Reading with the help of sound

Listening and reading are bound together. Deaf and hearing-impaired children can thus have trouble learning to read. A new thesis in disability studies shows how children with impaired hearing learn to read more easily when their learning is combined with sound.

Try to imagine how the letters would work if you had no hearing. It’s almost impossible, isn’t it? The letters represent sounds and the two are intimately bound to each other.

In the past deaf children had to learn using the way letters and words looked which they would have to link to a meaning, without going via sound. Today we know that phonological reading training – linking the sound of speech to letters – is the best way to learn to read.

“We know that deaf people can have problems with reading ability,” says Cecilia Nakeva von Mentzer, recently graduated doctor of disability studies at Linköping University.

An element of play and competition 

Barn som läserFoto: Silvia JansenShe studied sound-based reading training for deaf and hearing-impaired children using what is called the “phonics method”, based on the link between the sounds of speech and letters (phonemes and graphemes). Thirty-two children with cochlear implants or hearing aids practised with the help of a computer program. They listened to speech sounds on a loudspeaker and clicked on the letter that goes with the sound. The letters roll down in balls on the computer screen (see picture below). The programme contains other variations, all with an element of play and competition. The exercises can be done on a computer at home with the help of an adult, and there is a computer program that can be downloaded from the web. The children can also practise sounding – putting together and separating out words from speech sounds (dog = d-o-g; h-a-t = hat).

All the children in the study improved their reading ability. Those children with poor knowledge of sounds (common among those who were given cochlear implants relatively late) also greatly improved their sound-based thinking, their sensitivity to and memory of speech sounds.

Function as memory magnets

Success was greatest for the children who had weak sound-based thinking but who knew a few letters. They benefited particularly from the training, Doctor von Mentzer notes.

“The letters function as memory magnets, something concrete to hang their new knowledge on.”

The thesis shows how children who benefit in particular from sound-based training can be identified, and how important knowledge of the letters is. For this reason she recommends that the child's knowledge of letters is tested at an early stage in child healthcare.

Get help in the right way

“We know how important letters are for the whole development of language skills, so it would be a good way to identify children who are lagging behind so that they can be helped in the right way.”

Doctor von Mentzer defended her thesis on 5 September.

The thesis: “Rethinking Sound. Computer-assisted reading intervention with a phonics approach for deaf and hard of hearing children using cochlear implants or hearing aids”.