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August 1, 2003

Embracing the silence: How librarians can help deaf children develop their reading skills

From: School Library Journal - Aug 1, 2003

By Linda Lajoie

As librarians, we know that reading aloud to children increases their love of books and bolsters their literacy skills. But what if a child can't hear your words? Will he simply forgo the value of these important skills and miss out on this wonderful experience? If a child is deaf or hearing impaired, he may certainly be at risk for poor reading proficiency. Fortunately, this doesn't have to be the case.

Last year, at the Springfield (MA) City Library, one of my summer reading club members was deaf. My lack of sign-language skills and ignorance of the deaf culture compelled me to learn more about this population to better serve them. I recently ordered board books that illustrate some basic sign language for babies and toddlers, which I share with caregivers during storyhour. The hearing children who participated enjoyed learning some basic signs and especially liked "clapping" their approval via sign language by raising their hands above their heads and waving them.

How do deaf children learn reading skills? By simply seeing a librarian read aloud, deaf children learn to enjoy and value books. Kids who are deaf can still share stories and gain knowledge if they're included in this activity. "Children who receive stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward appear to have an edge when it comes to vocabulary development, an understanding of the goals of reading, and an awareness of print and literacy concepts," says G. Reid Lyon, chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The same applies to deaf children—pointing to words and pictures while reading aloud to them will help their reading skills. Having deaf children participate with a group of hearing kids allows them to experience the group's reaction to a story, and this can have a positive effect on literacy skills.

When Lori Chasen, our outreach librarian, announced that she had been working with a local school for deaf children and wanted our youth services librarians to visit her school, I immediately volunteered, along with Martha Coons, our young adult librarian. Coincidentally, my library agreed to pay for my sign-language classes at Lori's school.

We were told that brief and visual stories would work best with deaf students. I used Pete's a Pizza (HarperCollins, 1998) by William Steig. With its brief text, the story was easy for the teacher to sign. Also, Jack and the Beanstalk (DK, 1997; O.P.) by Rosemary Wells was a hit. On the morning of our visit, the teacher introduced us orally and in sign language, and I was able to sign my name to the eight students, who were from various grade levels.

I read a fairy tale at a slow pace and used pieces of flannel to illustrate the story, while the teacher used sign language to translate my words. Direct eye contact is important in keeping attention and in connecting the reader to the audience. Feel free to use facial expressions and body gestures, but avoid shouting and turning away from the group.

Taking a sign-language course certainly helped. I learned that sign languages differ according to where you live and that some schools for the deaf don't use sign language at all. As more deaf students are being included in mainstream classrooms, librarians play an important role in bridging the gap between them and hearing students. Since my visit, I've invited a deaf storyteller to partner with a hearing storyteller. The deaf storyteller also brought her dog and explained how he alerts her to sounds that she is not aware of.

I plan to invite a class of deaf children to my library for a read-aloud program. Our library provides our hearing-impaired patrons with adaptive technologies, such as TTY, or text telephone, e-mail and a fax machine. A closed-captioned decoder is also available for loan. I certainly feel better prepared to serve the needs of this special population, and hopefully help them become regular library users.

Author Information
Linda Lajoie is assistant supervisor of the children's room at the Springfield City (MA) Library.

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