Phonological Awareness, Speechreading and Deaf Children’s Reading

The issue

A long standing debate in research pertaining to deaf education is whether deaf children read in the same way as hearing children and, in particular, whether they use phonology when reading.  Hearing children typically utilize the relationships between letters and sounds when learning to read and spell. Children who have better awareness of the constituent components of words (i.e., phonological awareness) tend to find learning to read easier.  In addition, hearing children who are struggling readers benefit from reading interventions that target phonological skills.

Many deaf children find learning to read a challenge which often results in them having significant reading delays.  This means it is important to understand more about how deaf children learn to read in order to design appropriate interventions to improve their reading levels.  Although deaf children have incomplete access to auditory phonological information, there are alternate ways through which spoken phonology can be accessed visually, including speechreading (silent lipreading), cued speech or visual phonics.

What we know

In general, research findings on the role of phonology in deaf children’s reading skills are inconsistent: While some studies do find evidence that phonological awareness is predictive of deaf children’s reading outcomes, other studies do not find such a relationship.

What we do know is that phonological awareness is important for reading in deaf children who communicate predominately through spoken language.  It makes sense that they use phonology in reading, because they are relying on amplification of spoken language and therefore they are likely to be reading in a similar way to hearing children.  Findings from small scale intervention studies suggest that training phonological skills may be beneficial for deaf children’s reading.  The picture is more mixed for deaf children who communicate in sign language, and fewer studies find that phonological awareness predicts reading development among deaf children who rely primarily on sign language.  However, we also know that some deaf children can develop their phonological knowledge through reading.

Several studies have found that deaf children’s speechreading ability is predictive of their reading development, even among deaf children who sign.  Deaf children who were better speechreaders were better readers and they made more progress in reading over time.  Speechreading is another way of accessing phonology of the spoken language. Therefore, we think that speechreading is important for reading in deaf children because it provides visual access to spoken phonology, this enabling them to develop phonological awareness skills.

What we don’t know

Although we know that phonological awareness, speechreading, and reading ability are linked for some deaf children, we do not know enough about the causal mechanisms underpinning these relationships.   Typically a causal relation is determined by conducting a training study whereby we train the skill believed to be causally related to the outcome and see if the training leads to improvements in the outcome.  Well-controlled reading intervention studies are relatively scarce with deaf children, and we do not have enough research-based evidence on whether training in phonological skills or speechreading leads to improvements in deaf children’s reading, and, in particular, which subgroups of deaf children benefit most.

Importantly, we also do not know enough about is how deaf children learn to read if they are not using phonology.  We know there are some deaf children who perform poorly on tasks of phonological awareness, but yet they can still read successfully. So, the question is how do they do this?  We need more evidence of alternative strategies that deaf children can use when reading which lead to efficient, fluent and successful reading (signing or fingerspelling-based strategies?).  It is possible that these deaf children are in fact using phonology in their reading. However, because their phonological knowledge was derived through speechreading, they perform poorly on traditional phonological awareness tasks.


Given the heterogeneity of deaf children, it is unlikely that we will have one answer to the question of whether deaf children use phonology when reading that can apply to all. While some deaf children develop their word decoding skills in the same way as hearing children, other deaf children may develop their decoding skills in slightly different ways with more emphasis on the visual components of speech.

We need more well-controlled intervention studies to determine the role of speechreading and phonological awareness in deaf children’s reading.  In the meantime, drawing attention to visual information about speech is likely to be helpful, and teachers, practitioners and parents can combine information about how sounds and words look on the lips with how they sound when teaching reading.

Posted on Jan. 12, 2018 by
Fiona Kyle
City, University of London
Fiona.Kyle.1 {at}


Further reading