When Imelda Centeno was a toddler she could only say four words.
"Agua, leche, papa, mama," recalls her mom, Marcelina Rojas.
That wasn't necessarily unusual for a toddler; Rojas just thought her daughter was going to be a late talker, like many kids. But when Centeno was 3 1/2, Rojas learned her daughter is profoundly hard of hearing.
Centeno got hearing aids but they weren’t enough. When she finally got a cochlear implant at age 6 she still couldn’t speak more than her four words.
"Her speech was 'bla bla gim gim' and I had to figure out what she wanted to say," says Rojas, who lives in East LA.
That put Centeno at a distinct disadvantage in school. Her story is typical: While deaf and hard-of-hearing kids often fall behind their peers academically, the challenge is even greater for those who are English learners.
Like Centeno, many kids with hearing issues whose parents don’t speak English are not diagnosed promptly, according to experts. The delay in getting hearing aids or other amplification stalls language development.
"If a [hard-of-hearing] child resides in a home where Spanish may be the primary language spoken at home and English is the language spoken at school, that child comes with a decreased amount of listening experiences," says Debra Schrader, the educational specialist at the Caruso Family Center for Childhood Communication at USC's Keck School of Medicine.
"They’re listening to two languages during this critical time of language development and we know the child is at risk educationally," she says.
Come Read with Me
In an effort to address this problem, Schrader and her colleagues started Come Read with Me, a pilot project designed to help hard-of-hearing English learners.
The program, which concluded its third annual three-week session last month, is unusual because it works with parents as well as children. It's the only initiative of its kind in California, and one of only two such efforts in the U.S.
Working with 20 4- to 8-year-olds per session, leaders divide the children into small groups to learn writing skills by sharing stories and to learn sounds and word associations by reading and hearing verbal cues.
In one classroom last month, teacher Tiffany Ward sounds out the word "split" and each child repeats it after her. In another classroom a group of kids reads a poem out loud and tries to figure out the key words that tell the story.
"One of the things I’ve noticed is that the kids are becoming more able to make a connection from one text to another as well as from a text to their own life connections," Ward says. "The next step will be making a connection from the text to the real world."
A key element of Come Read with Me involves training the children's parents how to help their kids practice reading and writing at home, says Karen Johnson, associate professor for clinical otolaryngology at the Family Center and one of the program's founders.
In the parent class at the Family Center moms and dads learn why reading and writing are so important for language development and are taught strategies to help their kids stay on track.
"The therapist showed me techniques for how to help her talk and with her reading," says Marcelino Rojas, who enrolled 6-year-old Imelda Centeno in the inaugural Come Read with Me class in 2014. "And even during play I was helping her understand drawings and from the drawing to make a story."
Progress on several fronts
The children who participated in the first two years' three-week sessions made progress on several fronts, according to data compiled by the Family Center.
The participants "generally mastered the mechanics of reading and writing ... generally demonstrated age-appropriate early writing skills" and "at times significantly narrowed or closed language gaps by the 2nd or 3rd year of enrollment," according to the Family Center's summary of its findings.
"The kids in the study are becoming active readers and writers and they are beginning to choose books as their activity of choice," says Karen Johnson, associate professor for clinical otolaryngology at the Family Center and one of the program's founders. "We’ve had parents tell us that when their children are too quiet they go looking for them and they are now with a book."
Of the nearly 14,0000 deaf and hard of hearing kids in California public schools, more than 8,000 are Latino, according to the state. Officials say they don’t know how many come from Spanish-speaking homes. About one-fourth of the roughly 2,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing kids in the Los Angeles Unified School District are English learners, the district says.
Rojas says the experience has transformed her now 8-year-old daughter, who has participated in all three Come Read with Me summer sessions.
On a recent day after class, Rojas calls Centeno over.
"Can you read this?" she asks her daughter, handing her a book.
"Today I write a letter to a boy so far away," Centeno slowly reads in a soft voice as her mother beams.
"I like to come to class, that’s why I need to practice and practice and practice," Centeno says.
Rojas says she’s thrilled she found the Come Read with Me program.
"This is her future," she says.
Since her daughter learned to speak and read she’s really blossomed, adds Rojas, noting that Centeno has started singing and is taking piano lessons.