Increasing Active Student Engagement through Academically Responsive Instruction in Deaf Education Classrooms

The issue

As a group, deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) students are not reaching their academic potential. DHH students demonstrate significant gaps in academic achievement when compared with their typically hearing peers. Despite lower academic achievement, several research studies examining academic engagement in classrooms have found that DHH and hearing students are equally engaged, but DHH students are given fewer opportunities to respond. More time spent on task management (i.e., what to do and how to do it) and less time spent responding academically means that DHH students are less involved in their learning and tend to be passively engaged.

Passive engagement refers to students’ simply listening and/or watching a speaker (teacher or student). Active engagement, in contrast, involves productive membership in the classroom, including actively reading a book, answering questions, working with another student on an assigned task, and following teacher directions. When individuals are actively involved, they learn more effectively and are more likely to retain what they have learned. When you were learning how to drive, did you listen to someone explain how to do it or did you actively practice driving while being instructed? For DHH students to be successful learners, they need to be given opportunities to actively engage in their learning in ways that meet their individual needs.

What we know

We know that DHH students represent a highly diverse group of learners. In terms of needs, readiness skills, and learning profiles, DHH students are more different than they are alike. Several environmental and biological factors impact the learning experiences of DHH students, including age of hearing loss onset and detection, participation in early intervention services, access to language during the critical language development period (i.e., birth to 5 years old), and the compounding effects of additional disabilities. To proactively address learner variance and to increase opportunities for active engagement, we know that teachers must implement academically responsive instruction.

Academically responsive instruction addresses the individual needs and learning styles of each student. A well-known model of academically responsive instruction is Differentiated Instruction (DI). Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leading educator and speaker, describes six characteristics of DI including (1) proactive planning and curriculum, (2) flexible, small instructional groups, (3) variety of materials based on ability levels, (4) pacing is based on the needs of individual students and groups, (5) knowledge-centered learning, and (6) learner centered classrooms. Flexible, small, homogenous instructional groupings are the key to increasing students’ achievement.

What we don’t know

What we don’t know is the long-term impact of individualized or differentiated instruction on DHH students’ engagement and academic achievement. Individualized student instruction is accomplished through the implementation of flexible instructional arrangements. Flexible instructional arrangements are optimal combinations of small groups, one-on-one instruction, peer work, independent study, and meaningful and purposeful whole class instruction. Teachers implement individualized instruction at a teacher table to a small homogenous group of one to three students, while the other students in the class are working at child-managed centers or working with a classroom aide. Students at the teacher table receive direct, explicit guided instruction at their instructional level (i.e., just beyond their independent level). Students working at the centers are engaging in independent practice or review work at their independent level (i.e., work that they can complete independently without getting frustrated).

Researchers examining instructional arrangements used in classrooms at residential schools for DHH students have found that whole-group and independent work were most commonly used (approximately 98% of the time). Small group and one-on-one instruction were used rarely (less than 2% of the time). When implemented all the time, whole class instruction does not allow teachers to teach to students at varying instructional levels and it does not promote active engagement in learning.


DHH students with limited or lessened access to a full and complete language often come to school with delayed academic skills. Over time, the achievement gap widens. We have students in our classrooms for less than six hours a day. There is no time to waste. There is no time for students to be passively engaged in learning. Academically responsive instruction realized through flexible instructional arrangements is an effective way to individualize instruction, increase opportunities for active engagement, and meet the unique needs of diverse DHH learners.

Posted on April 2, 2018 by
Jennifer Catalano
Disability and Psychoeducational Studies
University of Arizona
jennifercatalano {at}


Further reading