Teaching English to Hearing Impaired Learners
For the purposes of this page, the term hearing impaired refers to learners with severe hearing loss and/or no hearing ability.
What is hearing impairment?
Hearing impairment refers to the inability or limited ability to hear. Some hearing impaired students have mild hearing loss and may be able to use hearing aids to amplify sounds, while others have no sound perception in one or both ears. A person who has no sound perception in both ears is deaf. People may be born deaf or may develop hearing loss from disease, aging, exposure to noise, or trauma. Teachers may find it useful to know the origin or background of a student’s hearing impairment.
Challenges of teaching English to the hearing impaired
In some schools, hearing impaired students are educated in a specialized setting with other hearing impaired learners or with other learners who have unrelated difficulties or disabilities. In other schools, hearing impaired students are integrated into classrooms with students who have normal hearing abilities. Teachers may or may not be specially trained to teach hearing impaired learners.
For deaf learners, communication is a daily challenge. Learning an additional language, especially in a foreign country, is more difficult for learners who do not have a strong base in their first language. This is often the case for hearing impaired learners who rely mainly (or entirely) on visual processing for learning. Some hearing impaired students use lip reading and/or sign language or finger spelling for communication in addition to print and visuals.
Trying to learn a new language (which is sometimes compared to the challenges of having hearing loss) is exhausting for those who suffer from hearing impairment. Teaching hearing impaired learners can also be stressful and tiring. Teachers need to adapt their expectations and seek assistance from both specialists and other students. Knowing what to expect can reduce some of the stress. Here are a few challenges that teachers of deaf learners can expect:
- learning how to read the student’s facial expressions
- dealing with a student’s social delays and emotional problems (fatigue, frustration, self-consciousness, and loneliness) in addition to the learning difficulty
- remembering to face the student as often as possible (keeping objects and hands away from their faces as they teach)
- thinking about other students in the class (refraining from exaggerating sounds when speaking)
- spending more time prepping (bringing in visual aids or adding captions to videos)
- being sensitive to the challenges the student has in and outside the classroom
- remembering to check in regularly to make sure the hearing impaired student is still engaged and understanding the content
- searching for useful resources for the learner
Being sensitive to a learner’s needs
Hearing impaired learners may not appreciate the term “hearing impaired”. They may prefer the term “deaf” or “hard of hearing”. Teachers should find out how their students would like their difficulties to be labeled as there will be times when you need to mention this challenge to other staff or students. Having a buddy system can be helpful. A buddy can take notes and answer questions and make a student feel more comfortable. A hearing impaired learner may be more comfortable telling his/her buddy that your lesson is too difficult or your body is too difficult to read.
Certain activities that teachers normally use in an ELL classroom, such as watching a video or listening to a recording will need to be modified for a student with hearing impairment. If you can’t provide the script for an audio task or the captioning for a video, skip the task until you are properly prepared. Removing the script when it is time to do an exercise or task can be similar to turning off a recording.
Useful communication skills to teach the hearing impaired
In some classrooms, hearing impaired learners are also immigrants or refugees. Their reason for learning an additional language is to survive in an English-speaking country. Teachers should focus on survival skills that are needed most, including some of the following.
- writing out instructions
- writing point form notes
- filling out forms
- teaching gestures that English speakers recognize
- showing others how to use basic universal signs
- writing short form
- researching useful sites, apps, or visual materials that come with transcripts or captioning
Assistive devices for the hearing impaired
In addition to speech therapists and note-takers, there are many tools and aids that can be beneficial to hearing impaired students. A student may have some of his/her own devices, including hearing aids, laptop, tablet, mobile phone, or other electronic devices. Here are some tools and devices that teachers may want to consider having available for hearing impaired language learners.
- personal FM system
- closed caption decoder
- videos with closed captioning
- mobile devices for texting
- overhead projector/whiteboard
- alert systems with lights or vibration
- real objects
- videos with subtitles
- table lamps
Setting up an appropriate learning environment
Hearing impaired students require preferential seating as well as other accommodations. Here are some ideas for creating an ideal learning environment.
- place student close to teacher to make speech reading easier
- install a flashing fire alarm
- install specialized lighting or window covers that reduce shadows
- have a large wall chart for vocabulary that student can see
- reduce or eliminate background noise that can interfere with hearing devices (e.g., replace or unplug anything that hums or rattles, keep windows closed)
- seat chatty or easily-distracted students far away from hearing impaired learner
- place computer station close to the hearing impaired student for easy access
- make sure an electrical outlet is close to the hearing impaired learner
Additional tips for teaching hearing impaired learners
One of the best tips for teaching a hearing impaired learner is to speak to previous teachers who have worked with the student that is now in your care. Find out what worked and what didn’t work. Here are some other tips that experienced teachers offer:
- talk to parents to learn as much as you can about the student’s needs and concerns
- join or create a professional development group (or Twitter chat) for teachers who are working with deaf students
- seat hearing impaired student close to the board
- set realistic learning goals
- check in on learner regularly to see if he/she needs help, but only provide help that is requested
- create some hand signals for basic instructions or questions
- assign a helper or note-taker (or ask for volunteers)
- use texting to provide chat support; allows you to quickly repeat or relay instructions or notes
- learn basic signs for instructions
- maximize light
- eliminate clutter
- repeat classmates’ answers
- highlight main points of a lesson/agenda in writing on the board
- use videos that have subtitles (or add your own captions with an easy-to-use program)
- provide a personalized work space or table to accommodate special needs
- use a set schedule so that learner knows what to expect next
- write classroom transitions on the board
- allow extra time for learner to complete tests and assignments
- make sure you have the student’s attention before you speak or provide instructions
- face the hearing impaired student whenever possible
- provide notes at least one class in advance
- keep a large calendar of events in the classroom
Some Famous Hearing-Impaired People
- Beethoven – classical composer
- Bill Clinton – US president
- Thomas Edison – scientist, inventor
- Lou Ferrigno – actor, professional bodybuilder
- Whoopi Goldberg – actress, comedian, author
- Helen Keller – author, political activist, lecturer
- William Shatner – actor, author, director, singer