When I taught reading and writing to sixth grade students at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, CA, I began to notice a pattern that supported research I had previously read. My students who had parents who were deaf or hearing parents who signed fluently in American Sign Language (ASL) typically read on or above grade level, while those whose families had not signed with them from birth typically lagged behind. This observation made me want to investigate how we might better improve literacy development in young deaf children. Both my research and classroom experience supports an increasing body of research that indicates we can improve outcomes in deaf education through a visual-learning based approach.
Historic Approach to Deaf Education
Historically, deaf children have been taught to read using many of the same techniques used to teach hearing children. These traditional methods are rooted in sound-based approaches such as phonics, yet there is a growing awareness that these methods may be less effective than visually-based approaches to literacy for deaf students.
If deaf children are not exposed to fully accessible fluent models of language between the ages of birth to five, they miss that critical window for language development and it can have lasting consequences. In some cases, they may never catch up. For many deaf children, who do not have full access to sound, a visual language such ASL (in the United States) is the only fully accessible language. Research suggests that those who do have this access to ASL from birth have increased literacy skills when compared to deaf children who do not have this access.
Moving from Deficit Thinking to “Deaf Gain”
In addition to studying language and literacy development, I’ve also investigated the portrayals of deaf characters in media and children’s picture books. Like any minority group, how children perceive themselves and others is shaped by role models they interact with in real life as well as those they see portrayed in books, television and film. We conducted a study looking at how deaf characters were portrayed in children’s picture books, and found that many reinforced negative stereotypes of deaf people.
While it wasn’t true in all cases, the majority of books we looked at featuring deaf characters tended to portray them from a medical perspective. This means that a lot of the dialogue and pictures surrounding deaf characters focused on how the deaf person could be fixed. The deaf characters were also often portrayed as lonely and isolated. Children start to develop a sense of self as early as three years old, and these types of portrayals can have a profound negative effect. For example, this emphasis on deafness as a disability could lead to deaf children feeling unworthy and that they are not good enough rather than feeling valued for who they are, and that their culture and language is respected. This would include seeing deaf children taking part in everyday life, signing and interacting with other deaf children and deaf adults. Just as with any other cultural group, it’s important for children to see themselves and others in literature and media in a positive light.
As a culture, we need to move from this “deficit thinking” (which centers around a deaf child’s lack of hearing) to a concept called “Deaf Gain.” Instead of looking at deaf children as damaged and in need of fixing, we should look at them as people who have a visual-oriented way of being and see how we all can learn from insights they might have. What can we learn from people who interact with the world visually and how can we apply that in a way that can benefit others?
The Promise of Visual Language to Teach Literacy
We know that deaf students benefit from a visually-based learning environment incorporating visual language (e.g., ASL) and teachers using bilingual strategies to help deaf children make connections between ASL and English. One effective technique is called “chaining”. For example, to teach a new vocabulary word, you could explain what the word means, sign the word, fingerspell it, then sign it again and finally point to the written word. This “chain” helps children make a connection between the sign, its meaning and the printed word. In addition, rather than a sound-based approach to decode language such as using phonics, recent research suggests that fingerspelling may be used as a tool to decode written English by breaking down words into syllables and letters.
Visual language such as ASL is a powerful tool for teaching deaf children, and there is also evidence to suggest that it may benefit hearing children as well. We also know that – contrary to once-common conventional wisdom – rather than preventing spoken language development, exposure to ASL actually can help deaf children develop spoken language skills because it provides a foundation for language.
Resources for Deaf Children, Parents and Teachers
For deaf children who do not have access to fluent models of ASL, we developed an interactive, educational videos series designed to target language and literacy skills as well as knowledge of Deaf culture. These videos are provided for free on our website called Peter’s Picture that features educational videos in ASL like the one below. The characters in the videos include Peter, Rika Roo (a hearing raccoon learning ASL) and four deaf children. Every episode begins at Peter’s Place where kids learn the letter of the day, theme-related vocabulary words in ASL and printed English and then visit a location that corresponds with the letter where they meet one of Peter’s Deaf friends. During their adventure Peter takes pictures. When they return to Peter’s Place, they sequence the pictures of key events, make a book about their adventure, play a word game and finally have story time where Peter reads “aloud” (in ASL) the story of their adventure. To give parents and teachers a guide to implementing these visual learning techniques, we provide suggestions on how to view the videos as well. If you’d like to read a more detailed account of the Peter’s Picture videos, research and the curriculum we developed, read our paper on the subject.
By using these videos, and utilizing visual language and visual learning strategies, we can make a difference in the lives of deaf children by minimizing language deprivation. As with all children, deaf students are best served by curriculum and interventions that are tailored to their needs as visual learners.
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