Academic Language: What Teachers of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Need to Know

The issue

By the early 2000s, every state in the United States had developed, adopted, and begun to assess student learning based on what became known as the Common Core State Standards. These standards address college- and career-readiness as well as what children should know and be able to do in grades K-12. The Common Core Standards require academic language development — knowledge of vocabulary, syntax, and discourse specific to each subject area — in reading, writing, and face-to-face language (spoken or signed). A focus on academic language is also seen in assessments, such as the edTPA, which are required for teacher certification in many states.

The inability to master academic language is, in part, a contributor to low academic achievement. For many d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing students (DHH) this may be because they are faced with the challenge of mastering both subject matter content and language proficiency simultaneously. In other words, many DHH children often simultaneously learn language (vocabulary, syntax, and morphology), learn about language (how language is effectively used in varying situations and content areas), and learn through language (new content).

What we know

Some DHH children will be learning English as a second language (L2); others will not. For all children, both hearing and DHH, access to a complete language at a young age, regardless of the modality (visual or spoken), is important to their development of their first language (L1). Competent use of a first language provides a needed foundation for learning academic English whether as a second language or as a more sophisticated form of English. Children’s environments (home and school) should provide accessible high-quality and language-rich experiences including storybook reading, social interactions, conversations, and writing.

The research with hearing English Language Learners (ELLs) has a strong research-base pointing to effective instructional practices that develop academic language in English (their L2). Broadly speaking, these practices and instructional strategies focus on:

  • Using and teaching academic language in all communication — speaking (signing), reading, and writing — and across all content areas
  • Using both a child’s first and second language to develop academic language in each content area by strategically incorporating use of academic language in the child’s first language especially when introducing new or difficult concepts
  • Developing a child’s vocabulary and comprehension skills using direct and explicit instruction and with accessible yet content rich materials
  • Teaching and modelling the writing process across a variety of purposes for writing and in each content area
  • Training teachers to incorporate academic language across content areas

Some, but not all of the above practices have been researched specifically with DHH students; many have not been. The rising number of DHH high school students who are well prepared for college does indicate that many DHH students have acquired a level of academic language necessary for post-secondary education and for careers.

What we don’t know

Until very recently, little attention has been paid specifically to academic language development in DHH students in either their first (ASL or English) or second language (English). Researchers and teachers who work with DHH students generally agree that practices and strategies that have been shown to be effective with hearing children (in the case of academic language, this would be research with hearing ELLs) should provide a basis for instruction of DHH children in areas in which there is no specific research base for effective practice. Practices borrowed from the work with ELLs should, however, be validated with DHH learners. This is particularly important since national data continues to show that many DHH students still leave high school reading below their age-appropriate grade level.

We also do not know how relevant content knowledge of interpreters affects their ability to convey ASL in an academic register. Furthermore, we have little research providing us with evidence-based practices for bridging academic language in L1 (ASL) to academic language in L2 (English).


Because learning language can be challenging to some DHH children and because academic language is necessary for academic achievement and for most careers, DHH students need highly skilled teachers who have good command of and linguistic understanding of the language(s) in which they instruct children. Additionally, teachers need expertise in teaching all aspects of language arts — speaking, signing (if appropriate), reading, and writing — across and within content areas and proficiency in identifying academic language demands in content area materials. Furthermore, we need to ensure that teachers use and teach academic language throughout all disciplinary instruction.

Posted on July 12, 2019 by
Barbara Strassman
The College of New Jersey


Further reading