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'Signing deaf children and phonological awareness' by Dr Breda Carty

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Phonological awareness describes our knowledge of how the smallest building blocks of a language – phonemes - work together. This is what enables readers to identify the sounds and syllables within a word, pronounce unfamiliar words, know when words rhyme, and a range of other tasks. Phonological processing is one of the key processing skills used in reading. Much research has examined the role of phonological processing in deaf readers – see Mayberry, del Guidice and Lieberman (2011) and Trezek, Wang and Paul (2010) for summaries of some of this research. Deaf readers are already identified as more likely to have reading difficulties. In addition, they are obviously faced with challenges in developing phonological awareness of spoken language, as their exposure to sounds is usually limited and delayed. Deaf readers whose primary language is a signed language would seem to have even more challenges in developing phonological awareness.
A few points emerging from recent studies can be summarised as follows:
  1. Phonological awareness does not seem to be the key predictor of reading proficiency in deaf people (Mayberry, del Guidice, & Lieberman, 2011; Miller & Clark, 2011). Stronger predictors are general language ability (as expressed in either signed or spoken language) and meta-linguistic awareness. That is, the more robust a deaf person’s ability to use and express language, and the more they are aware of how language works, the more likely they are to be good readers (even if they don’t have good phonological processing skills).
  2. There is a suggestion that deaf readers may be making more use of visual (or orthographic) processing while reading - visual recognition of the patterns of printed words (Miller & Clark, 2011). This needs further exploration.
  3. Although phonological awareness may not always be well-developed in deaf readers, many deaf readers – including signers - do demonstrate it to varying degrees. It may have been developed through audition, years of speech training, speech-reading, and other indirect routes.  New systems such as Visual Phonics have been developed to promote phonological awareness in deaf children (Narr & Cawthon, 2011). Visual Phonics is a system of hand shapes showing the phonemes of English and linking them to the ways they can appear in print. It is easy to use in sign bilingual classrooms, not only to specifically teach phonological information, but to incorporate in everyday classroom activities such as working out how to pronounce (or mouth) the name of a person, animal or place.
  4. Sign language linguists have analysed signed languages at the phonological level for many years. Some recent research (e.g, Corina, Hafer, & Welch, 2014) is proposing that deaf signers who have good phonological awareness of their sign language may be able transfer this awareness to spoken languages and that this may play a role in their learning to read.
What does all this mean for those of us working in sign bilingual programs, or with deaf and hard of hearing children who use both sign and speech? We should be well-informed about the role of phonological awareness, and be ready to make use of tools such as Visual Phonics, which can develop this awareness in fun and relevant ways. However, we should also be aware that deaf readers may be using other, more visual strategies for developing reading ability, and encourage these as well. And we should remind ourselves that overall language ability, signed or spoken or both, is the foundation of academic and social development.  
Corina, D. P., Hafer, S., & Welch, K. (2014). Phonological awareness for American Sign Language. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 19(4), 530-545.
Mayberry, R. I., del Giudice, A. A., & Lieberman, A. M. (2011). Reading achievement in relation to phonological coding and awareness in deaf readers: A meta-analysis. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 16(2), 164-188.
Miller, P. & Clark, M. D. (2011). Phonemic awareness is not necessary to become a skilled deaf reader. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities. 23(5), 459-476.
Narr, R. F. & Cawthon, S. W. (2011). The “wh” questions of Visual Phonics: What, who, when, where and why. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16(1), 66-78.
Trezek, B. J., Wang, Y., & Paul, P. V. (2010). Reading and deafness: Theory, research, and practice. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Cengage Learning.