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Computer-based Exercises For Learning to Read and Spell by Deaf Children.


Dr. Pieter Reitsma/Vrije Universiteit, Netherlands was available from 3/09/09 until 3/29/09 to answer questions and share ideas concerning his research and its implications for parents of children who are deaf/hard of hearing, their teachers and other professionals who work with them.

  • You are encouraged to read the research summary below and review the attached discussion.

There is a surprising lack of systematic research evaluating the effects of reading exercises for young deaf children. Therefore, for this article, two computer-based exercises were developed and learning effects were determined by posttests. One (spelling oriented) exercise was to select the correct word among three orthographically similar alternatives that corresponds to a drawing or a sign (digital video). The other (meaning oriented) exercise was to select the correct sign or picture among three alternatives that corresponds to a written word. Eleven deaf Dutch children with a mean age of 7;10 participated in the study. A first question was whether in single-word exercises the meaning or the spelling of a word should be emphasized. A second question was whether there was any effect of using drawings or signs to refer to the meaning of the word. The results reveal that emphasizing the word-spelling is most effective for learning to read for deaf children and the findings also suggest that drawings are more efficient in the current exercises.

Because most hearing people do not know sign language, one way of deaf persons to communicate with them is to use written language. Also, in order to function well in modern society, deaf people may want to learn to use written language. Various studies have shown that learning to read is quite difficult for deaf children. Can computer-based exercises be of any help?

An important advantage of computer exercises is the flexible presentation of signs (either stills or dynamic video clips), pictures, photos, digitized speech, and printed words. Individualized practice can be continued almost endlessly, as long as the pupil enjoys and is interested. Feedback can be given on screen immediately. Thus, computer-based exercises are promising for helping deaf children to acquire reading skills.

What type of computer-exercise is most beneficial? Because there is no evidence yet on any type of exercise, we first compared two basic computer-based exercises for learning the associations between printed words and meanings. One exercise is to match a printed word with one of three pictures that is representing the meaning of the word. This most resembles ordinary reading where print should be translated in meaning. Thus this type of exercise should be beneficial for learning new (printed) words. Another exercise consists of matching a picture with a printed word. The word should be selected from three printed words having several letters in common (see the second example with blue background below). The spelling of the word is very important in this type of task and one can expect that children learn most about the precise letter structure of the printed word from this type of exercise.

Another research question was whether the word meaning is best represented by still drawings or by showing a video clip dynamically displaying the corresponding sign. An advantage of the first option is that drawings are independent of sign language development. A picture enables a child to understand the meaning of the word even as he does not know the sign for the construct. A disadvantage is that not all words can easily be illustrated by a drawing. The words being used in the present study were already part of the signed vocabulary of the participating deaf children, but not yet of their written language vocabulary. Whereas a picture displays an abstract image of the item, signs refer to the child’s preferred or in some cases the first language.

Research Procedures. The current study was conducted in two Dutch primary schools specialized in educating deaf children using Dutch sign language, Dutch with signs, or whatever means are available to inform children and communicate with them. Eleven profoundly deaf children participated (6 boys and 5 girls) with an average age of 7;10 years. The hearing loss ranged between 90 and 120 dB. Ten children used external hearing aids, the hearing gains ranged between 15 and 45 dB. They all used sign language.

The children participated in both types of computer-based exercises but learned different printed words in each exercise. The words selected for the training were part of the signed vocabulary of the children, but not (yet) of their written language vocabulary. Each word was practised 18 times.
English examples of the procedures for practising the words are shown below. The first screen shows matching a word with one of the drawings or signs. Either 3 pictures were shown from one semantic category (clothing) or 3 boxes with a video clip of a sign that started to play as soon as the cursor moved on top of it.


The next screen shows matching of a picture (which could also have been a sign movie) with one of the printed words. Note that the printed words are very similar in spelling.


Results. A few days after each training period, three post-tests were administered: a reading test, a spelling test, and a word-identification test. In the reading test the practiced words were shown on paper and the children were asked to read the words and make the corresponding sign. In the spelling test the experimenter presented the sign and the children had to write down the corresponding word. In the word-identification test the experimenter made the sign and the children had to select the correct word among four printed alternatives.

Whereas before training, the children could not read any of the words, after the training period on average 56 % of the words were read correctly, whereas 26 % of the words were spelled correctly. On the word recogntion test 78 % of the words was correctly identified.
The main finding is that higher scores were obtained for words that were practiced in the condition of printed word selection (2nd screen). The effect of practice condition was most obvious on the reading test. The other finding was a tendency that words practiced with drawings as a means to refer to meaning were learned better than when dynamic signs were used.

Implications. The results of this study demonstrate that it is very well possible for deaf children to learn new printed words by using computer-based exercises. On average, in a relatively brief period of training the children have learned to read correctly about 12 words out of 20, whereas they could not read a single word of these before the training began.

Although this small scale study did not reveal spectacular effects, the findings are quite consistent over the three post tests showing that words practiced in the conditions with printed word selection were recalled better than words of which the word meaning had been practiced. Emphasizing the word-spelling apparently is most effective for learning to read for deaf children, likely because it stimulates close attention to the word-specific pattern of letters. Drawings seem to be more efficient than using L1 sign language. One explanation could be that children might be accustomed to associate printed words to pictures. Another factor may be that drawings can be perceived at a single glance during the exercises, whereas a sign takes time to completely see the movements. Of course, there are many words that cannot easily be represented by a simple picture. For abstract words signs are needed.

Computer-based literacy exercises with video clips of signs may play an important role to provide efficient opportunities for practice in reading and spelling.

Reitsma, P. (2009). Computer-based exercises for learning to read and spell by deaf children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 14(2), [Epub ahead of print].