As a teacher who has been learning sign language (BSL) for the last few years, I have often wondered how you would teach a deaf child to read. Recently I was lucky enough to find out, when I spent a few days observing and teaching in a school for deaf children.
The first lesson each morning was visual phonics.
Each sound has a sign associated with it which is related to the relevant fingerspelling sign and to whereabouts in the mouth the sound is made.
The children do have time each week with a speech therapist, but as they obviously spend more time in class, the class teacher also has responsibility for this aspect of their learning. She gets them to touch her throat so they can feel how the sound is made, and then they touch their own throat to see if the movement is the same. They also put their hands in front of the teacher’s mouth to feel whether or not air is expelled for that particular sound, and they concentrate on the shape the lips make. All this means that even if they can’t make the sound properly, they can replicate the lip patterns, which is essential for BSL.
There are a range of hearing abilities in the class – some of the children are profoundly deaf and have been from birth; others wear hearing aids or have cochlear implants and have some hearing. Before lessons begin each morning, all hearing aids and cochlear implants are checked to make sure that they are working correctly.
Just like in a hearing school, the children practise the sounds they have already learnt before learning a new one, and the phonics lesson is split between oral practise and writing words containing those sounds. They find blending the sounds to form whole words difficult, especially those who are profoundly deaf. The children in this school will do the same national phonics test as their peers in hearing schools. However, because it is harder for them to learn, their phonics lessons continue into KS2.
The teachers and teaching assistants ‘listen’ to the children reading – the children read their books and sign each word to show that they recognise the word, and in a guided reading lesson the other children in the group are expected to follow, just as they would be in a hearing school. As you would expect, the teachers will question the children to check understanding, and they are expected to predict, make inferences etc just the same as their hearing peers in mainstream schools.