Visual Phonics: An English Code Buster?

By Woolsey, M. Lynn; Satterfield, Susan T. et al. | American Annals of the Deaf, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Visual Phonics: An English Code Buster?


Woolsey, M. Lynn, Satterfield, Susan T., Roberson, Len, American Annals of the Deaf


VISUAL PHONICS is an instructional program to provide print awareness, alphabet knowledge, and sound-letter correspondence for children with hearing loss who experience difficulty developing a foundation of phonemic awareness skills. Its purpose is "to clarify the sound symbol relationship between spoken English and print" (Waddy-Smith & Wilson, 2003, p. 15). It is implemented in numerous school districts, particularly in California and Florida, and can be learned in a 2-day workshop. Administrators, teachers, and speech pathologists see potential benefit in using Visual Phonics to help students with hearing loss raise their achievement scores in reading and spelling. However, it is critical to note that Visual Phonics has virtually no research base. Researchers, teachers, and speech pathologists are called upon to collect their data and begin research on the effectiveness of Visual Phonics. This is a case in which the research-to-practice gap must be closed.

The impetus for the present article is the large-scale adoption by many school districts in Florida of a visual and tactile system used to teach phonics to deaf or hard of hearing students. see the Sound: Visual Phonics is a program developed to provide a systematic way for children with hearing loss to learn the phonemes of English. It is not sound based. It is a visual system including handshapes and written symbols.

Visual Phonics was designed more than 20 years ago by a mother to give her three deaf children access to a visual, written, and tactile form of the sounds they could not hear. Success in the last two decades has been steady but quiet. People who implement Visual Phonics rave about the benefits; however, there is little information about Visual Phonics or how to implement the program. There is no research on the program that could pass the rigorous scrutiny expected by researchers in the field.

According to the National Reading Panel, phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge are the two biggest predictors of reading success in the first 2 years of school (National Institute of Child Health and Development, 2000). Although Narr (2006) has noted that "the concept of the sound is the root of the alphabetic principle," neither phonemic awareness nor alphabetic knowledge has been a staple in the teaching of reading to deaf or hard of hearing students. Even in the absence of explicit instruction, skilled deaf and hard of hearing readers do demonstrate their ability to access phonological information through visual codes. "Deaf readers appear to be able to use these visual codes, particularly the better readers, but the research provides no evidence for the effectiveness of the codes in word recognition and no proven strategies for teaching deaf readers to use visual codes" (Schirmer & McGough, 2005, p. 109).

Perhaps in response to the rigorous expectations of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, numerous large school districts in Florida have adopted the program for incorporation into their deaf education classrooms. All three authors of the present article attended a 2-day workshop designed to teach participants how to implement the system. The first author attended an additional 3-day workshop at GaIlaudet University and is collecting data in one of the districts. Since the popularity of Visual Phonics is growing, teacher trainers should become aware of its existence and its extended use. Since it has no research base, Visual Phonics is an open arena for the research that should follow the growing adoption of this program.

Visual Phonics: What It Is

There are 26 letters in the alphabet, and typically 45 phonemes. In Visual Phonics, the 46th moving hand cue represents silent /e/. There is a one-toone correspondence between each English sound, the specific hand cue, and its written symbol. The hand cues were designed to resemble the look and tactile feel of the sounds they represent; however, each cue is unique and looks different from a fingerspelled letter or any sign. …

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