Learning to Read with Languages (ASL and English): A Sign Language Phonology and Reading Intervention Study

Intervention studies have been essential in investigating the role that awareness of the sound structure of spoken languages (i.e. phonological awareness) plays in supporting young hearing children in learning how to read. Yet, many deaf individuals with no or limited access to the sound structure of spoken language effortlessly acquire visual languages (signed languages) and are able to learn how to read fluently. How does this occur?   

To date, there have been no studies exploring the role that signed language phonological awareness might play in supporting young deaf children’s early reading. To bridge this gap, we piloted a small scale American Sign Language (ASL) phonological awareness intervention at the Alberta School for the Deaf from March through June 2015.

We had reasoned that if sound-based phonological components of spoken words, when associated with print, improves vocabulary and reading outcomes for the young hearing reader, would learning how to associate visually-based phonological components of signs with print similarly improve vocabulary and reading outcomes for young deaf readers? The results were startling! Yes it did – and significantly so for each child in the study (n=7, Single case experimental design: multiple baseline across skills). Each of the seven children (who varied in primary communication mode, chronological age, and language ability) showed marked progress in sign and print word learning.

Ours is the first intervention study of its kind to examine the effects of explicit signed language phonological awareness instruction on increasing both ASL vocabulary and word reading (English) vocabulary in young deaf dual language learners (inclusive of deaf children with and without cochlear implants). Our findings are preliminary and require replication. They do, however, open an interesting window in advancing understanding of alternate learning mechanisms that may be available to support young deaf learners in reading success.

Research Team: Dr. Lynn McQuarrie (Principal Investigator), Dr. Charlotte Enns (Co-Investigator), University of Manitoba

Funding: National Science Foundation, Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2)