We hope you find these hands-on tips helpful. We developed these tips in mind for the parent whose child uses an auditory training system such as hearing aids or a cochlear implant. For a child who is unable to access the majority of speech sounds, we realize a more robust visual system may be required to teach these skills.
With the advent of the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening (UNHS), children with hearing loss are typically identified before the age of one month. A diagnosis is often confirmed by three months old. Children are fitted with hearing aids and enrolled in early intervention programs well before 6 months. With recent changes in the law, made by the Office of Special Education Program (OSEP), children are now entitled to a more ambitious curriculum. However, parents often feel access to qualified professionals is limited. In addition, deaf and hard of hearing children are still at high risk for functional illiteracy, meaning many of these children will graduate high school reading at the third or fourth grade level.
Let’s Teach Parents How To Help Their Children With Hearing Loss
Often, we rely on professionals to help parents teach their deaf child language skills. There are Speech Language Pathologists, Auditory Verbal Therapists, Educational Audiologists, and Teachers of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Yet, professionals often fail to educate parents about literacy development for deaf children. Parents spend the most time with their child and can make the most profound impact on their child’s literacy skills. Also, parents are highly motivated to help their deaf child.
Most parents of deaf children are not and have never previously been a part of the deaf community. Parents describe shock and a feeling of ineptitude when they learn their newborn baby can’t hear. “What does that mean? parents wonder. Will my child ever speak, read or write? The diagnosis can overwhelm parents. Yet, parents are incredibly capable. Yes, we need teams of professionals supporting deaf children, but parents can function as their child’s greatest literacy professional—if only we as a community support them!
Provide Robust Literacy Support in the First Years of Life
There’s a great need to develop early literacy skills in children with hearing loss. The focus on literacy must be relentless. Literacy rates in the deaf community are startling. Children with hearing loss need a robust start in literacy to begin reading at all and to progress well in K-12. Parents can learn about the need for early literacy development immediately, the moment their child receives confirmation of their child’s hearing loss.
Research tells us the first three years of life are the most important for cognitive development. We also know that until the age of five, the brain is best suited for learning multiple languages. Most hearing parents of deaf children are surprised to discover that ASL is it’s own language (separate from English), with unique grammar, syntax and vocabulary. The first five years are optimal for teaching deaf and hard of hearing children literacy skills so they can navigate this dominantly hearing world successfully.
Use the Natural Environment to Teach Concepts of Print
From the beginning, parents can become “literacy leaders.” One of the first literacy skills a child learns is called concepts of print, a term that encompasses a wide array of literacy ideas that are groundbreaking in the mind of a child. For example, children must learn that letters correspond to sound and sounds correspond to meaning. Children must also learn that sentences are read left to right and that books are read front to back. All of these ideas are novel to a young child and take quite some time to master.
Parents can help by pointing out print within the natural environment. Stop while outside at the local park to point out the names you see carved into benches. Read the names you see and talk about the sounds of the letters. Read signs, magazines, cereal boxes…etc to children. A parent can say, “Look, that sign says stop. That means mommy has to stop the car.” Let kids know that letters strung together have meaning.
Pointing out signs and other words in the natural environment can get children curious about letters, how letters make sound, and how sounds make meaning.
Teach Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness isn’t as scary as it sounds. Phonemic awareness involves the ability to identify the smallest units of sound, like knowing, for example, that “cat” starts with the hard /c/ and ends with /t/. Teaching letter sounds first is more beneficial than teaching letter names. Children that learn letter sounds first show significant gains in reading skills. Sounds are the gateway to reading. For example, a child that reads “sat” as “ssssaaaat” will read accurately, but a child that reads “sat” as (letter names) “es-ay- tee” will say a sound jumble that doesn’t translate to meaning. If you’re child comes across a letter, say the sounds slowly: read “man” as “mmmmaaaannnn.” Then, talk about beginning, middle and ending sounds. “Man” starts with “mmmmm” and ends with “nnnnn.”
This technique may prove helpful for children with hearing loss. Your child will need those sounds so he/she can decode more efficiently. Teaching the letter names, instead of the sounds, is known to be confusing to hearing children. We can only guess that it is at least equally as confusing for deaf or hard of hearing children. By decoding, or sounding out the letters in a word, your child has mastered the first step in becoming literate. This is huge!
Help Your Child Master Sounds He May Not Easily Hear
So, what if there are sounds your child cannot hear, even with his/her complete amplification system (meaning an FM system in addition to any hearing aids or cochlear implants)? Let those sounds be a focus and become of interest to your child. If your child is struggling with /s/ for example, provide them with lots of words with the /s/ phoneme. For example say, “ssss is in sssnake, sssslime, ssssilly, and often occurs at the end of plural words like catssss and dogsss. Emphasizing sound can help your child fill in any sound gaps, which is essential for speech, reading and overall communication skills.
Use Tactile & Visual Clues
We suggest knowing what sounds your child is missing and adding tactile cues and/or signing the letter. If you’re child is struggling to differentiate “p” and “b,” provide the print letter symbol for each. In addition, provide the ASL letter symbol for each. During focused literacy time, bring the cards out. Provide the letter and ASL symbol “p” whenever a word starts with “p”—as in pineapple, pear, panther. Provide the letter and ASL symbol “b” whenever a word starts with “b”—as in bear, banana, baseball. If you do activities like this enough times, you’re child will begin to differentiate those sounds that are very difficult to hear.
Schedule Literacy Times & Then Take Breaks
It’s not easy to be a literacy leader all day long. Sometimes it’s helpful to set a time limit, like two 20 minute sessions a day dedicated to literacy, including reading books aloud, pointing out letter sounds and making ASL letter symbols. This way, you can be intense and effective for a certain duration each the day. Yet, you won’t experience burnout. Here’s the thing: If you use the right tactics, you don’t have to be an endless literacy machine to help your child. With the above strategies, you just need short sessions each day, and you can be your child’s most effective literacy leader.
Note: Brittany and Chelsea met in San Diego while working as independent consultants. Brittany is a Reading Tutor/Specialist and Chelsea is a Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. They can be reached through their websites at: www.readingelephant.com and www.chelseasbusyhands.com.