Interpreters’ Strategies for Keeping Attention of Children Who Are Deaf

The issue

Deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) students can be easily distracted because of their reliance on the visual modality. Students may have a short attention span for numerous reasons: age, secondary disability (e.g., ADD, Autism etc.), lack of interest in or difficulty in mastering a subject, limited language skills (spoken or sign), time of day, and/or other distractions in the classroom. Lack of language fluency, especially in content-specific vocabulary, can make it difficult for DHH students to succeed in school compared to their hearing peers. It is often the interpreter’s or Cued Speech transliterator’s responsibility to maintain or redirect the student’s attention throughout the day. Research shows that DHH students who have some residual or aided hearing often do not realize how much they’re missing—or misunderstanding what they do hear—but think they understand everything.

What we know

If a student is distracted, interpreters/transliterators must make snap decisions. Do they repeat the information? Allow the student to work uninterrupted? Redirect? Omit unnecessary information if the student can complete the task without it? Wait for the teacher to respond to the student? Move into the student’s sight line? Preferential seating is also important – location, seat orientation (which direction the student is facing), ambient room noise, or adjacent students’ behavior can all have an impact on a DHH student’s attention.

Interpreters/transliterators employ various strategies such as increasing lag time, waving a hand within the student’s peripheral vision, or a gentle tap on the arm or shoulder to gain attention. Tapping the desk, flicking the lights, stamping a foot (if the student is out of arm’s reach), and refraining from standing in front of a light source are other common strategies. Interpreters/transliterators can be the main source of information for a student throughout the day. Therefore, they tend to dress in a way that eases eye fatigue by avoiding clothing that is patterned, or similar to their skin tone, and large/flashy jewelry.

While hearing students can engage in writing and listening at the same time, for DHH students, it becomes a more difficult task as their visual attention is being asked to simultaneously split between the message (through the interpreter/transliterator) and the in-class exercise, teacher, and/or visual media. As the day progresses, the student may often experience processing or eye fatigue which leads to inattention. As students become more fatigued or distracted, they need more frequent visual pauses.

What we don’t know

DHH students go through a myriad of testing prior to receiving related services as mandated by their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Unfortunately, most standardized tests are not specifically designed for DHH students, and the professionals administering the tests may be unfamiliar with DHH students’ distinctive needs. This makes relying on results tricky. Underlying issues may cause the student to be inattentive and the educational team may not have accurate information when making recommendations.


For educators, being flexible and building trust are fundamental. The physical setup of equipment may need to be reconfigured (can a HAT system be plugged in? Is a nearby computer’s fan noisy?) How is the classroom managed? Can the DHH student be seated away from distractions? Is the teacher willing to accommodate the student’s and the interpreter’s/transliterator’s needs? It’s also important to remember that when using graphic materials around the classroom to allow for the interpreter/transliterator’s relocation or student’s visual focus.

Each student is unique. For students with a hearing loss, other factors also come into play. What are their learning styles? Are they fluent in a language (spoken or sign)? What is their emotional state or physical wellbeing? Do they have parental support?

Use the DHH student’s interests as motivation to maintain attention. A token reward system may help the student learn to watch the interpreter/transliterator and teacher. Is there a regular time built into the schedule where the team can consult and troubleshoot for what is or what isn’t working? Seeking input from previous service providers, teachers, or parents can beneficial too.

When brainstorming ideas for keeping a DHH student’s attention, it is important to remember that one size fits none. Just because a specific set of techniques works for one DHH student, it doesn’t mean that it will work for every DHH student. The team should create a classroom environment that is built to adapt. Trial and error are a given. It takes time to find the right combination of tools that leads to the student’s success in the classroom.

Posted on July 6, 2018 by
Andreana Durkin
Andreana_Durkin {at},

Marissa Stolt
marissa_stolt {at},


Eileen Turko
eileen_turko {at}
Monroe One County (NY) Board of Cooperative Educational Services


Further reading

Dye, M.W.G., Hauser, P.C., Bavelier, D. (2008). Visual attention in deaf children and adults: Implications for learning environments. In M. Marschark & P.C. Hauser (Eds.), Deaf Cognition: Foundations and Outcomes. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.  view details

Sapere, P., LaRock, D., Convertino, C., Gallimore, L., & Lessard, P. (2005). Interpreting and interpreter education – Adventures in Wonderland? In M. Marschark, R. Peterson, & E. Winston (Eds.), Sign language interpreting and interpreter education: Directions for research and practice (pp. 283-298). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Stewart, D. A., & Kluwin T, N, (1996). The gap between guidelines, practice, and knowledge in interpreting services for deaf students,  Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 1, 29. view details