Rotary Club scholarship recipient teaches deaf to read

Irwin Hatfield

The key to reading is not using your eyes, but your ears. That’s what Jean Irwin Hatfield explained to the Rotary Club of Los Altos at its July 18 meeting.

Irwin Hatfield, a 30-year instructor who teaches deaf students to read, received a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship for study at the University of Nottingham in England under the tutelage of Professor David Wood at the school’s Learning Sciences Research Institute. She shared how Wood’s research enabled her to teach the deaf with more successful outcomes.

Blind students, Irwin Hatfield said, can read at the same level as their sighted peers, but deaf students typically graduate from high school with only fourth-grade reading skills. She added that just 5% of severely deaf students succeed in graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree.

The low graduation rate is not due to intelligence, but to literacy levels, according to Irwin Hatfield. We use spoken language when we read, she said, which is difficult for the deaf.

Irwin Hatfield studied under Wood, a professor of artificial intelligence. He taught her that people internalize the rules of English through hearing it. Teachers of the deaf had been emphasizing grammar rules.

Wood’s research explores how deaf students verbalize because, like computers, they don’t have an “It doesn’t sound right” mechanism to improve their grammar. He discovered the main problem was the method of instruction.

Wood, Irwin Hatfield said, developed a “storytelling” method to teach the deaf to read. Beginning with simple picture books, the teacher reads the same story repeatedly or uses sign language to convey it. Then the deaf student who has some ability to hear with aids, tells his or her version of the story. The student subsequently tells the story without the pictures. By demonstrating the meaning behind the words, Irwin Hatfield said students’ speech became much more natural. With the storytelling method, students’ reading skills rose from fourth-grade to 10th-grade level by high school graduation.

She closed her Rotary Club presentation by paraphrasing Helen Keller, the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree: “Don’t pity me because I’m blind – pity those who see but have no vision.”

For more information on Irwin Hatfield’s work, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For more information on the Rotary Club’s Ambassadorial Scholarships, visit

Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit

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