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Deaf Preschooler’s Literacy Events


The aim of the study (Roos, 2004) reported here was to focus on the literacy events going on at a preschool, from the children’s perspective. The study was a ethnographic study of a group of deaf children during a two-year period. The method used was video recordings and interviews. The results 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. The children showed an increasing meta linguistic awareness and an understanding of the function of written texts. There was however a tendency to underestimate the children's competence from the adults point of view. The results also show that the children used several kinds of strategies in learning to read and write, suggesting that there may not be only one way of acquiring reading and writing skills but many. It may be that phonological awareness is not imperative but one of many strategies used. This paper will focus on what impact the study can have on the educational practice.

Deaf Bilingualism

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) for deaf pupils 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.


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.

The study also attempts to answer four main questions, namely;

How do the children themselves interact in reading and writing, with peers and adults?

In what situations do deaf children show interest in symbols, letters, words and text?

What do young deaf children read or write?

What can a description of these activities and the ways they are performed contribute to a better understanding of deaf children’s ongoing constructions of literacy?

This paper concentrate on the fourth question describing what impact on the work of the teacher the study may have. Hopefully this can contribute to better and more meaningful literacy activities and seeing the child as a competent bilingual person.

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 and a fourth view combining the other three.

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 (Paul, 1998; Musselman, 2000).

The 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 (Paul, 1998; Marschark, 2001). Research also show that deaf children in signing hearing families sometimes outperform deaf children from deaf families (Marschark, 2005). Thus research suggests that good Sign language commu-nication can be used as the mode for explaining the structure of the written language in school (Svartholm, 1994, 1998; Strong & Printz, 2000; Hoffmeister, 2000; Padden & Ramsey, 2000).

A third perspective empha-sises the development of literacy skills as not only a linguistic and cognitive achievement but also “a social achievement” (Padden & Ramsey, 2000, p.185) in a signing environment.

Another perspective, the fourth, is discussed by Chamberlain, Morford and Mayberry (2000), Marschark (2001) 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 other 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 (Ewoldt, 1990, 1991; Erting, 1992; Williams, 1993, 2004; Padden, 1996; Erting, Thumann-Prezioso & Sonnenstrahl Benedict, 2000). 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 (Ewoldt, 1990, 1991; Erting, 1992; Williams, 1993, 2004; Erting, Thuman-Prezioso & Benedict, 2000). 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 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.

My research suggests that, in line with the fourth view held by Chamberlain, Morford and Mayberry (2000), Marschark (2001) and Stewart and Clarke (2003), educational experiences deaf children have and the fact that the children differ as persons is crucial in understanding why and how deaf children develop their literacy skills. My study also adds the importance of the socio-cultural impact on developing literacy skills.

Methodology and data production

The study has an ethnographic approach (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983; Silverman, 2000), which in this case means firstly, observing and videorecording the children in their daily interaction and play situations and secondly, holding semi-structured interviews with teachers, parents and children during the data production and during the analyses in 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 six children in the study 

Child’s age when the study started

Sign Language skills

Hearing status reported from the health authority

Hearing Aids used by the child during the study

Parents hearing status

Boy 3:1

Very good




Boy 3:4

Late developer

Severe hearing loss

On both



Girl 5:9

Very good



Hard-of hearing

Girl 6:0

Very good

Severe hearing loss

On both



Boy 6:5

Very good

Severe hearing loss

On both



Boy 6:9

Late developer


Cochlea Implant


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.


The purpose of this 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 child’s perspective on the literacy events. The results of the study reported here will concentrate on the question what a description of these activities and the ways they are performed can contribute to a better understanding of deaf children’s ongoing constructions of literacy. Thus this paper concentrate on the work of the teacher and the impact the study may have on that.

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. The deaf children in the study seem to regard writing, first of all, as a communicative practice. Thus, the children interact socially around written language when given the opportunity to participate in such events.

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 the 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 Swedish Sign Language (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. Teachers should expect more of the child and have confidence in the child’s competence.

Thirdly it seems that the role of fingerspelling is 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. It often happened that one child used several strategies. 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. The study 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 among deaf children.

Fourthly, 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. This 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. This means that every child is in need of an environment using a language accessible to the child. A rich first language seems to be necessary for the child to be able to understand and develop its second language; the written language, early in life.

To meet literacy in a visual way

The results from the study further indicates that it seems to be imperative that the teachers analyse their own strategies for working with and understanding the child as a visual human being, learning from the deaf children’s strategies for performing activities at the same time as maintaining contact with each other. The teacher should invite the child to talk about its own learning to promote awareness of the child’s own thinking about reading and writing and for the teacher to learn from this. Adults may need to reconsider their own assumptions about what deaf children can and cannot do.

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 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.

The results also indicates that there is not "the best method" or "the best path to literacy" rather the results indicates that it is necessary to invite the child to participate in a large amount of literacy activities and to use a lot of different material in an environment where the child can interact fluently with others. This is best done in a way seeing the child not as a non-hearing person but as a visual human being.


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Internet references

The Swedish Board of Education (2005). Syllabuses.