I would appreciate some advice on the best approach to teach a profoundly deaf child reading skills. I am working in Africa and the child is in a mainstream school here. The parents are planning to return to England in a few years. The child is three years old and the parents are eager for her to begin learning to read as soon as possible. She is using BSL signs but following the grammar of spoken English. She has a vocabulary of about 200 words in sign.
Use Signed English
I used to use Signed English (this includes every word and is based on English syntax including tense ending etc.) to teach reading using a structured reading scheme such as the Oxford Reading Tree. It does mean you have to teach some grammar early (e.g. possessives/plurals) as they occur early in the books, http://www.wpse.org.uk/index.htm
Language Through Reading (LTR)
There is also a scheme called Language Through Reading (LTR) which although old fashioned in appearance teaches grammar through reading at a very simple level. There is colour coded syntax to accompany the scheme if needed.
Reading Milestones scheme
I have used the Reading Milestones scheme with profoundly deaf BSL users. It is designed for deaf children and is very thorough with supplementary workbooks. It is American so some language is not familiar but this is not a major drawback.
Here in Northumberland we have had many profoundly deaf children acquire reading skills commensurate with their chronological age. The first and foremost concern must be for the development of language so that reading is a meaningful activity. That does not preclude the sharing of engaging picture/story books from the outset, as meeting the written pattern within the warm and loving context of the family is a very natural foundation for a lifelong love of books. This is also the time for building up a repertoire of song and rhymes so that she comes to enjoy patterns of language and develops sound awareness. At 3 years of age, these are the aspects of reading we would be concentrating on, so laying a firm foundation for the later development of word recognition and phonic skills.
At what age would you be thinking about working on word recognition and phonics?
Just as the babbling stage acts as a precursor to speaking, so enjoying sharing repetitive predictable stories, which the child joins in with, lays a good foundation for later reading. We would always look at the normal progression for hearing children as our model, anticipating a possible delay. Phonic skills can again develop quite naturally out of 'Learning to Listen' sounds (AVT) 'shh' with a sleeping doll, 'sss' with a snake, 'aaa' with an aeroplane etc. Once you know that the child has auditory access across the speech frequencies you can then begin specific phonic awareness alongside whole word recognition.
In relation to developing phonics skills in a sign language-using pre-school child; colleagues have had considerable success by complementing listening with Cued Speech in the play situations where targeting phonics. The Cued Speech Association is most helpful in supporting parents and professionals to learn the hand shapes. Since the child you work with is at the early stages of development you and the parents could build them up slowly so it would not be onerous - moreover the hand shapes are a small, finite set of skills that can be honed and refined but then applied to any situation at any time in the child's life should that be beneficial. Very many of the pre-schoolers' support is without the use of Cued Speech but, in the multi-cultural, mobile population situation in which the team operates it is most effective for certain children, especially those who are particularly visual in the acquisition of language. It helps to make the link between the visual lip/tongue pattern, the auditory and, in the longer term, using phonics in reading.