I have become increasingly interested in the reading processes of Deaf and hard of hearing children who use American Sign Language as their first language. When a hearing child is asked to read a passage out loud, the teacher only listens to the words the child speaks. There is nothing inherently telling about the way a child says a word that would indicate whether or not the child understands the meaning behind each word. The word "bat" will sound the same in the sentence "The boy hit the ball with the bat" and "The bat flew in through the window".
In American Sign Language however the word "bat" would be signed differently in each of these contexts. A teacher sitting with an emergent reader would immediately know if the child understood the sentence by the sign the student chose while reading. To me this is an amazing advantage to ameliorate the reading development of young Deaf and hard of hearing children.
Consider the following example:
A five-year-old Deaf student in my dual language (American Sign Language and English) first grade class eagerly walks over to me with an emergent reader text written by Monica Hughes. She takes a seat beside me and reads the title of the book, The Play, utilizing manual communication without voice. Although the word ‘play’ in this context indicates a theatrical performance, she uses the sign meaning ‘to play’ as in having fun.
Throughout the reading her use of this incorrect conceptual sign hinders her full understanding of the text. It is not until after the reading when I show her the appropriate conceptual sign that the ‘Aha!’ moment takes place. Looking at the cover of the book now her expression changes as the author’s intended meaning emerges. She notices the stage curtain and the masks in the children’s hands and says “Oh!” with the bright-eyed clarity of understanding.
A week later she brings me another emergent reader also entitled The Play and proudly reads it to me using the correct conceptual sign. She excitedly reminds me of our discussion the week before by indicating the distinction between the two meanings of the word ‘play’.
This time, paying attention to the context of the story and the words that surround it, she chose the correct sign.
These decisions are constantly necessary when reading for meaning. And without meaning, 'reading' is simply an exercise in decoding.
For those of you interested in viewing some examples of this in action, Lauren and I have made another video. In it we chose four words (sign, play, letter, mean) and provide two sentences where the same word has a different meaning based on the context.
The word 'sign' is used in the sentences "If you break a mirror, it's a sign that you will have bad luck for seven years" and "Can you sign this paper?"
The word 'play' is used in the sentences "I enjoy playing with my friends" and "Did you watch that play last night?"
The word 'letter' is used in the sentences "Do you know all your letters?" and "I wrote my mom a letter."
And the word 'mean' is used in the sentences "Do you mean something different?" and "That girl is mean. She is not nice."
For more on this check out these books by Kristin Anderson Di Perri. And of coure, feel free to ask questions (but raise your hand and take turns :)