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New strategy needed for deaf children with reading difficulties

Jumbled up in silence. Lyn Lomasi, CC BY-SA

There has been huge investment into research seeking to understand dyslexia in recent years. This has led to the development of tests that can be used to diagnose dyslexia and interventions to help children overcome their reading difficulties.

Research into dyslexia has focused exclusively on children and adults with normal hearing. However, many deaf children at school in the UK also have reading difficulties.

Reading is based on spoken language, which deaf children often struggle to acquire. Problems they have with reading are generally attributed solely to their deafness. Yet given the genetic basis of dyslexia, it is possible that some deaf children will also be dyslexic.

A key challenge when trying to diagnose dyslexia in a deaf child is the lack of suitable tests. There is also little information about typical reading profiles of deaf children. How do you decide if a deaf child has dyslexia if you do not know what is typical for their age group?

Poor reading not just down to deafness

Research is beginning to address this area. Using deaf-friendly testing methods, a research team at City University London is collecting scores on reading and dyslexia-sensitive tests from a large sample of children born with severe-profound deafness.

The first phase of this research has tested 79 deaf children aged 10-11 years throughout the UK. All communicate using spoken (oral) language. This number represents a significant proportion of oral deaf children in this age group. A group of hearing children with a diagnosis of dyslexia have also been tested using the same measures. The next phase currently underway is collecting similar data on deaf children who use sign language.

The results to date, published in a recent briefing paper, have brought some surprises.

Half the oral deaf children tested were reading at age level. This indicates that delayed reading is not an inevitable outcome for deaf children. However, the other half had reading difficulties that were at least as severe as the problems faced by hearing children with dyslexia. In some cases they were more severe.

Although a small number of deaf children did fit a dyslexic profile, these were not the only poor readers. Poor deaf readers had difficulties with the phonics skills needed to read new words and also displayed language problems that affected their ability to understand what they read.

More support needed

Earlier identification of deafness is now possible with the advent of newborn hearing screening. Alongside advances in digital hearing aids and cochlear implants, this has undoubtedly improved the outlook for deaf children. More deaf children now have excellent speech and as a result are increasingly found in mainstream schools.

However, good speech can mask underlying problems with understanding which contribute to poor reading. There is a real danger that these children’s needs are overlooked and that, as a result, insufficient support is provided.

These research findings highlight the scale of reading difficulty among oral deaf children and the differing profiles of poor deaf readers. All the children in this study were in their last year of primary school. Half are clearly ill-prepared for the challenges of secondary education. All these children are in urgent need of interventions to develop their language and reading.

The recent UK government Rose report into dyslexia and literacy difficulties specifically highlighted the importance of interventions for poor readers. Research findings suggest that specialist interventions currently offered to hearing children with dyslexia will also be effective with poor deaf readers.

Ideally, interventions should start early and include additional letter-sound and phonics based work and support for oral language development. It is time that ongoing individualised and intensive support of this nature is extended to deaf children who struggle with reading.

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