Literacy Outcomes of Deaf Learners: Updating the Evidence Base


Funding Program:

SSHRC Insight Grant

Funding Amount:


For the better part of the past century, research has indicated that the median reading level for an 18-year-old deaf student is about the 4th grade level, and that approximately 30% of deaf graduates leave school functionally illiterate. These low literacy levels have persisted despite shifts in educational approaches and communication philosophies with a consequent negative impact on the transition to and success in the workplace and higher education. However, over the past 20 years, two events have had a significant impact on the field of deaf education--- the introduction of universal newborn hearing screening (UNHS), and advances in hearing technologies including cochlear implants. Through the interacting factors of UNHS and the timely fitting of appropriate amplification, there is an increased potential for age-appropriate English language development. Such enhanced English language development raises the possibility that deaf children can achieve literacy outcomes that are commensurate with their hearing age peers. A growing body of evidence suggests that such a positive shift is already being realized, particularly for deaf learners with cochlear implants.

That said, the research on reading and writing outcomes in the deaf population remains relatively thin, and more importantly, it does not adequately reflect the impact of recent changes on achievement. The most current, widely cited reference in this regard reports on data collected in 1996, data that is now 20 years old. In light of the profound changes that have occurred in the field over the past two decades, it would not only be timely, but essential to update this information to reflect these changes. It is important to determine the extent to which predictions for improved literacy outcomes are being realized, and to more accurately represent the current achievement levels of deaf students. This study represents an effort to provide updated information on this issue and would be the first investigation of its kind in the Canadian context. Specifically, this study will examine the reading and writing levels of a cohort of school-aged students from 7th to 12th grade (N=400) to document their literacy achievement relative to age norms on a standardized measure of reading, and to identify the impact of individual and demographic factors (e.g., degree of hearing loss, type of hearing technology used, consistency of use, communication used, language of the home, educational placement, additional disabilities). An additional focus of the study will be to examine written language development, as studies of literacy achievement in this population to date have focused more heavily on reading than writing.

The results of the proposed study would represent an important contribution to the literature in that they would reflect the impact of a profound and fundamental change in the field on the achievement of deaf learners, and it would be the first study to collect data of this scope in a Canadian context. The findings would be of interest to all groups, nationally and internationally, who have a stake in the education of deaf students including Ministries of Education, school boards/authorities, schools for the deaf, university faculties and teacher education programs, Ministries of Child and Youth Services, professional organizations (e.g., Canadian Association of Educators of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists), consumer groups (e.g., Canadian Association of the Deaf, Silent Voice), and parents of children with hearing loss (e.g., VOICE for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children).