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Teaching Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students Language

A large group of international students laughing as they sit in a circle in their chairs in a classroom. There is a man typing in front of the circle and there is a woman to the right using hand gestures to signal to one student, as he looks to her using sign language.
A large group of international students laughing as they sit in a circle in their chairs in a classroom. There is a man typing in front of the circle and there is a woman to the right using hand gestures to signal to one student, as he looks to her using sign language.

There is more to a language than the spoken word, and there is no reason why deaf and hard of hearing students could not learn.


While deaf and hard of hearing (D/HH) students can face challenges with hearing and listening, their experiences cannot be easily generalized. Some people who are completely deaf are still oral, while others prefer to use sign language. Others are nonsigning and prefer captions. Others simply have difficulty hearing, and can supplement their limited hearing with lipreading. What works for one person might not work for the next, so keep an open dialogue with your students.

Identifying reasonable accommodations for each person’s situation involves its own shortfalls. ASL interpreters and open captioners are expensive. Students who prefer one type of accommodation are sometimes forced to use the other, meaning that they are learning to read captions or signs while also learning a new language. It is hard to find an interpreter with the ability to understand both languages and to finger spell the way vocabulary is written and spoken.

Barriers to participation can be created by the traditional way that desks are organized in the classroom, e.g. with the desks in rows and columns. If the student uses lipreading or an ASL interpreter, it can be difficult to keep up with a class discussion if they are off to the side. Following a spoken lecture combined with other visuals such as a slideshow can be difficult if the student is required to look from one end of the classroom to the other, or to follow a lecture while reading the board.

Activities involving multisensory input such as watching a movie while listening to the teacher explain something that is going on are not accessible to a student who is only using the visual sense.

Some deaf and hard of hearing students are unable to meet listening and speaking requirements presented by traditional language classrooms. Reading and writing create no problems whatsoever.

Deaf or hard of hearing students sometimes benefit from opportunities for one-on-one practice, while many classrooms have 30 or more students. This means that many do not get the same level of exposure from the traditional classroom as their hearing counterparts.


If you work on a university campus, make sure to connect with the disabled student services office (DSS) or the institutional equivalent. They can make interpreters, notetakers or assistive technology available. Meet with them before you even have a deaf or hard of hearing student enrolled to get a sense of the resources and how to request support. If your student requires interpreters, the DSS will likely take charge of that without you having to do anything, but make sure that if you do a class activity outside of regular hours such as a field trip, that you let them know in advance so that they can make the necessary extra arrangements.

Organize a meeting before the semester starts with your student, and a sign language interpreter if that is necessary to facilitate communication. Identify the student’s learning style. Explain the layout of the room, expectations of the class and other details so that you can work out with the student any modifications that might need to be made to these aspects.

Set aside budget in your programming for captioners or sign language interpreters. Universities will often have this funding through the DSS office , and smaller organizations might consider making it a habit of setting aside between 1% and 3% of their operating budget for disability -related expenses.

Consider organizing the desks in your classroom in an arc. If referring to the textbook, make sure that a visual of the textbook page is projected in front of the class, so the student can follow the text while watching you. This way, a D/HH student can visually see everybody and the teacher with minimal movement. This will also facilitate better group discussions.

Recognize that your D/HH students might be better at writing and reading then they are at listening or speaking. Offer alternatives to spoken and listening components of a class. Put a greater weight on writing and reading assignments rather than listening or speaking for the final grade.

Encourage students to practice with each other and to seek opportunities to study outside of class. Dividing students into groups of two or three for regular activities can create more opportunities for everyone to practice. Offering out-of-class assignments which incorporate visual media such as YouTube can not only give all of your students the opportunity to practice the language with a visual input, it can also introduce them to the idea of finding opportunities to experience the language outside of the classroom and outside of the textbook.

Offer an online component of the class in which students discuss a topic by posting thoughts and reflections through a forum.

If the student is interested, consider sharing information with them on online sign language courses in the language the student will be learning. The student may find it helpful to enroll in sign language courses or join local sign language students groups once they arrive to begin their language immersion program.

Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton, a teacher of German at Oberlin College, urges teachers to consider ways that a disability can create opportunities for cultural exploration using the target language. She says:

Students should also be encouraged to explore how deaf or hard of hearing people live in the country of the target language. There will probably be very interesting cultural information to learn, and that in turn will also prompt students to make comparisons with the U.S or their home country.

The Sign Language Interpreter

In the case of a student who is using a sign language interpreter, make sure to understand how best to work with the interpreter while respecting necessary ethical boundaries.

  • Describe the classroom layout and arrangement to the interpreter and the student to get a sense from them of what the best positioning would be for class activities.
  • Be attentive to how quickly you field questions and move to new subjects as there can be a lag time for your words to be translated.
  • Allow people to speak one at a time, because interpreters cannot translate two conversations at once.
  • Understand that the role of the interpreter is only to facilitate communication and avoid asking the interpreter to offer advice or explanations of concepts.
  • Provide documents such as syllabus, study guides and specialized vocabulary of the course to the interpreter in advance.


Check in periodically with your D/HH students to verify how things are going. Keep an open approach to their suggestions. Supplementing materials or extra help outside of class might be useful. Remember that your students are the experts on their own situations.

By working to create an accessible classroom environment for students with disabilities, you create an accessible environment for all. Tips such as arranging desks in a circular shape, online forum discussions or class-generated notes help everyone.

If you require any extra assistance consider checking in with resources provided by your university, or contacting the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE). Our goal is to ensure the success of teachers and students in all things international exchange, including language learning.

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