It is well-documented worldwide that people who are born significantly deaf – or who become significantly deaf early in life, prior to learning language – often face an enormous struggle to attain literacy skills in the spoken language of the country in which they reside.  This is an indication of how difficult it is to learn to read and write a language which you cannot hear and do not know fluently.

Think about your own learning experience.  If you are Australian-born, you most likely did not begin to learn to read and write English until you were the age of four or five; perhaps three if you were very advanced.  And when you did begin to try to read and write, you already knew English.  Similarly, if you were born in a different country, you would have learned how to speak your native tongue prior to commencing formal education and learning to read and write the language.

What does this means for you in relation to your deaf student?  It may mean that you wish to have the student undertake an English literacy assessment.  It also may mean that you need to talk with your student to find out about his or her background – if s/he was born deaf; how deaf s/he is; and what his/her education has been to date as well as how s/he perceives his or her literacy skills.  If s/he has early life deafness and it is severe to profound, then it is highly likely that s/he will have some level of English literacy difficulties [more to come].

It is important to understand that the literacy difficulties that your deaf student may be experiencing are not an indication of either intelligence or capacity to learn.  Rather, they are an indicator of how challenging it is to learn to read and write English when you cannot hear the language.

Literacy issues can present a wide-range of challenges and so it is important not to simply assume what the deaf student can and cannot do.  The first step in assessing this is to recognise that reading and writing are two quite separate and distinct skills which are taught in school independently of one another.  Again, think back to your early education.  The skill of reading was tackled first, followed later by the task of writing.

When you look at your deaf student’s reading and writing ability you will find that his or her skills exist at some point on a continuum [more to come].  You may find that your deaf student:

  • cannot read and write much beyond his or her name and address,
  • can tell you what each word in a sentence is, but is unable to tell you what the sentence means,
  • can read and comprehend fairly simple text but cannot produce much written English of their own,
  • can read and comprehend fairly complex test and can write reasonably well, but the sentences are not grammatically correct and/or what is written is structurally confused,
  • can read and comprehend without difficulty and can write well, but there are still small grammatical errors and/or the structure does not flow effectively,
  • can read, comprehend and write to a level that would be called native-like fluency,
  • has some other combination of the above categories.

All of this is important when considering:

  1. the delivery structure of your course and how much you may be expecting students to read, and
  2. the assessment structure of your course and what the students may be asked to write.

You may need to consider the following accommodations for your deaf student:

  • providing any written material in a different form and/or providing direct support to your deaf student in assisting him or her to access and learn from a written form,
  • allowing for extra time – both reading and writing – in written exams,
  • for those who use Auslan, allowing for an interpreter to be used during written exams to have the questions interpreted and, in some instances (for example, a multiple choice exam), the answers also interpreted,
  • reading any written exam responses or any essays for content rather than for grammar and structure; in other words, has the deaf student actually demonstrated his or her knowledge of the topic, even if it is in a written form that would not usually meet your expectations of how your students should write,
  • allowing the student to sit an “oral” exam to demonstrate his or her competence with the required material.

Similar to literacy issues, many people who are born deaf or become deaf very early in life experience numeracy issues.  The reason for this has been researched but resultant data has not been conclusive with regard to the cause(s) for numeracy issues amongst deaf children and adults.

One reason may be that education in their early years [more to come] is consumed by efforts to teach language and communication.  Another could be that many of the building blocks for early numeracy are culturally bound to the primary language of the child.  For many deaf children, the development of a primary language – whether that be Auslan or English – begins later than their hearing peers [more to come].  As well, where learning his or her primary language is done unconsciously and with ease by a child with hearing, a deaf child often requires specialist intervention and assistance to acquire his or her primary language [more to come].  These factors may contribute to the numeracy issues experienced by some deaf students.

If your deaf student does have difficulties with numeracy, you may need to provide extra assistance to support his or her learning.  As well, you may need to consider making accommodations with regard to how you assess your student’s competency around tasks and outcomes that require numeracy proficiency.  This does not mean that you should exempt your deaf student from providing evidence of competency; rather, that you may need to assess your student in a way that takes into consideration his or her literacy and numeracy difficulties.