Reading and the deaf child

Most of us learn to read the language we already speak. We know the words and then have to make sense of the symbols on the page and link up what we can already hear and say with what we see. All children come to books in different ways and at different times and, as with other aspects of the Natural Aural approach, the key for deaf children is being interested in and enjoying books – wanting to read just as they wanted to speak.

Traditionally many deaf children have, in the past, found learning to read difficult and never become comfortable with the written word. There are still people, even some who are professionally involved with deaf children, who have very low expectations for deaf children in reading. Often they base their views on a report, the Conrad report that was published in 1979. Using the tests and measures of its day, this report showed that large numbers of hearing-impaired children were leaving school with very poor reading skills and, often, without the ability to cope with even the basic reading of everyday life. As a result, he argued that the educational outlook was very poor for those hearing-impaired children educated solely through the oral approach and that the deafer they were, the poorer their prospects. Nearly twenty years later, his work is still quoted as showing the usual level of achievement and what is possible for hearing-impaired children.

More recent research (reported in 1996) paints a different picture. A group, very similar to Conrad’s group in terms of age, intelligence, type of schooling (special or mainstream) and causes of deafness were given the same tests as Conrad’s group. There was one intentional difference: while Conrad’s group had had a variety of educational approaches, all of this group had been educated, for the last five years at least, through the Natural Aural approach.

In order that these results could be easily compared to Conrad’s exactly the same measures were used with the most important one being the idea of an average ‘reading age’ as identified amongst hearing children. It is important to remember that an average is precisely that so that, unfortunately even amongst the hearing population of school leavers today, there will he some children below that average level. This concept is not often found in today’s schools where more modern concepts are in use. But for this research it was important to use it so that the progress made by the school heavers using the Natural Aural approach could be compared with the important Conrad report.

And the levels of reading that the Natural Aural school-leavers showed were very impressive. Their average actual age was 15 years 9 months but, while Conrad’s children were reading like 9 year olds, the average reading age of the Natural Aural group was 13 years 4 months. There is still no room for complacency but there is significant improvement.

In addition the study included more profoundly deaf children (59.7%) than the Conrad study. According to Conrad, this should have significantly reduced the averages. On the contrary it is clear that it is the deafest groups who have benefited most from the Natural Aural programme in comparison with Conrad’s group. Conrad’s study showed that only 1.4% of Bands 4 and 5 (96+ dBHL) had reading ages suitable for their actual age. For the deafest part of this group (106+ dBHL) 20% had a reading age above their actual age in the new study of Natural Aural Students.

A comparative Summary of the Results

Measures Conrad 1979 1996 Study
Reading Age (median) 9 years 13 years 4 months
Average (mean) reading age by level of hearing loss:    
Band 2 66-85 dB 10 years 1 month 13 years
Band 3 86-95 dB 9 years 1 month 13 years 2 months
Band 4 96-105 dB 8 years 11 months 12 years 6 months
Band 5 106+ dB 8 years 3 months 12 years 9 months
Reading Age suitable for actual age 8% 24.4%

A more recent study (see Achieving at Mainstream) showed that 28% of the Natural Aural students were reading at or above their chronological age and the median reading age was still climbing at 14 years 6 months. This provides firm facts to counteract those who continue to limit the possibilities for deaf children by asserting that literacy is unattainable for many of them.

Learning the code of written language is fundamental to education and acquiring literacy is about learning to use a known language in a new way. For literate children there can be real excitement in discovering the unexpected twist in a story and satisfaction in being able to pass messages to others and to give expression to the imagination.

Learning the skills of reading and writing, like learning to talk, happens for deaf children through their interest and through doing it. They want to know what happens next in the story or what the answer to their question is. The purpose of reading is to find out what has been written, the skills are simply the tools to facilitate that. Home made books about the summer holiday or the trip to the theme park with lots of photos and pictures are a good way to begin. Books are fun and reading is the gateway to many different worlds, a gateway that deaf children can go through and enjoy all the ideas, knowledge and imaginative experiences they need.