Deaf Children Are Not Hearing Children Who Can’t Hear™

The issue


For as long as people have been educating deaf children, they have looked for the answer to the chronic academic underachievement observed in that population. For many people, in the past and even today, the assumption has been that if we can make them “more like hearing children” – in their behaviors, learning strategies, or by improving their speech, hearing, and/or language – deaf children will achieve similar academic outcomes (I used to think so too!). But, despite a new méthode du jour in deaf education every few years, progress has been limited. Most deaf learners still struggle in school and their academic outcomes tend to fall below those of hearing peers.

What we know

There is considerable disagreement in the field of deaf education with regard to the causes and potential solutions of the above issue (and who to blame). The research evidence, however, clearly indicates that none of the proposed “solutions” to deaf children’s academic challenges have been successful or even appropriate for all deaf children. Two sensitive examples: For most children who receive a cochlear implant, hearing and hence speech are improved. Among younger children with implants, reading comprehension also improves, often to age-appropriate levels. On average, however, by high school age, having an implant or not is no longer a predictor of reading achievement for deaf students. Similarly, deaf children of deaf parents, who have access to language from birth via sign language, typically read better than deaf children of hearing parents who do not sign (at least fluently) with their deaf children. But even they usually do not read as well as hearing children of hearing parents, and having deaf parents is not a predictor of reading ability among older deaf students.

Specific educational interventions/methods for deaf children have focused almost exclusively (and perhaps understandably) on language. Methods such as cued speech, bilingual education, manually-coded English, and Visual Phonics all can be shown to lead to some academic improvements for some children, but none has been shown to significantly enhance the long-term academic outcomes for deaf children at large. We know that early access to fluent language is essential, and that earlier language leads to better academic outcomes. Importantly, however, we also know that the individual differences among deaf children are far greater than they are among hearing children, thus making it less likely that any one method of deaf education is going to be universally effective. In addition, there are specific cognitive differences between deaf and hearing children that are likely to affect learning. For example, while deaf children may have better visual-spatial memory than hearing children, hearing children have better sequential memory than deaf children. Deaf learners also are far more likely than hearing learners to have delays in executive functioning (or cognitive control), an essential component of learning by which individuals control their own behavior (e.g., social, cognitive, and academic).

What we don’t know

Because of the wide variability among deaf children, and perhaps because of limitations on the research methods used in deaf education compared to other fields, one can find a published article supporting essentially any position with regard to the language and learning of deaf children. The fact that many of these are contradictory creates real difficulties for parents, teachers, and other stakeholders seeking to make evidence-based decisions with regard to school placement, support services, cochlear implantation, the language of instruction, and so on. Unfortunately, those large individual differences also are such that we do not know why the outcomes of cochlear implantation are so great (proponents rarely talk about the large number of unsuccessful cases; opponents rarely talk about the large number of successful ones); why there is so little evidence for the impact of bilingual education on academic outcomes (as opposed to language skills); or why the benefits of reading intervention programs among younger deaf children tend to fade as they get older.


Assuming that an educational tool or method that works for hearing children will be successful for deaf children if they only hear, speak, or sign better is appealing to many, but naïve and not supported by the available evidence. Effective teaching of deaf children requires that parents and teachers understand and accommodate their strengths and needs. Although many of the related issues touch on interpersonal and cultural sensitivities, failure to deal with them directly does not do deaf children (or their families) any good. Simply put, deaf children are not hearing children who cannot hear.

Posted on July 1, 2014 by
Marc Marschark
Center for Education Research Partnerships
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
marc.marschark {at}

Further reading

Knoors, H. & Marschark, M. (2014). Teaching deaf learners: Psychological and developmental foundations. New York: Oxford University Press. (especially Chapter 6: Cognitive Profiles of Deaf Learners). view details

Marschark, M. (2007). Raising and educating a deaf child, Second edition. New York: Oxford University Press. view details

Marschark, M., & Lee, C. (2014). Navigating two languages in the classroom: Goals, evidence, and outcomes. In  M. Marschark, G. Tang, & H. Knoors (Eds.), Bilingualism and bilingual deaf education. New York: Oxford University Press. view details

Spencer, P. E., Marschark, M., & Spencer, L. J. (2011). Cochlear implants: Advances, issues and implications. In M. Marschark & P. E. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, Volume 1, Second edition (pp. 452-471). New York: Oxford University Press. view details