The Potential of Dialogic Teaching in Deaf Education

The issue

There is consensus in the educational literature that children’s active engagement and participation in learning is enhanced by the quality of interaction with adults in the classroom. This has led to the development of research and practice in what is known as “dialogic teaching.”  Dialogic teaching refers to the reciprocal and participative interaction between teachers and pupils that develops the learners’ thinking and understanding.  It is:

  • Collective: involves the whole classroom or groups within a class
  • Reciprocal:  teachers and learners listen to each other and share ideas
  • Supportive: participation is encouraged and valued
  • Cumulative: ideas and understanding can grow and develop
  • Purposeful: there are specific educational goals.

Importantly, it cannot be assumed that deaf learners have the communication skills required to participate in this type of interaction at the same level as their hearing peers. Hearing children learn the rules of social engagement through social interactions and usually have well-established communication skills by the age of eight. Deaf children, depending on their hearing thresholds and mode of communication, may miss out on early conversation experience and therefore find acquiring these skills far more challenging. The issue is how to develop more dialogic interaction and teaching in deaf education classrooms.

What we know

The right kind of dialogue among deaf and hearing learners and their teachers can facilitate learner engagement in teaching and learning process:

  • Dialogic teaching provides opportunities for additional scaffolding through classroom talk, enabling deaf learners to better solve problems.
  • Preparatory dialogue can provide contextual support for activities by helping learners to draw on their prior knowledge of a topic; to think about, plan, “work things out;” and take control of their own learning.
  • Structured dialogue around picture book sharing in both sign and spoken language contexts supports children’s receptive vocabulary development and facilitates the transition to reading and writing. This has applications for story reading at home as well as in school.
  • A dialogic approach provides opportunities for teaching the knowledge content of the curriculum as well as related language.
  • Finally, school is an inherently social milieu. To be able to work and play with others and navigate the school environment requires an understanding of others and some social skills. A dialogic approach facilitates understanding of alternative positions and viewpoints and knowing how to respond appropriately. This approach can support deaf learners in developing social participation skills, understanding what others think and how they are feeling in order to promote self-image, and the development of positive classroom relationships.

What we don’t know

We know a lot about the potential of dialogic teaching for supporting learning and teaching, but the evidence relating to deaf learners is very sketchy. There is surprisingly little research that focuses on the day-to-day interaction in deaf education classrooms or that reveals the nature of “close up” communication among deaf learners and teachers. We need to know more about the ways in which teachers communicate and differently use sign and spoken language in the classroom to facilitate learning. We often focus on which languages are being used in the classroom rather than how languages are being used.  It would be very valuable to explore further the ways in which the multimodal aspects of interaction—such as the use of gesture, movement, space and materials—supports dialogue among deaf and hearing learners, teachers, and parents.


In the classroom, we need to aspire to developing  flexible and sensitive approaches to communication that recognize the child’s full communicative repertoire including all language modes, facial expressions, gesture, and use of objects and that show regard for the pupils’ ideas and emotional needs.  Teachers need to become skilled in recognizing the pupils’ contributions, in whatever form, and to support their learning through the quality of their feedback in ways that create a positive learning environment for the pupils.

Educators need to avoid the trap of reducing learning for deaf children to a simpler format that has less potential for wider learning and development and instead to grapple with ways to support dialogue that promotes language acquisition and cognitive growth. In research terms, we need to develop methods for examining the presence and affordances of dialogic interaction among deaf learners and ways of recording, transcribing and analyzing classroom talk.

To take this work further would develop our understanding of the nature of the communication between deaf children and their teachers in the classroom, how these interactions contribute to learning (or not) and to identify the challenges and opportunities of developing dialogic interaction in the classroom.

Posted on Jan. 12, 2018 by
Ruth Swanwick
University of Leeds
r.a.swanwick {at}

Helen Gibb
Special Education Needs & Inclusion
Peterborough City Schools
helenjgibb {at}


Further reading