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Reading and Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing face unique challenges when reading, particularly those youngsters who have been deaf since birth. Yet with targeted interventions and accommodations in reading instruction and assessment, students who are deaf or hard of hearing can become proficient readers. Understanding the characteristics of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as the communities in which they live, is an important step toward developing effective instruction and appropriate assessment for these students.

This paper is intended to begin a discussion of the issues surrounding reading and students who are deaf or hard of hearing; it is not intended to be a comprehensive research review. The paper provides: (1) an overview of the characteristics of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, (2) a description of common approaches to communication and reading instruction, and (3) assessment approaches and issues that surround the assessment of reading for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The paper is one of several brief papers developed to contribute to the process of conducting research and developing accessible reading assessments for students with disabilities. Creating accessible reading assessments based on accepted definitions of reading and proficiencies of reading requires knowledge of the issues specific to each disability and how they affect reading and the assessment of reading. The information in these papers was obtained through a broad review of literature and Web sites of national agencies and organizations. Each paper is intended as a first step to facilitate discussions that include individuals who do not know the disability, in this case hearing impairments, and those who may know the disability but have not considered the interaction of the disability with reading or the assessment of reading through statewide testing.

Students Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

For the purpose of this paper, students who are deaf or hard of hearing will be treated as one group, except when specific research makes a clear distinction. The terms, "deaf" and "hard of hearing" both denote hearing loss; the term "deaf" signifies a more severe degree of hearing loss. Although the word is used inconsistently, "deafness" usually denotes "the inability to hear and understand any speech" (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2007). The Code of Federal Regulations provides the following definition for deafness as it pertains to IDEA: "Deafness means a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification that adversely affects a child's educational performance" (34 CFR §§300.7.c.3, 2002).

Over 70,000 deaf or hard of hearing students in the United States received special education services with their primary disability identified as deafness or hearing impairments in the 2000-2001 school year, comprising about 1% of all students with disabilities in U.S. schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). An additional estimated 500,000 students with hearing loss or deafness received special education services under a different primary disability category, most frequently learning disability, speech or language impairment, and mental retardation (R. Mitchell, personal communication, January 10, 2007). It has been estimated that 6,028 K-12 English language learners (ELLs) received special education services for deafness or hearing impairments in 2001-2002; thus approximately 1.7% of school-age ELLs were identified as deaf or hard or hearing (Zehler, Fleischman, Hopstock, Pendzick, & Stephenson, 2003). It is unclear whether these figures include ELLs who are deaf-blind.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing vary widely in terms of the cause and the degree of hearing loss, the age of onset of hearing loss, educational background, language and communication methods, and how individual members within the community feel about their hearing loss. Some deaf or hard of hearing students prefer to identify themselves as members of a linguistic and cultural minority group, while others may identify themselves as students with a disability. The ways in which students identify themselves reflect and shape their educational and communication experiences although for some, there are conflicts between the two. Across the United States, several languages and communication forms are used commonly by students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

American Sign Language (ASL) is the most widely used language among people who are deaf in the U.S. and Canada (Baker & Baker, 1997) especially for those who's age of onset is earlier in life. ASL is a language quite independent of English (Lucas, Bayley, & Valli, 2003, p. 6-9). .ASL is an efficient language for visual learning and is sometimes considered to be an easier first language to acquire than any written or verbal form of English or any other spoken language (Finnegan,1992). Deaf or hard of hearing students who are immigrants and refugees to the United States may not have learned any sign language when they arrive in U.S. schools (Gerner de Garcia, 1995). If they have learned a sign language, it may be one of more than 114 used throughout the world (for a listing of these varieties of sign language, see www.ethnologue.com).

Communication systems for visually encoding English used by deaf and hard of hearing students include Manually Coded English (MCE), Cued Speech, speech reading, total communication, and bilingual-bicultural approaches. Manually Coded English (MCE) is a constructed signing system that represents words in English sentences by signs from ASL. Educators have invented a number of sign systems that are types of Manually Coded English - Signed Essential English, Signed English, and Seeing Essential English (Lou, 1988). All borrow signs from ASL and syntactic structures from English.

Cued speech uses eight handshapes in four placements near the face, combined with mouth movements, to make the sounds of spoken language look different from one another (National Cued Speech Association, 2005). Developed by Dr. R. Orin Cornett, the goal was to have a counterpart of visible speaking - one that provided building blocks to produce a code the same way that tongue placement, breath stream, and voice produce a sound code for speaking.

Speech reading has generally been viewed as a way to other forms of communication. Even for individuals who are deaf and fully proficient in English, speech reading can be difficult and tiring. Only about 40 percent of sounds are visible on the lips, and some letters are phonetically very similar (e.g. 'p', 'b' and 'm'), requiring a certain amount of guesswork. New or unfamiliar words are difficult to lip read, and sudden changes of topic can be difficult to follow (Wareham, Clark, & Laugessen, 2001). Still, most audiologists recommend that people of all ages who have any degree of hearing loss learn how to lip read as a supplementary communication method (RNID, 2005).

Total communication is a philosophy that advocates for signs being used in conjunction with speech. Children are exposed to sign language, speech reading, oral speech, body language, and the use of amplification. This approach is considered to create a "least restrictive" learning environment for the child, who is considered then free to develop his or her own communication preferences. In contrast, other people believe that the total communication approach can prevent children who are deaf from developing fluency in either English or ASL because they focus exclusively on neither.

The bilingual-bicultural educational approach is modeled after programs for English language learners. The philosophy of these programs is that children should develop communicative competency in two languages through a solid base of instruction in their first language (Baker & Baker, 1997). For deaf or hard of hearing students in the United States this means developing language at a young age in ASL so that skills learned in ASL can later transfer to the learning of English. At the same time, students are taught to be comfortable functioning in both the deaf or hard of hearing and the hearing communities. To those ends, bilingual-bicultural programs teach parents and caregivers ASL so that adults can give children the maximum amount of comprehensible input and foster cognitive development that is needed for literacy. However, bilingual-bicultural education is a relatively new phenomenon, and limited numbers of students are being educated through this model (Schildroth & Hutto, 1996).

Use of residual hearing and cochlear implants. Many students with hearing impairments have some residual hearing and use hearing devices to communicate. These individuals focus on improving their access to sound and the development of several sound-related skills through speech therapy, speech reading, and cued speech. Literacy skills are partially developed through analysis of sound (Power & Leigh, 2000). Cochlear implants, which are relatively new technology that have only been in widespread use since the 1990s, are surgically placed in the inner ear where sounds are converted to neural signals. The implant receives signals from an external device which stimulates electrodes in the cochlea (Owens & Kessler, 1989). Geers (2002) concluded that the effectiveness of cochlear implants is related to the age of the individual at onset of deafness, the residual hearing before the implant, and a child's learning environment. Children with cochlear implants who were born with severe to profound hearing loss are not as likely to achieve the kind of proficiency in spoken language as their hearing peers (Mayberry, 2000), but can focus on developing skills that enable them to take full advantage of the sound they are able to access (Power & Leigh, 2000).

Although cochlear implants have been effective for both adults and children, controversy remains in the deaf community whether implants are appropriate for all deaf children. On the one hand, for those in favor of cochlear implants, they give children access to education and social contacts in the hearing community. Those opposed to cochlear implants, on the other hand, worry that children with implants may be at risk of negative health-related side effects, and could be excluded from receiving other traditional accommodations and services in school.

Instruction for Students Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing use many communication approaches, and these have implications for instruction, especially in public school or mainstream classes. Many deaf or hard of hearing students receive some instruction in classes where the teacher may not know sign language, and thus a sign language interpreter is brought into the class to provide sign language interpretation.

A student who is deaf and whose first language is ASL often learns to read by looking at English print while a teacher, parent, or other instructor interprets the story in ASL, helping the child to relate the written word to the signed meaning. Beginning readers who are deaf or hard of hearing, like most students, also use illustrations and pictures as an aid to construct meaning from text. Learning to read for these students entails moving from signed elaboration toward direct translation of English print to ASL (Schleper, 1996), followed by higher level comprehension, interpretive, and inference skills.

Research conducted by Goldin-Meadow and Mayberry (2001) suggested that individuals with good signing skills may be better readers than individuals with poor sign language skills. Some researchers have even suggested (e.g., Hafer & Wilson, 1998) that ASL can improve reading and communication skills for other groups of special needs students, such as those with learning disabilities, autism, or aphasia, when used as a supplementary way to communicate. This is in contrast to earlier researchers (e.g., Newport & Meier, 1985), who found that ASL did not ease the task of learning to read because of its lack of congruence with the linguistic structure and vocabulary of written English.

There is no consensus among researchers, educators, parents, or those who are deaf or hard of hearing about the best reading strategies for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some argue that ASL is the primary language of a vibrant deaf community in the United States, and that a deaf child is best prepared for a productive life when ASL is taught as the primary language of instruction. Others suggest that speech reading or manually coded English should play an important role in the educational program of a student who is deaf or hard of hearing. Still others argue that technology, such as cochlear implants, should routinely be made available to children who are deaf or hard of hearing. The implications for both instruction and assessment of reading may be quite different depending on the perspective one takes on these issues.

Chamberlain (2002) argued that reading development is contingent on a fully developed primary language, and that incomplete or inconsistent signed or spoken language may affect the development of reading proficiency. In the United States, 90 percent of children who are deaf are born to hearing parents who should learn sign language as a second language to communicate with their child. As a result, preschool age deaf children often receive limited amounts of comprehensible input, leading to delays in language acquisition (Kuntze, 1998; Meier & Newport, 1990). Good language skills, on the other hand, are strong predictors of reading ability and proficiency for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Goldin-Meadow and Mayberry (2001) argued that the acquisition of good language skills alone is not enough, because individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing still need to know how to map between language and print. According to Schirmer, Bailey, and Lockman (2004) the best deaf readers use phonological structure in whole word recognition; however, phonological decoding for a student who is deaf or hard of hearing differs from "sounding out" words by a hearing student (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000). Ruiz (1995) states that students who are deaf or hard of hearing have developed a complex process to learn how to read, and therefore are able to acquire reading skills and proficiency at the same level as their hearing peers. Most likely, much more research is needed on reading development and instruction of children who are deaf (Schirmer & McGough, 2005).

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing benefit from having access to accommodations, both in instruction and assessment. For instance, eBooks can help these students access written language and literature. EBooks are electronic versions of books that can be viewed on a computer screen where English print and sign language are intertwined. The use of eBooks in instruction can help students who are deaf or hard of hearing to develop literacy skills and make the transition to physical books.

Assessment of Students Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing depend on multiple learning modalities that have implications for the development and implementation of assessments. According to the Gallaudet Research Institute (1996), students who are deaf should be provided with accommodations in statewide testing situations, and the accommodations should be aligned with those that they have used for instruction. Accommodations used most often by students who are deaf or hard of hearing during testing include sign interpreted directions or sign interpreted questions, visual cues, seat location and amplification.

States' policies on assessment accommodations vary widely. For example, sign language interpreted directions - defined as directions that are presented to the student in signed language, cued speech, or signed English - are allowed on statewide tests (in 49 states) with few restrictions. Signed interpretation of questions is allowed in 41 states, though it is often considered to be a nonstandard accommodation with scoring implications. Visual cues (arrows, stickers, stop signs, highlighting, key words or supplemental text with pictures) are allowed in 20 states, amplification in 42 states, and changes in seat location in 38 states (Clapper, Morse, Lazarus, Thompson, & Thurlow, 2005).

Although not specifically addressed in many state policies, deaf or hard of hearing students who are also English language learners may need accommodations typically provided for students with limited English proficiency as well. Depending on the individual needs of the child, these might include a bilingual dictionary or glossary, a native language interpreter, or a written translation of the test in the native language.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may encounter test items that they cannot answer because of the nature of their disability. For example, an item on a reading test that asks students to identify "sound alike" words is not accessible to a student who has a significant hearing impairment. Many people might agree that these students should not be assessed on skills that require access to sound, but this leads to questions about whether the entire test should be changed because items might be inappropriate for a small group of students. Alternative options, such as creating special replacement items for these students, likely would raise other issues surrounding validity and scoring. Nevertheless, consideration of challenges such as items that ask about sound or entire sets of questions that are based on poetry and rhyming suggest that universally designed assessments, those that have optimal standard assessment conditions for today's diverse population of students, are important for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.


The intent of this brief paper is to highlight issues surrounding reading and students who are deaf or hard or hearing. While not a comprehensive review, it is intended to give enough of a sense of the characteristics of the students, general instructional approaches used with them, and assessment approaches and issues to generate discussion about the possible ways in which more accessible assessments can be designed for those students who are proficient readers given their hearing impairments. This paper will be part of the background for research on accessible reading assessments conducted by the Partnership for Accessible Reading Assessments, and for discussions among collaborators on the National Accessible Reading Assessment Projects (NARAP).


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Chamberlain, C., & Mayberry, R. I. (2000). Theorizing about the relation between American Sign Language and reading. In C. Chamberlain, J. P. Morford & R. I. Mayberry (Eds.), Language acquisition by eye. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum.

Chamberlain, C. (2002). Reading skills of deaf adults who sign: Good and poor readers compared. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, McGill University, Montreal.

Clapper, A. T., Morse, A. B., Lazarus, S. S., Thompson, S. J., & Thurlow, M. L. (2005). 2003 state policies on assessment participation and accommodations for students with disabilities (Synthesis Report 56). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved August 2005, from the World Wide Web: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/Synthesis56.html

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Mayberry, R. I. (2000). Cognitive development of deaf children: The interface of language and perception in cognitive neuroscience. In Rapin & S. Segalowitz (Eds)., Child Neuropsychology, Volume 7 of handbook of neuropsychology, pp. 71-107. F Boller & J. Grafman (Series Eds), 2nd Edition. Amesterdam: Elsvier.

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This paper was developed through a collaborative effort of numerous members of the PARA staff. The contributors are listed here alphabetically: Kristin Eisenbraun, Christopher Johnstone, Sheryl Lazarus, Kristi Liu, Danielle Matchett, Ross Moen , Mari Quenemoen, Rachel Quenemoen, Sarah Scullin, Sandra Thompson, and Martha Thurlow. In addition, we had the invaluable assistance of a member of the General Advisory Committee for the National Accessible Reading Assessment Projects (NARAP), Ross Mitchell, who is Research Scientist at Gallaudet University . Ross Mitchell and Sarah Scullin worked tirelessly to finalize the paper.

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