Are Interpreting Services for Young Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students Appropriate?

The issue

Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams often recommend interpreting services as an appropriate means for very young deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children, as early as preschool, to access their school experience.  A large number of these children are just beginning to acquire sign language and, in addition, may have significant overall language and communication delays, making them unprepared to use an interpreter.
Even older students may not have developed the necessary foundational language skills to process the teacher’s message via interpretation, not to mention peer interactions, communication from other adults in their classroom, and incidental learning/social opportunities in the classroom, on the playground or in the cafeteria.  The language and educational needs of these children often extend beyond the capacity of an interpreter to address them.

Though a significant one, language competency is only one factor that contributes to interpreter readiness.   Students using interpreting services also have to be developmentally, cognitively, and socially capable of navigating the school experience via third party communication.  Routinely, schools believe that an interpreter has the capacity to, single-handedly, provide the student access, participation, and membership.  This is not the case.

What we know and what we don’t know

Whether or not interpreting services for DHH students are appropriate and will effectively serve them must be a priority consideration of the IEP team, based on assessment information.  For many DHH students, interpreting is their primary support service, and often the interpreter is the primary or only sign language model the student has.  If the student is still acquiring foundational language, making linguistic strides through interpretation alone will be challenging.  When this is the case, the educational team must consider alternate or additional roles/positions with language-fluent staff who are trained to provide language planning and instruction that leads the student to having a foundational language.
DHH students and adults often report that direct and interactive communication in the K–12 setting is more efficient, effective, and empowering for them than interpreted communication.  With assessment data and anecdotal evidence from the educational team, IEP teams should consider whether direction instruction from a qualified educator would strengthen a student’s programming. When direct communication is not possible or appropriate for all or part of the educational process, it is critical that quality standards for interpreters and other members of the educational team be in place.
Interpreters sometimes function in roles beyond that of their title, often leading to colleague, parent, and student confusion and conflict.  Sometimes, role shifts are at the request of supervisors.  They look for the support of a staff person, regularly an interpreter, who has some background in “deaf related issues.”  Sometimes, recognizing student gaps, interpreters unilaterally decide to provide supports they feel students need.  Interpreter training programs generally provide programming from a “community interpreting” approach.  This does not offer training in how to match the language needs of a child whose language is still emerging.  When, or if, an interpreter is serving an expanded or dual role, it should be formalized and discussed with the instructional staff and the student, and all instructional supports should be guided and monitored by a qualified educator and included in the IEP.


How do school programs assess a student’s linguistic competency in sign language and make programming decisions accordingly?  Programs are fortunate when they have teachers of the deaf, speech-language pathologists or diagnosticians who can assess student sign language competency.  When this expertise is not present, it must be secured.
When does the provision of interpreting services contribute to a restrictive environment and when does it contribute to a least restrictive environment?  If a student is not linguistically ready, the team needs to design programming that provides a natural language environment. Natural sign language environments should include native sign language users if at all possible. In any case, a variety of roles and responsibilities should be considered.  Students would benefit socially and linguistically from age-appropriate peers who can serve as natural language models.  Adult language models can serve as parallel experience guides in the classroom, teacher aides, and tutors.  Language fluent teachers of the deaf can provide direct instruction and co-teach in general education settings.

Interpreting services are a prevailing provision for signing students who attending public school programs.  Interpreting and utilizing interpreting services is a complex process; not all students are prepared to access school this way.  For students to fully benefit from this service, it requires much consideration and planning by a highly qualified team.

Posted on July 10, 2017 by
Cindy Huff
New Mexico School for the Deaf
cindy.huff {at}


Further reading

Berke, M. (2013). Reading books with young deaf children: Strategies for mediating between american sign language and English. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 299-311. view details

Hall, M.L., Eigsti, I., Bortfeld, H., & Lillo-Martin, D. (2017). Auditory deprivation does not impair executive function, but language deprivation might: Evidence from a parent-report measure in deaf native signing children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 22, 9-21. view details

Mayer, C. (2007). What really matters in the early literacy development of deaf children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12, 411-431. view details

Tomasuolo, E., Valerie, G., Di Renzo, A., Pasqualetti, P., & Volterra, V. (2013). Deaf children attending different school environments: Sign language abilities and theory of mind. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 12-29. view details