Deafness or hearing loss, which affects a child’s ability to hear sounds, can be present at birth or acquired later in life. There are different degrees and types of hearing loss, ranging from mild to profound, and from conductive (sound is not reaching the inner ear) to sensorineural (there is a problem occurring in either the inner ear or the auditory nerve, which delivers sound to the brain). Deafness is defined as a hearing loss above 90 decibels (dB), which means that the child has little or no functional hearing.
Hearing loss can be caused by different factors such as birth complications, noise exposure, infections, trauma, or genetics. Sometimes children will have other conditions to consider alongside hearing loss.
Children who are deaf or hard of hearing can use hearing aids, cochlear implants, or learn sign language to support communication. Find links to a wide range of resources for families on hearing loss, from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Screening for hearing is easy to do and a routine part of a pediatric well-check. It should be done no later than one month of age, and repeated anytime there is a concern or sign of hearing loss. Most states require schools to hold mandated mass hearing screenings to screen and identify hearing loss in school-aged children in a timely manner. Educators and families can learn more from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA): School-Age Hearing Screening
Effects on speech, language, and social skills
Children with severe to profound hearing loss have difficulty hearing speech — for example, a conversation might sound like whispering or a child may not even hear it at all. Hearing loss in children can hamper the development of speech, language, and social skills. If you suspect a child has hearing loss, ask your healthcare provider for a hearing screening as soon as possible. It’s important to identify and treat hearing loss right away, so don’t wait!
Deafness or being hard of hearing can impact the development of language and literacy skills in young children who are learning to read. Since reading relies heavily on identifying and using speech sounds, hearing loss poses a challenge for learning to read and write. Deaf or hard-of-hearing children may have difficulty with phonological awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, and spelling — but with the right supports they can become confident, skilled readers and writers.
Video: 10 tips for teachers to support children with hearing loss
Helping children with hearing loss learn to read
Teachers and families can help children with hearing loss to develop their language and literacy skills. Since spoken language is a foundation for both decoding and comprehension, early identification paired with careful testing to diagnose and pinpoint specific reading strengths and weak areas is critical.
Intervention should include systematic and explicit instruction. The same principles of good reading instruction for hearing students also apply to students with hearing loss. Here are some tips and classroom practices for supporting children with hearing loss.
Reduce classroom background noise
Look at your classroom and consider ways to reduce background noise to create an optimal environment for listening. ASHA recommends the following:
- Place rugs or carpet in the room.
- Hang curtains or blinds in the windows.
- Hang soft materials such as felt or corkboard on the walls.
- Place tables at an angle around the room instead of in rows.
- Turn off noisy equipment when it is not in use.
- Replace noisy light fixtures.
- Show students how hard it can be to hear when many children talk at the same time.
- Place soft tips on the bottom of chairs and tables.
Add visual supports
Students with deafness or who are hard of hearing can develop the same reading skills as hearing children, however, it may take longer for them to develop the necessary language-based skills and require additional classroom supports. So, the same principles of systematic evidence-based reading instruction will apply, but students may need visual alternatives, sign language, or other forms of manual communication for listening and speaking activities. Work with the speech language pathologist and other professionals to develop a reading intervention plan.
Strategies to support reading development include the following:
- Use visual aids and multimodal supports for teaching phonics and decoding.
- Offer read-alouds and shared reading with additional visuals or sign language supports.
- Make read-alouds more engaging by adding gestures, facial expressions, and voice changes to convey the meaning and emotions.
- During read-alouds, encourage students to respond to you and peers at routine stopping points — for example, make a prediction or answer a question.
- During read-alouds, ask children to join in by pointing, signing, or chiming in (if a child is verbal) at a specific word or phrase.
- Provide frequent and explicit feedback during reading to spot-check understanding.
- Use graphic organizers and anchor charts to focus attention on specific skills or strategies.
- Encourage children to engage in wide reading for pleasure, and to interact with peers and adults through reading activities. You can use online tools or consult with a librarian to find books that match their interests and abilities.
- Provide a diverse range of texts and genres to expand children’s vocabulary and background knowledge. Books with clear illustrations, simple sentences, and repetitive words may help to introduce new topics and vocabulary.
- Include books for the classroom that feature sign language or captions to make them more accessible. You’ll find some titles in our booklist Picture Books Featuring Deaf or Hearing Impaired Characters.
Discover stories in American Sign Language
ASL Stories Directory from the American Society for Deaf Children: This online resource provides hundreds of free videos of ASL retellings of children’s favorite books.
Sign Language Storytelling from the Described and Captioned Media Program: This video series brings popular children’s books to life by original music, voice, and sign language.
FAQs about reading and writing with deaf children
From our Reading and Writing SOS video series, where experts answer real questions from parents. Teachers can adapt these tips for their students who are deaf or hhard of hearing. Visit Reading and Writing with Deaf Children