Brain-based individual difference measures of reading skill in deaf and hearing adults

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Most deaf children and adults struggle to read, but some deaf individuals do become highly proficient readers. There is disagreement about the specific causes of reading difficulty in the deaf population, and consequently, disagreement about the effectiveness of different strategies for teaching reading to deaf children. Much of the disagreement surrounds the question of whether deaf children read in similar or different ways as hearing children. In this study, we begin to answer this question by using real-time measures of neural language processing to assess if deaf and hearing adults read proficiently in similar or different ways. Hearing and deaf adults read English sentences with semantic, grammatical, and simultaneous semantic/grammatical errors while event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded. The magnitude of individuals’ ERP responses was compared to their standardized reading comprehension test scores, and potentially confounding variables like years of education, speechreading skill, and language background of deaf participants were controlled for. The best deaf readers had the largest N400 responses to semantic errors in sentences, while the best hearing readers had the largest P600 responses to grammatical errors in sentences. These results indicate that equally proficient hearing and deaf adults process written language in different ways, suggesting there is little reason to assume that literacy education should necessarily be the same for hearing and deaf children. The results also show that the most successful deaf readers focus on semantic information while reading, which suggests aspects of education that may promote improved literacy in the deaf population.

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