Deaf People Learning to Read.

How do deaf people learn to read without phonics? I know it’s been a while. But when I was little, phonics was the indispensable way I (and everyone else my age) learned how to read. Indeed, I don’t believe I could have done it without phonics. So how do little deaf children do it?


The human brain is resourceful. They simply associate the letters with things other than sounds.

Think of signage and icons that don’t have a ‘name’ that you say out loud associated with them, e.g, a triangle with a lightning symbol in it. When you see it, does it have a name you hear in your head like you do when you see “love” written out? I’m guessing not, but you know what it means. Or if someone mimes out directions on how to accomplish something and then you follow their directions. You did that without sounding out names of their actions, and yet, it was a very complex idea being communicated. And so, a bunch of letters not being sounded out can come to have meaning also.

Why would phonics be needed for reading? A frequent complaint from ESL people is that English is actually two languages: written and spoken. I can read (just not out loud) many English words that I have no idea how to pronounce, and know the pronunciation and meaning (but would likely not spell them correctly) many others that if I have seen in writing I wasn’t able to identify as matching. A deaf person simply needs to work in any language the way most ESL folk work in English.

Do you think it would be impossible for you to learn American Sign Language? (Obviously phonics would be out of the question.)

No matter what you think you were being taught in school, you learned to read by sight as well as by sound. Phonics didn’t teach you the word “the” (or the word “phonics” for that matter.) I had an aunt who taught her son to read by the simple method of hanging signs on everything that could possibly have a name, including herself (“Mother.”)

My wife taught deaf children. It’s more difficult than using a combination of phonics and sight-reading, but hardly impossible.

One thing to keep in mind is that for the signing deaf English is a foreign language and has to be learned as such. I would be interested in hearing (so to speak) from a deaf person on this. Is it like learning Chinese? Each combination of letters corresponds to a sign and has to be learned. Or does the spelling somehow help.

The OP is a great question.

Phonics is really useful for someone learning the written form of a language they already speak. (But people still learn to read Chinese.) If you don’t already speak the language, it’s less necessary.

English is not a foreign language, it’s their second language. It’s the language of their entire world, except the small fraction that signs, so Deaf children are constantly immersed in English. Finger spelling (in English) is a significant part of ASL. The connection between finger spelled letters and written letters is obvious.

Also, I thought phonics was pretty much discredited as a system for teaching a language that’s only semi-phonetic, like English.