A Sense of Sound
It's a small, complex electronic device, but it has become a major innovation in helping deaf preschoolers learn how to read.
The device, called a cochlear implant, can help provide a sense of sound to a profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing person, and it is just one part of a study by a group of Georgia State researchers to pursue a literacy curriculum for deaf preschool students.
"Because of newborn screening and cochlear implants, deaf children are now developing more like hard-of-hearing children – children who have some hearing instead of no hearing," says Amy Lederberg, a professor of educational psychology and special education at Georgia State and principal investigator of the study. "That means there's greater potential for us to be able to use research on how hearing children learn, and there's much more hope today that we can improve their development."
The three-year study, titled "Improving Deaf Preschoolers' Literacy Skills," is being funded through a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. While previous research has been done about the learning abilities of deaf children, few studies have been done to test intervention treatments, Lederberg says. The literacy study follows a federal call for researchers to come up with better evidence-based practices for educational interventions for children.
"The average deaf child graduates high school with a fifth-grade reading level," she says. "That's after 12 years of intensive literacy instruction, which hasn't worked for the majority of deaf kids."
Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Lederberg says most deaf students have the same cognitive abilities as hearing children but suffer from language deprivation because they have hearing parents who only use speech with them. Cochlear implants allow them to learn their parents' language and decode words into sounds easier.
Because literature on how to teach hearing children has improved over the last five years, Lederberg says that the team is using an already-established early childhood literacy curriculum as the foundation for teaching phonics, phonological awareness, vocabulary and narrative lessons.
Approximately 70 deaf and hard-of-hearing children, 3 to 5 years of age, will participate in the study. During the first year, researchers worked with students at the Atlanta Speech School and the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf.
"We are hoping this will allow children with hearing loss to start school at a higher level of literacy awareness than they started with in the past," says Susan Easterbrooks, a professor of education at Georgia State and co-principal investigator of the study.
Ellen Estes, coordinator of the Katherine Hamm Center at the Atlanta Speech School, says the curriculum that she's helping Georgia State to create will be crucial in the lives of deaf students who will depend on reading as their main way of gathering information. And although the school has been teaching reading for years, she says it's important to the school to fine-tune the process and to have research to support that this type of curriculum is working.
"Reading is important for all people, but even more important for individuals with hearing loss because of all the information they are going to get through print, such as getting real-time captions during a college lecture or even reading the newspaper or e-mail," Estes says.
After only eight weeks of instructing the students, Lederberg says the results are promising. They are already working on tweaking the curriculum to meet the unique challenges deaf children face as they learn to read, including a range of different auditory skills and language abilities.
"The kids were able to learn the letter sounds we were teaching them and read simple words, and the kids themselves were thrilled to decipher what those little letters meant and have them make sense to them," explains Lederberg.
Lederberg, who has been studying deaf children since she was a student at the University of Minnesota, shares a special understanding with the students she is researching. She, too, has a hearing impairment and wears a hearing aid.
"Unlike most deaf kids, my hearing impairment was later onset and not from birth," Lederberg says. "It was mild in the beginning and then it became progressively worse. But I had a language base. I didn't suffer from language deprivation like deaf kids do."
And although Lederberg has taken the lead on this project, she says it's the multidisciplinary team of researchers that makes this project unique. One researcher on the team, Carol Connor, is a professor at Florida State University and an expert in early literacy and children with cochlear implants.
All of the researchers have one goal in mind.
"We want to share this study with teachers everywhere, which will make a huge difference all over the country," Estes says. "This study is crucial for these kids because you can't build a building without the foundation, and this study is building the foundation that's going to allow these kids to grow up with full access to the written word."