Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Early Visual Language Exposure and Emergent Literacy in Preschool Deaf Children: Findings from a National Longitudinal Study

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Early Visual Language Exposure and Emergent Literacy in Preschool Deaf Children: Findings from a National Longitudinal Study

Article excerpt

In the study of literacy in deaf1 children, many questions remain regarding the aspects of development, communi - cation, language, and education that contribute to success. Considerable evidence is now mounting suggesting that exposure to a rich language environment during the early sensitive period of development contributes significantly to later literacy and academic achievement (see, e.g., review in Humphries et al., 2012). Additionally, empirical evidence is increasingly demonstrating the deleterious effects on later academic achievement of reduced language exposure in the earliest months and years of life (e.g., Dickinson, Golinkoff, & Hirsch-Pasek, 2010; Dickinson & Porche, 2011; Fernald, Marchman, & Weisleder, 2013; Mayberry, Chen, Witcher, & Klein, 2011; Pan, Rowe, Singer, & Snow, 2005; Pénicaud et al., 2013; Rowe & GoldinMeadow, 2009). Deaf children are particularly vulnerable to these deleterious effects, as they may be more likely to experience impoverished linguistic input precisely when linguistic input is most needed to foster language and cognitive development.

Given the importance of early expo- sure to language to later literacy and cognitive development, a critical question revolves around whether the early language must be a spoken language, or whether significant advantages for the development of literacy accrue to infants exposed to an early visual language. A related question pertains to the impact of exposure to both an audition-based language (such as English) and a visually based language (such as American Sign Language) during early development. This question is further compounded by considerations of whether the audition-based language is spoken (and the degree to which it is necessary for the development of literacy), and thus requires that the visual learner master the elements of a sound-based phonology, or is presented in print, requiring that the visual learner develop and possess skills in the segmentation and combination of visual orthographic units, unmediated by their association with sound. Setting this very critical question aside for the moment, it is clear that the deaf infant raised in an environment in which both ASL and English are used is being raised in a bilingual home.

In recent years, there has been a burgeoning interest among researchers in the effects of bilingualism on language development in early childhood. Considerable evidence has been reported on the positive cognitive and literacy benefits of early bilingualism. For example, among ASL-English bilingual deaf adults, research has repeatedly demonstrated a positive correlation between ASL capability and reading comprehension skills (e.g., Hoffmeister, Philip, Costello, & Grass, 1997; Prinz & Strong, 1998; Singleton, Supalla, Litchfield, & Schley, 1998; Strong & Prinz, 2000). The argument has been made that this correlation can be explained as a developmental phenomenon stemming from the fact that skilled deaf readers are exposed at an early age to both a visual language (ASL) and a print language (English). This argument is supported by a recent study by Allen and Morere (2012) in which it was found that deaf signing adults who were also skilled readers were more likely than less skilled readers to report that they were exposed to ASL before starting school. These readers were also more likely to report that their parents were fluent signers.

Exposure to sign language at a very young age (i.e., during infancy) accrues significant and long-lasting linguistic and cognitive benefits to young deaf children (Mayberry & Eichen, 1991). One explanation for these benefits comes from research into the impact of early language (visual or auditory) on the developing brain that has shown that the regions of the brain involved with the phonological processing of a sound-based language are identical to those involved in the phonological processing of a visually based language (Petitto et al. …

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