Eyes for Early Language Learning: Promoting Visual Strategies for Deaf Children

The issue


Regardless of whether deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children are acquiring sign language or spoken language, vision will play an important role in the development of their language and literacy skills. Visual support is important because, with reduced access to the auditory environment, DHH children need to depend more on their eyes to access the world.  Visual attention strategies are essential for getting and maintaining joint attention, for communication in social interactions, and for making connections between meanings and printed words. Sharing visual strategies used by deaf parents with DHH children to capitalize on visual strengths may help reduce delays in early language and early literacy.

Most parents who have DHH children are involved with early intervention programs. In those programs, professionals who work with young DHH children and their families can promote visual strategies to support early language learning and show parents how to effectively include strategies for joint attention, effective communication, and early reading.

What we know

Research shows that young DHH children with deaf parents reach early language milestones similar to young hearing children with hearing parents. What are deaf parents doing in guiding their DHH children to reach early language milestones similar to hearing children with hearing parents?  Here is what we know:

Deaf mothers have been observed to be sensitive to their children’s visual needs, such as

  • combining tactile, vocal, and kinesthetic stimulation
  • allowing time for their child to explore objects before initiating an interaction
  • engaging in a sequential pattern.

For example, a mother might tap her child and move an open bag of objects into the child’s line of vision, then wait patiently as the child explores the bag, before closing the bag and redirecting the child’s attention to the mother’s face to communicate about it.  This type of example sets a sequential joint attention pattern. Joint attention is important because it makes explicit the connection between things and communication about them; time in joint attention is related to language development.

Deaf mothers also have been observed using specific visual early reading strategies to mediate between sign language and text. The ways that the deaf mothers use sign language to make text explicit with their children include:

  • chaining or making a sequential link between the sign, the printed word, and fingerspelling
  • providing visual cues that describe how words sound
  • explaining rhyming by discussing how words that look the same may sound the same and providing a comparison in sign

Such reading strategies are important because research shows that early interactive or shared reading is associated with later literacy development.

We also know the importance of early intervention professionals, who have a variety of backgrounds. Best practices indicate the importance of including qualified professionals to work with families sharing effective strategies for development. This includes qualified professionals who have core competencies to support families and are fluent language models.  This may involve having DHH individuals incorporated into parent-infant programs because they have first-hand experiences related to visual language and communication needs.

What we don’t know

There is a lack of evidence of long-term effects on the use of visual strategies for early joint attention and reading with DHH children.

  • How do (deaf or hearing) professionals in programs that provide family support promote parents’ learning to use visual strategies?
  • How often do those professionals need to explain and model eye gaze and visual strategies before they become natural for parents interacting with their DHH children?
  • How does consistent exposure and implementation of visual strategies contribute to language and literacy outcomes among diverse subgroups of DHH children (for example, at different ages or for those acquiring sign language vs. spoken language)?


The importance of vision for early language learning and the use of visual strategies for joint attention and shared reading cannot be minimized. Implementing effective visual strategies for joint attention and early reading may help maximize language development which, in turn, will support literacy development.

Implications for programs providing family support include ensuring qualified practitioners who understand the visual needs and strengths of DHH children and can model for parents effective visual strategies such as using the eyes to engage in sequential joint attention and shared reading activities. Parents of DHH children need to aquire strategies for supporting their children’s visual access in naturalistic ways. Practitioners can guide parents to acquire these effective visual strategies.

Posted on Oct 6, 2016
by Elaine Gale
Hunter College
egale {at} hunter.cuny.edu

Michele Berke
California School for the Deaf, Fremont
mberke {at} csdf-cde.ca.gov

Further reading

Berke, M. (2013). Reading books with young deaf children: Strategies for mediating between American Sign Language and English. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 299-311. view details

Moeller, M. P., Carr, G., Seaver, L., Stredler-Brown, A., & Holzinger, D. (2013). Best Practices in Family-Centered Early Intervention for Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: An International Consensus Statement. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 429-445. view details

Spencer, P. E., & Harris, M. (2006). Patterns and effects of language input to deaf infants and toddlers from deaf and hearing mothers. In Schick, B., Marschark, M., & Spencer, P.E. (Eds.), Advances in the sign language development of deaf children (pp. 71-101). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Waxman, R. P., & Spencer, P. E. (1997). What mothers do to support infant visual attention: Sensitivities to age and hearing status. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 2, 104-114. view details

Yoshinaga-Itano, C. (2014). Principles and guidelines for early intervention after confirmation that a child is deaf or hard of hearing. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 19, 143-175. view details