Teaching in Classrooms Where Deaf Children Have Diverse Home Languages

The issue

Today we live in an increasingly mobile and connected world that has altered the language dynamics of our communities. Many children experience a much richer language environment than their parents and grandparents did in childhood. Within the UK 20% of primary school children communicate using a language other than English at home, as do 21% of the North American school population. DHH children’s experiences are as diverse, and for some, sign languages form part of their repertoire providing the opportunity for multimodal ‘layers’ of language, and communication strategies such as Sign Supported English (“Simultaneous Communication” in the U.S.). DHH children whose early home language(s) differ(s) from the language of their wider community are presented with a range of challenges when they start school. In particular, educational practitioners may not be able to recognise all the linguistic resources and skills a child may have. The challenge for professionals is to identify the nature and full extent of a child’s language and communication skills, and understand how to use them to support future language development and curriculum understanding.

What we know

We know that language and communication skills are central to a child’s learning, and recognise the fundamental importance of immersing a child in a rich, fluent and accessible language experience. Within the first years of life, this experience will be predominantly the language(s) of their home. The label we give a language (Spanish, British Sign Language, spoken, signed etc.), and the nature of the language the label embraces, is not the critical factor.

We can learn from the experiences of children brought up in bi/multilingual homes where they encounter two (or more) fluent languages. These children frequently develop skills in both languages simultaneously, despite not being a competent user of either language at birth.

Learning, that is, the process of developing an understanding of the world, is not a linear process that builds on language, but rather language and learning are intertwined and essential to each other. A child gradually builds their language competencies in order to express and develop increasingly sophisticated concepts; as a child develop new concepts their language skills become more sophisticated enabling them to express these new ways of thinking.

Bilingual and multilingual research has moved away from the notion of languages being compartmentalised with clear boundaries, to recognising the presence of more fluid and dynamic interactions between languages. Such a dynamic language interface presents exciting opportunities to enhance and develop deaf children’s multilingual and multimodal language skills while engaging in curriculum based learning. Indeed the observed experiences of children educated in bilingual Welsh/English speaking schools, has provided valuable insight into how children use both languages to facilitate their learning.

What we don’t know

We know do not know enough about how deaf children learn in school settings, particularly in general/mainstream classrooms. We have a growing understanding of how deafness influences the development of cognitive skills, but less knowledge of how such cognitive skills influence learning in the classroom. Recent work has identified the importance of social skills and teachers’ expectation for deaf students’ success, but there is still much work to do.

We do not currently have the breadth of assessments available to assess and monitor the full range of languages deaf children use (see the April, 2017, bulletins on this site). New assessments are also required to identify how a child uses language(s) for different purposes, audiences and within different contexts.  However, assessment and effective pedagogical practice are interdependent. Assessment does not lead to progress unless it informs practice; practice cannot be optimized without understanding the progress a child is making.

We do not know the extent of multilingualism within our school populations, either with respect to indigenous bi/multilingual families, such as British Asian communities or within our immigrant and refugee communities.


The challenge we face is to build on all the language skills, experiences and resources a child brings to the classroom to optimize their language development and learning. We need to engage in creative practices supported by robust evidence of effectiveness; practices that are reflective and rapidly respond to the needs of our children. This will require:

  • the development of assessment and monitoring protocols that provide a comprehensive understanding of a child’s language skills, in the context of their cultural and home background
  • a clear understanding how deaf children learn with a classroom environment
  • professionals to work within an effective, collaborative team that draws on a range of skills, experiences and language use
    flexible pedagogical approaches that can be tailored to the skills and language resources a deaf child brings with them to the classroom.

Posted on July 10, 2017 by
Jackie Salter
University of Leeds
J.M.Salter {at} leeds.ac.uk


Further reading

Leigh, G. & Crowe, K. (2015). Responding to cultural and linguistic diversity among deaf and hard-of hearing learners. In H. Knoors and M. Marschark (Eds.), Educating deaf learners: Creating a global evidence base. (pp. 69-92). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Ormel, E. & Giezen, M. (2104) Bimodal bilingual cross-language interaction pieces of the puzzle. In M. Marschark, G. Tang, & H. Knoors (Eds.), Bilingualism and bilingual deaf education (pp. 74-101). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Swanwick R. (2015). Re-envisaging learning and teaching in deaf education: Toward new transactions between research and practice. In H. Knoors and M. Marschark (Eds.), Educating deaf learners: Creating a global evidence base. (pp. 595-616). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Swanwick, R. (2017). Languages and languaging in deaf education: A framework for pedagogy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details