How Do Deaf People Learn How to Read?

It can be pretty challenging for someone with severe hearing loss to be able to learn how to read, which is why there are often high levels of illiteracy found amongst the deaf population. Although there is no consensus on why deaf people frequently struggle with reading, there is one very obvious fact: For most deaf people, their native language is American Sign Language, not English. 

One common misconception is that American Sign Language (ASL) is just English in a signed format. However, ASL is its own independent language with its own grammar and vocabulary. For example, the word “right” in the English language is spelt and pronounced the same, but has two different meanings (one being opposite of left, and the other being opposite of wrong). However, in ASL, there are two different signs for each word.

Also, word order is quite different between English and ASL. In ASL, the word order usually goes “subject” + “verb” + “object”. So, deaf readers can get pretty frustrated with the difference in grammar and vocabulary between English and ASL. 

When hearing people read, they transfer the written words into speech sounds which recreates spoken text. When learning to read, hearing people will often read out loud.

Once they become more proficient readers, they will create a “voice in their head”, which will “speak” each word as they read it. Learning to read is a two-step process. First the reader has to convert the written word into the spoken format, and then access the meaning of that spoken word to understand what they’re reading. 

But how do deaf people learn to read a language they don’t speak? 

As deaf readers don’t generally speak English, they are unable to sound out words to access their meaning. Instead, a lot of deaf readers will try and associate a written English word with a signed ASL word. Quite often, deaf readers will sign as they read – which is pretty similar to learner hearing readers speaking aloud. Once a deaf reader becomes more proficient they can develop an “inner sign”, which is pretty similar to our “inner voice”. 

How to Help Deaf People to Learn to Read? 

Reading is not a skill that comes naturally, therefore it must be taught. Recent studies have shown that deaf children of deaf parents are better readers than deaf children of hearing parents.

This is often because children with hearing impairments who have two hearing parents are often diagnosed later on than those with deaf parents. When a hearing impairment is caught early, children can be taught to communicate fluently using sign language, and have their educational needs met properly.

This isn’t to say that a hearing impaired child who was diagnosed later on will struggle to learn to read, it just might take them longer to learn. 

Here are some guidelines for parents of deaf children to help them learn how to read: 

Learn to Sign 

Learning to sign is so important as you need to be able to teach your child how to communicate and be able to communicate with them. Children need constant exposure to the language they are learning. 

Use Visuals 

Picture books can be a great tool to use when teaching your child how to read. Sign-spell the word to your child, and point to the printed word and picture. Then use the sign for the word as a whole. If your child is learning to lip read, make sure you slowly and deliberately speak the word too. 

Letter Cards 

Another helpful tool for a hearing impaired child learning to read is to use letter cards. They can be used to demonstrate how individual letters form words.

They can be used to demonstrate the difference between vowels and consonants by making card combinations. You can show how vowels often follow one or two consonants. Try teaching them new combinations every day. 

Build Vocabulary

Just as you would do with any child who is developing language fluency, try and introduce a new vocabulary word every day. You can work these words into conversation and display them on the walls of your house next to the signed letters for the word. 


Deaf learners need a visual environment in order for them to thrive. What might be a helpful activity is to have your child label items in their room and around your house – such as door, bed, lamp – that have the written version of the word. Incorporating visual aids is key to helping your deaf child learn. 

Comprehension Tests 

It’s important to remember that good signing skills are not always a reflection of good reading skills, but it does help. To make sure your child is understanding what they are reading, point to a printed word and ask them to give the sign back to you.

As their language and reading skills improve, you can ask more complex questions about characters of a book, or a summary of the plot. 

Frequently Asked Questions?

What is “chaining”?

“Chaining” is a technique which is used to help a deaf person learn to read. It’s pretty similar to the sound-mapping technique used to teach hearing people how to read. This is where the teacher will sign each letter of a word, point to the written word and then use the sign for that word. 

Are deaf people better readers than hearing people? 

Although a lot of hearing impaired people can struggle to learn how to read, there is evidence to suggest that proficient deaf readers are more efficient readers than proficient hearing readers. 

This is mainly due to the way in which the visual system adapts and adjusts for deaf people to compensate for their loss of hearing. 

When we focus our vision on a written word on a page, we only have a clear and detailed vision of a small region in front of our eyes. This is called foveal vision. The rest of our peripheral vision is blurred as our vision is focused on one specific thing. 

When our vision is focused, we rely on hearing to detect any sudden changes in our environment, which often switches the focus of our attention. However, as deaf people can’t use their hearing to detect sudden noises/changes around them, they rely on their peripheral vision to monitor their surroundings whilst they focus their attention on a specific spot. So, deaf people process their peripheral vision a lot better than hearing people. 

But how does this help with reading? 

Well, when using foveal vision, we can only focus on one or two words at a glance, and we often automatically fill in function words (like “of” and “is”) based on the context of what we’re reading. However, deaf readers can take in a lot more from their peripheral vision, which allows them to skip through text quicker, and they don’t have to skip back and reread sections as much as hearing people do.