The Role of Cued Language in Early Childhood Education for Hearing-Impaired Children

Cued Speech is a system designed to give visual information about spoken languages. It utilizes handshapes that distinguish syllables and phonemes and can represent over 50 spoken languages.

Research demonstrates that children with prelingual profound deafness who are exposed to cued speech reach language and reading levels comparable with their hearing peers. Furthermore, these children develop internal representations of English’s phonemic structure which help support literacy development.

Developmental Milestones

As children develop, they experience an age-appropriate set of developmental milestones. These may include turning their head toward sound sources, recognizing and imitating speech sounds, using two to three word utterances consistently, following simple directions with gestures, understanding grammatical concepts and communicating with peers – these milestones can usually be identified using developmental milestone checklists.

Cued language makes spoken language accessible through vision, so hearing families can share their native languages with children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Unlike American Sign Language, this system represents individual sounds using visual phonetics; learning this system takes considerably less time than acquiring all the thousands of symbol-like signals comprising full sign languages.

Research shows that early exposure to cued speech provides children with a stronger foundation for literacy than relying on sign language alone. However, its impact depends on many factors; including their ability to learn reading and writing based on phonics; as well as if their vocabulary grows quickly after initiating cued language use.

Notably, early exposure of d/hh children to cued language does not compromise oral articulation or speech production skills; however, studies should continue to investigate its impacts on children who utilize cued speech as a communication modality.

Cued speech was first developed at Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) in 1966 to increase reading comprehension among d/hh children by teaching them basic structures of English through hand signals representing word sounds. Cueing removes any ambiguities of lipspeech that often causes listeners confusion due to sound-alike pronunciations such as “p” and “b.” Today, cueing is used with over 60 spoken languages around the world to make them accessible for reading and speech therapy purposes.

Speechreading Ability

Cued speech makes spoken language accessible to children who cannot hear or see. Hearing families speaking their native tongues can share them with deaf children from an early age and ensure they gain access to it before losing hearing. Furthermore, Cued Speech can also be used as an effective way of teaching phonics (the phonemic code necessary for reading).

One of the key skills needed to learn a language is being able to recognize phonological contrasts. While hearing children may find this task more manageable, deaf children without access to speech and language may find this task especially daunting.

Studies on deaf children’s ability to identify and distinguish phonological contrasts using cued speech have yielded interesting findings, suggesting they can perceive and discriminate these contrasts successfully when exposed to Cued Speech, leading them to perform well on phonological awareness tasks which serve as reliable predictors of reading abilities in future years.

One of the earliest studies of speechreading ability with cued speech was conducted by Ling and Clarke in 1975. They presented phrases and isolated words to deaf children who were either participating in an oral program, using sign language with fingerspelling, or not receiving any form of communication at all. Their results demonstrated that those exposed regularly to cued speech performed significantly better than both groups who relied solely on oral programming or signing alone.

Torres, Moreno-Torres and Santana (2006) conducted a case study involving a prelingually profoundly deaf girl exposed to cued speech beginning at 14 months. Their investigation showed that she reached several language milestones during this timeframe such as expressively cued mean length of utterance, use of question and negation forms as well as lexical development.

Phonological representations may also play a part in reading ability; research indicates that deaf children regularly exposed to cued language have performed well on phonological awareness tests which are strong predictors of future reading ability. Accordingly, authors of the study recommended including acuity, sound discrimination and visual access into early education for deaf children as a means of increasing their chances of reaching full and successful literacy development.

Vocabulary Development

While spoken language development is of primary concern to families of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, literacy remains equally as vital. Literacy skills are fundamental for participating in our literate society and early cued speech exposure is one way that children can acquire the vocabulary required for reading and writing.

Cued Speech differs from ASL and other signed languages in that its grammatical system does not need to be learned alongside its signs; rather it uses only minimal hand-placements to represent spoken language sounds in an easily understandable visual format. Cued Speech can be learned quickly – in less than 20 hours! – through its set of handshapes which are placed around the mouth to represent individual phonemes of English (i.e. words).

Study that compared the performance of hearing-impaired children with prelingual profound bilateral deafness to that of hearing children without such deafness was conducted on use decision tasks that require selecting items from previous encounters of list items encountered previously, with those exposed to Cued Speech outperforming those not exposed due to providing similar phonological structure information provided to hearing children through spoken languages. Researchers believed this result was caused by Cued Speech providing information comparable to spoken languages which hearing children are more familiar with.

To build a robust vocabulary, children need to encounter words frequently and in different contexts. Since hearing-impaired children typically receive less linguistic input, they tend to come across words less often and may misidentify words which look similar from time to time.

Cued Speech can assist children in learning the phonological structure of each word to increase lexical access. Cued Speech provides visual representations of spoken words for purposes such as rhyming, spelling and reading. Furthermore, an ongoing study tracking three children with cochlear implants shows how consistent use of Cued Speech enabled them to achieve age-appropriate English language and literacy skills compared with oral/signing communication at one year and three years post implantation.

Written Language

Hearing-impaired children must also learn to read and write, which requires developing strong speechreading ability in order to recognize the sounds that compose words, as well as how those sounds combine together in sentences, paragraphs, stories and other written materials.

Reading and writing skills are fundamental to academic achievement and great game play on when they become adult, yet their absence can create significant difficulties, including lack of motivation to learn, poor school performance, and academic failure in middle school and beyond.

Hearing-impaired children can benefit greatly from learning cued language through cueing; their literacy skills will grow alongside their oral and receptive language abilities. Cueing uses similar hand shapes and placement techniques used in sign language to represent English spoken sounds. Furthermore, cueing can also be used to teach other spoken foreign languages.

Cueing is defined by the National Cued Speech Association as a form of communication which uses hand shapes and placement to make the building blocks of spoken language visible through vision alone. Cueing was first developed at Gallaudet University by Dr. R Orin Cornett between 1965-1966 with the goal of increasing reading comprehension while simultaneously encouraging literacy for deaf children.

Cueing uses natural mouth movements seen when speaking, making it simple for deaf children to internalize a cue-based model of language that enables them to read words as easily as hearing children do. Regular use of cued speech has been proven to increase language and reading skills among deaf students while supplementing hearing aids or implants by clarifying sounds obscured due to speech articulation or environmental noise.

Deaf children exposed to consistent cued language exposure from birth in their home language stand the best chance of attaining age-appropriate English literacy levels that match those of their hearing peers. Studies indicate that deaf children communicating using cued speech have comparable reading and writing abilities and the same rate of progress compared with hearing peers.