Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Are Deaf Students' Reading Challenges Really about Reading?

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Are Deaf Students' Reading Challenges Really about Reading?

Article excerpt

READING ACHIEVEMENT among deaf students typically lags significantly behind hearing peers, a situation that has changed little despite decades of research. This lack of progress and recent findings indicating that deaf students face many of the same challenges in comprehending sign language as they do in comprehending text suggest that difficulties frequently observed in their learning from text may involve more than just reading. TWo experiments examined college students' learning of material from science texts. Passages were presented to deaf (signing) students in print or American Sign Language and to hearing students in print or auditorially. Several measures of learning indicated that the deaf students learned as much or more from print as they did from sign language, but less than hearing students in both cases. These and other results suggest that challenges to deaf students' reading comprehension may be more complex than is generally assumed.

If there is one overriding concern among educators of deaf students, it is the challenge of reading comprehension (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000; Paul 1998; Schirmer, 2001; Schirmer & McGough, 2005). Despite hundreds of studies exploring various subskills of reading and many more theoretical claims over the past 50 years (Luckner & Handley, 2008; Luckner, Sebald, Cooney, Young, & Muir, 2005/2006), there appears to have been relatively little progress toward improving achievement in this domain. Since the beginning of the mainstream diaspora in 1975, for example - a date that also roughly corresponds to a shift toward greater emphasis on the use of natural sign languages in deaf education - the median reading achievement of deaf 18-year-old students in the United States has increased only from that typical of a hearing 8-yearold (grade level 2.7; Allen, 1986) to that typical of a 9-year-old (grade level 4.0; Traxler, 2000). Unless educators and researchers are prepared to admit that most deaf students will never have literacy skills comparable to those of their hearing age-mates, something has to change. In the present article, we suggest a different approach to understanding and improving reading by deaf students, one that involves broadening rather than narrowing the scope of investigation.

Given the considerable resources devoted to them, why has there not been greater improvement in deaf students' reading abilities? One reason for the lack of progress may be a lack of coherence in relevant research. In a comprehensive review, Luckner and colleagues (2005/2006) identified 964 articles related to literacy and deaf individuals over a 40-year period, a finding that attests, at least, to the importance of the issue. Yet Luckner and colleagues found only 22 of those studies sufficiently rigorous, complete, and relevant to be included in a meta-analysis of research results, and reported that "no two studies examined the same dimension of literacy" (p. 443). In short, they found that educators and researchers do not know as much about deaf students' literacy as they think they do.

Some investigators attribute deaf students' reading challenges to the variability and relative impoverishment in early language experienced by many, if not most, deaf children. Bilingual education is sometimes offered as a solution to this situation (Center for ASL/English Bilingual Education and Research, 2002), but there is little empirical evidence to support its use (Mayer & Akamatsu, 1999, 2003; Rydberg, Gellerstedt, & Danermark, 2009). While having early access to fluent language - for example, through deaf parents - is associated with better reading achievement (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000; Padden & Ramsey, 2000), even deaf children of deaf parents do not reach the levels of accomplishment typical of these children's hearing peers (see Marschark & Wauters, 2008, for a review). Language-rich early environments appear to be necessary for age-appropriate literacy skills, but they do not appear to be sufficient. …

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