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Dare to Ask: What’s the reading process like for a deaf person?

By Phillip Milano


When I read or write, I hear the words in my mind. How do the deaf do it?

Lonnie, El Paso, Texas


When I read, I “feel” the words in my mind. Depending on schooling, etc., we often learn written English as a second language, since American Sign Language is not related to English. — Anna, 30, deaf, Seattle

I don’t hear the words, although I could speak. If I read a book, I try to visualize the story. For praying, I either sign in my mind or think the words. I used to dream in sign language (or gestures from those who don’t know sign language) when I was a child. Now I dream in telepathy in place of gestures. — Christy, deaf, Michigan

Research suggests deaf people who have some ability to phonologically encode letters and words are the best readers. This usually means that deaf readers with some residual hearing are better readers. — Terry, 48, deaf female, Fremont, Calif.

Expert says

Here’s what’s needed to read, whether you’re deaf or not, said Barbara Schirmer, professor of education at the University of Detroit Mercy who studies how to improve outcomes for deaf readers:

“You have to be able to identify words, read them fluently and comprehend them,” said Schirmer, author of “Language and Literacy Development in Children Who Are Deaf.”

Using phonics — sounding out the words — is a key to more rapidly learning and remembering words. Even some profoundly deaf can learn phonics, she said.

For those who can’t, kinesthetic methods can mimic phonics, such as feeling inside the throat or touching a deaf student’s hand to the speaker’s throat, she said.

Failing that, a newer strategy is to make sounds visual, in which hand signals coincide with the different letters and sounds in written words. That helps memorization.

“The job of a deaf child is to develop a store of words they can recognize by sight. That creates automatic word recognition.”

It’s not easy.

“The best analogy I’ve heard is that it’s not like riding a bike, but more like playing baseball,” Schirmer said. “Baseball consists of learning the skills, running the bases, catching, hitting, pitching … you could be good at all, but still be lousy at baseball, because it’s about the whole game. You have to put it all together.”

In reading, the “click” happens when you move beyond identifying the words to comprehending what they mean together. That is the hardest part.

“The average deaf student graduates high school at a fourth- or fifth-grade reading level; it’s been that way many years,” she said. “Lots become wonderful readers, but it’s a challenge.”

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