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Carin Roos, The Stockholm Institute of Education, Sweden

Paper presented at 34th Congress  of the Nordic Educational Research Association in Örebro, Sweden, 9-11 March 2006

Learning from Deaf Children’s Visual Literacy Events –
Implications for the teaching of hearing children

Carin Roos



The aim of the study (Roos, 2004, Doctoral Dissertation) reported here was to focus on the literacy events going on, in a preschool and during the first year in school for the Deaf, from the children’s perspective. The study was a study of a group of deaf children during a two-year period. The study is ethnographic.

The results of the study showed that deaf children developed their interest in reading and writing during the first preschool years in much the same way as hearing children do. They showed an increasing meta linguistic awareness and an understanding of the function of written texts. The results show that the children used several kinds of strategies in learning to read and write. Some of these strategies was regarding how to decode and remember words and some had to do with the fact that the children are visual oriented, seeing and not hearing. Results will be presented in the paper suggesting that we could learn from deaf children’s strategies when working with hearing with reading and writing difficulties.

Sign Language and Deaf Bilinguals

In the present study, the concept Sign language, SSL (Swedish Sign Language), is used. The Deaf community in Sweden uses SSL to communicate (SDR, The Swedish National Association of the Deaf, and it is also the Sign language used when communicating with the children in the study. SSL is a language that has developed among the Deaf parallel with spoken language developing among hearing (Bergman, 1994). This parallel development of spoken and signed languages has occurred in many, if not all places, around the world. (Emmorey, 2002; Stokoe, 2002). Thus in this study the term Sign language refers to that which is used among the Deaf.

Deaf in this texts is used in a medical sense, deafness, and also in the sense which refers to deaf as a socio cultural group. Deaf may be persons not totally deaf in a medical sense but having difficulties to develop speech. Such a person can also be defined as a signer, that is someone communicating in Sign language and a bilingual person, which is someone using Sign language and written language.

In 1981, the Swedish government declared SSL to be the official language of the Deaf community (Mahshie, 1995). It was also stated that deaf children in Sweden should be bilingual in order to function both in Swedish society in general, as well as within the Deaf community. The aim for children are to reach this goal by the time they leave the school for the Deaf. This means that the schools for the Deaf are expected to provide proper education in both languages, i.e. written Swedish and SSL (The Swedish Board of Education, 2005). The curriculum requires that education in reading abilities help every pupil to reach the same goals as hearing children, with the exception of oral presentation (The Swedish Board of Education, 2005). In a literate society, it is very important that all children develop a high level of literacy. As Olson and Torrance (2001) put it: “[i]n order to understand and participate in the modern world it is increasingly obvious that one must have access to writing /…/” (s. 12). Thus, it is of a great importance that the children meet and have the oppor-tunity to learn about Swedish written language as early as possible.

Bilingualism is expressed in the syllabuses (The Swedish Board of Education, 2005) as follows:

  • /…/ preparing pupils so that they can live and work as individuals with two languages in society. Language skills are also of great importance for all work in school and also for the future life and activities of the pupils. Pupils meet the two languages in different contexts and in different forms are stimulated to exchange thoughts and experiences concerning the different roles and structures of the languages. Bilingual education aims at providing pupils with the opportunity to use and develop their skills of using sign language, speaking, reading and writing in different contexts, as well as providing experience in and learning form e.g. literature, video, film and theatre in both languages. The aim of the education is to create good opportunities for pupil's language development so that the language becomes a functional tool.
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Aim of the study and theoretical frame

There has been little research describing how young deaf children show their interest in the written form of the language and how this interest develops in a bilingual setting, using Sign language as the mode of communication. The present study is thus an investigation of early childhood literacy events in a signing and bilingual setting from the child’s perspective.

The theoretical basis of this study is the theory of social constructivism (Berger & Luckmann, 1966), Bruner’s (1986) theory of children’s learning and Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of thought, language and literacy development. Deaf children’s literacy learning is seen as a joint construction by the participants in the literacy events.

Aim of the study

The aim of this study has been to describe young deaf signing children’s literacy events in a preschool and during the first school year, how they interact and negotiate meaning through which literacy is constructed in everyday life.

Deaf Literacy

Research into Deaf literacy shows that deaf children have problems reading and writing (for overviews see Musselman, 2000; Chamberlain, Morford & Mayberry, 2000; Marschark, Lang & Albertini, 2002). This particular field of research supports mainly three differing opinions concerning the development of reading ability and deafness.

One view maintains that deaf children learn to read using essentially the same processes as hearing children do, which means mainly using phonological processes while reading. The research efforts reported are centred round themes such as word processing, coding and different techniques used by deaf children, or programs used by their teachers. This research is also conducted mainly among children having learned Sign language late in childhood or are educated orally without the use of sign language (Musselman, 2000; Paul, 1998).

A second and opposing view proposes that deaf children use qualitatively different processes when learning to read, which means that deaf readers are presumed to be using Sign language, fingerspelling, orthographic information and semantic information. Studies are showing that children raised in families of signers (i.e. deaf parents using Sign language) display a higher level of reading performance than children raised orally, that is, with parents using spoken language (Marschark, 2001; Paul, 1998). Research also suggests that good Sign language commu-nication can be used as the mode for explaining the structure of the written language in school (Hoffmeister, 2000; Padden & Ramsey, 2000; Strong & Printz, 2000; Svartholm, 1994, 1998).

A third perspective empha-sises the development of literacy skills as not only a linguistic and cognitive achievement but also a social achievement (Bagga-Gupta, 2004; Padden & Ramsey, 2000) in a signing environment.

A fourth perspective is discussed by Chamberlain, Morford and Mayberry (2000) and Stewart and Clarke (2003) namely that there is a possibility that deaf children actually use several strategies to learn to read and write. The hypothesis is that it is partly due to the education organized in different ways but also due to the communication mode at school. This can explain the contradictory results from different studies.

Thus what the research describes is several perspectives, namely:

  1. The first view is emphasizing phonological awareness and that writing and reading is mainly about understanding the alphabetic code, focusing on the form and the sounds also regarding deaf children.
  2. The second view is emphasizing meaningful literacy activities in interaction with peers and adults in a signing environment focusing on discussions on a meta-linguistic level.
  3. The third view emphasizes the interaction in a signing environment and looks upon the literacy skills as a social achievement.
  4. The fourth view maintains that the contradictory results from different studies reported can be explained emanating out of educational experiences deaf children have and by the fact that the children differ as persons.

Early Childhood Deaf Literacy

There has been some research carried out on deaf children’s literacy development early in childhood, when attending kindergarten and preschool classes, and in a signing environment (Erting, 1992; Erting, Thumann-Prezioso & Sonnenstrahl Benedict, 2000; Ewoldt, 1990; Ewoldt 1991; Padden, 1996; Williams, 1993, 2004). This research holds that deaf children show an interest in reading and writing early in childhood and that their early development shows great similarities with hearing children (; Erting, 1992; Erting, Thuman-Prezioso & Benedict, 2000; Ewoldt, 1990; Ewoldt 1991; Williams, 1993, 2004). Padden (1996) shows that fingerspelling is important in the child’s development and that forming strategies to learn the position of letters is what deaf children do when hearing children invent their own spelling. Harris and Beech (1998) show that hearing children outperform deaf five-year-olds in phonological awareness and, later in school, in reading progress. However, they found four deaf children in the test group who performed just as well as the hearing children. Two were educated in a non-signing school and showed good phonological awareness and speech ability. Two children had deaf families and were good signers but per-formed poorly on tests of phonological awareness.

Thus what this research on Early Childhood Deaf Literacy suggests are mainly three things, namely:

  1. Deaf children are interested in reading and writing and develop their interest in much the same way as hearing peers do.
  2. Fingerspelling seems to be important when learning about words and letters.
  3. It may be that phonological awareness is not imperative for developing reading and writing skills for deaf children. It may be the language mode used that is of greater importance.

Deaf children fingerspelling

Padden (1996) argue that fingerspelling for deaf children is the natural link between print and sign language and therefore a vital component of early literacy learning. Erting et al.(2000) suggests that it might be a way of facilitating an alphabetic awareness. What is interesting, but not yet investigated, is how and when a child do make “the connection between fingerspelling and English, and how parents scaffold or facilitate this process” (Swanwick & Watson, 2005). We know that children start using fingerspelling early. Erting et al. (2000) found children at the age of 1 year 8 months using fingerspelling when addressing English words. The research suggest that deaf children are developing the three modalities, sign language, fingerspelling and text, simultaneously.

Hearing Children’s Early Literacy

In published research about hearing children’s reading and writing, a paradigm shift occurred during the twentieth century together with a change in the role of the teacher in reading and writing instruction (Hiebert & Raphael, 1996). “Behaviourism downplayed the role of the teacher from instructional leader to system manager. Cognitive science placed the teacher at the centre of children’s literacy learning /…/ Within social constructivism the teacher remains an important participant in the student’s learning, but in the role of mediating learners’ interaction.” (p. 585).

In research it is often emphasised that learning begins in an environment where reading occurs among peers and together with adults that show interest (Adams, 1994; Kamil, 2000; Smith, 1994). Many studies have shown that children begin to use the written language all by themselves if there are pencils and paper at hand. Studies also show that children start very early, well before formal instruction starts (Hall, Larson & Marsh, 2003) and that in this process, children “are doing critical cognitive work in literacy development” (Neuman & Dickinson, 2001, p.3). Research has also pointed to the importance of adults reading to the child, interacting with the child during literacy events, and to the importance of having books around in order to provide opportunities for the child to try reading by himself as well (Elley, 1992). The traditional view held by a group of researchers often called “phonic advocates” (Pearson, 1994, p.vii) arguing that reading cannot be learned without the child understanding the alphabetic code through an aware­ness of the phonological system and another view, the so called "whole language", arguing that meaningful literacy activities in interaction with peers and adults focusing the use and function of letters and words are essential for developing literacy skills are replaced today more and more by a compromise. This is looking at the reading and writing process as a socio-cultural or socio-cognitive phenomena (Liberg, 2006).

Hearing children fingerspelling

There are not much research available about hearing children using fingerspelling but studies reported on this show that children at school could benefit from using it (Lawrence, 2001). There are also studies regarding learning disabled children’s use of the manual alphabet both in language learning and in reading and writing (Johansson, 1987; McKnight, 1979; Vernon,, 1980). Hirsh-Pasek (1986) found that fingerspelling could help some dyslexic students and Wilson (1984) found that it also could help when children have minor difficulties in spelling. The research is out of date and seems to have been forgotten writes Lawrence (2001) arguing that it could be of a new interest in the light of the experiences done in the education for the Deaf and in recent research on hearing children learning to read and write in early years before starting school.

Methodology and data production

The study reported here has an ethnographic approach (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983; Silverman, 2000), which in this case means data production firstly by observing and video recording the children in their daily interaction and play situations and secondly, holding semi-structured interviews with teachers, parents and children. The data production and the analyses was done as a longi-tudinal study carried out over a period of two years. During this period, examples of writing by the children were collected, their language proficiency in Sign language was assessed and visits in their homes were carried out.

The children, three to six years of age, were the children in a signing class. During the study, four of them started primary school for the Deaf. This means that observations during both preschool and primary school were collected.

Data were also collected from the local health authority’s records of the children concerning their early language situation in the home, when the children begun their Sign language development and about their hearing status.

The six participants

The children were selected as a complete preschool group, which, at the start of the period of data production, consisted of the six children, aged 3:1 – 6:9, four boys and two girls. They are described in the records and by their teachers as a normal group of young children. One of the children has deaf parents and siblings, one has parents who are hard of hearing and the other four have hearing families. All of the children started to learn to sign at an early stage. Sign language is their first language and they are described as fluent signers by their teachers, although two of the children with hearing parents are late developers to some degree.

The children are regarded as deaf from birth. Three of them have a profound hearing loss with no measurable hearing; the other three have a severe prelingual hearing loss (70-90 dB). One of the children has a Cochlea Implant (CI), which he got late during the study, and three of them wear hearing aids. All of them are regarded by their parents and teachers to be signers. One of the children, using hearing aids, knows some spoken words and tries to speak with hearing persons who do not know signs.

The preschool and school

All of the children were attending a preschool class in a Swedish town when the study started. The preschool is adjacent to the Special school for the Deaf in this region of the country. The preschool has children from one to six years of age. The children do not actually start school until they reach the age of seven, but even before then, they attend school several days a week together with the older children. The preschool and primary school teachers work closely together preparing the children for a good start at school. In the preschool, there is a team consisting of three teachers and in the primary school, the team consists of two teachers and an assistant. Both teams include deaf teachers or assistants.


I will here report some of the main results from the study. In Discussion  I will refer to these results and discuss what we could learn from the deaf children’s strategies when working with hearing with reading and writing difficulties.

The purpose of the study was to describe young deaf signing children’s literacy events in a preschool and during the first school year, how they interact and negotiate meaning through which literacy is constructed in everyday life. The focus in this study was the interaction between peers and between the children and adults and the study is trying to take the childs perspective on the literacy events. The study describe three main groups of results.

Firstly, the print environment seems to be very important as regards stimulating the occurrence of literacy events. The texts must be meaningful and the social interaction around them is crucial. Here, the adults seem to be important for this interaction to take place. The results indicate that if the teacher do not give attention to a text it will not attract the children’s attention either, unless the children themselves have realized that the text contain some kind of message aimed for them. Thus, the children interact socially around written language when given the opportunity to participate in such events. The deaf children in the study seem to regard writing, first of all, as a communicative practice.

Secondly, the results indicate that deaf children, like hearing children, develop literacy skills at an early age in much the same way. The results indicate that deaf children write scribbles, play with writing, try to understand written words and text and interact with peers and adults in just the same way as described in literature on hearing children. They do critical cognitive work in order to under-stand what reading and writing is all about. During the last year at preschool (5-6 years of age), deaf and hearing children differ. While most hearing children start to write, inventing their own spellings, deaf children collect whole words, fingerspelling them, memorizing them and using them in their writing. The results indicate that when adults talk on a meta level with the child about differences between Swedish and SSL, the child does, in fact, understand. But the teachers in preschool seldom do this, which indicates that they may think that the children are not sufficiently mature for this kind of discussion.

The role of fingerspelling seems to be crucial. It is used in many different ways to try to figure out the meaning of a word, to memorize it, to recall a word from memory and to communicate something in addition to being a part of Sign language itself. While using fingerspelling, the children seem to be stimulated spontaneously to use their voices. When using their voices they use strategies not unlike what we know hearing children do when reading. The strategies the children used to memorize or to decode a word was often several. They used fingerspelling, sounding words out, reading quietly with moving lips, lip-reading and they discussed the meaning of a word or a sentence with peers.

Thirdly, the results indicate that when children fail, it is often due to misunder-standings emanating from an educational setting where adults do not have a sufficiently deep understanding of what it means to be only visual, non-auditory and that teachers have a tendency to underestimate the children. When they do so the child itself seems to feel that it knows less than it actually does, which affects the child’s self-confidence and further development. The study indicates that knowledge about text occurs in social interaction and is negotiated. It appears together with both peers and adults. Teachers using a child-centred communicative style seem to be necessary for this to occur.


Deaf literacy studies still often describe a view emphasizing phonological awareness. According to this view writing and reading is mainly about understanding the alphabetic code, focusing on the form and the sounds. The study reported here suggests that it may be that the phonological awareness is not imperative for developing reading and writing skills in deaf children. It rather suggests that phonological awareness is one strategy among others in developing reading and writing skills. It seems that the meta linguistic talk about letters, words and sentences is crucial. Teachers using a child-centred communicative style are also of a great importance. Thus these results support the idea of meaningful literacy activities in interaction with peers and adults focusing the use and function of letters and words, rather than form, are of a great importance. The study adds deaf young children's ability to participate in meta linguistic talk about the two languages. Hearing children having difficulties learning to read and write can thus also be expected to be able to discuss the written language on a meta-level just as deaf children do. It seems that teachers more often underestimate this ability than the other way around. Regarding hearing children the angle of our focus on phonological awareness or sociocultural interaction might limit our research. I would propose instead to look at how children can use and move between and across their language experiences and of literacy use to further understand how children do use their own strategies. As hearing we might not be able to see the literacy development as a second language learning also for hearing as we do when thinking about deaf. It might be that hearing with difficulties learning to read and write could learn in a deaf way.

This study also support the suggestion that the contradictory results from different studies reported can be explained emanating out of educational experiences deaf children have and by the fact that the children differ as persons. In an educational practice where bilingualism is a fact children can use the interaction and texts around them to develop literacy skills with the help of different strategies. This finding is in line with the assumptions held by other researchers like Chamberlain, Morford and Mayberry (2000) and Stewart and Clarke (2003). It may be that hearing children also could benefit from different methods and materials used by teachers of the Deaf. It may also be possible that hearing children should be working with texts as if it was a new or a second language, not emphasizing phonological awareness.

Early childhood literacy can be described as a social achievement, using letters and words in interaction among others. The children are interested in reading and writing and develop their interest in much the same way as hearing peers do. This is described earlier in other studies and confirmed in this one. This study adds to the knowledge that when hearing children begin to invent their own spellings deaf children collect words, memorizing them and using them in their play. Deaf children use fingerspelling a lot in doing this. It could be that fingerspelling should be taught in a systematic way also with hearing children in kindergarten. There are not much research available about hearing children using fingerspelling but studies reporting on this show that they could benefit from using it. It may be that this should be introduced much earlier and that preschool children may use fingerspelling in much the same way as deaf children do. Hearing with problems learning to read and write may be helped by visual methods focusing not only how words sounds and looks but also feels in the hand and looks when others fingerspell them.


There are not much research done on fingerspelling for hearing children and there are no research at all done on how and what we can learn from deaf children’s strategies learning literacy. Thus the visual way of understanding the world and the visual way of understanding literacy needs to be better understood. This could help us find better methods for the development of literacy skills not only for deaf children but also for hearing having difficulties reading and writing.

The results of this study indicate that early literacy development among deaf children facilitates by a signing and fingerspelling environment in a rich interaction among peers and adults. The adults understanding of the child as a visual human being and as a competent child, rather than focusing on the fact that the child is not able to hear is crucial. It may be that we could learn a great deal about how to teach hearing children from how deaf children think and do, and from how a visual oriented child understand and percept texts, words and letters. Research on hearing children’s use of and benefit from fingerspelling is missing and ought to be carried out. More research on deaf is also needed.


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