I was only 18 when I began teaching reading to deaf children, but I quickly realised there was a serious lack of books they could easily access when they started learning to read in Reception. For various reasons, deaf children often have delayed language acquisition. It could be that their parents don’t use British Sign Language (BSL), or they simply cannot hear some of the sounds that we speak.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are books out there that openly talk about deafness and have deaf characters, such as Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donaldson and Karen George, The Quest for the Cockle Implant by Maya Wasserman and Proud to be Deaf by Ava, Lilli and Nick Beese, but these are aimed at hearing children, to help them understand about their friends’ deafness. Raising awareness of deafness is undoubtedly very important and helps deaf children in many ways, but not in the way I needed when I started my career.
Over the years, I have learnt a lot about teaching reading to deaf children. And I have developed different ways of keeping them engaged and excited about reading. They notoriously don’t like reading or English as a subject at school, but this doesn’t have to be the case. I’ve worked with deaf children who have grown to absolutely adore books, reading and English lessons when given the right support and ways to access the form of language used.
The first deaf child I ever supported in a mainstream setting was extremely intelligent and had the most amazing imagination, but he couldn’t access phonics in the same way as his peers, so he couldn’t blend sounds to make words. He was a profoundly deaf BSL user, which meant he couldn’t access the reading books that his friends did when learning to read. I contacted half a dozen big companies to ask if they had anything suitable for deaf children just beginning to learn to read. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many responses and those that did respond sent me examples of books in Braille (yes, Braille!)
I was stuck, so I had to be inventive. I decided to scrap phonics and teach the child to read by sight instead. Once he had a good bank of sight words in which he was secure, I created reading books that repetitively used these words, changing just one word on the page.
For example, “I can see the cat; “I can see the dog”. As these were built up, I could then expand and begin using adjectives and verbs: “The cat is black”; “The cat can jump”, etc. I also made these books personal to the child, relating to his interests and things he could see if we went out to the school playground. In effect, he could see his reading books coming to life, and who wouldn’t want to see that happening before their very eyes?
Making storytime fun for deaf children
When it comes to engaging deaf children in storytime, the process needs to be a little different. We choose a book together – one that takes their fancy – and create resources around this book to help them access it. I create character finger puppets, vocabulary flashcards including BSL, signs, bingo games, story sequencing, story pairs, guess what’s in the bag and simple comprehension questions.
We look at the resources we have made together, talk about how they might link to the story and what the child thinks might happen, and discuss the meaning of new vocabulary that will come up throughout the story. And, as hard as it might be, I do all of this before I even read the book with the child. This way, they will be fully prepared, engaged and excited to read the story and find out what will happen. I love this approach because I have seen its positive effect many times.
When I use the methods that I have detailed above, I see a tangible difference in the contributions and engagement from deaf children compared with when these methods aren’t used. It is incredibly important for their education that we expose deaf children to literature, storytelling and diverse language. There are extremely capable children out there who are, in some cases, overlooked just because they are deaf.
A study in 2015 by Fiona E Kyle and Kate Cain showed that deaf children had significantly weaker reading comprehension skills than their hearing peers. Changes in the curriculum to make it more accessible to deaf children would be a huge help. So would more time dedicated to working with deaf professionals to achieve higher support standards for deaf children.
BSL is the best tool for teaching reading to deaf children
Something else that I have experimented with previously is a device called Cued Speech. It is a phonics-based language tool that helps make the sounds we say more visual. Each phonic sound has a hand shape positioned next to the mouth so that it can be seen clearly at the same time as the speaker’s face. This technique is useful for accessing phonics in class, but when it comes to storytelling and keeping a child engaged, nothing beats the expression and emotion of BSL.
BSL is scientifically proven to stimulate the brain and increase brain development. It is a recognised language in its own right, and I believe it is the best tool for deaf children. I have seen babies as young as six months old communicating using sign language, enjoying and getting involved with stories and anticipating what will come next.
When deaf babies and children are exposed to signs and books from an early age, they build an amazing foundation for language that sets them up for a lifetime love of literature. I recommend the That’s not my… series by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells and Felt Flaps Series 5 Books Collection Set series by Ingela P Arrhenius for starting to sign with a baby. The repetition in these books reinforces the signs that will be used, and they are very interactive as they allow the baby to lift the flap and see the character hiding or to find out how things on the page feel to touch.
Being able to access literature makes a world of difference to a deaf child. I absolutely adore literature, and it saddens me to think of so many children unable to access it. Over my career, I have supported a wide range of deaf children with different needs and requirements, but one thing they have all had in common is engaging with a story fully and enjoying it so much more as a result. It is wonderful to see deaf children switched on, engaged and excited about what will happen when they turn the page. Every child deserves to experience the joy of book reading.
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