How can I work with a student who is deaf and speaks ASL but struggles with written English?

Although the problems are by no means universal, students who are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) may sometimes struggle with written English. According to the Oregon Disabilities Commission's website for their Deaf and Hard of Hearing Access Program (DHHAP), ASL is the first language for many ASL users, and English is a nonnative, second language. Because there is no written form of ASL, there are no newspapers, magazines, or books written in ASL. Translating ASL to written English or vice versa is a multistep and inexact process (see ASL: A Distinct, Culturally Rich Language). Many adult ASL users are fluent in written English, but the average reading and writing level of adult ASL users is between third and fifth grade. This statistic is improving at least in part because of bilingual-bicultural education that recognizes the worth of both languages and difficulties translating between them.

A common misconception about ASL is that it is a simple translation of English. In fact, it is a distinct language. Consequently, an ASL speaker faces many of the same challenges with reading and writing in English as others for whom English is a second language. Because written language learning is typically linked to hearing and producing language, a student who is deaf has an added barrier to learning written English (see The relationship between literacy and ASL). Despite this added language barrier, a teacher of a student who is deaf may have a resource that is not available with most ESL students-an interpreter. The sign language interpreter is an important resource for assuring effective communication between the teacher and the student who is deaf, as well as between the student and peers.

Although each student is unique and one should never assume that a student needs particular accommodations without discussion with the student and school resource staff, the following are examples of accommodations for students with hearing impairments:

  • Consider arranging to meet with just the student and the interpreter to provide additional explanations and to answer questions, particularly at the beginning of the study of a new concept. This may help the student learn the concept. It may also make it more likely that she will be willing to approach you for help later if needed.
  • If the student develops a conceptual understanding of the topic first, this will make deciphering the English easier, so if a teacher can make learning more hands-on or visual, this will help the student and probably many other students in the class as well.
  • Because translation may cause the student to lag behind a little in following lectures or discussions, the teacher needs to be sure to allow sufficient wait time so he can make a meaningful contribution to the class.
  • For written assignments, it is a good idea to suggest that the student write using a word processor with a spelling and grammar checker, but be aware that you may still need to talk with the student if something she has written is difficult to decipher. A teacher should also be open to alternative methods of demonstrating understanding, such as the use of diagrams and other pictures to supplement written text.

Regarding all accommodations, ask students with disabilities for suggestions. They can provide the teacher with insights on strategies that have worked in the past. Students with disabilities are or should be becoming experts on their disabilities and accommodation needs. Staff of the campus disabled student services office or special education team at a school are important resources for consultation and guidance on how to effectively accommodate and work with students who are deaf or for questions relating to the use of sign language interpreters in class.

For more information consult the Deaf or Hard of Hearing area of AccessSTEM.

Date Updated: 

1/22/2013