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Brains are Wired for Language, NOT Reading!

“Once your learn to read, you will be forever free”
-Frederick Douglass


In order to understand how students with hearing loss learn to read, it is important for educators to understand how students with typical hearing learn to read.  Learning to read is a process that relies heavily on language development.  Since brains are wired for the development of language, children with typical hearing (TH) build a foundation for reading, from the time of birth.  Language development relies on a child’s ability to acquire the fundamentals of language through audition and exposure to features of listening and spoken language. So what happens when a child doesn’t have access to auditory input that is required for natural acquisition of language?  


There are multiple variables that contribute to a child’s ability to read.  Not only for children who have hearing loss, but for TH children as well.  Access to language rich environments are crucial for expanding a child’s exposure to a variety of vocabulary as well as building background knowledge for children to hinge new information on when new experiences are encountered.  In addition, incidental learning helps children promote language acquisition. Incidental learning is learning that occurs unintentionally, from activities where learning is not a conscious goal for the learner.  The more experiences; the more a child learns from their natural environment.  


A child who has hearing loss, lacks the opportunity to fully interact and experience auditory information. Therefore, it’s crucial to provide alternative pathways for these children to access information.  Variables such as age of onset of hearing loss, age of identification, type and degree of hearing loss, access to hearing assistive technology, the impact of hearing assistive technology, exposure to sign language, consistency of sign language exposure, early intervention opportunities, and educational setting (inclusive education in the home school district, school for DHH, etc) all play a significant role in a child’s fundamental language and reading abilities.  Children with hearing loss, who were identified at birth, given amplification as early as possible, exposed to consistent language models, and given early intervention services will have stronger fundamentals than a child who was not identified, not amplified, and not exposed to language and learning through consistent opportunities.  


Historically, children with hearing loss have struggled to access phonological awareness skills, one of the fundamental strands for reading proficiency. Thanks to technology advances and the use of Visual Phonics, students with hearing loss, particularly hearing loss that affects language acquisition and audibility of speech sounds, are able to access speech sounds through alternative pathways or with the use of residual hearing amplified by technology.  According to the Florida Center for Reading Research, the Essentials for Reading Success include information about how to use data from assessments, response to intervention, the features of effective instructions (including differentiated instruction), and evidence-based practices to teach the critical components of reading.  

Instruction in literacy includes the critical components of reading for proficiency, taught in an explicit, direct-instruction approach.   

  • Phonological Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

All components must be in place in order to ultimately achieve reading mastery.  What we know about students with hearing loss is that students who are DHH struggle to master phonological awareness and phonics due to lack of access to sound.  The median reading level of deaf students indicates subpar achievement.  Approximately 10% of deaf students read beyond the 8th grade level.  These statistics are alarming.  

“Learning to read at age-appropriate levels is a problem for many, but not all, students who are born deaf. Regardless of whether they speak or sign, the median reading level of deaf students indicates subpar achievement. Approximately 10% of deaf students read beyond an eighth grade level (Traxler, 2000). This statistic indicates that there are many skilled readers in the deaf population. The challenge is to discover what factors distinguish them from unskilled readers (Belanger, Baum, & Mayberry, 2010; Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2008). Only then can effective diagnostic and educational programs be devised to ameliorate the problem. Moreover, understanding the nature of proficient reading in individuals who are deaf promises to elucidate theoretical models of reading development and disabilities.”

With statistics like this it means only one thing…Students who are DHH need to be provided with early amplification, language rich environments, explicit reading instruction in the main component areas of reading, and given access to language through consistent modes of communication.  




Mayberry, R.I., del Giudice, A.A., & Lieberman, A.M. (2011). Reading achievement in relation to phonological coding and awareness in deaf readers: A meta-analysis. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16(2), 164-188.