Home > News and Events > Blog > Literacy Development for Deaf & Hard of Hearing Children

Literacy Development for Deaf & Hard of Hearing Children

This blog series, prepared under the auspices of USAID’s Office of Education, addresses some potential challenges and solutions to increase student literacy rates as they relate to a variety of disabilities in diverse global contexts. This blog provides an overview of the importance of exposure to sign languages for children who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) and offers guidelines for teachers and parents on how to read aloud to DHH children. This blog series spotlights different types of disabilities, and how they relate to children learning how to read.  Related blog: Education for All Means All

Early exposure to any language helps support a child’s literacy development. All children, especially children who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH), benefit from early exposure to a sign language. According to Ethnologue, there are more than 135 unique sign languages used by DHH communities worldwide.

Is spoken language the only way for children to learn to read printed words? Absolutely not!

But how does learning a sign language help with literacy development? How do children using signed languages learn to read?

The critical language acquisition window starts to close after age 3. During this time, the development of a strong foundation for language is crucial. Otherwise, the likelihood of a child facing a lifetime of stunted language abilities, including reading, increases dramatically (e.g., Allen, et al., 2014; Morford and Mayberry, 2000; Petitto, et al, 2001). 

In particular, children who are DHH benefit from early access to a sign language because it’s quite accessible. This allows children to expand the size of their vocabulary, to bridge concept to meaning and to build a strong foundation for language. Through bilingual education, children have opportunities to bridge their knowledge, gained through sign language, to reading. Below are some research findings regarding language and literacy development from the National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning at Gallaudet University:

❖    Communication & Social Skills. Children who use sign language have better and frequent eye contact with the caregiver or parents. This will help children learn more about the world around them while also gaining social skills. Knowing where to direct their attention leads to greater vocabulary knowledge, and these skills are the building blocks that lead children to being able to learn and communicate efficiently at home and at school.

For example, a recent study (Lieberman, Hatrak, & Mayberry, 2014) indicated that eye contact between DHH children and their mothers during book reading was much more frequent in the five-minute interaction compared to hearing children. 


Number of shifts (looking at the book and then at the mother) per 5 minutes

Children using spoken language

5 shifts (@1 per minute)

Children using sign language

80 shifts (@16 per minute)


❖    Reading & Learning. Supporting children’s sign literacy helps them gain a solid foundation in a language and an advanced diverse vocabulary, which will in turn help them learn to read. With consistent exposure to a sign language and connecting the signs to the printed text, children as young as 3 years old can learn to read.


❖    Fingerspelling (Manual Alphabet) and Sign Language Fluency. Children’s ability to understand fingerspelled words and American Sign Language (ASL) is a predictor of their ability to write letters of the alphabet and acquire other skills necessary for emergent literacy. These skills help them acquire later reading comprehension skills as well as abilities in math and other school subjects.


Guidelines for Reading Aloud with DHH Children

All children benefit from sharing books with an adult. Deaf children, however, will need more experiences and exposure to the written text, which is different from their primary sign language. Suggestions for making the shared reading experience enjoyable include these tips adapted from 15 Principles for Reading to Deaf Children (Schleper, 1997):

  1. Maintain good eye contact between the adult and child.
  2. Place the book so that the reader can sign freely while the child can simultaneously see both the signer and the book.
  3. Use familiar signs to the extent possible. If uncertain of a sign for the word, don’t worry—there are different strategies such as fingerspelling and/or acting the word out. Use of mime is also a good strategy.
  4. Describe or talk about the pictures in the stories to embellish the storyline.
  5. Include non-manual signals (body shifting, body movement, head shifting and facial grammar) as the story is shared.
  6. Use the book as an opportunity to share thoughts, experiences and values as they relate to the book
  7. Follow the child’s lead. Read whatever interests the child. This interaction will help the child to develop a real joy of reading over time.
  8. Be a role model—adults should model reading for children.
  9. Enjoy all kinds of printed material with the child—magazines, comics and picture books. The most important thing is to enjoy reading together.
  10. Read the same stories over and over again. This is a great way for children to learn the connection between the book and what you sign.

Here are some specific strategies on how to connect the signs to the written text (Berke, 2013):

  • Fingerspell the names of the main characters of the book. You also can encourage the child to fingerspell and create a name sign for the characters.
  • Use chaining. This involves pointing at the printed text, fingerspelling the word, providing the sign for the word and then pointing to the word again.
  • Provide definitions. Don’t assume the child understands all the words in the story. Take the time to ask if the child understands the meaning of a particular word and have the child explain what it means.
  • Make auditory-based words explicit. Auditory-based words are often found in young children’s books. Rather than avoiding the books or the words, make them explicit. For example, fingerspell M-O-O from their mouth to indicate the sound a cow makes or fingerspell W-H-O-O-S-H and show how the hair moves in the wind.

Remember: Whether or not the adult is fluent in sign language, everyone should grab the opportunity to read books with a child as often as possible. This will become a meaningful activity that the adult and child do together, and it can create lifelong memories! You may also view videos like Scholastic Storybook Treasures (a Sign Language DVD Series) or use apps such as VL2 Storybook Apps.

Next in this blog series on disability: Literacy for children who are blind/low vision.

Resources for Educators and Parents


·      American Society for Deaf Children


·      Educational Resource Center on Deafness: ASL Storytelling


·       Ethnologue


·      Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center: ASL Resources


·      Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center: Shared Reading Project


·      Visual Language and Visual Learning


·      Visual Language and Visual Learning Center: Parent Package



Bilingual Stories on Apps

Signed Stories

VL2 Storybook Apps


Bilingual Stories on Videos (DVD/online)

DawnSign Kids: Once Upon a Sign

Scholastic Storybook Treasures: A Pocket for Corduroy (Sign Language DVD Series)



Bilingual E-Books

Pointy Three

Strollin’ With Little Baby Owen



Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center Webcasts

Visual Language & Visual Learning Parent Toolkit




Allen T.E. 2015. ASL skills, fingerspelling ability, home communication context, and early alphabetic knowledge of preschool-aged deaf children. Sign Language Studies, 15(3), 233-265.


Allen, T. E., Letteri, A., Choi, S. H., & Dang, D. 2014. Early visual language exposure and emergent literacy in preschool deaf children: Findings from a national longitudinal study. American Annals of the Deaf, 159(4), 346–358. 


Baker, S. 2010. The Importance of Fingerspelling for Reading. (Research Brief No. 1). Washington, DC: Visual Language and Visual Learning Science of Learning Center. 


Baker, S. 2011. Advantages of Early Visual Language (Research Brief No. 2). Washington, DC: Visual Language and Visual Learning Science of Learning Center.


Berke, M. 2013. Reading books with young deaf children: Strategies for mediating between American Sign Language and English. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18(3), 299-311.


Lieberman, A. M., Hatrak, M., & Mayberry, R. I. 2014. Learning to look for language: Development of joint attention in young deaf children. Language Learning and Development, 10, 19-35.


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.


Mayberry, R. I. & Lock. E. 2003. Age constraints on first versus second language acquisition: Evidence for linguistic plasticity and epigenesis. Brain and Language, 87, 396-384.


Morere, D. 2011. Reading Research and Deaf Children (Research Brief No. 4). Washington, DC: Visual Language and Visual Learning Science of Learning Center. 


Morford, J. P., and R. I. Mayberry. 2000. A Reexamination of “Early Exposure” and Its Implication for Language Acquisition by Eye. In Language Acquisition by Eye, ed. C. Chamberlain, J. P. Morford, and R. I. Mayberry, 111–130. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.


Mounty, J. L., Pucci, C. T., & Harmon, K. C. 2013. How deaf American sign language/English bilingual children become proficient readers: An emic perspective. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 19(3): 1-14.


Padden, C. 2006. Learning to fingerspell twice: Young signing children’s acquisition of fingerspelling. In B. Schick, M. Marsharck, & P. Spencer (Eds.), Advances in the sign language development of deaf children, 189-201. New York: Oxford University Press. 


Petitto, L. A., Katerelos, M., Levy, B., Gauna, K., Tetrault, K., & Ferraro, V. (2001). Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: Implications for the mechanisms underlying early bilingual language acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 28, 453–496.


Petitto, L.A., Langdon, C., Stone, A., Andriola, D., Kartheiser, G., & Cochran, C. (2016). Visual sign phonology: Insights into human reading and language from a natural soundless phonology. WIREs Cognitive Science. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1404.


Schleper D. R . (1997). Reading to deaf children: Learning from deaf adults. Washington, DC: Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center.


Snoddon, K., Small, A., & Cripps, J. (Eds.) 2004. A parent guidebook: ASL and early literacy. Mississsauga, ON: Ampersand Printing. 


Stone, A., Kartheiser, G., Hauser, P., Petitto, L., and Allen, T. 2015. Fingerspelling as a Novel Gateway into Reading Fluency in Deaf Bilinguals. PLoS ONE 10(10): 1-9.






Melissa Herzig, Ed.D
Michele Berke, Ph.D,