Exploring the Contribution of Phonological Processing to Reading in People Born Profoundly Deaf
Mairéad MacSweeney

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University College London

Primary Discipline

Despite normal non-verbal cognitive skills many deaf children leave school aged 16 with a reading age of 9-years-old (Allen, 1986). A functional level of literacy is becoming more and more vital for everyday life. Improving literacy education is of even greater importance if deaf people are to reach the professional status in their working lives that is commensurate with their non-verbal cognitive skills. Sensitivity to the phonological structure of a spoken language is thought to be fundamental to learning to read that language (e.g., Goswami & Bryant, 1990). Given that deaf people have limited access to spoken language phonology their awareness of phonological structure is usually poorer than that of their hearing peers (e.g., MacSweeney et al., 1996). Although not acting in isolation, poor phonological skills are often regarded as the primary contributor to the generally poor reading attainment of deaf children (see Perfetti & Sandak, 2000).The main goal of the proposed research is to explore phonological processing in people born profoundly deaf. The focus will be on spoken language phonology, but sign language phonological processing will also be explored. This will contribute to the controversial issue of whether or not sign language knowledge can be used as a bridge to literacy for deaf people (e.g., Mayer & Wells, 1996). This research will be carried out in collaboration with Prof. Helen Neville at the University of Oregon. Alongside behavioural data, event-related potentials (ERPs) will be measured. This allows examination of ‘brain-waves’ evoked when different cognitive tasks are performed. Deaf and hearing subjects may both judge hair and bear to rhyme, however they may have reached this decision based on different phonological representations and/or by using different phonological processes. The ERP technique allows us access to neural ‘signatures’ of these underlying processes.This research project forms part of a more extensive research program in which I have explored reading skills in deaf adults who are good or poor readers, and native signers of British Sign Language. I have used a variety of measures of phonological awareness and looked at the neural systems underlying this skill using fMRI. This allows good spatial resolution of where processes occur in the brain but provides poor information regarding timing. The current project complements this research perfectly by employing the ERP methodology which provides excellent temporal resolution. Measuring ERPs will offer fresh insights into phonological processing during reading in people born deaf. These studies will provide novel evidence which will allow better evaluation of the phonological approach to literacy education in deaf children.
About Mairéad MacSweeney

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