One Family’s Story:

Raising a Reader


By Tabitha Belhorn, OH Hands & Voices

Almost ten-year-old Reagan cozies up with an e-reader.

People are often curious how I raised a Deaf child who loves to read. My answer is always the same and quite simple, “I don’t know how I did it.” Very early in my maternal career I was aware that children who are deaf and hard of hearing need extra help learning to read. This was evident by the amount of light that was shone onto literacy skills when my daughter received early intervention services. I was determined to see my daughter rise above the “statistics.” You know the one -- on average deaf and hard of hearing children never learn to read above a fourth grade level. It’s sad and unfortunate that over the years that statistic still has not changed.

I'm very proud of my daughter and pleased to say that as a fourth grader she reads above her grade level.  So, how did I do it? I can only tell you what we did and hope it will help your family. I am neither a teacher nor a speech-language pathologist. I am not Deaf. I am a mother who is educated and determined. And that determination may be the greatest key to success that I can share with you.  

Our success has been attributed to the following (notice said “our” success, this was a team effort on the part of parents, teachers, therapists, audiologists and of course, my daughter):

  • Communication
  • Exposure
  • Consistency
  • Understanding the need to educate  myself
  • Willingness to accept/ask for Help

Communication is the keystone for reading. In order to teach a child to read -hearing child or deaf child -you must be able to communicate your thoughts and ideas first. In our home, communication was all encompassing: American Sign Language, Pidgin Signed English, Simultaneous-Communication, verbal, gestures, and as Ursula said to Ariel in The Little Mermaid, “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language.”

As a mother, what I do know is that children learn a lot about communication simply from watching other people interact. People’s use of spoken language, gestures, facial expressions, and body language teach a deaf or hearing child the social rules of communication. Overhearing (or overseeing!) is called “incidental” learning and it accounts for more than 90% of what we learn. Deaf children often miss out on incidental learning because most of it happens through spoken language; a mother and father discussing the plans for the day, a mother and brother arguing about chores, a father giving a son a congratulatory high five for a wonderful report from school. We thought it was important that as a signing household that we were consistently signing, even if our daughter wasn’t involved in the conversation because she could still learn and be part of the sidebar conversation. And let me tell you, we weren’t perfect.  Don’t feel the need to be a perfectionist in this area. While it's important, you won't be able to sign 100% of conversations in the house. To this day, my daughter will often still remind us to sign for her.

Another strategy to help a child “overhear” is the use of the “narrate your thought process” technique. Parents can explain why they do what they do, such as changing plans when there is no milk for the recipe and we have to problem solve to come up with another main dish idea for dinner. Narrating one’s thought process makes the ideas accessible to the child. Deaf children learn most through direct and purposeful communication. What I mean by that is mom, dad, a teacher, a sibling or whoever is communicating with the deaf child get’s the child’s attention and speaks directly to him/her to teach or inform the child, usually using visual supports of some sort. You can find all kinds of visual support on the Internet with Google images and through new technology like the iPad. Remember, each child is unique and learns differently. Pay attention to how your child learns and build on that. He or she will likely needs lots of direct communication and opportunities to benefit from incidental learning.

Making Reading Part of the Routine

In our home, we had a consistent routine: every night before bed we would read with my daughter. As a baby and toddler she loved to look at the pictures. As a toddler and preschooler she would engage in “reading” the book to us. Reading time was not just a teaching time; it was a bonding time for us too. It was special one on one time, and it was fun. Find a way to make reading entertaining for your whole family. From a young age we also encouraged independent reading. Of course when she was two years old that meant looking at the pictures, but as time progressed she began reading to herself. She had quiet time at preschool in which she would often read instead of nap and quiet time before bed in which she would read to herself. If you want your child to be a reader, you have to model that behavior. Teach them to read first by reading with them and second by letting your child see you read! Also, expose your child to other people who like to read, especially deaf adults, teenagers, and their peers. Peer pressure can also have a positive influence on children; use it to your advantage as necessary. Go to the library! Look for story times near your home in the local library or at the Deaf school. Deaf adults tell beautiful stories in ASL, you will love it just as much as your child does. If you can’t find an ASL story time, then start one! Ask for one! We also used reading as a reward… “You can stay up a little later if you are still reading.” Bribery is a time honored parenting technique. On the flip side, I would never take away reading time as a punishment.

  • Around the house in your daily routine, expose your child to all kinds of reading and literacy opportunities. Your options are endless. Some strategies we used include: Sing/sign the ABC’s every day. We used to do it while brushing teeth
  • While watching TV, turn on the closed captioning on your TV, even if your child can’t read yet. Children in Finland read at very high levels compared to other countries, and some researchers attribute this to the continuous presence of captions in a country with three primary languages.
  • Write the ABC’s every day.
  • Make a picture book together with your favorite people or places and label each picture. When you child is a toddler you can practice saying/signing the word and as he/she gets older you can practice spelling the words. Talk about memories with the people and places.  
  • Write your child’s name every day and other names too: mom, dad, brother, sister, friends.
  • Let your child pick the books to read. Many kids have a particular interest: if it's graphic novels or comic books, it’s still reading! It doesn’t have to be the Newbury Award winners that help your child catch the reading bug.
  • Read labels/signs at the grocery store.
  • While driving, read the road signs, read the restaurant signs, read the store signs.
  • Vary your vocabulary. Are you just hungry, or famished? Are you tired, or “dead tired”? Our kids have to learn both more difficult words as well as slang and idioms. Idioms are figures of speech, such as the imagery in “Your brother is pulling your leg.” My nine year old daughter still has a hard time when we use idioms.
  • Fingerspell with your infant and toddler! Don’t be afraid of it…you have to practice sometime. Young children view fingerspelling different than we do. As an adult, I think about one letter at a time, which slows me down. Children, however, see the word as a whole and not individual letters; they learn to see the handshape and movement at an early age.

Before working on all these other skills, the best thing you can for your child is to educate yourself about the facts and be determined to beat the statistics. Educate yourself about the statistics, educate yourself about your communication options, educate yourself about the reading opportunities in your area, and educate yourself about reading curriculum’s for deaf children. You do not have to be a professional in order to teach your child to read, you “only” have to be a parent. You spend more time with your child than any teacher or professional, you are your child’s first teacher. And don’t be scared of that. Parents have been doing it forever. Trust your gut! If your child won’t read for fun, find new ways to keep it exciting and new.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help either. No one expects parents to do this alone. I didn’t do it alone. There are plenty of people waiting to help, the only thing you need to do is …ASK.

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