Literacy and biliteracy in ASL and English

How can Deaf read and write fluently without speaking or hearing? Literacy usually evokes a definition along the lines of "the ability to read and write." Many people assume that deaf people don't read well (or worse, cannot learn) because they don't hear or speak English. It's completely a misconception. There is much more to the meaning of 'literacy' than the ability to read and write. Dr. Marlon Kuntz describes literacy as a cognitive process.

bilingual literacy
Image description: a bilingual-bimodal five-year-old girl writes down the title of a book in her record book. Context: In kindergarten, she picks a different book everyday and brings it home to read with her mother.

Again, many people wonder how could Deaf people read and write fluently? Given with full access to language acquisition and rich language environment (ASL), Deaf people read and write English as fluently as hearing people. You may come across some materials without knowing they are written by Deaf people, authors, writers, publishers, doctorate students, and so on. And, some of them don't speak or hear at all and don't use hearing devices.

A graduate fellow pondered for a long while and gathered up his courage to ask a Deaf graduate student a few questions via an interpreter.

"You don't [vocally] speak at all?", he asked. Right, she replied. Why? Because all of her Deaf family members speak ASL. He asked "How do you read and write well without hearing?" She replied that reading and writing are all visual. But, how? He told that written English is based on spoken English. She explained:

"You learn two separate English in two modalities: written and spoken. I once encountered a Russian storekeeper who could speak English but couldn't write and read English. Why? Must one know spoken English in order to write and read English? No. The Russian would have to learn another English in the written form. Spoken and written English share the same grammar, but they are independent in forms."

Hearing people may scratch their heads, but it's natural and unsurprising to Deaf people.

"Findings challenge the belief that proficiency with spoken language is prerequisite to written language development. Spoken language and written language were seen as not only parallel forms of the same meaning-based language but also alternative forms. Findings suggest that there is no one pathway to become literate." -- Cheri L. Williams, et al. April 1992. (The Language and Literacy Worlds of Profoundly Deaf Preschool Children: Informing Developmental Theory.)

Dr. Kuntz discusses the best approach for deaf children to learn English or develop literacy skills through another language (their first language, that is ASL). To attain literacy skills, a child needs to be provided full access to a rich language (ASL) environment.

Thus, early language acquisition (ASL) is crucial, but many deaf children are deprived of their first language (ASL) by imposing oralism on them. In order for deaf children to develop literacy skills in English as a second language, they must acquire their first language (ASL) from birth (or at the earliest possible) as a foundation of language acquisition before transfering knowledge and literacy to another language (English). As a result, these Deaf children are adept in bilingual literacy (native in both languages or native in ASL and highly fluent in English).

Literacy doesn't begin at reading and writing in kindergarten school. It begins long way back to a child's birth. Language acquisition in ASL for deaf children is crucial for developing literacy (knowledge of the world) prior to reading and writing and learning English.

"Results found that: ASL groups significantly outscored medium and low groups in English literacy." -- Michael Strong; Philip Prinz. "The Relationship between ASL Skill and English Literacy." March 1997.

"The results were consistent: Deaf children of Deaf parents do significantly better academically than the Deaf children of hearing parents, including in reading and writing English..." Journey into Deaf World, p 267.

"Native speakers of ASL achieve much higher reading scores on the average than their Deaf peers who are not native speakers." -- Harlane, Lane. et al. "Language and Literacy." Journey into Deaf World. Chapter 9, pp 287.

This is also true for bilingual hearing children of Deaf parents whose first language is ASL at home and in Deaf community. Codas (children of Deaf parents) have stronger academic accomplishments because of their upbringing as bilinguals.

Kuntz explains two level of reading: literal reading and inferrential reading. Inferrential reading is when a child understands the content on a deep level. When reading a book, a parent interacts with the child in ASL, asking questions, making interpretations, etc. The child learns to make connections between ASL and English.

An exciting moment is that in April 2016, Governor Hogan (Maryland) signed into Senate Bill 781 recognizing biliteracy. This law grants bilingual students a seal of biliteracy on their high school diploma when they graduated from publich high schools in Maryland. ASL was included in one of languages.

ASL has been recognized as a true, natural language. A number of studies from neuroscience to linguistics shows abundant evidence that signed language is a true, natural human language, which changed an old misconception of what language is. In this case, speech is not pivotal to language.

In addition, bilingualism brings a number of benefits to the brain, literacy, and multi-worldview.


Kuntze, Dr. Marlon. "Catalytic Effect of ASL, Literate Thought, and Literacy." Presentation at the University of Alberta. October 21, 2010.

Lapiak, Jolanta. Documentation of language acquisition and literacy development at .