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University of Edinburgh
Empower '97: International Conference on Deaf Education

Paper 5: Supporting reading within an auditory oral approach

Sue Lewis
Ewing Foundation, University of Manchester

Introduction: Why does reading matter - what does it offer; how does it empower?

Traditionally reading and the written word have been seen as a key - if not the key - component in the deaf child/adult's life. Indeed whereas for the hearing child reading might be seen as the "window into knowledge" (Webster 1986), the written word has been seen as the window into linguistic knowledge for many hearing impaired children.

"Reading cannot be considered in isolation from the child's wider discovery of language. Spoken language arises in a communication context which surrounds the child. The child learns to speak because of its functional importance. There is an urgent momentum to piece together the rules of the system, to test out rules and try out language forms. The adult's role in this is as facilitator not teacher. Parents provide the stimulus and opportunity for interaction, through which the child organises and makes sense of the language experience. Such learning is active, has purpose and is rich in meaning".

Alec Webster, Deafness, Development and Literacy, Methuen 1986

Such a view sees the written word as a more permanent, static visual presentation of language, than that provided through the fleeting transient nature of speech. It offers a more concrete means of representing language and thus helping hearing-impaired children to acquire their mother tongue (Haycock 1933). This primarily historical view was promoted initially by many of the pioneers of deaf education at a time when there were few aids to hearing and to all intent and purposes access to auditory language was minimal for many severely or profoundly hearing impaired children.

"Cardana in the sixteenth century (in Pritchard, 1970) believed that through reading they (the deaf) could hear, through writing speak...and thereby... written characters and ideas could be connected together without intervention of sounds"

Pritchard, (1970), p.4

Alexander Graham Bell considered that he

"would have a deaf child learn books in order to learn the language, instead of learning the language in order to read books"

Bell (1929), p I94

Notions as to the purpose of reading and the relationship between language and reading are often considered from a very different vantage point by teachers dealing with hearing impaired children than that of their mainstream colleagues. The "normal" parasitic relationship of reading to language is violated. Such violations will have implications both as to the models of the reading process espoused and the approach to the teaching of reading itself.

"We normally learn to read a language which we can already speak and it is our familiarity with the syntactical patterns of spoken language which helps us anticipate and predict sequences of written language". p 37

Reading is not primarily a visual process but one which integrates visual and auditory sequences

Beginner readers - ability to use context support, linked to experience as beginner talkers (anticipate and predict messages in text)

Draw heavily on top down strategies

(Stanovic and West, 1979)

For the hearing child, therefore, reading is seen as having a parasitic function - one founded primarily on an auditory-based language. Not all teachers and parents recognise this and it is, of course, very easy for teachers to focus too heavily on the visual aspects of reading. In fact reading is not primarily a visual process, but one which integrates visual and auditory sequences.

For many educators, the role which reading is seen to have in the educational and linguistic management of hearing impaired children is a very different one to that assumed for hearing children - such children are often still learning to read when expected to read to learn.

For hearing impaired children reading is seen to have dual or even triple purpose

(i) access to knowledge

(ii) language development

(iii) language extension

Although the role of the written word in (i) and (iii) is a well-trodden route, that in (ii) is less well understood and documented - and yet (i) and (iii) are dependent upon the prior achievement of (ii). Certainly much concern is voiced in the literature as to the appropriateness or not of such a goal

Traditionally hearing impaired children have been taught to read early by word recognition or even phonic based methods eg the experiment with the ITA in the late 60s and 70s, and with great conviction but what evidence supports this?

Standards of literacy for deaf people

eg: The presence in a child of a severe sensori-neural hearing loss has been described by some as a "promissory" for reading failure (Brooks 1978).

Wrightstone, Aranow and Muskowitz (1963)

CA 15.5; RA- 16.5 yrs; 9.6 mean

Di Francesco (1972; 9 yrs "Slow growth of reading level" - plateauing

Furth (1966) 9 mnths reading progress over 5 yrs

Jensema (1975) 15 - 16 yrs; 9 yrs

Conrad (1979) 15 - 16.5 yrs; 9 yrs

50% of profoundly deaf could not start the test ie reading at levels less than 7 yrs

The picture painted of the reading achievements of deaf school leavers has changed little over 70 years. In 1916, Pinter and Paterson reported that the majority of deaf children aged between 14 and 16 years had measured reading ages of 7 years or below. Conrad (1979), in a comprehensive survey of school leavers from special schools and partially hearing units, reported similar data for profoundly hearing impaired school leavers in Britain

Varied research evidence, regardless of methodological issues, and disputes as to the appropriateness of some testing materials (Webster, 1986; Wood et al 1986) confirms what for many teachers of hearing impaired children is the reality of the classroom the large numbers of hearing impaired children have left, and are leaving, school with reading skills grossly underdeveloped and, in many cases, are not achieving functional literacy. More recent research offers more clues as to ways forward in terms of supporting deaf children's literacy development.

More recent research

Cummings, Grove and Rodda 1985 (40 severely and profoundly deaf students) Deaf students score better when passages or short stories used; they make considerable use of contextual support in reading

Webster 1986 (80 severely and profoundly deaf pupils) deaf children understood sentences with most information content more easily than the sentences with only limited elements of meaning.

Banks, Gray and Fyfe 1990 Focus of teaching of reading to deaf children may lie in providing them with strategies for comprehension rather than in teaching vocabulary and grammar.

Walker et al, 1992 Reading comprehension levels of profoundly pre-lingually deaf students in Victoria. 195 students aged 9 to 19 ( Grades 3/4 to 13). Reading comprehension within the average range or above for 42.6% of students

Webster (1988) considers that

"the expectation that reading can give deaf children the very first linguistic insights: that objects and actions have symbolic representations negotiated and understood by others, may be ill-founded. My own view is that children need to discover the power and function of language in interpersonal contexts before, or perhaps in parallel with their discovery of print." p.94

Wood, Wood, Griffiths and Howarth (1986) consider that hearing impaired children usually do possess and use some knowledge of the structure of language and can read some sentences, ie they can read that for which they have the requisite linguistic knowledge.

Hearing impaired children generally have fewer linguistic skills to fall back on when confronted with text and often, for a range of reasons, have had more limited life experiences too (Fraser, 1991). The child's problem is often not to do with word recognition (ie the bottom-up skills) but with an adequate knowledge of both form and function in language and, indeed, of life!

Auditory oral evidence: Has the position changed?

Research from Central Institute for the Deaf (Geers and Moog), Australia and my own research provides evidence as to current levels within strong auditory oral approaches

Average deaf reader 2.79 years behind (girls) 3.73 years behind (boys)

Deaf school leavers: Average reading at Grade 6 (11-12 years) Range: (7 to 18+ years)

Oral approaches: grade 7.8 (c 13 years)

TC approaches: grade 5.2 (c 10 years 3 mths)

Cued Speech: grade 4.3 (c 9 years 4 mths)

Walker et al 1992

100 students from auditory oral programmes

15 years 10 mths to 18 years 2 mths

85db +

NV IQ greater than 85 ( mean 111)

Mean Reading Grade: 8th Grade ( approximately 14 years)

33% have reading levels at --chronological age or better

Geers and Moog 1989


Reading levels: sample (n = 82)

Reading Age Chronological Age

(in months) (in months)

Mean 154.10 188.9

Median 160.00 189

Hearing loss and reading levels

Lewis, 1996. School Leavers educated within a natural aural approach

A breakdown of reading age according to hearing loss band revealed for following data.


Reading age Hearing loss

Average Median Reading Mean Reading

Hearing Loss Age (in months) Age (in months)


  1. up to 65 188 (n=1) n/a
  2. 66-85 156 156.0
  3. 86-95 163 158.0
  4. 96-105 154 149.7
  5. 106+ 164 153.3

Statistical analysis reveals no relationship between degree of hearing loss and reading level

Overall characteristics of the total Group

  • 39 have reading levels within 2 years of Age (47%)
  • 27 have reading levels within 1 year of Age (32.9%)
  • 20 have reading levels within I or 2 months of Age (24.4%)
  • 17.07% (n = 14) of the sample were reading at levels above their chronological age

There were "age-appropriate" achievers within all hearing loss bands and "above age" achievers in band 2, 4 and 5. Profound hearing loss did not exclude such achievement.

24% of children with hearing losses of 106dB(HL) or more were reading at levels above their chronological age

Similarly GCSE examination results for pupils educated within a natural aural approach, where reported, are encouraging

Attainments: One English county - pupils with severe and profound hearing losses attending schools/units

GCSE Results

No 5+ A-C 5+A-G 1+A-G

1996 9 66 78 100

This was higher than the average for mainstream pupils in this LEA area

What is Natural Auralism

Natural auralism evolved from patterns and practices in oral education in a small number of schools and services (Clark, 1978, 1981).

Natural Auralism: On entering school deaf children are assumed to have the same potential for achievement as other groups. They also have the same rights and entitlements the right to support towards those entitlements

Support includes: Support for

  • language acquisition and literacy
  • listening development
  • learning strategies
  • inclusion into family and community life
  • accessing the curriculum

In the 1970s, improved technological aids and the audiological revolution potentially allowed for an accent on listening to replace an emphasis on watching as to the primary vehicle for language acquisition in hearing impaired children (Lewis 1991).

Natural auralism is an approach that draws heavily on Brunerian principles as to learning, and on the descriptions of language acquisition and interactions of the 1970s and 1980s, to support the case for hearing impaired children being exposed to features of linguistic inputs and environments deemed facilitative for any child acquiring a first language.


  • follow the child's utterance
  • maintain the semantic topic
  • expand the utterance whilst using some of the child's own words
  • reformulate by adding to or correcting a particular noun or verb phrase

(Pine 1994, Farrar 1990)

Deaf children will go through the same stages in all aspects of their language acquisition as hearing children providing that they are allowed to do so,

  • ie that they are aided appropriately
  • the input is appropriate - cognitively and linguistically
  • that expectations and feedback are appropriate
  • that progress is monitored effectively

The relationship between language and literacy is the same for deaf children as for hearing children, ie deaf children will learn to read and write language and meanings that they already know. They will use strategies that they already use as beginner talkers.

Once they have begun to read and write reading may extend their linguistic understandings - it is not the vehicle through which they will acquire their language.

The essence of Natural Auralism is enshrined in belief in three basic concepts

  1. maximal use of residual hearing
  2. the need for meaningful input
  3. view of child as a learner

Natural Auralists stress that the sequence of language development for hearing impaired children albeit slower,

"should be the same as that of the normal child, providing he receives the same kind of language experiences from which to learn...Natural Oralism would not set out to teach incorrectly learnt syntax for it is firmly based in the belief that language and its rules have to be learnt by the child out of experience"

Harrison (1980) p.10

Similarly Natural Auralists see the relationship between the written word and spoken language for hearing impaired children as identical to that for hearing children

"the written word is not seen as a medium through which language is learnt. As with all children, establishment of a hearing impaired child's spoken language should precede the use of its written form"

Harrison (1980) p11

For reading development to proceed, spoken language development and its conversational context must be maximised. Best of practice with hearing children must be maintained.

A number of models for supporting reading skills exist. The natural aural approach involves an interactive model in which both 'bottom up' and 'top down' skills are supported but meaning extraction is paramount.

Reading is a receptive process - concerned first and foremost with meaning - does practice reflect this? Early reading materials must be within child's grasp whether discussing top or bottom skills; testing comprehension is not the same as supporting it; children must discover this first of all; not about word recognition and reading out loud nor is it simply re reading in books.

Deaf Children

Early reading materials must not contain language and vocabulary too far in advance of their own.

The emphasis must be on reading for meaning, not on individual words.

Children must have some basic understandings about language and reading before they start to "read" in a formal sense.

Will need support for reading beyond the primary school to ensure higher order reading skills do develop.

Deaf children beginning reading have much smaller vocabularies on which to draw, rarely make inferences and have restricted world knowledge and experiences. La Sasso and Swaiko (1978) take a similar view, ie that it is limited language and experience rather than poor decoding skills per se that are the major factors contributing to the reading difficulties of hearing impaired children, supporting reading is best effected by supporting these.

Ewoldt (1981) discusses:

Influence of teaching method

  • Reading for meaning in early stages foster a great depth of understanding at syntactic and semantic levels
  • Whole story versus sentence method more productive
  • Reading is dependent on, and reflects child's current linguistic abilities
  • Meaning also depends to some extent on these and the child's cognitive/experimental level

"Providing deaf readers with more context than an isolated sentence or paragraph gives the opportunity to construct meaning regardless of difficult syntax or unfamiliar words"

Ewoldt (1981)

Such a view certainly is in harmony with current trends and attitudes to reading and reading development in hearing children (Webster, 1986).

Two clear messages emerge; that children draw on their competence as speakers when they are learning to read (Weber 1970) and that reading is an active process, one which involves trying to identify the author's intended meaning but from a starting point of one's own experiences, knowledge and, probably, values.

Practical implications of this for a natural aural approach leads to the following strategies of Supporting Reading:

Laying the foundations

  • sharing books/role-play
  • story retell
  • auditory memory
  • verbal recall
  • predicting
  • reflecting
  • processing

Teaching for independence

  • process - strategies are supported
  • reinforcement of pupil's own attempts to apply strategies
  • self-evaluation

Importance of supporting meaning extraction (not testing comprehension)

Initially this may involve

Sharing books; Support for narrative skills; a late start to formal reading with basal readers Conversation around books to support their meaningfulness

Use of Child's own language as the basis for reading

Home made materials will be extensive - relevance of reading schemes must be considered

Adaptation of existing materials, eg provide more evidence for working out meaning not less; bridge into books

Of particular importance is support for the child's understanding of narrative: story telling and story re-tell programmes will aid the child's ability to sequence related ideas, reflect experiences, predict outcomes.

Some Ways to Develop Narrative and Predictive Skills

Narrative skill: the ability to re-tell a chronological account accurately, without omitting critical parts and taking account of what your listener does not know.

  1. story re-tell without prompts
  2. recreate the storyline of a commercial book before it is read
  3. script and film a video
  4. write stories for younger children
  5. double the number of pictures
  6. cardboard TV with rolling pictures
  7. find the relevant page/game/object, etc
  8. lots of others...

Natural aural programme will deliberately talk about the non-present, introduce figurative, non-literal language, plan for exposure to range of language uses and types and put an emphasis on talking out time; they continue to support literacy and language levels throughout secondary to accommodate language/ experiential deficit, even when literacy levels appear close to chronological age

They recognise that it is the child who acquires the skills. The implications for teachers are that they should

  • support not test comprehension
  • support access for learning: processes DARTS
  • support processing DARTS
  • model behaviour
  • sequencing/ organisational skills
  • higher order top down skills

Importance of familiarity of text content

Unfamiliarity with information, either in terms of context or ideas, might result in a depressing of the hearing impaired child's reading score at semantic, syntactic or more general levels, whilst familiar information is more readily processed and may result in a higher score.

Pre-tutoring is therefore often more successful than post-tutoring for materials that are

stretching the child linguistically and dealing with unfamiliar topics

There are many more practical suggestions that could be shared. Suffice it to say that current auditory oral methods assume a careful analysis of deaf children's literacy and language levels as a basis for then responding to their reading and language need. Deaf children can and do attain high levels within these approaches, where reading is seen as a receptive process concerned with understanding meanings rather than as a means for teaching deaf pupils basic linguistic understandings.