Instructional Strategies for Students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing (Updated September 2019)

Team members working with students who are deaf and hard of hearing need to carefully consider each student’s unique needs and learning style, as well as the demands of the task. The following strategies are offered to provide a starting point for thinking about possible adaptations. It is important to remember that all team members should have input into decisions regarding instructional strategies for a student who is deaf or hard of hearing.

Possible effects of hearing loss on skill development in English

The task of learning to read is more difficult for children who cannot hear. According to Traxler’s research in 2000, less than half of the 18-year old students, who are deaf, leaving high school had reached a fifth grade level in reading and writing skills (Traxler, 2000). Reading and writing may be considered more critical for people who are deaf than for hearing people, since they often rely on written means to communicate (e.g., emails, texts, captioning).

It has been hypothesized that the low reading skills of deaf individuals result from problems with phonological processing. Most hearing readers encode print by sounding words out phonetically. Many children who are deaf and hard of hearing, even with amplification, are not able to hear many of the speech sounds. This encoding is important in reading, because it allows a person to hold chunks of text in short-term memory long enough for higher-level processors to assign meaning to it for overall comprehension.

90 - 95% of children who are deaf and hard of hearing have parents who are hearing, and most often, are not fluent at signing. For children who depend on visual communication, it may be more difficult for them to acquire language from their environment incidentally (from overhearing/seeing conversations of others in their environment, from TV, or other devices). Without this incidental learning, a child who is deaf or hard of hearing may have limited knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar that print represents, and even a limited general knowledge of their world. Therefore, it is often more difficult for them to predict or infer meaning. Multiple meaning words and idioms may present particular challenges.

American Sign Language (ASL) has its own grammatical rules, and does not follow the syntax or the word order of English. Children who are deaf and who do not hear spoken English over and over during their daily routines may not acquire use of English grammar and syntax naturally as hearing children do. They may need to learn English grammar by memorizing the rules, a lofty task. Some people may think that if a person who is deaf could just read a lot, they would assimilate English syntax through repeated exposure. The problem is, if a child doesn't hear English, and cannot assimilate the rules of the language naturally, then reading English sentences is very difficult. If one is not able to sound out the vocabulary phonetically and if sentence structure is confusing, reading becomes a chore.

Ways to help students who are deaf and hard of hearing succeed in English

The following strategies are designed to promote access to English content for students who are deaf and hard of hearing based on the Virginia Standards of Learning. It is important to remember that each child has unique needs and that decisions regarding instructional strategies should be based upon current and accurate information about the child’s sensory functioning and on the student's school-based team's input.

For those children who are deaf and hard of hearing and whose sensory devices enable them to access and process speech as hearing children do, teaching strategies may likely follow best practices used with hearing children. Sensory devices (hearing aids, cochlear implants) and assistive listening devices (FM systems, sound field systems) should be utilized according to the recommendations of the audiologist and the IEP team to optimize auditory reception of speech sounds.

Those children who are not receiving speech sounds adequately through audition may need to learn to read using other strategies.

Educational programs that have a bilingual-bicultural (bi-bi) approach use American Sign Language (ASL) to teach and introduce English as a second language through print. Proponents of the bi-bi approach acknowledge the importance of general world knowledge in the development of reading and writing. They view ASL as the natural language for children who are deaf, and as a critical tool that allows children to build and process knowledge of the world around them. This promotes a metalinguistic awareness in the children of the differences between ASL and printed English. As with most theories of literacy, parent involvement is an essential aspect for bilingual education. If parents are unable to sign fluently in ASL with their children to read stories, deaf mentors may be brought in as models.

It is very important to remember that language precedes literacy. It is not rational to expect a person to READ or WRITE words or about concepts that they do not have knowledge of or cannot comprehend or express orally or through sign language.

Instructional and Environmental Strategies:
For Students Using the Bilingual/Bicultural Method

  • Let the child see the book, your face and signs simultaneously.
  • Don’t be limited by the print - expand on pictures.
  • Be dramatic - use props, exaggerate, use facial expression, eye gaze, body shift to show different characters.
  • Vary location of signing - on book, on child, etc.
  • Read a story several times if a child asks.
  • Act out the story together after reading it.
  • Utilize the whole language philosophy.
  • Use signed English, Cued Speech, and more fingerspelling to clarify differences between ASL and printed English.
  • Encourage students to translate between sign language and English, and to make connections between all modes presented.

For Any Child Who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Use multimedia approaches for visual representation of lesson content. Power point presentations and interactive white boards are preferable to traditional chalkboards; as the teacher does not need to turn his/her back to the students. This is especially important for students who rely on speechreading, sign language, Cued Speech, and/or listening for receptive communication.
  • Offer systematic vocabulary instruction. The most effective approaches emphasize numerous techniques, such as use of semantic maps, semantic feature analyses, word maps, and classroom discussion of words. Overexposure through repetition and varied formats is often essential.
  • When using visuals, allow time for students to view the board, projected image, or objects, then watch the explanation/instruction given by the teacher or through the educational interpreter, and only then, allow students to offer responses. A hearing person can view visuals and listen at the same time. Students who are deaf and hard of hearing, especially those who rely on visual communication through sign language, Cued Speech or speechreading, must process information sequentially rather than simultaneously. Students who use cochlear implant technology require processing time as well.
  • Pre-teach vocabulary for upcoming science, mathematics and social science lessons in context. Collaboration with the speech-language pathologist and/or resource teacher can be beneficial. Remember, students who are deaf and hard of hearing typically do not learn words incidentally; explicit instruction is necessary.
  • Base instructional strategies on the individual’s receptive and expressive communication strengths.
  • Provide an enriched language environment that promotes a wide range of meaningful experiences with opportunities for receptive, expressive (through the air) and written language.
  • Provide a peer or professional in the learning environment with whom the student can interact and who can effectively provide, not only the vocabulary to label objects, but also a language model for expressing concepts and ideas, using the student’s primary mode of communication.
  • Regardless of the communication modality used, make print an important part of everyday routines, and emphasize the value of reading and writing in varied, meaningful activities throughout the day.
  • Partner with families. Maintain ongoing communication between the home and teachers so that vocabulary and language concepts are reflected and reinforced in as many different situations as possible. Make families aware of the limitless opportunities in the home for language enrichment during daily routines and determine whether the family members are able to communicate effectively in the student’s chosen mode.
  • Prior to reading a selection, encourage class discussions so that students may benefit from one another’s connections to the text, building students’ background knowledge of concepts and vocabulary.
  • For students who sign, ensure that all involved are consistent in the signs being used. Use conceptually based signs and avoid inventing signs for new vocabulary. Be sure that students learn the conceptually accurate signs for phrases and multiple meaning words and use them while reading. While fingerspelling a word may indicate that a student may not know the meaning, be sure to encourage and use recognized lexicalized signs (recognized signs made from blending letters from the manual/fingerspelled alphabet to form a fingerspelled sign. Example: the ASL sign for “bus” is made by fingerspelling B-U-S).
  • Guide students to formulate questions first; then answer their questions through reading. This may help to improve their word recognition skills, comprehension, analytical skills, and ability to draw inferences.
  • Reinforce phonemic awareness through visuals (demonstrations, pictures, and software programs) that show placement of articulators.
  • Discuss in an IEP team meeting how phonemes will be introduced in a consistent manner. Even students with the most profound hearing losses may benefit from phonemic awareness enhanced with visual-gestural strategies such as See-the-Sound Visual Phonics or Cued Speech.
  • Incorporate speaking and/or signing, listening/receiving communication visually, reading and writing activities consistently. Literacy involves all four components.
  • Teach students who use sign language to deliver classroom presentations in sign. The student and the educational interpreter should practice together prior to a presentation to ensure that the interpreter is familiar with the material and is rendering an accurate representation of the student’s work.
  • Remember that language precedes literacy. Students will not understand language expressed in print until they understand language presented through listening and spoken language, sign language, and/or Cued Speech, etc.
  • Remember that no instructional strategy, however differentiated, will be effective if the student does not comprehend a speaker’s communication attempts.
  • Provide an enriched learning environment that promotes a wide range of meaningful experiences with opportunities for reading about and discussion of historic events, past and present.
  • Use more than one mode of presentation for abstract concepts. These may include manipulatives (cubes, puppets, action figures), verbal (word problems matching equations, role-playing, debates), pictorial (time lines), and symbolic modes (graphic organizers). Encourage students to translate between sign language and English and to make connections between all modes presented. Pictures, drawing sets, and visualizing or pantomiming of actions may be used to move from the concrete to more abstract representations.
  • Relate events in history with students’ personal experiences through a dialogic process.
  • Emphasize the role of individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing in various events in history.
  • Encourage students to process information at a deeper level through questioning.
  • Provide an enriched learning environment that promotes a wide range of meaningful experiences with opportunities for exploration and problem solving.
  • Note that word problems may be especially difficult for some students who are deaf and hard of hearing because of the literacy level needed to comprehend the problem. Having the educational interpreter sign the word problem may be an appropriate accommodation for some students.
  • Introduce math word problems as informal stories with math facts through dramatization, or use, interactive boards or overhead projection with manipulatives; then translate the action into a math sentence. Students can also use pictures, drawing sets, and visualizing or pantomiming the action in a problem to move from the concrete to more abstract representations of a word problem.


French, M. (1999). Starting with Assessment: A Developmental Approach to Deaf Children’s Literacy. Pre-College National Mission Programs. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University.

Language Adventure Curriculum (LAC) use with children who use visual language communication systems (e.g., ASL, Cued Speech). Each unit of study has more than 300 pages of classroom activities, vocabulary and a listing of related children's literature. Note: This resource may be available through Virginia’s regional TTAC lending libraries or through statewide loan from the VCU TTAC Library or (804) 828-1414.

Schleper, D. The 15 Principles for Reading to Deaf Children - Reading to Deaf Children; Learning from Deaf Adults A video and manual set that presents 15 principles to guide parents and teachers in promoting literacy development in children who are deaf and hard of hearing. Available through Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, Gallaudet University.

Traxler, C. B. (2000). The Stanford Achievement Test: National Norming and Performance Standards for Deaf and Hard-of- Hearing Students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 5, 337-348.

Virginia Department of Education (2019) Guidelines for Working with Students Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Virginia Public Schools, Appendix J.