When Micah was about six, he toted around a stuffed monkey named Monroe. Across Monroe’s face, he had duct taped the monkey’s mouth, sealing his lips. At the time, Micah’s lips too seemed sealed shut. He benefited little from his bilateral cochlear implants, and I found the duct tape gesture darkly poetic.
In parts of Belgium and France, some children speak five languages by the age of five. When Micah was three and wanted milk, he sat on the couch and screamed from the top of his lungs. I’d come running into the living room, frantic, believing he had his finger stuck in a socket only to find him perfectly safe. He’d smile and pump his small fist around an invisible udder, the sign for Milk. Those were the days before we had committed to learning ASL full force, the days when he often resorted to screaming and head butts in place of words.
Multi-lingual children teach us that language is absorbed. Repeated exposure to a language at an early age is sometimes all it takes to master the language. This is called “incidental” learning, a term that makes learning seem as easy. 90% of the information we know, we learn incidentally, by overhearing and overseeing. But this is not the case for deaf children, even deaf children with cochlear implants. Learning language is intentional; the result of classes, therapies, and thousands of hours of practice. But what happens, as is often the case, when hearing parents don’t know how to communicate with their deaf children? Without utilizing a visual language, they speak words their children can’t hear, and language is severely delayed.
What I didn’t realize then, and what I know now, is that good language skills precede good literacy skills. Most medical professionals and cochlear implant proponents still tell parents not to sign to their deaf children. This was certainly the message we were told by our audiologists when Micah was a baby. Language deprivation in hope of voice, but voice and listening skills are a spectrum, and there’s the rub. Our son’s language delay had a direct impact on his literacy, and even at eleven-years-old, it is still a struggle to close the literacy gap between him and his hearing peers. While there is a clear correlation between reading and writing, parents often overlook the correlation between language and literacy.
The word “language” is derived from the Latin word for “tongue”—lingua. So it’s no surprise that early in my parenting, I confused language and speech. When my daughter Bella was three, we used the book Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons. The book relied completely on phonics, and by lesson 50, presto–she could read. Phonics is the relationship between written letters and their spoken sound, and it relies heavily on a child’s listening skills. She learned the sounds of letters and decoded words with ease, words she could already say and use in context. But when it came to Micah, he didn’t use sound to decode words. Learning new vocabulary was a slow process, and his teachers utilized forms of visual phonics.
Suddenly, once pleasurable experiences like bedtime stories became daunting tasks. How do I read stories if he can’t hear the words, and how can I communicate the stories if I don’t know the signs? I felt like a failure. Why, as an English Major, literature teacher, and writer, was I doing such a lousy job teaching my own son how to read? I wanted him to love books the way I did, but at the time, I didn’t have the sign skills to share the simplest children’s book. I had to educate myself.
I tried to make a language rich environment and used index cards to label the furniture and appliances around the house. I turned to YouTube videos of signed stories and committed them to memory, so I could sign the stories at night with him. I enrolled in ASL classes at the local college, and immersed myself in the deaf community to practice. With the help of tutors and teachers, Micah began to read, and now it’s a matter of building on those basic skills. We have a long road ahead, but without sign language, we wouldn’t have made it to the starting line.
The more I researched, the more I realized there was no consensus among deaf educators about literacy. I could use phonics to teach my hearing daughter to read in less than 100 days, but in 100 years, our education system is still floundering to teach strong literacy skills to deaf children. The subject is debated and politicized, but in the meantime, kids like Micah fall through the cracks. In the state of Florida, less than 30% of deaf and hard of hearing students score a satisfactory (Level 3 or above) on standardized reading tests. Micah sure didn’t, and he was retained in the third grade. That means 70% of deaf students are reading below grade level. And only half of our deaf and hard of hearing high school students graduate. The statistics are depressing, and it takes determined parents to beat them. But you can beat them!
Deaf children have the same intellectual potential as hearing children, but years of early language deprivation erodes learning. There is no question that Cochlear Implants have become the most commonly used neuroprosthetic in the United States, and they are here to stay. And it is true that some deaf kids with hearing aids and cochlear implants do utilize phonics and read at grade-level. Yay for them! But that is only a small part of the picture. By age thirteen, only 7% of deaf and hard of hearing children learn solely though oral communication. Even with implants, most students over the age thirteen rely on both sign and speech. Still, more and more government funding is being directed toward oral-only schools, and away from schools that utilize sign language.
According to OPPAGA Research conducted in 2013-2014 for the Florida Legislature Office, there are about 5968 deaf students in Florida public schools. There are only about 75 students enrolled in exclusively auditory-oral education programs—programs that refuse to integrate sign language or expose deaf children to sign. Yet because of biases toward speech and lobbyists in the pockets of audiologists and Cochlear Implant companies, the Florida legislature is systematically supporting oral-only programs. In 2016, the Herald-Tribune reported educational grants to auditory-oral schools to the tune of over a million dollars in government funding. In the meantime, efforts to support bi-lingual, bi-cultural programs have gone unsupported. No, hearing parents like me, didn’t sign up to find ourselves in the middle of language politics, but here we are. It’s time to remove the duct tape from our mouths and let our voices be heard. The majority of deaf children in our state attend mainstreamed schools or bilingual-bicultural schools. These programs are underfunded and understaffed.
Like most parents, I just want my son to be a literate and healthy adult. But if you have a deaf child, and you’re counting on the school system to work magic, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Yes, there are many dedicated Deaf-Ed teachers, and we’ve been blessed to know some of them, but literacy happens first and foremost at home. It happens around the house by exposing your child to new words every day: grocery lists, street signs, journaling, menus. Use every opportunity to explain landmarks, history, and science in context, whether that be on vacation or in the back yard. For me, this took the additional step of learning sign language first, but without that step, no conversation was possible.
Thankfully, you’re not alone. Family Center On Deafness in Pinellas County for example offers free literacy tutoring, homework help, ASL learning materials, and ASL classes to parents. Take advantage of free resources in your county.
Nyle DiMarco, the recent winner of “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing with the Stars,” is using his platform to advocate for bilingual education, meaning deaf children should learn sign language and spoken language from birth. I applaud his efforts, but parents can’t wait for someone else to intervene. In the meantime, parents of deaf children need to take the matter of literacy into their own hands.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t give up, and raise a reader. Beat the odds. Look in the mirror, and remind yourself, it begins with you.
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