7 Ways Deaf and Hard of Hearing People Learn to Read Effectively

By Alex Chu •  Updated: 10/08/23 •  6 min read

It’s no surprise that reading is an important life skill that’s essential to our daily lives. But can deaf people read, and if so, how good are they at reading? While the answer should be obvious–yes, many deaf and hard of hearing people are able to read–there is still an alarming increase in illiteracy among the deaf population. Apparently, many only have an elementary school-age reading level upon graduation. Why is that, though?

Ever wonder if deaf people can read? The answer is "Yes." Here's how.

The Struggle for Deaf People to Read

In an article in The Journal of Current Directions in Psychological Science, reading researchers Natalie Belanger and Keith Rayer wrote that they found no reason behind the increased levels of illiteracy in the deaf community. But actually, there is. Something the hearing folks should have taken into consideration: English and American Sign Language (ASL) are two different languages. While some may not find ASL as impressive as Spanish or French, it is a language all in its own.

What Is ASL?

Standing for American Sign Language, ASL is a complete language with its own unique grammar and linguistic properties expressed through hand and facial movements, and used by the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities in the United States, Canada, West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.

While the British have their own sign language called BSL or British Sign Language, other countries use ASL as their core for their national sign language. ASL has its rules of pronunciation, word formation, and word order.

While there is Signing Exact English (SEE) which is English transformed into a sign format where you sign every word of the sentence (that is the form of sign language I first learned), ASL skips all that and just gets straight to the point.

For example, let’s take the sentence “I can drive a car”. In ASL, you do not sign I – can – drive – a – car. You’d use the sign for “me”, “drive” and “can”, which are the same, then you add in some driving motion along with incorporating some facial expressions too. You get the concept, right?

In ASL, the word order is different too. Instead of subject+verb+ predicate as in English grammar, ASL is subject + verb +object/time. This can confuse a deaf person whose primary language is ASL and who is learning to read.

Ways to Teach the Deaf How to Read

Deaf people learn how to read the same way as hearing people do: it has to be taught. While there may be some struggles, there are some ways to help teach a deaf child or person how to read, including:

Incorporating Images

When teaching a deaf child to read, using picture books are an excellent resource. Start by sign-spelling, also known as ‘finger spelling’, out the word while pointing at the written word and a picture of it. After that, use the sign for the entire word. If your child is learning to lip-read as well, then speak the word slowly.

Learn Sign Language

If you still need to, learn sign language. It doesn’t mean defeat, and it’s a beautiful language. Plus, it can aid them on their learning-to-read and write journey.

Practice Sight Words

Sight words are everyday words schools require a child should know, aiding in the learning-to-read process. The same goes for a deaf or hard-of-hearing child/person learning to read. Introduce a new sight word daily. Incorporate it into a conversation and sign it.

Use Visualization

For deaf learners, visualization is everything. Their environment must be visually stimulating. Label objects in their room and around the home that have the written version of the object, such as a door, bed, or lamp.

The Chaining Technique

The chaining technique is often used in schools where the word is signed out letter by letter using finger spelling; then, the whole word is pointed to and signed. This works since a deaf person can not sub-vocalize or “hear” the word in their head like a hearing person does. Instead, they can associate the sign with it.

Spelling Cards

Another helpful tool is to have a spelling card that shows how each letter connects to the next to spell and form a word, as well as how vowels and consonants work together.

Practice Building Vocabulary

Just like with sight words, challenge them to learn a new word daily, and along with the word, have them use an image and sign for the word.

Knowing the Types of Deafness

Another tip is knowing the type of deafness they have. There are six types of deafness, and understanding the underlying cause and onset of their hearing loss can help your approach to teaching them how to read.

This is important to remember because the vocabulary and grammar between ASL and English are completely different, which would require the learner to learn a new language here.

Can Deaf People Become Good Readers?

The answer is, absolutely yes! In fact, many deaf people are super readers, sometimes even outperforming their hearing counterparts. I personally know a deaf colleague who is in the process of earning a Ph.D. in psychology.

However, it’s important to note that studies for decades have shown that the average reading level of most young deaf adults after high school is lower than that of their hearing friends. In addition, these studies state that only 5% of deaf individuals reach a reading level of 12th-grade reading or higher.

Why is there such a low percentage?

Reading is primarily a phonic language; thus, it can be difficult for deaf people to acquire. I believe, personally, it just all depends on proper intervention, which can be said for hearing or deaf. The longer you wait to teach reading, the longer it may take for them to grain and grasp the skill. The older deaf community probably did not get the proper intervention. We didn’t know then what we know now, so in today’s generation, there’s hope.

It’s important to note that, since deaf people can’t hear sounds, they see images and signs in their head when reading. On the other hand, hard of hearing people may hear sounds when reading since there’s a good chance they were taught to read by audibly “saying” the words while growing up.

Final Thoughts

By now you should know that the misconception that deaf people can’t read is simply not true. From my experience interacting with many deaf invidivuals and working in schools for the deaf, I’ve seen a lot of deaf and hard of hearing people excelling in reading and writing. The ability to be a good reader isn’t defined by one’s hearing disability but by the quality of education, support, and resources available to them. With the right support system and encouragement, deaf and hard of hearing people can be excellent readers and writers.

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