Saturday, May 23, 2015

What Eye Movements Reveal about Deaf Readers

People test hypotheses and then test them out in haphazard ways with limited data. The danger of this approach is that we can become inappropriately confident about our amateur research outcomes, reaching hasty and premature conjectures dressed up as quasi-scientific conclusions. Sometimes we rely on the opinions or knowledge of others. This is also problematic, as opinions may be based on stereotypes passed down through the generations (Rolfe & Mac Naughton, 2010, p.15-16).

There has always been a contentious debate between reading specialists about teaching reading methodologies – phonics and whole language, or a balanced approach. “A phonics approach focuses instruction on learning to associate printed letters and combinations of letters with their corresponding sounds…The whole language approach is based on the understanding that reading is finding the meaning in written language” (Coordinated Campaign, n.d., para. 3 & 5). The balanced approach takes more than one approach and is more individually tailored for each student. If you read through the entire article, How Children Learn, you can see a general bias toward sounds.

One of the reasons suggested for deaf students’ poor reading skills is because of their hearing loss. Because they cannot hear and read phonetically, professionals, therefore, believe that they would struggle with reading. They surmise that deaf students cannot possibly read without the ability to hear. Thus, the focus on restoring hearing becomes part of the early intervention services.

Historically, there have had been successful deaf readers, and we have not really researched how they become successful readers because of “stereotypes passed down through the generations” (Rolfe & Mac Naughton, 2010, p.16).

As a child of deaf parents, I grew up reading books at home, going to the library to borrow books, and reading daily newspapers. My father told me that we subscribed to three newspapers because they were substitutes for listening to the radio.

Dr. Nathalie Bélanger has devoted her professional research to learning how people learn to read. In her recent paper, she has focused her research on the strengths of deaf people’s reading skills – rather than on their reading difficulties. She said, “Only then can we inform reading education for deaf students” (in press).

Turns out that her research suggest an early onset of word processing efficiency in young deaf readers (Bélanger, 2015). She wrote a paper -- a culmination of her previous research -- that is awaiting publication in the Current Directions in Psychological Science.

“Adult deaf readers (skilled and less-skilled) appear to bypass phonological codes in early word processing” (Bélanger, Baum & Mayberry, 2012; Bélanger et al., 2013). “Based on these combined findings, we proposed the notion of “word processing efficiency” for adult deaf readers. In other words, they process more information within one fixation (larger span, longer forward saccades) and do so more efficiently (no need to regress back as often, no need to refixate as often, more skipping)” (Bélanger & Rayner, under revision).

Dr. Carol Padden (2005) wrote, “We tend to think of fingerspelling as a simple manual system for representing the alphabet” (para.1) and Padden (1998) elaborated how fingerspelling is linked to one of the skills used in reading for signing students.

Will we change the professional paradigms about poor reading skills of deaf students through such research?

“In an early paper, Wadsworth (1984) argued strongly that those affected by research can and should do research: ‘Research is a process legitimized in our society as producing knowledge and therefore ought to be in the hands of those who want to use and benefit from it – particularly when it is information about our own lives.’ (1984, p.iii)” (Rolfe & Mac Naughton, 2010, p.12).


Bélanger, N. N., Mayberry, R.I., & Baum, S.R. (2012). Reading difficulties in adult deaf readers of French: Phonological codes, not guilty! Scientific Studies of Reading, 16(3), 263-285.
Bélanger, N. N., Mayberry, R. I. & Rayner, K. (2013). Orthographic and phonological preview benefits: Parafoveal processing in skilled and less-skilled deaf readers. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66(11), 2237-2252.
Bélanger, N. N., Slattery, T.J., Mayberry, R.I. & Rayner K. (2012). Skilled deaf readers have an enhanced perceptual span in reading. Psychological Science, 23(7), 816-823. .
Bélanger, N. N. & Rayner, K. (under revision). What Eye Movements Reveal about Deaf Readers. Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Bélanger, N. N., Schotter, E., & Rayner, K. (2015) Young deaf readers’ word processing efficiency. Poster at
Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities. (n.d.) How children learn. Retrieved May 2015 from:
Padden, C.  (2005) Learning to fingerspell twice: Young signing children’s acquisition of fingerspelling. Advances in the Sign-Language Development of Deaf Children. DOI:
Padden, C. & Ramsey, C. (1998). Reading ability in signing deaf children. Topics in Language Disorders, 18, 30-46.
Rolfe, S.A., & Mac Naughton, G. (2010). Doing early childhood research: International perspectives on theory and practice (2nd ed.). Eds. Mac Naughton, G., Rolfe, S.A., & Siraj-Blatchford, I. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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