Reading and Deaf Children

Mardi Loeterman
Peter V. Paul
Sheila Donahue


In this article, we describe Phase 1 of development and field testing of Cornerstones, an approach to classroom literacy instruction for young deaf and hard-of-hearing children that utilizes an educational television program and other engaging media components. The findings of the field test are being used to assist in the development of a more rigorous experimental design for Phase 2. We discuss the evaluation of the Cornerstones approach, specifically its components, feasibility of use in the classroom, and effectiveness. With respect to effectiveness, we focus on presenting findings related to the word-knowledge aspect, because of this aspect’s strong relationship to and influence on the development of background knowledge and reading comprehension. Results indicate that when teachers use instructional techniques based on the knowledge model of vocabulary development, along with technology supports, students develop in-depth knowledge of words. We note that after the field test, all teachers continued to incorporate aspects of the Cornerstones approach and sample lessons in their everyday teaching practices. This seems to support the value and feasibility of the Cornerstones approach for classroom use.


Related Postings from the Archives

Introduction | The Knowledge Model | The Cornerstones Approach | Sample Unit | Evaluation | Implications | References

The low English reading levels of many students with severe to profound hearing losses have been well documented (Musselman, 2000; Paul, 1998). Progress is extremely slow for these children, with gains in three or four years typically as much as gains experienced by hearing children in one year (Marschark & Harris, 1996).

There are a number of factors reported to influence deaf and hard-of-hearing children’s development of literacy, including difficulties in the areas of phonemic awareness (Harris & Beech, 1998), vocabulary (LaSasso & Davey, 1987; Paul, 1996), syntax (Kelly, 1996; Quigley, Wilbur, Power, Montanelli, & Steinkamp, 1976, online abstract), and the use of prior knowledge and metacognitive skills (Jackson, Paul, & Smith, 1997; Strassman, 1997). In essence, many deaf children seem to have difficulties with both low-level (e.g., word identification) and high-level (e.g., vocabulary knowledge, comprehension) reading skills (Kelly 1995; Paul, 2001). In order for any instructional reading program to be effective, it needs to address the development of skills such as word identification, word knowledge, and comprehension (including prior knowledge and metacognition).

In this article, we describe Phase 1 of development of our technology-infused approach to classroom literacy instruction, Cornerstones, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education (1998-2000). The purpose of Phase 1 was to develop and field test a literacy approach with young deaf and hard-of-hearing children and to obtain information from their teachers on the use and feasibility of a teaching unit based on the approach. Subsequently, the findings of the field test were used in the development of a more rigorous experimental design for Phase 2, also been funded by the Department of Education (2002-2004). Given the nature of the evaluation approach for Phase 1, we should emphasize that the findings of the field test were used as guidelines for developing a scientific approach for Phase 2. Thus, our remarks about the use and effects of Cornerstones, particularly the vocabulary component, should be viewed as instructive, but not generalizable.

First we present research background for Cornerstones, especially the reading vocabulary (word knowledge) component. Then, we provide an overview of the development and implementation of the Cornerstones approach and include excerpts from a sample unit. Finally, we discuss the evaluation of the approach and present findings (e.g., procedures, scoring protocol) on the vocabulary component.

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The Knowledge Model of Vocabulary Development

We believe that comprehension of text depends, in part, upon an in-depth and extensive knowledge of words as well as multiple exposure to these words in appropriate reading contexts (Kelly, 1995; Musselman, 2000; Paul, 1996). In the Cornerstones approach, children are introduced to specific aspects of words -- for example, some words have multiple meanings, some can become part of compound words, and some can be used figuratively. They receive instruction from their teachers in literacy skills and engage in numerous literacy activities with a variety of reading materials at appropriate difficulty levels. This provides exposure to the conceptual fields of most, if not all, of the target reading vocabulary, which includes words at a range of conceptual difficulty.

To select the target reading vocabulary and to develop other components of the approach, we incorporated our understanding of the research on deaf children with respect to the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension, the ability to use context during reading, and types of effective vocabulary instruction. For deaf and hard-of-hearing students, researchers have documented a strong positive correlation between in-depth knowledge of words and reading comprehension (see, e.g., Balow, Fulton, & Peploe, 1971; LaSasso & Davey, 1987; Paul & Gustafson, 1991). Although it has been difficult to explain this relationship, there seems to be consensus that good readers, deaf or hearing, have an extensive knowledge of words.

This deep knowledge of words in the context of reading achievement has been referred to as the “knowledge model of vocabulary development” (Anderson & Freebody, 1985; Paul, 1998). In-depth word knowledge is viewed as the integration of conceptual or interrelated associations -- for example, meanings, concepts, nuances, examples, uses, associations, and figurative usage. It is this totality of knowledge that plays a crucial role in the comprehension of written texts, including the development and enhancement of background knowledge.

In general, skilled readers do not acquire this deep knowledge of words via instruction (Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985). Rather, skilled readers are independent word learners who develop their understanding through varied and extensive reading experience and reflections on words. This growth in word knowledge occurs in small but steady increments.

On the other hand, poor readers, including many deaf and hard-of-hearing children, do not learn much about the words that they encounter in context during reading (for hearing readers, see the review in Beck and McKeown, 1991; for deaf and hard-of-hearing readers, see deVilliers and Pomerantz, 1992; Kelly, 1995, 1996). They are not likely to possess the range of skills that would enable them to use context effectively; they are also not likely to read widely and thereby benefit from multiple exposure to words.

Poor readers seem to need systematic instruction in vocabulary, especially in multiple dimensions of words, before they can become independent (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000; Paul, 1998, 2001). There is consensus that explicit, systematic vocabulary instruction is generally more effective for poor deaf and hard-of-hearing readers than is relying on incidental word learning from context or on wide reading. However, this is not an either-or phenomenon that pits instruction versus the use of appropriate context. Rather, it is recommended that explicit instruction be used in conjunction with wide reading in appropriate contexts (see, e.g., Luetke-Stahlman, 1999; McAnally, Rose, & Quigley, 1999; Paul, 1997).

What type of systematic vocabulary instruction is most effective for deaf and hard-of-hearing readers? This is not an easy question to answer given the ongoing debates about the relationships between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. A perusal of texts offering research-based teaching suggestions for teachers of either hearing (e.g., Nagy, 1988) or deaf and hard-of-hearing students (e.g., Luetke-Stahlman, 1999; McAnally, Rose, & Quigley, 1999; Stewart & Kluwin, 2001) suggests that the most effective approaches are those that emphasize semantic elaboration techniques such as use of semantic maps, semantic feature analyses, word maps, and classroom discussions of words.

Unfortunately, many teachers of deaf and hard-of-hearing students have continued to use traditional definition and contextual (or sentence) approaches (see reviews in Paul, 1996, 1997, 1998). In these approaches, the focus is on practice with pronouncing or signing a list of words and learning only single meanings of the words. Students might also be required to use the words in sentences. This practice does not help children develop an in-depth knowledge of words. The remarks of Conway (1990) are relevant and instructive:

Traditional programs of learning definitions for lists of words should give way to learning words in semantically rich contexts. The contexts can serve as bridges to old information and as foundations for developing further conceptual interrelationships.... Such rich contexts should also include use of semantic mapping...and adaptations of networking strategies. (p. 346)

In addition to the above, repetition and meaningful use of words are important. Deaf and hard-of-hearing children, like all students, need to be exposed to words and their conceptual frameworks (e.g., meanings, nuances, figurative usage) in deliberate but natural and meaningful learning situations. In short, students should become actively involved in developing their understanding of words, become immersed in the words, and experience these words repeatedly in multiple contexts.

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The Cornerstones Approach and the Use of Technology

Technology and media have been an integral part of the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing children for decades. For a long time, the need to present information visually kept special schools for these children on the cutting edge of educational uses of media (Harkins, Loeterman, Lam, & Korres, 1996), from the early adoption of the overhead projector to the use of interactive videodiscs, videotape, and computers.

Today, however, the majority of children who are deaf and hard of hearing are educated in public schools. Teachers of deaf and hard-of-hearing children increasingly find themselves using mainstream curricula, materials, and lesson guides, despite the fact that these students have special needs that mainstream materials and curricula do not address. As a result, teachers habitually adapt materials for their students (Luetke-Stahlman, 1999; McAnally, Rose, & Quigley, 1999; Wathum-Ocama, 1992). The need is strong for appropriate materials for these children, developed in collaboration with researchers (Kaplan, Mahshie, Moseley, Singer, & Winston, 1993, online document).

Universal design for learning is a principle for curriculum development that provides alternative and flexible ways of accessing information to adapt to variations in learner needs, backgrounds, and preferences (Rose, 2000). Materials designed with care according to this principle could hold particular promise for children who are deaf and hard of hearing (Easterbrooks, 1999). The special media and technology within Cornerstones give teachers of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, as well as teachers of other struggling readers and writers, the flexibility to customize their instruction according to their students’ learning and communication needs, backgrounds, and preferences.

Some attention has been paid recently to the use of media to translate popular stories into sign, with professional deaf storytellers. Although these efforts are small relative to the vast amount of media available to the general population of school children, they fill a need and provide models. American Sign Language versions of state-adopted storybooks (e.g., Clearinghouse for Specialized Media and Technology, California Department of Education, 1998), Visual Storyreading in American Sign Language (Shaw & Hayes, 1996), Rosie’s Walk Sign Language CD-ROM (Texas School for the Deaf, 1995), American Sign Language versions of Aesop’s fables (Texas School for the Deaf, 1996), and multimedia stories for Hispanic deaf children (Andrews & Jordan, 1998a, online document; 1998b) are notable examples.

These models inspired Cornerstones’ alternate presentations -- in sign language and other visual modes of communication (such as cued speech). Such representations of stories enable children to access them in their preferred conversational (i.e., speaking or signing) mode. This type of access should assist children in their attempts to understand the same topics presented in printed English.

Cornerstones offers teachers numerous means for presenting vocabulary conceptually: through print, still pictures, concept maps, physical objects, story video, and role playing. The conceptual approach to building vocabulary, which addresses gaps in English word knowledge of the students, supplements the keyword approach to recognizing words in print, which emphasizes phonetic patterns of words and builds on children’s oral or signed language.

Components of the Cornerstones Approach

The overall literacy objectives of the Cornerstones approach pertain to

To accomplish these objectives, we developed a sample teaching unit with two major sets of components that address use of technology and instructional practices in the classroom. Using the integrated approach to vocabulary development (i.e., the knowledge model) should also have a positive effect on other aspect of literacy, such as identification and comprehension.

Use of Technology

At the core of a Cornerstones unit is an animated story taken from Between the Lions, a U.S. public television series designed to develop literacy skills of young children. Both the Cornerstones project and the Between the Lions initiative are part of the WGBH Educational Foundation -- a Boston public broadcaster, leading provider of programming for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), and pioneer in educational services and access technologies. The concept for Cornerstones grew out of WGBH’s expertise in captioning and other classroom technologies for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. As part of the WGBH staff, Cornerstones staff were able to work closely with Between the Lions producers to use artwork, video clips, and other elements from the television program and website. The Cornerstones project was also able to utilize professional captioning technology and services at WGBH.

Each half-hour Between the Lions episode contains an original story, fable, folktale, poem, or other engaging text, which employs innovative use of print on screen and other graphic elements. Each show opens in a library and introduces the story. This generates a library plot, where the series’ lion characters get involved in an adventure related to the story, perhaps discussing new vocabulary or gaining a new understanding of the story. A keyword is selected from the story and the word family and vowel sound become the focus of a series of short skill-building segments for beginning readers. Before the show ends, it returns to the library story and a problem developed in the opening sequence is resolved.

For the Cornerstones sample unit, the Between the Lions episode that focused on the story “The Fox and the Crow” was captioned at two reading levels: verbatim and highly edited. (Other episodes have only standard, verbatim captions.)

A Cornerstones unit gives teachers options for presenting the story aloud in a language (American Sign Language or English) or mode (Signing Exact English/SEE II or cued speech) most comfortable to the students, thus accommodating the different ways that deaf and hard-of-hearing children communicate. The target story in ASL is available by clicking here (this 5 MB video file may take some time to download and requires RealPlayer to view). Cornerstones materials also include a print storybook and a hypertext version of the story that allows children to click on words to learn more about them. (Figure 1 offers an example, with a “d link” to a description of the image for those who wish more information or who choose not to or are unable to view images with their Web browsers.)

Figure 1
Screen Shot from the Hypertext Version of “The Fox and the Crow”

screen from hypertext, illustrating the word tiny


In addition to providing alternate representations, technology, media, and materials make lesson content visual, engage children with the story and its language for extended periods of time, and give children tools for active learning. Technology also helps maintain teachers’ interest throughout the extended lessons. In addition to the story materials mentioned above, teachers have access to clip art for all the words, interactive games, character templates for retellings and games, craft templates, writing starters, seatwork, and flashcards (which some teachers combined with the clip art to make illustrated word walls). Also available is the Between the Lions website, which has hundreds of interactive games and activities designed to reinforce the objectives of the shows.

Instructional Practices

As discussed previously, for poor readers, the use of explicit, systematic, focused, research-based instruction seems to be critical for improving literacy comprehension, specifically reading vocabulary knowledge. Similar to principles outlined in Baker, Simmons, and Kameenui (1995), our vocabulary instruction is focused on the depth of word knowledge required for any reading setting, and interventions are designed to ensure that students become independent word learners. We developed a variety of reading-related activities for different purposes and contexts, all of which could be accomplished more easily and creatively with technology. The essential aspects of our instructional practices are clearly defined and demanding literacy objectives, time-intensive and focused instruction, integration of research-based instructional practices, and focus on conceptual frameworks of words.

The Cornerstones learning objectives include a large number of words that we specify for children to recognize and learn in depth (that is, they must learn more than one dimension of each word). Children are also expected to understand story grammar (i.e., characters, setting, problem, solution, outcome).

During the unit, children are immersed in the language and ideas of one short story for 2 hours every day (not necessarily in one block) over 6 days. This allows teachers to devote extended periods as needed for each lesson. Without technology, it would be difficult to engage children’s attention for these extended lessons.

The unit presents word-building and comprehension lessons in manageable segments. Each day, the teacher introduces only a small number of words from the story and one or two comprehension concepts. (Click here for the daily sequence of the sample unit.) The teacher begins each day reviewing words and concepts from previous lessons; building knowledge of the day’s words; reading the story aloud (using the print or video version), with think-aloud comments and questions; engaging the children in guided or shared reading of a portion or all of the story; and setting writing tasks. Each day also includes some of the following:

Children have many opportunities to practice their new skills and apply new knowledge, with frequent feedback. Teachers may also read aloud a different book with the same theme or concepts as the Cornerstones story.

Teachers teach words conceptually. As discussed previously, this conceptual approach views vocabulary knowledge broadly as incorporating a range of skills in both language (e.g., multiple meanings, figurative usage) and cognition (e.g., prior knowledge, metacognition). For example, Figure 2 shows conceptual fields for crow and bird that might be considered for early elementary children.

Figure 2
Example from Cornerstones Sample Unit Showing Conceptual Fields for Two Vocabulary Words


A crow is a kind of bird, it is black and large, it makes an annoying “caw” sound (it does not sing, as much as the fox in the story would like the crow to believe so).


A bird has wings, feathers, and a beak.

Other animals may have wings, but are not necessarily birds (examples are butterflies and other insects).

Not all birds fly (two examples are penguins and ostriches).

Some kinds of birds are swallow (one of our target words), parrot, owl, hummingbird, turkey, rooster, duck, woodpecker (related to wood and our target word woods), eagle, etc.

Other features of birds include claws and a tail, they lay eggs, they build nests.

Different kinds of birds make different kinds of sounds (an owl hoots, a sparrow chirps).

Compound words include scarecrow, birdbath, birdhouse, and birdcage.

In each lesson, the children are exposed to the day’s words many times in various forms, in both conversational (oral or sign) and written contexts within and external to the story. At least two meanings or usages of each word are introduced. In discussions, children talk about what they know about each word, while teachers expand their understandings. Through daily supplementary materials and activities, the children use the words in print and take part in at least one writing activity.

Excerpts from the sample unit include the text of “The Fox and the Crow,” the 28 target vocabulary words, and age-appropriate conceptual fields for a handful of words. After the field test, the sample unit was refined and has become a prototype for future Cornerstones teaching units. This prototype unit is available at the Cornerstones website.

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Evaluation of Cornerstones

For Phase 1 of the Cornerstones project, our evaluation focused on three broad areas:

  1. Components-- What is the value to teachers of the many possible elements that could be integral to a Cornerstones unit?
  2. Feasibility-- Is a Cornerstones teaching unit feasible for the classroom?
  3. Effectiveness-- How do children who participate in Cornerstones lessons benefit, particularly with regard to literacy objectives of word identification, word knowledge, and background knowledge and developing comprehension?

We feel that it is instructive to provide some findings on all three areas; however, with respect to effectiveness, we focus only on the vocabulary component. We grappled with the three questions above throughout the development of the Cornerstones approach, through all-day meetings with teacher and academic advisors, teacher evaluation of prototype materials, ad hoc testing of sample materials, and targeted online conversations.

In addition, eight teachers from six classrooms participated in a 2-week field test that included 32 deaf and hard-of-hearing students (children with severe to profound hearing losses) in classrooms representing a variety of learning contexts. The students’ ages ranged from 6 to 12 years (kindergarten through Grade 5); reading levels ranged from nonreaders to about third or fourth grade, based on teachers’ informal assessments. Classrooms used several major program types (e.g., oral, SEE II, and Bi-Bi). Two of the eight participating teachers were deaf.

For the field test, teachers spent nearly 2 hours every day for 6 to 8 days on the unit. They maintained daily logs of their lesson sequence and materials used, with notes on student engagement and perceived value to the students. We observed nearly every day in each classroom, documenting features of the lessons implemented and time spent on each. We gathered about 6 hours of videotape documentation in each classroom. At the conclusion of the unit, we interviewed each teacher to gain her perception of the lessons’ effects on her students’ literacy development, her assessment and ranking of individual aspects of the sample unit, and her experience with practical factors in implementing the unit.

Findings on the Components

Early in the process of developing and evaluating the components of the Cornerstones approach, the following key questions emerged:

Value of the television program. There was some initial concern about the appropriateness of Between the Lions for our target population. Not only is it aimed at 4- to 7-year-olds, but it devotes a significant amount of time to phonemic awareness and letter-sound correspondence. However, all children involved in the Cornerstones field test (up to age 12) found the program appealing; none commented or indicated that they might be too old for it. Both the teachers and students found value in and used the show’s segments that focused on spelling, sound patterns, and phonemic awareness.

Target age. Although the Cornerstones approach appeared to benefit all the children, those who gained most were 7- to 9-year-olds who were reading at approximately first- or second-grade level. The unit was somewhat overwhelming to students who did not have basic reading skills. The older children who were more skilled readers enjoyed the unit and certainly learned from it, but most were already engaged in more challenging work.

Meeting communication needs of the children. A critical feature of the Cornerstones approach is a set of videotapes showing storytellers who communicate the story conversationally. The purpose of these videos is to serve as a motivating read-aloud, analogous to oral storytelling for hearing children. Although there is an array of communication systems in use in classrooms of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, we decided that only ASL and exact representations of English would serve the needs of the approach. Several classrooms showed more than one version.

Difficulty of the text. Initially, most of the teachers felt that their students would not be able to read the story and would need to start with a simplified version. Ultimately, only the one kindergarten teacher chose to rewrite the story (and she made only minimal changes). The other teachers found that the original text was within reach of their students, crediting the sequence of Cornerstones lessons and the in-depth study of words and concepts.

Captioned media differs from print on the page in that the reader cannot control the pace of the text. Teachers whose students had usable hearing preferred verbatim captions on the Between the Lions show, while those whose students had minimal or no residual hearing wanted captions that were easier to read and did not necessarily match the audio. Guidelines for these edited captions were refined through consultation with Cornerstones teachers, focus groups of non-Cornerstones teachers, and informal experiments using edited and verbatim captions from Arthur (a popular children’s program on public television) with an audience of hard-of-hearing children.

Learning expectations. When we first introduced “The Fox and the Crow” to the teachers, they told us that it would be very challenging for first- and second-grade deaf and hard-of-hearing readers. The story has a large number of potentially difficult words, includes the difficult concepts of pride and flattery, and describes a fairly elaborate plan on the part of the fox to trick the crow. As mentioned above, some teachers considered creating a modified version of the story, and this was a topic of lively discussion in our meetings.

We, however, were determined to set expectations reasonably high. We identified essential words that readers had to understand in order to read the story independently, and developed lessons and materials to help teachers teach the words effectively. Not including common words, (e.g., one, a, the, in, had, but, etc.), we identified 28 words and developed an age-appropriate conceptual framework for each (see excerpts from our sample unit). All the children knew at least some words at the outset, so not all 28 words were new. At the same time, students actually became familiar with many words or aspects of words beyond the 28 vocabulary items, such as different kinds of birds, size words on a continuum with the target word tiny, and so on.

Teachers told us that they typically taught six to eight new target words in a literacy unit, and that they would choose that number to teach from our list of 28. Ultimately, all the teachers taught all words, crediting Cornerstones materials and lesson sequence with their success.

Instructional practices. We identified teaching practices that complemented the Cornerstones materials and corresponded to instruction most of the teachers were familiar with, though they were not necessarily in use in the classrooms. These included building children’s background knowledge toward understanding key concepts and vocabulary, daily review of previous lessons, daily presentation of all or part of the story, daily student reading of the text, think-alouds, direct questioning related to both explicit and implicit information from the text, teaching vocabulary conceptually and with graphical organizers (referred to as “word study”), teaching strategies for identifying words, assessing story comprehension through retell techniques, using story grammar techniques, and daily writing.

We conducted two days of training in these practices and in using the technology to support instruction. One of the reasons we have focused on word knowledge and word study in this article is in acknowledgement of the teachers, who used the word-study techniques extensively during the field test -- much more, by their own accounts, than was typical for them. They were extremely positive about the use and value of these practices.

The lesson sequence involves repeatedly immersing the children in the words and concepts of one story by means of numerous methods, materials, and contexts. Teachers were wary at the outset, thinking that their students might become bored with the same basic content day after day. However, for none of the classes was this the case. The children maintained interest and had a high level of engagement. Some teachers (notably, of the nonreaders and of the best readers) said their students might have benefited as much if they spent less time overall; others commented that without the duration and depth of the unit, students would not have been able to read the story independently by the end of the unit.

Role of technology. As may already be clear, the teachers could not have endured the length of the unit without the support of technology. The video of the story in alternate forms (e.g., sign language), in particular, was highly valued. Technology allowed the same information to be provided in alternate forms, giving children different ways to interact with the same materials. Because many deaf and some hard-of-hearing children do not pick up knowledge incidentally the way that hearing children typically do, overexposure through repetition and varied formats is critical. Also, technology is motivating to the teachers themselves, who also can become bored focusing on the same material day after day.

That said, not all teachers were comfortable with all the technology available. Although every teacher had a computer in her classroom and easy access to a video recorder, some did not have much experience with the Internet or CD-ROMs (we delivered games, the hypertext story, and clip art this way), or even in basic operation of the classroom computer. This pointed out the need for more basic computer training, something we had assumed was already in place.

Findings on Feasibility

We were interested in several indicators of the feasibility of using a Cornerstones unit in the classroom:

All teachers found it feasible to teach the unit and found ways to allocate the necessary time. In fact, they appreciated being given permission to devote significant blocks of time to the lessons. They said that the Cornerstones materials and lessons provided support they needed to improve their language arts instruction and that the benefits to their students were significant. Some had difficulty using the computer-based materials, due to computer availability and their own lack of comfort with technology. This aspect of the Cornerstones unit needs to be more teacher friendly, or more training needs to be available.

Findings on Effectiveness: Word Knowledge

As indicated previously, we restrict our discussion of effectiveness to the vocabulary component. To provide insights into the assessment of vocabulary, we present our assessment approaches, our procedures for collecting information on word knowledge, and our scoring criteria. Finally, we discuss our plan for using the information to guide our development of a more rigorous, scientific experiment on vocabulary knowledge.

Assessment approaches. We used two approaches to gather information on children’s understanding of the target words:

  1. Assessments on a selection of the target words before and after the unit was implemented
  2. Field data, collected through daily observations and videotapes of classroom sessions three times across 6 to 8 days (these data provided more nuanced and comprehensive information about word knowledge than could be obtained through the formal assessments)

The word knowledge assessment followed a word identification test, in which children were asked to identify the target words in print. It was not print dependent, except that the words were chosen from those that the children could identify. We were also interested in knowledge of words independent of the children’s reading skills.

There are advantages and disadvantages to any format used in a vocabulary test. In assessing word knowledge, we decided that an open-ended, interview format would be most effective in gathering information about students’ knowledge of words in a nonthreatening manner. Although a suggested script was provided, teacher-examiners were free to deviate and to do whatever was necessary to encourage children to talk as much as possible about words.

Based on the results of a word identification pretest, the teacher-examiner presented up to 5 of the 28 vocabulary words to each student. The suggested script for the word knowledge test included three general questions:

  1. Tell me about this word.
  2. Tell me what you know about this word.
  3. What does this word mean?

Each teacher-examiner decided on the specific language to use with each child; however, the focus was on these questions. After the child responded, the teacher-examiner attempted to probe with the following suggestions:

  1. Tell me more.
  2. What else do you know about this word?

For the post-test, the five words were retested, along with five additional words selected at random from the 28 vocabulary items. There was no specific script for the questions about the words, other than what was used for the pretest. The post-test was even more individualized and was based on the teacher-examiner’s understanding of what she thought the child knew or had been exposed to during the Cornerstones lessons. For example, for a word such as bird, the teacher might ask, “Do you remember what kinds of birds we talked about?” or “Do you remember the parts of a bird?”

The teacher-examiner decided when to terminate the word knowledge test, based on observation of frustration or disinterest on the part of the child. A judgment was made if the child did not respond to a select number of words in a row or did not offer (or want to offer) any more information about a word.

The main focus of the assessment was on the increase from pretest to post-test on the five words used for both tests. It was also possible to make a judgment about the five new words tested on the word knowledge post-test by assuming that the extent of information provided might have been influenced by exposure to Cornerstones. This qualitative judgment was based on an extrapolation of the findings on the five words tested on both the pre- and post-test. The younger children (aged 6-9), who knew fewer words at the outset, learned to identify an average of 13 new words during the unit. However, without a comparison measure (i.e., pretest), it is difficult to make a clear, convincing statement about the quality of information associated with the new words. Finally, we used the videotapes of teacher-student interactions to complement the assessment findings.

Scoring. We decided to evaluate responses in terms of meaning and aspects. With respect to the meaning category, some flexibility was granted because of the ages of the children. For example, for the word swallow, a child might have responded “bird” rather than “a type of bird.” Credit for meaning would also be given if a child remembered a synonym, such as gorgeous for beautiful. (We acknowledge that providing a synonym does not guarantee that the individual “knows” the meaning or definition of a word.) Aspects of words refers to anything and everything else from examples, usage, compounds, figurative language, and so on.

The other difficult issue was the awarding of points to the responses. The assumption was that a child would provide additional meanings and aspects for all five words on the post-test as compared to the results of the pretest. Thus, a child would be given credit for the number of different meanings and the number of different aspects. However, it is difficult to see an increase in the number of meanings for words that have a limited -- or only one prominent -- meaning (e.g., fox, cheese, tree). Thus, if children were tested on these types of words on the pretest, they might not be able to offer another meaning on the post-test unless they were exposed to metaphorical uses of the words. Of course, some of our words (e.g., mouth, swallow, drop) did have multiple meanings.

On the other hand, it is possible to see an increase in the aspect category, particularly if the child included a line of aspects that she or he did not use on the pretest. In many cases, children simply added to the same line -- that is, they essentially repeated or elaborated on what they provided on the pretest. For example, a child who named a few parts of birds on the pretest might add more parts on the post-test. This should not be dismissed entirely, especially if it resulted in the use of a target word (e.g., beak) or was motivated by the target word (e.g., beak influenced a differentiation or better understanding of mouth and nose). It might be that some children paid closer attention to the notion of aspects and were able to come up with more labels. Of course, many animals have similar features (i.e., body parts) and offering arms, legs, nose, skin, and so on does not add much to the response. However, using words such as fur, claws, beak, or the descriptive bushy tail does seem to indicate growth in vocabulary and well as the conceptual fields surrounding the words.

In sum, the tenor of our scoring procedure should be considered preliminary and highly qualitative.

Findings of the assessments. We found that all students demonstrated an increase in their knowledge of selected words from pretest to post-test. For the vast majority of students who were pretested and post-tested on at least five words, the increase ranged from one word (20%) to four words (80%). Increases of 50 percent or more were most often associated with the older students (e.g., 9 years and above); however, some of the younger students (6 and 7 years old) performed equally well.

The pretest and post-test assessments do not present the whole story, especially in light of information that we gathered and coded as field data. For example, during classroom discussions, several students demonstrated knowledge of aspects for words that they did not show in their pre- or post-tests. In addition, several students provided additional information about the words that were part of their pre- and post-tests -- that is, related information that we could have counted as aspects. Clearly, in a testing environment, young children may not be able to express on demand everything they know about words.

In addition, children learned much about words that we did not attempt to assess. Consider the following example. For the word woods, we were focused on trees, forests, and aspects related to these concepts because they were part of our story and materials. (In fact, tree is another one of our target words.) Nevertheless, since students were free to respond how they wished, one might have pursued the idea that wood is used to make tables, chairs, and so on. No credit was awarded to the student for doing this because this information was not related to the target words of the project; however, it was part of the lessons and, thus, may have actually been learned because of the project. Whether learned or not, it is clear that the information was motivated by the discussion of woods, the target word.

(Click here for other examples of how field data supplemented our assessment of students’ knowledge of words.)

Final remarks on word knowledge. We did not design or utilize a scientific study, nor did we systematically collect data on all aspects of the home and school environments; thus, we cannot argue convincingly that students’ participation in the Cornerstones lessons was the only reason for the increase in knowledge (breadth and depth) of words. Not all words were pretested or post-tested, and this further limits the discussion of our findings. Nevertheless, there seems to be indirect evidence, from the field data, that the children in this project did gain some knowledge about additional words not tested on the pretest or post-test. With respect to the gains from pretest to post-test on the known words, the findings are modest; however, this may be due to the quality of the words tested as well as other factors.

Due to the range and types of questions and probes that teacher-examiners asked and variety of features associated with each word, we found it difficult to evaluate the children’s responses. For example, with respect to questions and probes, some children were able to provide a few responses independently, while other responses were elicited by leading probes such as “Can you tell me about the parts of a bird?” Thus, it could be argued that there were two types of responses, independent and supported. In some cases, the supported remarks provided children with an idea of what to say about other words, especially if the aspects were roughly similar (e.g., parts of a bird assisted with parts of a tree). We decided not to separate independent from supported responses, mainly because many of the responses were supported. In addition, for many children, the probes were important for encouraging elaboration. Furthermore, because different types and numbers of probes were used for the pretest and post-test for the same words and because the probes were individualized for each child, difficulty of analyzing the data was compounded.

All of these issues will need to be addressed in the next phase of the project. We are considering a more standardized format, which will focus on the desired aspects of words that we wish to evaluate. Probes are important; however, it might be better, for analysis purposes, to have one level of standardized probes presented to all children and another level of individualized (e.g., more leading) probes catered to each child if the standardized probes do not elicit responses.

For the next phase of this project, we have decided that the pretests and post-tests will be administered by personnel other than the students’ teachers to minimize excessive prompting or eliciting of information. Field data will also be collected; however, we hope to provide a better structure for gathering these data to inform us on the use of Cornerstones lessons and to provide a check on the students’ performance on the formal tests.

In sum, based on the pretest and post-test data, we believe that all students improved in their in-depth knowledge of particular words. Admittedly, evidence of improvement is indirect and unscientific; however, it seems to be an assertion supported by the field data.

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Implications for the Future

The overall purpose of our work to date has been to develop a promising, systematic, focused, technology-infused approach to literacy improvement for deaf and hard-of-hearing children that can be delivered digitally, preferably via a mass medium such as digital television or the Web. Teachers have been asking us when Cornerstones units will be available; interest and need clearly exist. Significantly, based on interviews with participants in Phase 1 of the project, we know that after the field test, all teachers continued to incorporate aspects of the Cornerstones approach and sample lessons in their everyday teaching practices.

As far as digital delivery of further units is concerned, the Web seems to be the most practical method in the short term. Through the generosity of the Interactive Department at WGBH, we have been able to distribute the prototype Cornerstones unit that derived from the sample unit described in this article. With funding now in place from the U.S. federal government, Phase 2 of the project will allow us to develop two additional units and to use these to demonstrate in a more rigorous scientific manner the effects of Cornerstones on three major domains of literacy: word identification (of target words), word knowledge, and comprehension (literal and inferential).

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About the Authors

Mardi Loeterman, project director of the Cornerstones Project, directs educational research at the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. She has designed and evaluated technology that supports literacy development of deaf and hard-of-hearing children for more than 20 years, working closely with educators and researchers in the field. She can be reached by e-mail at

Peter Paul is a professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, College of Education, The Ohio State University, Columbus, where he also holds an adjunct professorship in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science. His research interests involve vocabulary, literacy, bilingualism, inclusion, and perspectives and attitudes on individuals with disabilities. He has published on language and literacy development of individuals with severe to profound hearing impairment and on addressing inclusion for children with special needs. He is principal investigator of the Cornerstones Project.

Sheila Donahue was an elementary school teacher at the CAPS Collaborative Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, before joining WGBH as the Cornerstones project manager. She holds an M.A. in deaf education from Gallaudet University and spent several years working as both a clinician and a supervisor at the Gallaudet summer reading clinics.

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Authors’ note: We would like to acknowledge the contributions of Carol J. LaSasso of Gallaudet University and Barbara K. Strassman of The College of New Jersey.

The “Fox and Crow” story and accompanying images are reproduced by permission from WGBH/Sirius Thinking, Ltd. Copyright © 2000-02 WGBH Educational Foundation and Sirius Thinking, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Citation: Loeterman, M., Paul, P.V., & Donahue, S. (2002, February). Reading and deaf children. Reading Online, 5(6). Available:

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Posted February 2002
© 2002 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232