5 than a child born to a mother who cannot. Literacy not only has implications for an individual child but for society and later generations as well. All parents want their children to grow up successfully and live fun, happy, and productive lives, and the ability to read plays a role in the fun, happy, and productive life of a successful citizen.

The issue

The primary issue in literacy and deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children is one of access: access to language, access to literacy interactions, and access to curriculum and materials. Children need good language and reading models, access to evidence-based teaching, and materials and curricula. Educators face challenges in all three of these areas. When a language signal is distorted or denied, extensive and intensive interventions are necessary, whether that language is signed or spoken. Many DHH children in general education classes lack the spoken or signed language underlying general instruction. Policy is needed that guides schools to provide children with the foundational skills necessary to benefit from available supports.

What we know

Foundational language in support of literacy

Successful reading involves unlocking the code of the spoken language of a community. Deaf children are able to learn the decoding strategies, but to what aim if those children do not understand the language they are unlocking? Children who receive early intervention are better able to enter the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten years with foundational language skills prerequisite to learning to read.

Access to literacy instruction

Not all children, especially children with hearing loss, have access to a requisite reading rich environment. In fact, many studies demonstrate that deaf children are read to less often than their hearing peers. Interactive reading practices, when conducted in the home lead to positive literacy outcomes. We also know that a primary instructor of literacy for young children is the parent or caregiver.

Materials and curricula

Children learn what they are taught. Current regulations and best practice require teachers to use evidence-based strategies. Primary practices associated with good educational outcomes are: a) emphasis on higher-order thinking skills, b) a teacher who communicates effectively with students, c) visual access, d) explicit instruction , and e) scaffolded learning, which requires the presence of a “more knowledgeable” other. Materials and curricula that include these practices are more likely to encourage positive literacy outcomes.

What we don’t know

Foundational language in support of literacy

Even after more than a decade of rules and regulations to facilitate identification, there is still a large time lag before many children receive services. We need better articulation between agencies responsible for identification and agencies responsible for intervention. Identification without meaningful intervention is ineffective.

Access to a reading-rich environment

We still do not know how to get good literacy practices established in homes where parents either are poor readers themselves or do not read in the language of the majority. Deaf children of deaf parents may receive print exposure through a signed language and often demonstrate nearly age-appropriate vocabulary, but that benefit begins to trail off as the child becomes faced with instructional practices associated with reading the majority language. We simply do not have efficient and effective means to affect positive literacy interactions in the homes of parents who are struggling readers.

Materials and curricula

We do not have broadly available targeted interventions, materials, or curricula known to be effective in teaching DHH children to read. Attempts at using visual tools for facilitating the relationship between sign language and English have become popular, as have visual representations of the sounds of English. Under development with funding from the Institute on Education Sciences are a foundational literacy curricula for pre-kindergarten DHH children and a set of targeted interventions for DHH children kindergarten through 2nd grade. But these are not available, and they are not enough. Policy makers need to make ensure sufficient research dollars are available to fund sufficient strategic tools to promote literacy in DHH children.


Teachers of the deaf know what to do and how to do it, but their hands are tied by the lack of interagency cooperation, misunderstandings of the importance of language and literacy in the foundational years, and the lack of evidence-based materials and practices. Policy guidance and research dollars that will lead to interventions should be foremost in the minds of policy makers.

Posted on December, 11, 2013 by
Susan R. Easterbrooks, Georgia State University

Further reading