Most children with hearing loss who receive cochlear implants (CI) learn spoken language, and parents must choose early on whether to use sign language to accompany speech at home. We address whether parents’ use of sign language before and after CI positively influences auditory-only speech recognition, speech intelligibility, spoken language, and reading outcomes.
Three groups of children with CIs from a nationwide database who differed in the duration of early sign language exposure provided in their homes were compared in their progress through elementary grades. The groups did not differ in demographic, auditory, or linguistic characteristics before implantation.
Children without early sign language exposure achieved better speech recognition skills over the first 3 years postimplant and exhibited a statistically significant advantage in spoken language and reading near the end of elementary grades over children exposed to sign language. Over 70% of children without sign language exposure achieved age-appropriate spoken language compared with only 39% of those exposed for 3 or more years. Early speech perception predicted speech intelligibility in middle elementary grades. Children without sign language exposure produced speech that was more intelligible (mean = 70%) than those exposed to sign language (mean = 51%).
This study provides the most compelling support yet available in CI literature for the benefits of spoken language input for promoting verbal development in children implanted by 3 years of age. Contrary to earlier published assertions, there was no advantage to parents’ use of sign language either before or after CI.