Literacy and biliteracy in ASL and English

How can Deaf read and write fluently without vocal-speaking or hearing? How do Deaf children read and write English without spoken English (or other spoken languages)? How do ASL-speaking hearing codas and dodas (hearing and Deaf children of Deaf parents) learn to read and write English?

Many people assume that deaf people don't read well (or worse, cannot learn) because they don't hear or speak English (or other spoken languages). It's completely a misconception.

bilingual literacy
Image description: a bilingual five-year-old ASL-speaking 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 bilingual ASL-speaking Deaf mother.

The (re)definition of literacy

Literacy usually evokes a definition along the lines of "the ability to read and write." Really, 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. He noted that reading isn't what literacy is all about.

Is vocal-speaking (speech) prerequisite to literacy?

Many hearing 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 (books, posts, etc.) without knowing they are written by Deaf people, authors, writers, publishers, doctorate students, and so on. And, many 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. Even more, all of her Deaf family members speak ASL. He asked "How do you read and write well without hearing?" She simply replied that reading and writing are all visual. For her, it was common sense. But, for him, how? He reasoned that written English is based on spoken English. She explained in a simple way:

"You learn English in two separate modalities: written and spoken. We Deaf people occasionally encounter hearing English-speaking individuals who cannot read and write English. Why? They would have to learn another English in the written form. Must one know spoken English in order to write and read English? No. 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.)

Manual-speaking (signing) is the prequisite to literacy

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 a long way back to child's birth. Language acquisition occurs when language is processed in a meaningful way. Language acquisition in ASL for deaf children is crucial for developing literacy (knowledge of the world) prior to reading and writing and learning English in preschool.

High academic performance

There is a strong correlation between ASL language acquisition and English literacy (bilingual).

"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. I've witnessed many codas and dodas having a high academic performance, including my own bilingual child who reads and writes at least a few grades above her regular school grade in English throughout her elementary years (soon going into a junior high school level).

Literal and inferential reading

Kuntz explains two level of reading: literal and inferential. Inferential 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.

Not only bilingualism brings a number of cognitive benefits to the brain, biliteracy is highly beneficial too!

A moment of recognition

An exciting moment is that on April 26, 2016, Governor Larry Hogan (Maryland) signed into law Senate Bill 781, recognizing biliteracy of high school graduates. 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.


Kuntze, Dr. Marlon. "Catalytic Effect of ASL, Literate Thought, and Literacy." Presentation at the University of Alberta with webcam connection to the audiences in Calgary, Lethbridge, and Manitoba. October 21, 2010.

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

"Press Release: Governor Larry Hogan Signs Senate Bill 781." April 26, 2016.

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