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Arnold School of Public Health


Werfel expands knowledge base on children with hearing loss who are learning spoken language

February 25, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

One of the primary concerns related to children with hearing loss is literacy achievement. Despite the development of cutting edge technology in amplification, including cochlear implants, literacy achievement has not improved for this group over several decades.

Scientists do not know why the reading skills of individuals with hearing loss often plateau at a third grade level. Adults with low literacy achievement are less likely to graduate from high school, attend college, have full-time jobs and participate in civic duties (e.g., voting) than those with average or above average literacy achievement. Unfortunately, there is also very little knowledge surrounding appropriate intervention methods for teaching literacy skills to children with hearing loss.

Krystal Werfel, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, hopes to change that. Her research aims to reveal the development of emergent literacy skills in children with hearing loss and how these foundational skills influence later reading and writing achievement. She would like to turn her findings into practical guidance for helping these children acquire literacy skills at the preschool level and beyond.

Werfel’s research, recently published in Communication Disorders Quarterly, Child Language Teaching & Therapy and Volta Review, focuses on children with hearing loss who are learning spoken language, not signed language. Her studies suggest that children with hearing loss develop emergent literacy skills (i.e., phonological awareness, spoken language and print knowledge) later than children with normal hearing, and they learn them in fundamentally different ways. Further, they appear to acquire vocabulary knowledge and learn to analyze the sounds of words differently than children with normal hearing.

“This research has demonstrated that we can effectively teach these emergent literacy skills to children with hearing loss, but we still have work to do in terms of optimizing the interventions,” Werfel says. “It is vital that we address difficulties in literacy achievement early in development, indeed as early as the preschool years.”

Werfel believes that the next step in this research is to follow the same group of children with hearing loss over time to detail how these emergent literacy skills develop over the preschool years, as well as how these skills predict later literacy achievement. And that is exactly what she plans to do with her newly awarded National Institutes of Health R03 grant through the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Her project, entitled Early Language and Literacy Acquisition in Children with Hearing Loss, will follow children with hearing loss from preschool through early elementary school to expand the research base for how they develop literacy skills. “The study will also provide foundational knowledge of which preschool skills are the best predictors of later literacy struggles and allow us to identify much earlier those children who need intensive intervention in literacy,” says Werfel.