Thinking Skills and Deaf Learners

The issue

martin-photoCan deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) learners acquire higher-level thinking strategies on a par with hearing learners?   Misunderstandings and prejudices have led to the view that DHH learners have limited “intelligence” or cognitive/academic abilities—a most unfortunate attitude that which the evidence contradicts.

What we know and don’t know

Until the mid-1960s researchers and others (mostly hearing persons) stated that DHH learners’ intellectual capacity was “inferior” or limited to “concrete” thought. Finally a psychologist pointed out that the problem was not with these learners—instead it was the tests being used. A researcher then reviewed many studies and concluded that DHH learners had the same range of thinking potential as hearing students—with the key word being “potential.” How could they achieve that potential?

An American study with high-school age DHH learners used specially-trained teachers in “cognitive education” and specially-developed materials to focus on such skills as comparing, categorizing, analyzing, organizing, sequencing, and using logic, over a two-year period, three times per week in the classroom. Results when compared with a similar group which did not have this intervention showed that these students significantly improved in: math computation and concepts, reading comprehension, general reasoning, ability to invent a solution to a real-world problem, and thinking habits such as being persistent in solving a problem, finding more than one alternative for solving a problem, and cooperating with others in problem-solutions.  Similar results were found in a separate studies in China and the United Kingdom..  Today, several programs for DHH learners have used this program with similar results.

Four components of cognitive intervention appear to be essential: (1) belief in cognitive modifiability—that it is never too late to increase a person’s capacity for learning; (2) in-depth teacher professional development to focus on guiding and leading the learner, not just telling information; (3) use of metacognition—regular reflection on the mental processes used in problem-solving; and (4) specially-developed materials which allow the learner to apply the thinking strategies not only to school work but also to social life and the workplace.

What do we not know? Further research is needed to find out if the effects of different kinds of cognitive interventions are effective for different subpopulations. For example, do they differ for children with and without cochlear implants? How do the effects of different interventions vary in relation to the level of a child’s hearing loss? How might they vary for DHH students from hearing versus deaf families? How might the effects differ for students using primarily spoken versus signed communication? How much would interventions need to change, quantitatively or qualitatively for students in these different subpopulations.


Several policy and practice implications emerge from this work:

1. Teacher education programs in Deaf Education must incorporate information about deaf children’s cognitive skills (strengths and needs) in the preparation of teachers.

2. Pre-service teachers need to have internships with strong and successful teachers of thinking, as models to follow.

3. School leaders need to make a commitment to the central role of cognitive education in their programs and schools; the author’s The Thinking Academy tells how to develop a school where thinking is a key for the whole curriculum.

4. Teachers need to “cognify” their curriculum—examine their subject matter to identify and explicitly teach the thinking skills which are embedded within their subjects.

5. Parents of DHH students need to be given orientation to thinking skills so that they can reinforce their children’s becoming effective problem-solvers.

To summarize the importance of cognitive education for DHH learners, we need to recall the words of Confucius who supposedly said, “Give me a fish and I shall eat tomorrow; but teach me HOW to fish, and I shall eat for a lifetime.”

Posted on April 1, 2014 by
David S. Martin, Professor/Dean Emeritus, Gallaudet University

Further reading

Knoors, H. & Marschark, M. (2014). Teaching deaf learners: Psychological and developmental foundations. New York: Oxford University Press. view details

Kritzer, K.L. & Pagliaro, C. M. (2013). An intervention for early mathematical success: outcomes from the hybrid version of the building math readiness parents as partners (MRPP) project. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 3-46. view details

Marschark, M. & Wauters, L. (2011). Cognitive functioning in deaf adults and children. In M. Marschark & P. E. Spencer (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, Volume 1, second edition (pp. 486-499). New York: Oxford University Press. view details

Vernon, M. (1965/2005). Fifty years of research on the intelligence of deaf and hard-of-hearing children: A review of literature and discussion of implications. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 10, 225-231. view details