The Question of Literacy.

Literacy is one of those things that still continues to be a hot topic, even when most of the UK population are literate (according to UNESCO, its at 99%). It isn’t the case all over the world – and most illiterate people tend to be women, which is a topic for another post. I watched an episode of See Hear recently for International Literacy Day. They interviewed Dr Linda Watson of Birmingham University about how to promote and teach literacy to deaf children. Literacy is meant to mean reading and writing skills – which can be connected to communication, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be spoken language. Although spoken language often teaches children to connect words with meaning, it isn’t, in my opinion, the only way to teach literacy.

I’ve always felt that it is more important that children have a means of communication as early on as possible, whether this is spoken or signed communication. I don’t feel that either is better than the other. You might be surprised, reading this from a writer – but for me, the written word is more important than the spoken word, even though I do appreciate connecting with hearing people through speech. The ideal is that children learn how to recognise and describe things – and BSL is a complex language, which uses context and description. A lot of people don’t always understand this – thinking that BSL is mime or a paler version of English.

When I was diagnosed as profoundly deaf at the age of 6, I already seemed to have an affinity for reading, and my literacy was excellent for my age. I don’t know what it was like for me before I was diagnosed – but I was brought up in a hearing family, and for all intents and purposes, my speech was normal for a 6 year old, and I didn’t have any issues there. Maybe its because I do remember hearing things, I do remember voices without hearing aids. My sister and I both have progressive hearing loss, and I’ve had a few drops over the years. My Mum thinks that I was diagnosed late because I was good at lipreading, and this might have been the case too. Lipreading and speech is mostly how I’ve communicated over the years, but I’ve always had a complex about my voice, not because it sounds strange, but because people have often told me that it tends to be quiet at times. English is my first language, but I now consider myself bilingual because learning BSL has taught me a lot about language. It wasn’t easy to learn, and I’m still learning things after passing my Stage 2. My teacher also gave me a strong Deaf role model, and the confidence to define my identity further.

As the Writer Interviews have shown, being a deaf writer isn’t necessarily a rare thing. The need to express ourselves, to be an artist, writer, actor, poet, dancer – it all comes from a very human desire to connect, with a deeper part of ourselves, with an audience, or to understand the world better. I have never been someone who can always express herself that eloquently through speech, even though I love to debate and discuss things with people. I’m much more comfortable expressing myself through writing. It comes more naturally to me, even though apparently writing mimics the flow of speech. I feel that there is a lot researchers don’t know about the connection between literacy and language – because it seems that people learn things in different ways. It doesn’t follow that teaching all deaf children to read and write in the same way means that it will be effective for all of them.

Another thing about the interview with Dr Linda Watson was that she expressed something interesting about what happens when people read a book. People bring their own experiences and understanding of the world to reading. She put the case forward that perhaps when people don’t understand as much about the world, or about life, they might not understand words or ideas in books that they have no frame of reference for. I can definitely understand this. For example, I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was 10. A lot of the words went over my head, and I didn’t understand everything about the events happening in the book – because I was still young and didn’t have all the knowledge that came when I grew up. I still enjoyed the book. Re-reading it periodically, my understanding of the story, the nuances and the irony of Austen has deepened.

Do hearing children understand more about the world from a younger age than deaf children? I don’t know. I imagine that hearing the radio, the news and adults speak about things aids the education of hearing children. However, that doesn’t follow that deaf children don’t understand or pick things up – isn’t it more about access? Such as watching the news with BSL interpretation, or asking adults questions. Which makes me wonder what the answer is. I wasn’t particularly interested in the news or ‘adult’ programmes when I was at Primary school. I learnt a lot from reading though – even if I didn’t always get the socialisation of overheard conversations or the radio. Is the internet more of an educator for the next generation?

This is why reading is so important – because it opens up new worlds and ideas. Even if people don’t understand them to start with, as time goes on they’ll become more knowledgeable. An article by Cathy Heffernan for the Limping Chicken at the beginning of the month sparked my interest and this post. It’s about DCAL, the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre, which is based at UCL. Their research findings, particularly about the link between lip-reading (speechreading – so called because lip reading involves reading the whole face) and reading skills. They found a link between good lip-reading and good literacy levels. Hearing children also lipread when they are learning to read, which does suggest that speech-reading is a big part of literacy. I know that it is hotly contested, and there are always exceptions, as Cathy points out in her article. Again, it doesn’t immediately follow that being a good lip-reader means you’re a good reader.

Maybe being curious about the world and books helps a lot. When a child wants to engage and understand things. No matter the means of communication – sign-language or speech – giving a child the gift of language as early as possible is so important. Sign language has been known to aid understanding in both deaf and hearing children. It connects meaning to objects and experiences. I think that is the most important part of communication – not so much the medium it is delivered in. Vocabulary develops with age – it’s the same with BSL vocabulary. It all depends on the individual child and what helps them communicate and learn most effectively. So I feel it does come down to finding ways to teach children to read and write that involves a mix of total communication and bilingualism.

There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book. ~ Frank Serafini.

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