While working on her Ph.D. after spending more than a decade as a public school teacher, Beverly Trezek set out to solve a perplexing problem.
“By the end of high school, the typical deaf or hard-of-hearing student reads at a fourth-grade level,” says Trezek, assistant professor, School of Education. “I wanted to know, why? And what could be done to help these kids catch up to their peers?”
When she realized that deaf children struggle with reading because they can’t sound out groups of letters, she started to look for ways they could visualize and represent phonology.
“I found Visual Phonics, which allows teachers to use hand gestures and written symbols to teach students about sounds with visual, tactile, and kinesthetic feedback instead of relying solely on hearing,” recalls Trezek. “Visual Phonics lets students to ‘see’ the sounds."
Then, she combined Visual Phonics with Direct Instruction — a curriculum model for planning lessons around small learning increments and clearly defined tasks. The result is a new method for teaching reading that frees deaf students from being compelled to memorize whole words by sight. “Reading English is a phonetic-based process,” says Trezek. “The new model makes ‘phonics’ available to deaf students in a systematic way.”
“A paradigm shift”
In the field, Trezek’s method is having a dramatic effect.
“We’ve seen great growth in our reading scores,” says Marybeth Lauderdale, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Deaf (Jacksonville), which implemented the method in 2007. “It’s been a paradigm shift for us.”
Trezek has traveled worldwide lecturing on the method and training teachers in its use. Locally, she has helped implement this approach at the Illinois School for the Deaf and in schools in South Holland, Lansing, Westmont and Mount Prospect, among others. She also teaches it to future teachers in her classroom at DePaul.
At the same time, Trezek thinks that using the method to teach the deaf is only the beginning. “The method can also work well for students with learning disabilities, even autism,” she says. “Some of my graduate students even use it in their own classrooms to help English-language learners.” Because of the method, a select group of high school freshmen reading at a second-grade level was able to make a three-year gain in a single academic year.
Trezek is the lead author of the book, "Reading and Deafness: Theory, Research, and Practice" (2010, Delmar/Cengage Learning) and has recently published articles in American Annals of the Deaf and the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education summarizing the findings of her research investigations and exploring the theoretical underpinnings of this approach.