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First Longitudinal Study of Deaf Children to Dissect Reading

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Researchers at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., are recruiting students for an unprecedented longitudinal study of deaf children in the first stages of learning to read, in hopes of understanding stubborn sound-based reading difficulties. The researchers hope that the study will help educators improve reading not just for deaf students, but also for those with auditory dyslexia or with a preference for visual learning.

The Visual Language and Visual Learning Early Education Longitudinal Study (VL2 EELS) will track 600 deaf students ages 3-5 over three years. Donna A. Morere, clinical psychologist at Gallaudet, said the study will include both completely deaf students and those with some residual hearing, using both sign language and other language methods.

Deaf children as a group have serious and longstanding problems learning to read. An 18-year-old deaf student reads on average at a 3rd-grade level, about as well as an 8- to 9-year-old, and only 40 percent of deaf college students read at or above the 8th-grade reading level, according to the Gallaudet Research Institute in Washington.

Those grim statistics have changed little since they were first identified in the 1970s, according to Morere. Research shows that most of the interventions used for hearing students with difficulty reading, such as phonics instruction and gleaning meaning of new words from context, don't work as well for deaf students. "Reading isn't a naturally developing process; you don't just sit a kid in front of a book one day and they start reading," Morere said. "Reading is an arbitrary symbol system that is generally mapped to spoken language."

The study is intended to provide data to help researchers identify the factors that affect whether a deaf child will develop literacy skills. Researchers will test students annually in a wide array of areas, including cognition, attention, English and sign language, memory, phoneme awareness, ability to name letters and objects, and print knowledge.

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