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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Visual sign phonology: insights into human reading and language from a natural soundless phonology

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Among the most prevailing assumptions in science and society about the human reading process is that sound and sound‐based phonology are critical to young readers. The child's sound‐to‐letter decoding is viewed as universal and vital to deriving meaning from print. We offer a different view. The crucial link for early reading success is not between segmental sounds and print. Instead the human brain's capacity to segment, categorize, and discern linguistic patterning makes possible the capacity to segment all languages. This biological process includes the segmentation of languages on the hands in signed languages. Exposure to natural sign language in early life equally affords the child's discovery of silent segmental units in visual sign phonology (VSP) that can also facilitate segmental decoding of print. We consider powerful biological evidence about the brain, how it builds sound and sign phonology, and why sound and sign phonology are equally important in language learning and reading. We offer a testable theoretical account, reading model, and predictions about how VSP can facilitate segmentation and mapping between print and meaning. We explain how VSP can be a powerful facilitator of all children's reading success (deaf and hearing)—an account with profound transformative impact on learning to read in deaf children with different language backgrounds. The existence of VSP has important implications for understanding core properties of all human language and reading, challenges assumptions about language and reading as being tied to sound, and provides novel insight into a remarkable biological equivalence in signed and spoken languages. WIREs Cogn Sci 2016, 7:366‐381. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1404 This article is categorized under: Psychology > Language
Open/Closed (C‐V) syllable structure for the ASL sign ‘CAT.’
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A model of the core components of reading in young sign exposed deaf children. The model identifies the relations among Universal Phonology, the sub‐lexical level of language organization, inclusive of a soundless visual sign phonology, and the multiple components hypothesized to be involved in deriving meaning from print in the emergent reader.
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Harm and Seidenberg's model of reading.
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Conjunction maps projected onto a template brain, showing overlapping regions of activation for fingerspelled words and printed words in deaf readers.
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Voxel‐based morphometry analyses showing preservation of gray and white matter volumes in deaf participants' in primary auditory tissue, Heschl's gyrus, and secondary auditory tissue, STG/planum temporale, compared with hearing participants. Gray matter volumes show that the location, extent, and variability are the same across both groups (deaf and hearing). Results indicate that the development and maintenance of auditory tissue does not depend on auditory language experience.
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PET MRI data for pooled comparison including all conditions in which signs or linguistically organized phonetic‐syllabic nonsigns were presented compared with baseline for all deaf participants. Results indicate phonological processing in the STG for deaf signers.
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Distribution of the frequencies of sign‐exposed and speech‐exposed babies’ movement segments, clearly indicating that the sign‐exposed group of babies was producing two distinct types of hand activity (babbling and nonlinguistic motoric activity).
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