Squeezed in among nine other children seated at a large round table, 11-year-old Alex Larson vies for the attention of the two teachers in his colorful classroom.
When his turn arrives, Alex stands and begins to move his hands quickly and systematically, the movements becoming larger as his excitement grows. Few sounds escape his lips, save an occasional squeal of enthusiasm. In his way, Alex is reading aloud.
He is a participant in the Harry Potter summer reading camp at Western Maryland College in Westminster. The camp is designed to give deaf children - most of them from the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick - an opportunity to brush up on and improve their reading skills. This is especially important for deaf children, for whom English is a second language, after sign language.
"The purpose of this literacy camp is to maintain students' reading skills," said Toby Daniels, camp director and fifth-grade teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf. (Because he is deaf as well, Daniels wrote his replies to a reporter's questions.) "I know many students actually don't read much during their summer vacations."
Daniels said that sharpening reading skills is especially difficult for deaf children because to read, they must become familiar with a different language - English.
The American Sign Language that they use to communicate often does not translate word for word into English. For example, to say "I went to the store," an ASL user would have to sign, "I go finish the store."
Therefore, pupils can have difficulty understanding what they read and that can discourage them from reading, particularly during summer vacation when no teachers are present to push them.
In selecting popular literary figure Harry Potter as a theme for camp activities, Daniels said, the aim is to pique children's interest.
For seven weeks, campers read from Harry Potter books, complete writing exercises based on what they read and participate in activities based on the literary hero's adventures. One week, campers created make-believe things (as Harry often does), such as paper airplanes. Last week, they practiced quidditch - flying on broomsticks - as do the witches in the book series. Other activities include making Harry's magic potions and taking an imaginary tour of his English homeland. Field trips are scheduled for every Thursday. And all the while, the campers are reading.
One of the most important components of reading development for deaf children is building vocabulary, Daniels said.
Daniels gives the participants individual assessments two to three times a week, and asks the children to read to him to determine whether they understand new vocabulary presented to them.
"We can't depend on phonics," Daniels said. Teachers usually have to talk with students about a story first.
Just outside the camp's classroom is a sitting area with chairs facing a chalkboard. On it are vocabulary words and phrases like "my buddy," "wagged his tail" and "indeed" - all expressions that deaf children might have trouble recognizing, because they are not used in ASL. Daniels said he hopes increased familiarity with such terms will make them more easily recognizable when pupils see them again.
Although the idea of using phonics to teach reading to deaf and hearing-impaired children might seem ineffective, it has marked benefits for some.
"We expose our students to the issue of phonics because research indicates that really good [deaf] readers have an internal phonetic sense," said Judith Coryell, coordinator of the Deaf Education program at Western Maryland College. The program, the largest in North America for training teachers of deaf children, has about 200 instructors enrolled, 90 percent of them deaf.
But phonics requires hearing and speech, and that is a barrier. Besides having to learn English as a second language so they can read, ASL users run the risk of losing reading vocabulary from lack of use.
"Hearing people can learn ASL more easily because it's accessible - they have the chance to `speak' it," Coryell said. "But deaf students never have a chance to practice speaking English."
The best way to help deaf children read well, she said, is to make sure they have strong ASL skills, and then connect that knowledge with written English. "ASL acts as a bridge," she said.
Many of the college students in Coryell's program use the summer camps to fulfill the teaching practicum required for their coursework.
Western Maryland's Deaf Education program received a $1.5 million grant this year from the U.S. Department of Education to aid teachers for the deaf. Grant funds helped pay for the Harry Potter camp, although much of the budget comes from registration fees.
The college has held summer camps for 15 years, but the Harry Potter program is the first literacy camp. Program directors plan to expand the camp, taking on a new literary figure for next year's theme.
The current theme suits campers fine. Lauren Wahl, 10, wrote that she loves the Harry Potter series. She said that the camp has given her a new enthusiasm about books: "At camp, I love to read, write and play games. "Now I want to read all the time."