“The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”
National Academy of Education Commission on Reading, 1985.
Day one! And continuously afterwards. For many years, we have known that reading aloud to children is THE key to learning to read. Nevertheless, for many children who are deaf or hard of hearing, the experience of being read to by a parent or teacher may be all too rare. Talking to teachers and parents, most of whom are hearing, David R Schleper found that the most common reason they hesitate to read to deaf children is that they are unsure of the best way to do it.
Lydia Song, for example, had a lot of information and knew that it was important for her to read to her preschool son, but she was really stumped. She would say, "OK, I understand. I know I should do this, but HOW? What am I supposed to do?"
Ann Lynn Smith and her mum faced another common problem. Ann Lynn's mum was not a fluent signer. When her daughter was very young, she had someone come to her home regularly and teach her how to sign books so that they could read with each other. Ann Lynn remembers this as being very important for her development.
David R. Schleper has identified fifteen principles for reading to deaf children. No matter what educational approach or communication strategy parents subscribe to for their deaf children, the visually-oriented principles will be of value to parents who understand the importance of reading books to their deaf children. His goal is to help you share good books and the satisfaction of reading with the deaf children in your life.
Principle 1: Deaf readers translate stories using their native sign language
Principle 2: Deaf readers keep both languages (Auslan and English) visible
Principle 3: Deaf readers elaborate on the text
Principle 4: Deaf readers re-read stories on a "storytelling" to "story reading" continuum
Principle 5: Deaf readers follow the child's lead
Principle 6: Deaf readers make what is implied explicit
Principle 7: Deaf readers adjust sign placement to fit the story
Principle 8: Deaf readers adjust signing style to fit the character
Principle 9: Deaf readers connect concepts in the story to the real world
Principle 10: Deaf readers use attention maintenance strategies
Principle 11: Deaf readers use eye gaze to elicit participation
Principle 12: Deaf readers engage in role play to extend concepts
Principle 13: Deaf readers use sign variations to sign repetitive English phrases
Principle 14: Deaf readers provide a positive and reinforcing environment
Principle 15: Deaf readers expect the child to become literate
When parents read stories to deaf children, one of their most common questions is whether to sign the stories in Auslan or in manual codes developed in an effort to represent English. Parents worry that if they don't try to sign every word in English word order, their deaf child will not pick up on the English in the text. However, research in the US on how Deaf mothers and fathers read to their children clearly shows they use American Sign Language (ASL) to read stories to their children.1-4 In fact, one study notes that children find stories in ASL more interesting and engaging.3
Sign language, including Auslan, is clearly effective in holding the interest and building the understanding of young learners. "Throughout my years teaching classes from preschool to high school, I have watched Deaf readers turn kids on to reading by interpreting books into ASL. The day after seeing a story read in ASL, I know the children will line up to borrow that same book from the school library." David R. Schleper
Parents want to know:
If I use Auslan, how will the children learn the English of the text?
Deaf adults who read aloud to deaf children wait for the child's interest to shift from through-the-air language (Auslan) to print language (English). Through successive story readings, the child begins to realise that the word order of the two languages is different, but the same ideas can be conveyed in both. By referring back to Auslan, the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of English is gradually acquired.
Although readers use Auslan, they also place great importance on the written English text. Deaf parents demonstrate this when they read to their children by keeping the English print visible while they interpret the story in Auslan.1,2,5-7 This allows the children to look freely from parent (Auslan) to the book (English), making sense of both, while observing that the meaning originates in the printed text.
Researchers have observed Deaf parents frequently calling attention to the text in a story, then signing, then pointing again to the text to help the child connect to both languages. In one videotaped reading session, a Deaf child interrupted his mother to ask, "Where does it say that?" The mother traced her finger along the part of the story she had just signed. The child looked from the page to his mother, back to the page again, then looked again to his mother and with a nod signalled that he was ready for her to proceed with the rest of the story. It was clear that he was generating meaning in both languages.
What is the best way to hold onto the book and sign?
Maintain physical closeness during story reading, especially for young children. Holding the child at an angle on your lap with the book between the two of you, or sitting side-by-side on a sofa with the book spread across your laps or propped on a pillow, leaves hands free for signing. If you sit facing each other, a gentle touch now and then will hold the child's attention. The English text, the illustrations, and the signs should all be visible to the child.
I have a deaf child and a hearing child. Must I set up separate reading times for them?
It is important to separate and validate both languages, so setting up separate times for reading aloud with voice or reading in Auslan is a good idea. However, there's no need to separate the children for every reading unless they want it that way. Deaf children may pick up on rhythms or other aspects of English even if they don't hear the words during voice reading, and hearing siblings can learn new signs and respect for Auslan during the signed readings.
My son is mainstreamed into a hearing classroom with an interpreter. Should he read from the book himself or watch the interpreter sign what the teacher is saying when the teacher reads aloud?
Both options should be available. The interpreter should always interpret what the teacher is reading out loud, but the book should also be open and visible so the student can see the text. When teachers are trained in the use of interpreters, they should be reminded to pause occasionally so a deaf student can take a break from watching the interpreter for a moment or glance down at the book.
A Deaf teacher was reading the story Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells to a group of preschool children.8 The following is an adaptation of what the teacher signed:
"Daddy is busy. So, Nora goes over to see Mummy, taps Mummy, and says "Mummy." But Mummy has to pick up the baby and burp the baby. Maybe the baby has to burp. So she is patting him on the back. Nora tries to get Mummy's attention, but Mummy is busy with the baby."
This is what the text on the page said: "Jack needed burping."
Where did all the extra information come from? The additional commentary comes from the illustrations, from what has happened in the story thus far, from the underlying theme of the book, and from questions and comments of the deaf children who are enjoying the story.
The practice of elaborating on a picture book text seems to be common for most good readers to young children, and has also been observed in Deaf mothers.9 This suggests that when reading to deaf children, parents and teachers need not be excessively concerned about knowing a sign for each and every word within the text, but should place a higher priority on engaging the child and conveying the story. It reminds us that teaching English need not be a deadly serious activity. Entertainment and fun set the stage for more specific language learning at another time.
How can we develop Auslan fluency?
Whether or not parents become skilled signers, it's a good idea to look outside the home for language models who use Auslan as their primary language, as well as opportunities to enjoy the gifts of fine Auslan storytellers. David R Schleper encourages schools to provide plenty of Auslan role models for parents and students to emulate. Parents may also be able to arrange social interactions for their children with peers or adults who use Auslan by contacting a local Deaf club or Deaf sports club.
Many libraries have story reading sessions for young hearing children. Parents could ask their local library if they are willing to include Auslan storytelling and story reading. They could also discuss the possibility of the library providing an Auslan interpreter at their story reading sessions to extend this opportunity of reading aloud to deaf children as well.
There are a limited number of DVDs of Auslan story-reading available that parents can buy or ask their library to purchase. For suppliers see the Resources section of our website.
Like their hearing counterparts, deaf children who are learning to read enjoy having the same story read over and over to them. Trelease10 explains this is a natural and necessary part of language development: "These re-readings coincide with the way children learn. Like their parents, they are most comfortable with the familiar, and when they are relaxed, they are better able to absorb. The repetition improves their vocabulary, sequencing, and memory skills. Research shows that preschoolers often ask as many questions (and sometimes the same questions) after a dozen readings of the same book, because they are learning language in increments - not all at once. Each reading often brings an inch or two of meaning to the story."
Deaf readers extend the text liberally the first time they read a story, but each successive reading of the book has less and less elaboration. The signing comes closer and closer to the actual text. What occurs is a continuum, moving from the inclusion of background, context, or other details in Auslan, toward a more direct representation of the English text.11 The same approach is used by teachers in a process known as shared reading, where the same story is read and re-read in the classroom with a slightly different focus each time to help beginning readers learn about printed text.11
A logical conclusion is that readers use less elaboration in subsequent readings of the same text because they have already engaged the child's interest during the initial readings of the story. As the child becomes comfortable and familiar with the elements of the story, attention is subtly re-directed to the elements of language.
Here is a general progression to keep in mind that skilled readers seem to follow:
Skilled readers let children take the lead during read-aloud sessions.12-14 This can be as simple as inviting the deaf child to select the book to be read or permitting the child to turn the pages. Deaf readers tend to allow time for the child to examine the pictures and text in a book and wait patiently for the child to look up before continuing to read the story.
Following the child's lead also involves adjusting the reading style to fit the child's developmental level. With young children, or children who have had limited exposure to books, this may mean initially focussing on what is happening in the pictures. As children grow older and their attention span increases, adults tend to read more complete versions of the texts. This can be illustrated by the following example, in which a Deaf father was observed reading to his children, a daughter, 3, and a son, 6.11
The father initially read Little Red Riding Hood by William Wegman to his young daughter. This book has lots of text that accompanies photos of dogs dressed up as characters in the story. As the father read the story, his daughter turned the pages. She was clearly interested in the pictures. Following his daughter's lead, the father allowed her lots of time to examine each picture; when she looked back at him, he signed what was happening. During this reading, the father essentially ignored the printed text and instead retold the familiar tale at a level of detail that he knew would keep her engaged.
In contrast, when he read to his 6-year-old son, the father followed the text, carefully translating into sign language. The son also held the book and turned pages. The father traced his finger along the text before signing each paragraph, and occasionally paused to allow his son to fill in the next part of the text. Because the son was already beginning to read on his own, the father was again following his child's lead.
I'm having difficulties beginning to read chapter books with my daughter, who is six years old - pictures help her and me. How do you suggest beginning to read good literature (chapter books without pictures) and still keep her focussed and interested?
It is normal for a six-year-old to want pictures. Most do, whether the child is deaf or hearing. You should follow her lead and let her have books with pictures until she shows that she is ready to move on. Books appropriate for your daughter's age often have a well-developed, complex plot but still contain illustrations that support the story.
It also seems true that while Deaf parents read to their children when they are younger, most of them decrease the time spent reading with their children as they get older. This is probably a factor of the complexities of translating sophisticated texts.
Researchers are investigating further the reading aloud of sophisticated texts by parents and teachers to deaf and hard of hearing students. Reading aloud is a critical piece of educational programming for hearing students of all ages. Deaf and hard of hearing students deserve no less.
When Deaf readers sign a story, they tend to add information to express ideas that are clearly implied but not directly stated in the text. For example, when a Deaf father read Little Red Riding Hood to his daughter, he explained how the wolf donned the clothing of Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother. Then the father added, "He is trying to fool the girl."
This principle can be further illustrated by examining how Deaf readers who are fluent in ASL interpret the story, The Dancing Fly by Joy Cowley. This is a predictable story about a pesky fly that buzzes around a shop and annoys a shopkeeper, who tries unsuccessfully to swat the fly with a fly swatter. The first couple of lines of the text are, "There was a little fly, and it flew into the store. It danced on the window, and it danced on the door."
David R Schleper observed 10 different deaf readers sign the story. Inevitably, each reader began the story in a similar manner: First he or she introduced the fly, then added a sign for "arrogant" or "big-headed." The addition of information to clearly state the main idea or moral of the story appears to be a linguistic feature of ASL communication. Although the text never mentions the fly's personality, this characteristic is implied throughout the story through the struggle between the shopkeeper and the fly.
Like many of the principles observed with Deaf parents and Deaf teachers, this technique appears to be intuitive on the part of these readers. However, one can surmise that such a practice directly affects the deaf children's comprehension and reading achievement.
Linguists have shown that narratives in ASL and English present the same information in different ways. Fluent Deaf signers translate the English of the text into structurally correct ASL, helping deaf children to keep the two languages separate and distinct.
Note: While this study looked at signing stories in ASL, the principle of making what is implied in the story explicit can also be applied to parents signing stories to their children in Auslan.
Eventually, the father and daughter discussed in Principle 6 above came to the last page in their book about Little Red Riding Hood. In the picture, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother were eating cake with the woodsman. The father asked, "Are you hungry?" When his daughter nodded, the father mimed taking a piece of cake from the picture and offered it to his daughter. His use of sign placement helped his daughter interact with the story.
Modifying the location of a sign is a common strategy used by adults to invite children to relate to the printed text.1,5,14 Occasionally, the reader will place a sign directly on a child, such as making the sign for "cat" directly on the child's cheek. Other times, the reader will make the sign on the book or illustration. For example, a parent might use the classifier for a vehicle, place the sign on an illustration of a car, and then move the sign along the picture in a book as if the car is driving along the street. It appears that variation in placement of signs from the usual signing space to the page or to the child encourages deaf children to become comfortable with the printed text.
"When reading tonight, Trey and I read together. He signed "How did frog escape" and "Jump frog jump" every time we got to that part of the story. Trey also corrected me when I incorrectly signed something in the story. It was very enjoyable reading with him." Mother
Many common characteristics are associated with the expressive aspects of speech such as volume and tone. Even simple variations of pitch and intensity can give life to the characters in a story. Hearing children can easily identify and differentiate the high, squeaky voice of Baby Bear from the Papa Bear's gruff, booming voice in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In a similar way, parents and caregivers adjust their signing style to bring characters to life.
Research on Deaf parents demonstrates that they make use of extensive variation in signing style to add dimension to the characters and make the story more interesting for their deaf children.1,2,4,7 For example, a reader might adopt a more rigid, stilted signing style to portray an uptight person, use miniature signs and a very small signing space to depict someone who is timid, or exaggerate signs to show a flamboyant character.
Visual and tactile variations of Auslan can also be used to express sound-based concepts and hold attention or add interest to the story. For example, one Deaf reader indicated a door slamming by using facial expression and body language to emphasise a story character's startled reaction to the loud and unexpected noise.
"I signed on the book, also on my child. Katie copies and adds things to the book, like counting the objects on the page. Also we discussed the Kitty and how the Kitty might have taken the shoe (predicted). Katie said the cat stole the shoe. And it turned out that yes the cat had the shoe." Mother
While a Deaf father was reading Whales, the Gentle Giants (Milton, 1989) to his children, he paused periodically to help them connect the story to their own experiences. They had chosen this book because it reminded them of the movie Free Willy. Peter, the father, read a section of the text about the blue whale. Then he turned to three-year-old Jessica and asked, "Are whales big or small?"
"Big," Jessica replied.
"Really big," Peter agreed.
Then Jeremy walked over to the far end of the family room to show Jessica how big a blue whale really is. "That big?" he asked.
"No, bigger! Go much farther," said Peter. Jeremy shook his head. He couldn't believe it. Peter tried to help the children relate the whale's size to objects in their own lives. He said, "It's huge. Think of the football field at the high school. That's big, right? This whale is bigger!"
Jeremy remained sceptical, so Peter called his son's attention back to the book and showed him a diagram of an elephant next to a blue whale. "Here's an elephant," Peter said, "and here's the whale. Much bigger."
Successful readers are known to constantly relate experiences of their own to the characters and events in the stories they are reading. Parents and caregivers help children build this skill by regularly pointing out connections between the story and the lives of the children while they are reading. For example, when the same father read a story about a cat lapping up some milk, he added, "You know, the same as Sparky (their dog) drinks his water." The child laughed and nodded, clearly making the connection with their shared experience.
To keep reading in the real world
Parents of deaf children will want to take advantage of every opportunity for interaction with printed text, including captioned television. We wish to stress that television with captions is not a substitute for reading books aloud with children. That said, when children do watch television, the more captions the better. Some ideas for using television as a teaching tool are:
It is perfectly natural for Deaf children to occasionally look away or down at the book while an adult is signing a story. Although this can be frustrating, experienced readers usually wait patiently until the child looks up again, then continue to read.1,5,9,14
Parents also use a variety of tactile strategies to focus their child's attention. Most commonly, a parent will lightly tap the child on the shoulder or leg to get attention. If the parent is sitting alongside the child, the parent will often gently nudge the child or shift the book to first draw the child's attention back to the text and then to the waiting parent.
Eye contact appears to be critical for maintaining attention, but parents and caregivers also seem to use other subtle facial expressions and nonverbal gestures to monitor the child's understanding and involvement. Ongoing contact of some kind seems to be the key.
Readers also recognise the power of peripheral vision. They note that deaf children pick up a lot even when they are not looking directly at the reader's signs. And, since the reader will often read the same story over and over again, the child will have plenty of opportunities to get information missed during any one reading.
One behaviour sometimes noticed with hearing parents and teachers, but absent with Deaf parents, is grabbing the child by the chin and forcibly turning the child's face. While young children sometimes do this with their parents, it is not a desirable behaviour to reinforce.
Being read to during the "critical period" for language acquisition (between birth and age 13 or so) is just one strategy for developing literacy. One teacher put it this way, "Reading to students, every day without fail, sets a tone of sharing and a comfortable rhythm for students and teachers alike; it puts imagination in motion and helps nurture a love of literature. That's a good place to start."
Eye gaze - the direction the eyes are looking during various points in a story or conversation - is clearly a significant consideration. One study found that Deaf teachers used two types of eye gaze while reading aloud - individual and group gaze.2 The teacher used group gaze effectively to hold the attention of all of the children, and individual gaze to direct questions or comments to a particular child.
Inappropriate eye gaze, however, can lead to a breakdown in communication. One teacher, for example, commented to her class, "Some of you don't know this story." Instead of including the whole group, her gaze was focused on just one student. The child, feeling singled out, replied defensively, "I know! I know!" It is clear that eye gaze plays a key role in maintaining attention and eliciting responses during read aloud sessions.
"For many years, educators have known that children who come from homes in which storybook reading takes place have an educational advantage over those who do not. These children are more likely to read before they are given formal instruction, and those who are not early readers are more likely to learn to read with ease when formal instruction does begin." Dorothy Strickland and Denny Taylor, 1989.
A mother and her four-year-old son incorporated role play into a session with the book Roll Over! A Counting Song by Merle Peek. This story is about a boy who shares his bed with nine animals. Each time they roll over, one animal falls out of bed. During the book sharing session, the deaf mother and her son were sitting on the bed as the mother read, "Ten in the bed and the little one said, "Roll over! Roll over!" They all rolled over and one fell out." When she finished the section, her son stood up and fell dramatically off his bed, landing exactly in the same spot as the monkey in the book. He climbed back onto the bed, and as his mother went on reading, he continued to role play the animals, each time falling happily out of bed.
Several researchers point out that Deaf readers often act out parts of a story to reinforce meaning. 2,15,16 A teacher who was reading The Three Little Kittens to a group of preschool deaf children noticed that the children were not attending to the story. Quickly, the teacher mimed the kittens tracking mud into the house. Then she brought the children into the role play by "becoming" the mother cat and scolding the kittens. The children's grins demonstrated their renewed involvement.
Many predictable books for young children have phrases that are repeated over and over again. For example, "He huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down," from the Three Little Pigs, or "Fee! Fie! Fo! Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!" from Jack and the Beanstalk. When Deaf readers read these repetitive phrases, they don't always sign them the exact same way. In fact, evidence suggests that readers vary the way they sign repetitive English phrases.
Sometimes the use of sign variations helps to convey increased intensity or "volume," such as when each successive goat crosses over the bridge in the story, Three Billy Goats Gruff. The English words remain the same, but Deaf readers will use different Auslan translations each time the English phrase repeats. In these situations, the children see the English text remain constant in the book, while also seeing the phrase translated into Auslan in various ways.
These sign variations may be used to maintain interest in the story. For example, in the story Roll Over! A Counting Song by Merle Peek, the chant, "Roll over! Roll over!" is repeated 10 times. While reading this book to her son, a Deaf mother pointed to the English text (which was the same each time), but then signed the text in various ways. Sometimes she used a classifier to show the animals rolling together. Other times, she used a different sign for "roll." The variety of ways she used to express the concept seemed to enhance her son's interest in the story.
Readers demonstrate that there are multiple ways to convey the English meaning in Auslan. In the process, the readers are also developing the children's vocabulary, and, one can assume, promoting the children's ability to make meaning from the English text. These skills become increasingly important as the children move on to more complicated and demanding texts.
Many parents and teachers have questions about fingerspelling English words to pre-school and primary school children. Fingerspelling is a naturally occurring feature of sign languages. 17,18 David Schleper encourages parents and teachers to use fingerspelling with infants, toddlers, and young children. Deaf people generally process the whole shape of a fingerspelled word, rather than the individual letters. In normal signed conversation, it is the meaning, not the English word, that is being represented by fingerspelling.
For example, suppose we have a child who is two years old who has enjoyed a visit by a friend, Beth. The next day the child will ask his mother, "Where's . . .?" Although the child's expressive fingerspelling may not be very clear or correct, his mother understands through context and repeats, "B-E-T-H is at home, " fingerspelling the whole name. Later, the child may ask about "B" or "B-E" but his mother still spells out "B-E-T-H." Deaf children pick up parts of fingerspelled signs and expand them into fingerspelling the whole and correct sign with repetition, just as hearing children learn to pronounce English words correctly over time.
Reading is supposed to be fun. It is also supposed to involve the construction of meaning through a lively interaction between reader and text. Research with Deaf parents shows they tend to set up a positive, interactive environment.5,9,12,16 In one reading session, a Deaf father was reading Little Red Riding Hood to his daughter.11 His daughter tapped his knee, then turned back to the previous page and pointed, "Look at the teeth!" she said.
"Yeah, the teeth are sharp! Like fangs," the father replied, reinforcing the child's observation.
"They have blood on them," the daughter pointed out.
The father questioned this, pointing to the illustration. "Where?" he asked.
They examined the picture together. "Maybe you're right. They do have blood!" the father said.
Instead of ignoring his daughter, or telling her she was wrong, the father let her make her point. His positive, reinforcing response helped make their interaction with the text enjoyable.
And when the read-aloud sessions are enjoyable, it is more likely that the child will retain fond, positive associations with books and reading.
A final principle that seems to underlie the read-aloud sessions between Deaf adults and children is a positive belief in the children's abilities. One researcher observed a Deaf teacher with a reputation for producing good, enthusiastic readers, hoping to determine which of her teaching strategies and practices seemed most critical.4 After observing for an extended period of time, the researcher believed she had discovered the key:
The teacher expected them to become literate.
Most parents and caregivers do not read to their children in order to teach them English or to instruct them in the reading process. They want to share close, focussed time with their children, to expand their knowledge of the world, to support the growth of their imagination, and, in many cases, to pass along their own love of books. While they may expect some academic benefit for the children, that is clearly secondary. When Schleper 11 asked Deaf parents if they thought their children would become literate in English, they all replied, "Of course!" There was never any doubt.
Learning from Deaf readers
English literacy is still the burning question in the education of deaf children. It may be that in our zeal to share what we know with deaf children, we have overlooked a most important resource. Hearing parents and teachers and deaf adults who have not grown up with Auslan can look to culturally Deaf adults to find excellent models of effective strategies for reading to deaf children. The book-sharing practices of Deaf readers who have mastered English and passed that legacy on to their children make the answers to most of our questions readily apparent. Learning from Deaf adults can help all of us - adults and children alike - enjoy exploring good books together.
References and further reading
08-Nov-2015 6:32 PM (AEST)