Profoundly deaf children who rely on speech and sound for communication, especially when they are very young, seldom understand the communication around them. It is extremely difficult for them to speechread-to make sense of what little they can hear by watching the lip movements of a language they have not yet learned. But signing is comprehensible to these children because they can see every element of the language. In the course of daily communication they learn what various hand movements mean and in this way acquire vocabulary and grammar.
Deaf children who sign with their families and others are better able to talk about day-to-day routines-the things they see, the places they visit, the people they meet. Conversation about all of these things makes them more knowledgeable and wiser. These experiences become critical when the children learn to read English. One reason many deaf children who have not learned to sign until they reach school are poor readers is that they lack knowledge of the world. (1) Few have had explained to them why there are different types of motor vehicles, where one state is in relationship to another, or how to use various kitchen utensils. Therefore, the more deaf children are able to communicate, the more information they will acquire, and the more tools they will have for learning how to read.
Here's another way of looking at the relationship between signing and reading. Children must know and be able to express themselves in a language before they can learn to read with comprehension in that language. The larger their vocabulary, the better able the children will be to recognize the printed word once they begin to read. (2) Signing helps them expand their vocabulary-they learn to attach labels to the things they see and talk about. Whether the first language children learn to sign is ASL or English, they are developing language skills and thinking skills that can be transferred to reading.
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