How do Deaf children learn to read?

How do Deaf children learn to read and write without hearing at all? And signing hearing children of Deaf parents with no auditory access? How are bilingual Deaf people's reading skill compared to hearing people's, when the Deaf readers speak in visual modality?

Two common misconceptions about reading are that 1) deaf people have reading difficulties because of little or no auditory access, and 2) reading is dependent on the sounds of language.

Research has much focused on deaf readers' reading difficulties which, we know, are the results from language deprivation and language delay (oralism), poor education or lack of education (especially in the developing countries), and/or language-incompetent teachers in signed languages.

With access to language acquisition and language exposure in signed language and bilingual education from the earliest years, there are fluent Deaf readers.

"Juli", a three-year-old bilingual ASL-speaking coda of Deaf families, reads the word FIRE. Interestingly, she used "AND" which was never taught nor used by her family, but in hearing-culture preschool.

Visual perception in reading

There was a study that focused on comparing skilled Deaf readers with no auditory access and hearing readers of the same level. "Recent research in our lab suggests that skilled deaf readers have unique eye movement patterns and process words in foveal and parafoveal vision quite effectively." [1]

Deaf reading speed
Image from "What Eye Movements Reveal about Deaf Readers.

"1b) Reading rate (words per minute) as a function of window size (WS) for the skilled hearing readers (SKH), skilled deaf readers (SKD) and less-skilled deaf readers (LSKD)." [1]

"Indeed, just like hearing readers, deaf readers' fixation durations are modulated by reading level, word frequency and word predictability. Additionally, less-skilled deaf readers, like less-skilled hearing readers, rely more on context to aid word processing (Bélanger & Rayner, 2013a). Crucially, however, we find that deafness itself influences certain eye movement patterns." [1]

"We found that adult severely to profoundly deaf readers have a wider perceptual span than adult hearing readers matched on reading level." [1]

Research suggests that a traditional method of reading in hearing children is based on sound phonology. But, in studying deaf readers, this suggests that reading is based on orthography-to-semantic connections in deaf readers. "This would be strong support for a greater focus on consolidating form-meaning connections (via American Sign Language, for example) as the norm in deaf education, and not as the exception." [1]

Bilingualism and reading

First, let's look at (hearing) bilingual readers. In a study, "bilingual L1 reading does not differ in any major way from monolingual reading. Bilingual L2 reading patterns show longer sentence reading times (20%), more fixations (21%), shorter saccades (12%) and less word skipping (4.6%), than L1 reading patterns. Regression rates are the same for L1 and L2 reading. These results could indicate that it is primarily the speeding up of lexical access that drives both L1 and L2 reading development. [2]

This study can be similarly applied to Deaf bilinguals L1 and L2. Again, deafness is not a direct factor, but rather it's how deaf children access to visual-based languages from the earliest years.

Scenario: Two multilingual Deaf families (both are blood-related) speak ASL with no auditory access. The Deaf parents of both families were immigrants from another country and they don't read books, just in general conversational writing. Their four Deaf children (now adults) with better access to bilingual education are all fluent readers; the oldest then-child was an immigrant as a child.

The oldest bilingual child (ASL L1, English L2) reads well and has a Master's degree. Her brother who is hard-of-hearing (ASL L2, English L1) also reads well and he has a Bachelor degree. Their male Deaf cousin (ASL L1, English L2), who is not much of academic, reads casually. Their female Deaf cousin (ASL L1, English L1) reads like a lightning, far much faster than an average fast reader.

This real life scenario shows that auditory access is not required for a highly reading skill. Illiteracy is nothing to do with deafness but rather it may be affected by poor education, immigration, or language deprivation and delay in childhood because of oralism. Bilingualism also brings more cognitive benefits.

Furthermore, the aforementioned oldest child has a bilingual coda (ASL L1, English L1) whose reading level was beyond her grade school. Year after year, her teachers would say the same thing that her reading and English levels were beyond her class or grade. This is not unusual for many dodas (deaf family) and codas (children of deaf parents) who perform academically higher. Studies abundantly show that bilingualism is packed with cognitive benefits.

As for hearing parents of deaf children, the deaf children can also become excellent in reading regardless of hearing parents' signing skills which usually make a big difference in deaf children's lives.

Back to the Deaf family scenario, when the brother was a preschooler, her Deaf mother read a book to him every night despite her poor English skills. She signed from English to ASL, making guesses what English words mean. Sometimes she just made up. When the brother grew up, he looked at the same books and remembered what her mother signed to him. He laughed about some memories. He has excellent English skills. It goes the same way for hearing parents with limited signing skills. The children will pick up on their own.


[1] Belanger, Nathalie N. and Rayner, Keith (2015). "What Eye Movements Reveal about Deaf Readers".

[2] Cop U, Drieghe D, Duyck W (2015). "Eye Movement Patterns in Natural Reading: A Comparison of Monolingual and Bilingual Reading of a Novel." PLoS ONE 10(8): e0134008. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0134008

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