Lies Your Mother Told You
About Raising and
Educating a Deaf Child


By Marc Marschark, Ph.D.,
National Technical Institute for the Deaf

As my colleague Harry Knoors and I have suggested, “one size fits none.”

In 2006, the Republic of Ireland passed the Education of Persons with Special Education Needs Act (EPSEN). EPSEN required, among other things, that all special education be evidence-based. Implementation of that component of the EPSEN Act offers the opportunity for Ireland to move to the head of the international pack when it comes to educating deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children. But it’s not going to be easy.

picAfter passage of EPSEN, I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with the Irish National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to conduct a review of the literature with regard to the evidence base in deaf education, consider the implications for deaf education in Ireland, and make recommendations for change. In conducting that review with my colleague Patricia Spencer, what surprised us most was the lack of evidence for many contemporary practices in deaf education. That is not to say that particular interventions or strategies do not work (although none are going to work for all DHH students), but it became evident that we lack evidence for who they work for, at what ages, and in what settings. Our findings led us to expand on the NCSE study, with their permission, and write Evidence-based Practice in Educating Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students (Oxford University Press, 2010). Since that time, the majority of my presentations to parent and teacher groups – and most of my research – have focused on what we know, what we don’t know, and what we only think we know about various aspects of raising and educating deaf children. In particular, I am concerned that the lack of significant improvement in educational outcomes for DHH students might result from our not fully understanding the reasons for their academic struggles and the use of strategies, interventions, and materials that do not match their strengths and needs. Essentially, this is a call for evidence-based practice in educating DHH students. Let me offer a detailed example.

True or False: Deaf Students and Reading

Just the day before writing this column, I read the statement by someone who claims to be a “classroom researcher” in deaf education that “because [deaf students] are visual learners, they don’t want to read!” This statement might seem obviously true to some people, but there are at least three problems with it. First, there is no evidence that “deaf students don’t want to read.” Many deaf students struggle with reading, but many also enjoy it, whether or not they struggle (and not all of them do). The challenge is to find age-appropriate content that matches the reading abilities of any particular DHH student rather than offering them only texts that are too difficult for ones that are intended for much younger students. We know from decades of research that students who read more become better readers. Assuming that DHH students do not like or want to read is as dangerous as it is incorrect.

Aren’t They All Visual Learners?

Second, there is no evidence that deaf students are any more likely than hearing students to be visual learners. In the past, I have erroneously made that blanket statement myself, but there’s no evidence to support it. Yes, DHH students rely more on vision than audition (although the majority of them do have some amount of usable hearing), but that does not make them visual learners rather than verbal learners. What about the common assumption that DHH individuals have better visual-spatial skills than hearing individuals? It’s true that native deaf signers (i.e., deaf children of deaf parents) generally have better visual-spatial memory than they have verbal or sequential memory, and they generally have better visual-spatial memory than hearing nonsigners. But that does not mean that this is true for all DHH individuals; it may only be true for that 5% of deaf children who have deaf parents. Further, the alleged visual-spatial advantage may stop there. A number of research findings that used to be interpreted as demonstrating superior visual-spatial skills of deaf individuals compared to hearing individuals turned out to be related to sign language skill rather than auditory deprivation (e.g., face discrimination). Others turned out to be related to experience in the real world (e.g., playing video games) rather than being deaf or knowing sign language. In fact, recent studies that we have conducted at NTID using standardized visual-spatial tests have never found a task on which DHH students outperformed hearing students. Either the hearing students perform better or there was no difference between the groups; similar findings have been obtained by others with DHH students from middle school and high school. So, the challenge is to determine which DHH students are visual learners and which are verbal learners and adjust our teaching methods and materials to match their learning styles. Assuming that all DHH students are visual learners is as dangerous as it is incorrect.

Are Reading Challenges All About Reading?

Finally, research that we have conducted over the past 10 years, surprisingly to us and to others, has consistently demonstrated that on average, DHH students learn as much from reading as they do from sign language (if they are signers) or spoken language (if they rely on spoken language). Recent findings indicate that reading achievement of DHH students is still relatively low, so this does not necessarily mean that they read better than we think they do. Rather, because the vast majority of DHH students are still receiving only partial information in the classroom, regardless of whether they are signing or listening, most are not learning as much as hearing peers. Further, because the majority of them come to the classroom with less content knowledge and less fluency in the language of instruction than their hearing peers, the situation is made even more difficult both for them and their teachers. And, yes, I am including hard-of-hearing children here. Recent research we have conducted in collaboration with SRI International, involving a nationally-representative sample of DHH high school students, has indicated that students with mild hearing losses are not reading any better than students with profound hearing losses, while those with moderate losses are reading significantly better. That is most likely because students who are hard of hearing tend to have better speech, and it is thus assumed that they are functioning perfectly well with spoken language. As a result, they may not be receiving the support services they need.

This has been a rather long explanation of why it is not true that “because [deaf students] are visual learners, they don’t want to read,” but hopefully gets across that too many assumptions are made about what DHH students can and can’t do without the evidence to support them. As a result, parents, teachers, and other professionals may not be providing DHH children with the tools that they need in order to succeed academically. Unfortunately for us and them, the individual differences among DHH children are so large that there are not going to be any simple solutions for the complex academic challenges they are going to face sooner or later. As my colleague Harry Knoors and I have suggested, “one size fits none.” I do understand that people want straightforward, if not simple solutions to the challenges of educating DHH children, but there just aren’t any. I’m sorry. It’s not my fault or anyone else’s.

The point of all this is not that my mother, your mother, or anyone else intentionally told us lies about raising and educating deaf children. In many cases, however, we have been told what people think and believe, whether or not there is evidence to support their assumptions. Well, none of the solutions that follow from those assumptions has gotten us very far, so it’s time to take a hard look at the evidence and decide what we really know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know about educating DHH children. Toward that end, let me offer a few more of the 50 conclusions we highlighted in Evidence-based Practice in Educating Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students:

  • Early identification and intervention can greatly decrease barriers to language learning faced by DHH children during the early years of life, although they are not eliminated.
  • Even with early cochlear implantation, language abilities of DHH children remain on average below those of hearing peers.
  • Sign/bilingual programming, in which a natural sign language serves as the first language and medium of communication in the classroom, has a strong theoretic basis but to date lacks sufficient evidence to support its impact in academic or language domains for DHH children.
  • There is a clear literacy-learning advantage for children who arrive at school with age- appropriate language skills.
  • Learning sign language does not interfere with development of English or spoken language skills for deaf children with or without cochlear implants.
  • Differences in the environments and experiences of DHH children and hearing children might lead to different approaches to learning.
  • Even at college age, DHH students frequently do not spontaneously apply knowledge or problem-solving strategies we know they have.
  • Deaf students can learn as much as hearing peers when they are taught by teachers who are knowledgeable about and accommodate cognitive differences between the two groups.
  • Despite the strong emotions associated with this issue, there is little evidence that either mainstreaming or separate education generally is better for DHH students. 
  • Practically speaking, separate schools may be better equipped to handle the needs of DHH children, but comparisons of academic outcomes in the two settings are inherently invalid, because the children who attend them are different.
  • Social benefits accrue from co-enrollment and integrated placements where a significant number of children with hearing loss become part of a class that involves two or more co-teachers, at least one of whom specializes in education of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.
  • A least 35% and perhaps over 50% of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the United States have an additional, educationally-significant condition or disability.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Don’t believe everything you read…even if I wrote it. The population of deaf learners is constantly changing, as are educational methods and the evidence base with regard to the foundations of learning by DHH students. For my own part, my colleagues and I currently are examining the interactions of DHH learners’ language skills (signed, spoken, and written), their cognitive abilities, social-emotional functioning, and learning. This is a very complex undertaking for a variety of reasons, but a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.

Editor’s Note: Marc Marschark, Ph.D., is with the Center for Education Research Partnerships

At the National Technical Institute for the Deaf

Evidence-based Practice in Educating Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students is available on Amazon. Parents may be interested in the summary of that work included in How Deaf Children Learn: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know by Marc Marshark Ph.D and Peter C., Hauser, Ph.D.

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