Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Question from L.A., England

I work as a teaching assistant in a primary school and work one to one with a deaf child aged 4. The main educational focus for this child is to develop their understanding and ability to use sign language however I’m not sure which way would be the best way to teach this?

I am able to use a basic level of sign language. The student has picked up some signs on their own like drink, toilet and food; however, this is a very slow process, does anyone have any tips?

Question from L.A., England. Posted December 23, 2014.
Response from Jackie Salter - University of Leeds

Your question which is massively important for the pupil with whom you are working. You clearly recognise that the situation you describe is not working, and you are absolutely right to voice your concern.

For this or any child to acquire a language, accessible, fluent language models are necessary, and consistent use is essential. That means that if sign language is the goal, the child will need to be surrounded by fluent and consistent language at school and at home. This may be a huge challenge for the whole family, but it’s an essential ingredient to long-term success. It would be helpful to have them look into NDCS family sign language curriculum.

It would appear from the description of your situation that both you and this child are being put in an untenable position. It is unreasonable for you to be given the responsibility to teach the child sign language: a highly-skilled sign language user trained to work with young children in an educational setting, ideally a native signer, is needed for the child’s future language, cognitive, and social-emotional development. With only a handful or words/signs at the age of four there should be a clear, focussed and frequently monitored language development programme in place for this pupil. If the child already has had extensive exposure to sign language, it also might be worthwhile requesting a cognitive evaluation just in case there are other factors at play.

The circumstances will of course be more complicated than you are able to express in a few short sentences, and it is important, therefore, that a much more detailed and extensive review of the situation is undertaken. In the first instance, you need to discuss this with the class teacher, SENCo and teacher of the deaf as soon as possible.