Ramona Routley



Historically, most deaf were thought to be intellectually impaired.  However as we’ve learned through brain research, the brain needs a structure from which to run, maybe similar to how we provide code/“language” to computers from which to run. Language is essential to learning. Without language, a person does not have a structured system by which to learn.  So, even a person with the brain capacity/capability to learn may function as if s/he is intellectually impaired.  For example, deaf people who are not taught language are then handicapped.  They are impaired to understand abstract content.  Those taught sign language early think visually (sign language).  With this language construct, they are then able to learn.  If they also have some hearing, they may also think with some sound as well.  In contrast, for the deaf who in the past were only taught orally, since they were unable to hear the sounds, they were not able to successfully build a language system sufficient for learning abstract information.  Since language learning is optimal in the infant/toddler years and plateaus about age twelve, it is important that the deaf are taught sign language in their early years.  Teaching the spoken language is best to take place later.  Without the sign language construct, the individual does not have an inner voice and memory, which further complicates understanding an English sentence. For such deaf people, ASL would be their first language, and English their second language. Since 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, this is very important for these parents to know how critical it is for their deaf child to begin learning ASL early in life, even to be able to maximize their reading potential in English (a second language).

In the past, there was a time when the deaf were taught only orally, believing this best for them to acclimate and succeed in the hearing world. However, from brain research we now know this did not provide a sufficient system for them to build and learn abstract concepts.  After research findings revealed its ineffectiveness, oral only was no longer used.  Depending on the amount of residual hearing, some oral training still can be valuable, though it can take much effort and work.  Total communication and bilingual/bicultural teaching methods both may include oral training.  However, it is beneficial which is why many consider.

Language development is critical to learning.  In order to maximize the potential of the deaf, sign language (which was officially acknowledged as a language in ? 196), ought to be taught early in life. This will provide a construct for which they can learn a second language, such as English. However, English or other spoken languages are most often learned in their written form. When learning English, since ASL is a visual language, oftentimes the deaf learn a full word (sequence of letters) visually.  Then, they attach a concept to that sequence of letters, and then a picture (sign) to the concept.  So, the deaf are using different regions of the brain when reading as compared with hearings.  However, in English some words may be spelled the same way but sound different based on context.  So, the sound provides meaning.  For example, w-i-n-d can be wind as in air moving or wind as in the action done to a string (wind up) on a toy or tool.  A deaf person does not have access to the sounds so this can be confusing.  This would be similar to an English person learning to read Thai but unfamiliar with pronunciation.  The words would be seen/learned as a visual chunk or picture since teh phonemes aren’t known.

When teaching reading to deaf and hard of hearing children, recent research suggests that the way to teach reading depends on the communication mode of the individual.  If sign language is their communication mode, then written words are taught by translating word meaning into ASL.  If oral language is their mode of communication, then reading instruction would be similar to how hearing children are taught.  Additional research is needed to know the best reading instruction.

As a school psychologist this peaks my interest.  I’d be curious to know what research has been done to see if methods for teaching deaf students to read may be beneficial to those with learning disabilities, particularly those who learn significantly better visually/nonverbally than verbally.  When given an intellectual assessment, various tasks are given and then scored as constructs (such as visual spatial and/or fluid reasoning, which are more visual tasks as compared with verbal comprehension which is language based).  I wonder if these things are beginning to be explored.  I know that some of our reading teachers at my recent school position attended a training that taught different hand motions for the different phonemes in English.

Also, people on the autism spectrum are very visual.  I would wonder if they memorize the whole word formed as a visual picture.  I’ve observed that they may tend to be very fluent readers.  However, their reading comprehension can be a significant weakness.  I wonder if connecting a few sample visuals to a word would assist their reading comprehension.  Would they then be able to understand the content they read since it would be not just letter sequence visual but a picture with meaning?


Booth, J. (2019, January 16). How do deaf or hard of hearing children learn to read? BOLD. https://bold.expert/how-do-deaf-or-hard-of-hearing-children-learn-to-read

Globally advancing research and innovation. (2021, April 12). Gallaudet University. https://www.gallaudet.edu/research-innovation/#language-cognition

Hirshorn, E. A., Dye, M. W. G., Hauser, P. C., Supalla, T. R., & Bavelier, D. (2014). Neural networks mediating sentence reading in the deaf. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00394

Jay, M. (2012). Don’t Just Sign. . . Communicate!: A Student’s Guide to American Sign Language and the Deaf Community. Judea Media, LLC

Morford, J. P., Wilkinson, E., Villwock, A., Piñar, P., & Kroll, J. F. (2011). When deaf signers read English: Do written words activate their sign translations? Cognition, 118(2), 286–292.

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