K. Brooke Harding and Dr. Mark W. Tanner, Linguistics,
Learning to read and write plays a significant role in children’s linguistic and cognitive development. The development of reading skills is a natural process in a home where literacy is emphasized and children are surrounded by print.1 However, the acquisition of literacy is not an easy task for all children because it requires complex coordination of various capabilities.2 Deaf people in particular face immense linguistic, social, and emotional obstacles in learning to read and write. (The term deaf is used in this report to denote both deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals). According to standardized reading assessments, most deaf high school graduates read at roughly a third or fourth grade level.3
Many instructional approaches have been developed to address the language problem faced by deaf students. Some of these approaches are very innovative and backed by sound theories of language acquisition. However, literacy levels among the deaf population have not significantly increased.4 This suggests that closer attention needs to be given to factors which may be directly influencing the learner in his/her attempts to acquire literacy. Learning occurs in two primary environments: the home and school. The focus of this research was to use the language learner as a data source for determining what effect home and school environments has on the development of reading and writing skills.
This research involved qualitative case studies on the literacy acquisition of two prelingually deaf adults who are post-literate. Literacy research in the field of deaf education has traditionally focused on quantifiable observed behaviors and performance by deaf students in reading or writing tasks, but information is rarely directly elicited from deaf individuals themselves. This study focuses more closely and seriously on the deaf reader and writer. The two major research questions asked in this study were: (1) What is a deaf person’s view of literacy? (2) What environmental factors shape the development of reading and writing skills of deaf individuals? The study also aimed to identify how deaf individuals come to an understanding of print and the influences of environmental factors on literacy acquisition. A case study approach was employed to collect data from the participants involved. Personal interviews were conducted in order to obtain data concerning the participants’ perceptions, feelings, reactions and understanding of the process of acquiring literacy.
The results of these case studies suggest that home and school learning environments significantly impacted the participants’ acquisition of literacy. The establishment of a meaningful communicative environment in the home in which language is mutually accessible, linguistically sufficient, and enables social interaction with parents and siblings was found to enhance literacy acquisition. Parental involvement in home and school learning also appeared to be a predictive factor. Significant factors in the school environment include school type, instructor characteristics, and pedagogical approaches. A school with a more general curriculum (i.e., as in a school for normal-hearing students), as opposed to a program with a strict focus on the development of oral skills, seemed to create an atmosphere in which literacy skills could be fostered. The instructor’s experience with deaf students, ability to assess students’ academic and linguistic needs, interaction with students, and philosophy of literacy teaching appeared to contribute to a positive and healthy learning environment. Instructional techniques that present reading and writing in authentic, meaningful contexts and are in keeping with current research were also identified as maximizing environmental variables.
The implications of this research study are plainly that careful attention should be given to the home and school learning environments of deaf students to ensure healthy acquisition of literacy. This places considerable responsibility on the caregivers and educators of deaf children. Both parents and teachers should approach fostering literacy in meaningful and language-rich environments. Consistently exposing deaf children to print, engaging them in authentic literacy related activities, encouraging them to read and write on their own, and emphasizing the importance of literacy skills are ways to tap into children’s intrinsic learning power and encourage literacy learning. In addition, the impact of being an example to children cannot be overlooked. Children are very aware of the behavior of those around them. Teachers and caregivers should show students that reading and writing are very meaningful and powerful tools. This principle should be incorporated into literacy instruction and home literacy contexts. Communication and meaning are paramount.
The findings of this research also underscore the importance for teachers to conduct a comprehensive needs analysis in order to assess the home, school and language contexts in which their deaf students strive to develop literacy skills. Being well informed about students’ needs will guide teachers in developing educational curricula and specifically techniques for teaching literacy skills. Such techniques should compensate for areas in which students are lacking and build upon students’ individual strengths. Because deaf students in a single classroom typically have diverse backgrounds and needs, employing a variety of techniques and activities is advisable in order to meet a wider range of student needs. In cases where students come from underprivileged home situations, the teacher has an even greater responsibility to attend to the students’ language and literacy needs. Teachers should also evaluate carefully when rehabilitative approaches to language development are appropriate. Many deaf children have not fully developed a language to rehabilitate. In such cases, compensation should be the guiding principle.
- Dickinson, D. & McCabe A. (I 99 1). The acquisition and development of language: A social interactionist account of language and literacy development. Kavanagh, (Ed.), The language continuum: From infancy to literacy (pp. 1-40). Parkton, MD: York Press.
- Gleason, J. B. (1997). The development of language. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Holcomb, T. & Peyton, J. K. (1992). ESL literacy for a linguistic minority: The deaf experience. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 353 861)
- Limbrick, L. (1991). The reading development of deaf children: Critical factors associated with success. Teaching English to Deaf and Second Language Students, 9(l), 4-5.