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4 easy ways to help your deaf — or hearing — kid learn to read

Jennifer Amey is a writer and accessibility consultant living in Toronto with a kid the experts describe as "a mad genius." Emphasis on "mad."

Simple language-development strategies that work with deaf and hearing kids

When my son Harry was identified as deaf at only three months old, I was in shock. Then I read a bunch of horror stories about how deaf children never learn to read or graduate high school with the literacy levels of an 8-year-old. Then I started panicking.

In the bad old days when babies weren’t screened for hearing loss as newborns, before the days of early intervention programs, a lot of deaf and hard of hearing people did struggle with literacy because they didn’t have access to language at a young age. Now, there are programs and services available almost from birth. I was given all kinds of strategies to help my child develop language, and a lot of those strategies can be helpful for any child — deaf or not — who is learning to read.

1. Find an opportunity

Children don’t wait to learn English in school; they learn from the moment they’re born by hearing and seeing it everywhere they go. Conversations, talk radio (not Howard Stern!), street signs — it’s all an opportunity to absorb language. The first piece of advice I was given was to narrate everything: Give my son the words to describe everything around him. “Let’s go for a walk. We’re walking down the street. Can you feel the wind? It’s chilly. There’s a man jogging. He’s going faster than us. He’s wearing a red hat.” And on and on. It can feel ridiculous while you’re doing it, but the bigger mom’s vocabulary, the better a child’s language skills. One study by University of Kansas researchers trying to unravel the difference in language skills among kids from different backgrounds found that children from wealthier families were exposed to millions more words than children living in poverty — 32 million more words by age 4. Luckily, words are free! So, keep talking. One word of caution: Your kid may grow up to narrate his own life, and you could find yourself listening to play-by-play descriptions of every comic book and video game he comes across.

More: Thought-provoking video shows how hard lipreading can be for deaf people

2. “Modeling back”

This easy way to support your child’s language development is a softer method of correcting pronunciation misfires. For my son, who struggled to hear and say the letter S, that was what we focused on reinforcing. But it gives you a chance to share more complex grammar and vocabulary as well. Imagine your child says, “Me tired.” Don’t correct him by saying, “No. You say, ‘I’m tired.’” Instead, try saying, “Oh, you’re feeling tired! Are you really exhausted? I am tired, too!” This can be especially helpful when reading aloud together. Kids will often guess at, or even skip, a difficult word or a mispronunciation can become a hard-to-break habit. (Harry used to say “chumpkin” instead of “chipmunk” when he was reading — it was almost too cute to correct.) Don’t say, “No,” just repeat the full sentence properly.

3. Talk face-to-face with your child

Even people with perfect hearing rely a little bit on reading lips, whether they realize it or not! Seeing your face when you’re speaking will help your child learn how to make the sounds they might be struggling with and helps solidify the connection between letters and sounds — what they see and what they hear. When you’re reading with your child, try sitting with the book in your lap, so your child can see your face as well as the book.

4. Closed captioning

This is the easiest way to sneak a little reading into your child’s life. Closed captioning was designed for deaf and hard of hearing viewers, but around the world, captions have been used to improve literacy for all. India and Australia both have programs to promote turning on captions for literacy, and with proven results. Seeing the written word as they hear it reinforces the connection between reading and speaking. It may also result in extra-loud sing-alongs of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song, but at least they’ll have the lyrics right!

More: How to nurture a love of reading in your kids

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