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Question from the field: My child’s IEP team shared that he is “a good reader,” but I know that he is not understanding what he reads. He struggles with vocabulary and comprehension, but because he is getting good grades and reads the words, I am having trouble getting goals and services in the IEP. How can I help him?

Reading and literacy development are critical for all children. As parents and educators of children with hearing loss, our ultimate goal is for them to be literate, self-sufficient, independent members of society. While our first thought after diagnosis is communication, we ultimately strive for them to be able to be happy, independent, have friends, self-advocate, graduate from high school, and pursue any advanced education and/or career direction they desire. Ideally, hearing loss will not create any unnecessary barriers to this future success. No matter which mode of communication the child uses, achieving higher levels of literacy will be an important key to removing barriers.

IEP services are based on goals; goals are based on needs; and needs are identified by assessments and concrete data. Grades do not equal access. Grades are often a reflection of the hours of intensive support from families and tutors supporting our children’s comprehension of what they are reading. Our students will very often struggle with following written and verbal directions on assignments and tests, understanding test questions that are not simple and direct, math word problems, and vocabulary in subjects such as science, social studies, electives, and physical education. It often helps to remind the IEP team that every subject in school becomes language arts instruction for the student with hearing loss.

Some IEP teams may only look at one aspect of reading or select a pre-written goal from an IEP goal bank that may or may not be appropriate for the individual child with hearing loss. It is helpful for the IEP team, including the family, to consider addressing the following specific aspects of reading separately by developing individual measurable and achievable goals:

1. Decoding
2. Fluency
3. Vocabulary
4. Reading comprehension
5. Higher order thinking skills (HOTS)1

For students who have access to linguistic information through listening, the team should also consider listening comprehension needs. Often students will demonstrate comprehension of what they have heard at a higher grade level while they continue to work on improving grade level reading comprehension skills.2

It is also important to look at the accommodations page of the IEP and document anything the team agrees will support the student. Following are some examples of possible accommodations that may be added to the IEP:

1. Directions interpreted, read out loud, simplified, or clarified
2. Questions and answer choices interpreted or read out loud
3. Pre- and Post-teaching of key concepts and vocabulary
4. Development of a student generated vocabulary book
5. Opportunity to use pictures to define vocabulary words
6. Text to speech captioning or audio books

For all children, regardless of level of hearing loss, research has shown that “early cognitive and linguistic development predict later achievement.”3  The results of Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s 1995 study3 can be extremely effective in helping the IEP team members understand the importance of on-going and intensive attention to addressing all aspects of literacy. Hart and Risley studied children from 7 months to the age of 3 in order to determine how many words they were exposed to prior to entering school. This was not a special education study. Participants were divided by socio-economic status, and what was found was a 30 million word gap between the lowest socio-economic group and the highest socioeconomic group. Specifically, the higher socio-economic group were exposed to 45 million words, the middle socio-economic group heard 26 million words, and the children in the low socio-economic group heard 13 million words. These numbers resonate with educators who are not experts in teaching children who are deaf and hard of hearing. Additionally, these researchers followed up with approximately half of the families when their children were in 3rd grade. The results indicated that “measures of accomplishment at age three were highly indicative of performance at the ages of nine and ten on various vocabulary, language development, and reading comprehension measures.”4

For the IEP teams to understand the unique needs of our children with hearing loss, as well as the potential, we must continue to educate the educators. Teams should continuously gather actual data separate and apart from the grade reports. Parents and teachers of the deaf/hard of hearing can help to support the other IEP team members regarding the importance of closing this language gap for students with hearing loss. No matter which mode of communication the family has chosen, it is imperative that teams continue to address all levels of the foundations for reading, work to close the gaps, and provide meaningful access to language.

Sample Goals:

  • VocabularyBaseline: STUDENT displays some difficulty when listening in environments with background noise and/or multi-talker babble. STUDENT is able to demonstrate discrimination of close-set vocabulary and short passages in the presence of background noise with 65% accuracy. Goal: By DATE, STUDENT will be able to demonstrate discrimination of close-set vocabulary and short passages in an environment with background noise or multi-talker babble with 80% accuracy as measured by teacher charted data.
  • Reading comprehensionBaseline: STUDENT is able to answer who was in the story with 70% accuracy. She is struggling to retell basic details about the story when prompted with 45% accuracy. Goal: By DATE, STUDENT will be able to answer basic who, what, when, and where questions about a story that has been read to her with 80% accuracy in 3 out of 4 trials as measured by teacher created assessments and work samples
  • Higher order thinking skills (HOTS)Baseline: After reading grade level passages, STUDENT is able to demonstrate mastery of basic WH questions with 80% accuracy. However, when asked to respond to questions that do not involve concrete details (ie: make predictions, inferences, and identify cause and effect, (s)he is only able to respond with 44% accuracy. Goal: By DATE, after independently reading a grade level passage, STUDENT will demonstrate an understanding of HOTS (ie: prediction, inference, and cause and effect) by responding to open-ended questions with 80% accuracy as measured by work samples and teacher charted data.



  1. 1. www.readingrockets.org/article/higher-order-thinking
  2. 2. https://www.theliteracybug.com/stages-of-literacy
  3. 3. NELP Report: Developing Early Literacy (2009). Summary from Reading Rockets.
  4. 4. The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3″ by. University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (2003). Summary