Obviously, reading is a very visual activity for most of us. But the contribution of good hearing and well-developed listening skills is becoming clearer and clearer through research and experience with children who have limited hearing. When I began working for the Area Education Agency (AEA) system as an Educational Audiologist in the late 1980’s, expectations for reading achievement by students with severe-profound hearing loss were far too low. The majority of students with more severe hearing loss were leaving school with third or fourth grade level reading comprehension abilities. The limitations these reading outcomes placed on learning and employment opportunities were totally unacceptable to me. So much has changed over the last 25 years!
While technology and medical advances have had a big impact on the lives of everyone, the impact on children with hearing disorders has been even more dramatic. Instrumentation to accurately assess hearing in infants became available in the 1990’s. AEA audiologists now work with hospitals and private practice audiologists to identify hearing loss shortly after birth and provide immediate access to high-quality technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. Making the sounds of spoken language available to a child’s rapidly developing brain in the first years of life has a huge impact on language development, listening skills and early literacy skills. Beyond that, it actually changes the way the ear-brain system works. All the practice listening to sounds in words and sentences helps the young child become an efficient listener. Reducing listening effort increases the brain’s capacity to develop all the skills necessary to begin the complex process of reading.
The “Literacy Team” has many members and each makes an important contribution. Parents have the earliest and possibly most important role in making sure children with and without hearing limitations are ready to read when they enter school. Children with hearing loss need to use amplification (hearing aids, cochlear implants, FM systems) during all waking hours to provide the same opportunities for incidental learning and vocabulary development that normal-hearing children have. To learn to read in the typical way, children need to engage in 5-6 years of active listening (about 20,000 hours)!
All of the activities that promote reading readiness in the preschool years are important to the auditory-verbal learner with hearing loss. All children need good speech and language models. All children need to play with the sounds in words—find words that start with the letter “M”, change the first letter in a word to make a word that rhymes, blend sounds together to make a word. All children need to develop text awareness as they see words in print when storybooks are read to them. All children benefit from interactive reading with parents and others. When adults ask “what” questions as they read to toddlers then expand on the answers, children increase their vocabularies and listening comprehension skills. Open-ended questions encourage children to think about the text and how it relates to experiences in the real world.
Still, children with hearing loss face some unique challenges in becoming proficient readers and 21st century learners. We need to provide more targeted practice in early literacy skills. We need to pay more attention to noise levels in the homes, preschool settings and classrooms to make sure the children have access to all the speech sounds they need for phonemic awareness, oral reading and verbal instruction. But I am much more optimistic now. With early identification and good interventions, children with hearing loss have the potential to learn to read as well as children with normal hearing. And there’s a bonus—what we’ve learned from children with hearing loss may help all children become better readers.
Marlys Ebaugh is a Discipline Facilitator/Audiologist with Area Education Agency 267. She can be reached at 641-585-3382 for additional information. Area Education Agency 267 serves nearly 65,000 students. In addition, over 5,000 educators rely on AEA 267 for services in special education, school technology, media and instructional/curriculum support. The agency’s service area reaches 18 counties and nearly 9,000 square miles.