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Special Education Articles: Deaf and Hard of Hearing Articles: How Does Your Child Develop Language Skills?

How Does Your Child Develop Language Skills?

Sally Lonner
August 1997

More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Since the babies appear to be normal and their developmental milestones are on track, detection of the hearing loss is often delayed. Frequently, it is the mother's "gut feeling" that something is wrong that first indicates hearing loss. Far too often it is not given credence until it is pursued consistently.

The effects of a hearing loss can be devastating or subtle, depending on the degree of loss. Normal sound perception plays a critical role in our lives. In the womb we develop listening to our mothers heartbeat and voice. Then we announce our arrival into the world with our own crying voices. From there, we begin the association of sounds to life. That sound provides the basis of our communication and language development.

Early detection of the hearing loss is vital to language development--the peak time being before age 5. A hearing baby learns language, almost incidentally, by listening. Consider how many times he has heard "water" before he says it. A deaf baby must receive the same language input visually before he can express it verbally or manually. Language development, social growth and academic progress are closely interdependent in the deaf child. Therefore the key to success for a deaf child is the development of a language base, ideally through all modalities visual, auditory and kinesthetic.

Language and speech are often, mistakenly, considered one and the same. At this point it is helpful to define language. Language is a system of symbols, in the brain, representing objects, experiences, actions and feelings that can be recalled and used to communicate. It provides a means through which perceptions of the environment are organized. When a child understands he can manipulate his environment with language, essential learning of one of life's most essential skills, communication, has begun.

As deaf children do not learn incidentally, language needs to be purposefully presented and language experiences need to be ongoing. We need to structure the environment for the utmost language input by relating on their level, through play and daily living activities.

Bath time is a wonderful opportunity for language. It is usually a pleasant experience and you are one-on-one in close proximity. Some basic concepts that can be developed are: the water is on or off, the water level is high or low, the child's hand or foot is in or out of the water. A list of things needed to bathe are: water, tub , soap, washcloth, towel, brush, faucet, drain and of course the names of all of the tub toys. Then, describe the items: the water is hot, warm, or cold; the soap is slippery; the wash cloth is dry, wet, rough. This language experience may also be expanded to include the body parts.

A broad base of general information is often lacking in deaf children, so it is important to begin early to expand this base. Start with the word water. What kind of a vocabulary list can be developed to include all of our associations? Make a book of pictures cut from magazines of waterfall, ocean, lake, river, stream, creek, pond, pool puddle, geyser, fountain, H2O, pour, drink, swim, wash, rain, and shower.

Basic concepts are fun to work on during play. Here is a list with which to begin: in/out, on/off, under/over, up/ down, in front of/ behind, across, around, between, with, middle, together, without or missing, long, short, tall, near or next to.

Teaching your child language concepts is an ongoing process. For best results:

  1. Choose one word per week.
  2. Learn the sign and/or speech.
  3. Include the kinesthetic modality and act it out. Example: get in the box, get in the car, go in the house, get in the bed, get in the tub.
  4. Have toys be the agents. Example: The ball is in the box. The doll is in the bed. The blocks are in the wagon.
  5. Have the child listen to the language and perform the concept correctly. Example: Put the bear in the box. Put the crackers in the bag.)
  6. Have the child use the language, and tell you. Example: Get in the car, or put the ball in the box.


Sally Lonner received her Bachelors Degree from the University of Washington. She holds the following credentials: State of California Restricted Special Education Life Credential for K-12 Speech and Hearing Therapy and the California Community College Instructor Credential in Special Education. She has worked as a speech and language specialist in a total communication program for deaf and hard of hearing students for the last 22 years. Her students ranged from 18 months to 12 years of age. She has also worked at the John Tracy clinic in their deaf blind program and at a school for the physically handicapped. For the last 12 years she has taught sign language at a local community college. Sally has attended numerous workshops related to working with the deaf and hard of hearing, including a language workshop with Daniel Ling. She has also presented at the CALED (California Educators of the Deaf) conference.

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