Learning to read to my deaf child

Good Night Moon was the first book I learned how to read to my daughter.
Illustration by Clement Hurd, from Good Night Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown.

How well I remember sitting in my mom’s lap, leaning my back against her chest, her arms around me and her hands holding a picture book in front of me. Her voice made a story out of the pictures, weaving adventures from the squiggly black shapes on the page.

That’s how I wanted to read to my child. Long before she could walk, I would snuggle Lei on my lap and look over the back of her little head at the pictures, reading out loud the words on the page. She would sit for a few minutes, then get up and move away.

It was a tiny taser to my heart every time.

Once I found out Lei was hard of hearing, I did everything I could to give her language, but was stymied by the challenge of reading to her. I knew that the best way to get language to her was through her eyes, and I knew that reading would someday give her unrestricted access to whole language. I just didn’t know how she could look at my face and hands, as well as a book, at the same time.

Gradually I gave up trying.

But then my wonderful Early Intervention case manager found me a Deaf Mentor, Karen. I was so excited about meeting Karen that I had a dream in which she came to my house (which was built into a massive tree because dream house!), and I signed to her, “JUICE or WATER?”

I was psyched I had signed in my dream. Karen said I must be getting really good at signing (I wasn’t, but she was and is awesome and encouraging that way).

Anyway, Karen brought up the issue of reading to Lei, and I confessed that I was at a loss. So at our next meeting, she brought us a copy of Good Night Moon. Karen sat Lei in her lap and showed me how to read to her.

She read out loud, because she knew that’s what I would want to do, and she showed me how to sign in Lei’s peripheral vision so that she could hear me with her hearing aids and see the signs while also seeing the pages.

I had been working my butt off with the signing so I knew a lot of the signs already. The words are simple and rhythmic; the labeling and repetition build vocabulary.

We read Good Night Moon at bedtime every night for the better part of a year. Over the following months and years, Lei fell in love with the Berenstain Bears, all things Dr. Seuss, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and Betsy Tacy. I signed every story to her the way Karen had showed me.

By the end of kindergarten she was reading fluently and gaining on age-appropriate language skills. By second grade she was devouring the Harry Potter series and D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths

Now in fifth grade, Lei reads everything she can get her hands on, from her well-worn Sisters Grimm novels to National Geographic, which she dispenses with in a painfully short time. Her passive vocabulary is three to four years ahead of her age, and I think it’s going to keep growing.

It is an oft-quoted statistic that most deaf adults read at a fourth-grade level. Why has Lei done so well? Was it all thanks to her amazing mom?

While I recognize that I brought a lot of advantages to parenting, including being able to make do on my husband’s teaching salary and gigs so I could be a stay-at-home mom, there was so much I didn’t know about raising a hard-of-hearing child, and the mental health challenges of raising Lei threatened to drown me.

But I got help and a chance to learn, which is more than many people get. Thanks to Karen and our EI case manager, speech therapists, a fantastic licensed clinical social worker, a truly extraordinary educational psychologist, and numerous wonderful classroom teachers, special educators, case managers and educators of the deaf, Lei’s literacy continues to flourish. They might never know what a difference they have made, but I do. I remember, and I am grateful.

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5 thoughts on “Learning to read to my deaf child

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve also started reading more to my son and he particularly love Roal Dahl books. I read The Twits to him the other night (a few chapters only) and when I asked him to put the book away, I heard him reading a few sentences on his own! He is 7 and his reading has improved significantly over the last six/eight months.

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    1. What a beautiful sound, right chevslife? You are doing the right thing sharing the love of books and stories with your son. And seven is a good age for a child to start more independent reading. In this country kids are treated like they are way behind if they’re not reading by kindergarten, but in much of the world literacy is not even explicitly taught until age seven. What you are giving him, the love of reading, is a gift no test can measure. Keep up the great work!

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  2. I am so happy to finally see an article that supports sign language. It is good for a hard of hearing child to know both ASL and use their hearing aids. I am 100& Deaf myself and I am a Special Ed teacher trying to complete her Masters in Deaf Ed for ECE and Elementary. 😀 ASL is extremely important in a Deaf individuals life. I strongly support ASL and lip reading as two fundamental principles to learning as a Deaf child.

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    1. You know, Stephanie, I never worried about Lei’s speech. I wanted us to communicate, and I wanted it to happen sooner rather than later. Although I respect that parents make the best decisions they can for their kids, as a communicator it always hurts to see deaf and hard-of-hearing kids who are struggling to learn language without any signing. When Lei was diagnosed, I just wanted to know who she was and what was going on inside her. You can’t get that without communication, and signing was something she could learn and do from day one. One of my favorite quotes says, “The heart is like a box, and language is the key. Only by using the key can we open the box and observe the gems it contains.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

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