Can You Read a Language You Can’t Hear?

Explaining high rates of illiteracy among the deaf.

Posted Jul 20, 2015

Reading is an essential skill in our modern, information-driven society. In recent years, educators and the general public have focused their attention on children with dyslexia, who struggle with reading and rarely catch up with their peers, even as adults. But there’s another segment of our population that also suffers from high levels of illiteracy: those who are deaf.

Educators and psychologists alike have long debated the reasons why the vast majority of deaf children struggle with reading. As reading researchers Natalie Bélanger and Keith Rayner point out in their recent article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, there’s still no consensus on the reasons for the high levels of illiteracy found in the deaf population.

There is, however, one very obvious—though often overlooked—reason why deaf individuals so frequently struggle with reading. For the vast majority of deaf individuals, American Sign Language is their native language, not English.

ASL isn’t just English in signed format. Rather, it’s an independent language with its own vocabulary and grammar. Consider, for example, the English word “right,” which has two unrelated meanings, one being “opposite of left” and the other being “opposite of wrong.” ASL has different signs for each meaning. Word order is also quite different between the two languages.

When hearing individuals read, they decode written symbols into speech sounds to recreate a spoken text. Learners read out loud, but even proficient readers create a “voice in their heads.” Accessing the meaning of a written word, then, is a two-step process: first convert the written item into spoken format, and then access the meaning of that spoken word.

Since deaf readers generally don’t speak English, they can’t sound out words to access their meaning. Instead, they need to try and associate each written English word with a signed ASL word. I’ve observed young deaf readers signing as they read. Perhaps proficient deaf readers experience “inner sign” just as proficient hearing readers experience “inner voice.”

I’ve also observed young deaf readers get frustrated at the mismatch in vocabulary and grammar between written English and ASL. What educators need to keep in mind is that they’re trying to teach deaf children to read a second language that they do not speak. This means that the methods used to teach reading to hearing children may not work with deaf individuals.

Certainly, people can learn to read a foreign language without speaking it. (My reading comprehension in French and German exceeds my ability to speak either of these languages.) But achieving college-level reading skill in a foreign language you don’t speak is a remarkable feat. Nevertheless, about 5% of deaf Americans do learn to read English at a twelfth-grade level or above.

Studies of proficient deaf readers yield some surprising results suggesting that they are, in some ways, more efficient readers than their hearing counterparts. This has to do with the way in which the visual system of deaf people adjusts to compensate for their loss of hearing.

When you cast your gaze, whether at a written word on a page or at some object in the world, you only have clear, detailed vision in a small region right before your eyes. This is known as foveal vision, and it’s about the size of your thumbnail held at arm’s length. The rest of your peripheral vision is a blur.

As we focus our visual attention, we rely mainly on hearing to detect sudden changes in the environment. (This is just one reason why you shouldn’t text and drive—you don’t hear oncoming traffic inside your car.) Since deaf people can’t listen for unexpected events, they need to rely on their peripheral vision to monitor their surroundings as they focus their attention on a specific spot. As a result, they process information from their peripheral vision much better than hearing people do.

When you read, the subjective experience is the eye moving smoothly along a line of text. But this is an illusion. In fact, your eyes jump from content word to content word, skipping over function words like “of” and “is,” which can easily be filled in from context. (This is also one reason why it’s so hard to catch misspellings of these words when proofreading.)

Only one or two words will fit within foveal vision at one glance. While hearing readers can take in some information from the periphery, deaf readers take in much more. This means that they can skip farther ahead each time they move to a new section of the text, and they don’t need to skip back as often as hearing readers do. As a result, deaf readers can go through a text somewhat faster than hearing readers while achieving the same level of comprehension.

In sum, learning to read poses particular challenges for deaf individuals, but they also bring special skills to the task that can give them an advantage. The task for educators is to find ways to leverage these advantages while finding ways to help deaf students overcome the difficulties inherent in learning to read a language they don’t speak.

I am the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).

References

Bélanger, N. N. & Rayner, K. (2015). What eye movements reveal about deaf readers. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 220-226.