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Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students

Hearing loss often appears to be an invisible disability until the student enters the classroom. The challenges for students are anchored in learning language, learning how to listen and speak (if possible) and in learning how to read and write. In nearly all cases, infants with hearing loss are born to hearing parents. Even though federally mandated newborn hearing screening can target infants with severe to profound hearing loss, the tests are not as sensitive to mild to moderate hearing losses. The average age of identification for young children with mild to moderate hearing loss remains between two to three years old.

Annie Jump Cannon
Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941) was an American astronomer credited with helping to develop the classification system of stars based on temperature. She was the first female to hold office in the American Astronomical Association. Annie became deaf as a result of scarlet fever.

Approximately 50% of college-age students who have hearing loss read below the 4th grade level (Qi & Mitchell, 2012) and that level has changed very little for more than 50 years. This fact alone should have a profound effect on science instruction when one teaches students with hearing loss. It is quite likely that the student may not be able to read and understand the textbook—regardless of age. Reading levels in deaf and hard of hearing students tend to increase in 2–3 month increments over time.

Online Simulation Tests

This type of test simulates a high-frequency mild hearing loss. Most students you will serve will have a more severe hearing loss. If you can hear a little, imagine what it means to never hear very much and then put yourself into a science classroom when the term “gravity” is new; spelling it is a challenge, and comprehension of the concept is perhaps, beyond an easy grasp.

Using Interpreters in the Classroom

Some students will use interpreters in the classroom. This video illustrates the best practice scenario. There are two interpreters. They will switch off every twenty-minutes and they’re certified. Unfortunately, public school is the place where interpreters tend to get the practice they need to become nationally certified. For you, this means there may be only one interpreter assigned to you. Ask if the interpreter is certified. Ask how many years the interpreter has interpreted full time. It takes about seven years to become fluent in American Sign Language. It takes time and practice (your class and your student) for interpreters to pass the rigorous tests associated with being certified.

If the interpreter is not certified, do not assume that your message reaches the student in the same manner you intend. Several barriers may be invisibly present. The interpreter may not know specific science signs. When one doesn’t know the signs, an interpreter may fingerspell the word. If the word is one that the student can’t spell…like the example word gravity… then the student may miss important information. Even if the student does know how to spell the word but does not understand the concept, there’s a need to demonstrate the concept again.

Tips for Teaching Science

Teaching Tips

  • Show a movie clip first to set the stage for the topic. If you don’t have a movie clip, you can make one of the experiment subject. If there is no interpreter, type the basic points. This extra time and clip could support several students in your classroom. It’s a very functional way to begin a lesson.
  • Hands-on learning helps just about everyone—especially students with hearing loss. Bolster it with insurance that the student understands the basic concepts. That’s your responsibility as a teacher. It’s also part of the responsibility of the SPED teacher but if that teacher does not understand the content….it’s your call.
  • If you use a DVD, make sure the captions MATCH the narration! Re-teach if it isn’t right.
  • If you use inquiry-based instruction, make sure you have provided the foundation for the student to be able to do the work. This is a place where that movie or pictorial support can make a big difference.
  • Face the student and try not to talk when you turn your back to write on the board.
  • Provide the student with notes. Sometimes there will be a note-taker for the student in high school. Provide as many resources as possible.
  • If the student has an FM unit, make sure it’s working and make sure you wear it. Turn it off when you leave the room or use the restroom. That’s an embarrassing mistake most teachers of the deaf have made…
  • If the student has a teacher of the deaf, collaboration is imperative. You can learn so much about the student and how to communicate your knowledge effectively.

Research-based Strategies that Can Work in a Science Classroom

Clicker Systems or Response Cards

  • Clicker systems or just plain Response Cards. A template is included in this section. Using a clicker system or response cards requires much more active engagement of the students in a lecture or small group activity. Make sure the student with the hearing loss can read the material or understand the material when it’s interpreted. Add extra wait time in this procedure:
    • “Cards down. Get ready for the next question.”
    • Show the True/False or Multiple Choice question on the screen.
    • Read it aloud with the students.
    • “Get ready to show your cards.” Check in with the student before asking students to vote with their clicker or card. You can do this with a quick glance and a student nod.
    • “Show your cards.”
    • Reveal the answer on the PPT. Discuss the answers if there are discrepancies.

Incorporate Graphic Organizers

Because Graphic Organizers provide a visual representation of a system or expected work, they work well with students who have hearing loss. There are a few older studies on the effects of graphic organizers with students who have hearing loss. This meta-analysis explains the process and provides ample support for their use in the science classroom (Dexter, Park & Hughes, 2011). TeacherTube also provides a video on how to use Graphic Organizers in the science classroom.

Peer Tutoring for Vocabulary Practice

There are videos on TeacherTube and YouTube describing Peer Tutoring. Classwide Peer Tutoring was developed and researched by the Juniper Gardens Childrens’ Project under the direction of Charles Greenwood. The PALS program, also peer tutoring, was developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University. Either program works well with students who have hearing loss. The strategy works best when the room is quiet.

Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal Teaching is designed to strengthen reading comprehension. Students take roles as the person who summarizes, questions, connects, and then everyone visualizes. Each of these components is important in working with students who have hearing loss, particularly when the teacher guides the lesson. First assign a role to each student or share the roles with the student. When the student summarizes the science content the teacher can add or refine the student’s understanding. Questioning can be done by either the student or the teacher. The teacher can add questions to clarify for understanding. When the student connects the components, again, the teacher can monitor student understanding. Visualization can take place by drawing a picture or allowing the student to privately visualize. Many teachers ask students to draw a representation of the concept—demonstrating the “picture” in his/her head.

  • Summarize
  • Question
  • Connect
  • Visualize

Notes—Provide Notes from the PPT—previous to class if you can

Students with hearing loss cannot look at the teacher or the interpreter AND write notes. Note-taking skills are lacking in many students with hearing loss because it’s impossible to do two things at one time. Supporting students with notes from a PPT helps the student study. Indeed, providing notes to all students can support learning.

You may be familiar with “Guided Notes.” These notes are designed by the teacher and
include blanks where students are expected to fill in information. Guided Notes are less appreciated by students with hearing loss because they must stop looking at the teacher and write the word in the blank. Deaf students have described the use of Guided Notes as a “constant and consistent interruption” in their learning. When one is trying to make connections and then has to stop to write down a word, that stream of learning is disrupted.


  • If you’re asked to attend an IEP meeting, understand that your role is the role of the “content expert.” You understand science and you are expected to have a tool box of instructional strategies that will support students with all exceptionalities. Yes. You are responsible for part of data collection for a student’s IEP. Luckily for you….you KNOW how to collect data.
  • If you do not have copies of the IEPs of students you serve, then you may be missing a responsibility to collect data on performance. You should be given a copy of the IEP. Read it and connect what you do in your classroom to the IEP. Keep them in a locked drawer at all times.
  • Keeping yourself safe, read all the goals and objectives on the IEP. Although the special education team may understand the student’s disability, there is a possibility that they are less able to write measurable goals/objectives. Goals are written for one calendar year. Objectives are not required to be written, however, when they are written, they provide benchmarks for student performance. They should include the student, the setting or situation, what the student is expected to do, the outcome, trials to mastery and a date by which the student should accomplish the goal.

Accommodations vs. Modifications

  • Hold the students to the same standard unless instructed to do differently in the IEP. Consider how the student can explain/demonstrate concepts in different ways. For example, the rules for the lab are memorized, sung and published on YouTube. Be ready to accept student “output” in different ways. In other words, investigate Universal Design and how accommodations work in the evaluation process. For example, if a student can describe the water cycle process but can’t write it, if you understand the communication, you can accept it as an alternative. The point is always….”How can the student demonstrate mastery of the knowledge?”
  • There’s a huge difference between accommodation and modification. If you assign fewer questions on a test, that’s a modification and should never be implemented unless a modification is described on the IEP. An accommodation might be providing additional time, a reader, a dictionary, notes, or the option to ask a question. An accommodation  basically “levels the playing field” and allows students to produce answers/products in an alternative manner. A modification, if it’s not described on the IEP, allows the teacher to “water down” the curriculum which essentially sentences deaf and hard of hearing students to a “less than” education. Be careful. Twenty questions reduced to ten questions = modification which, over time, will limit a student’s ability to succeed in science or any other subject. Follow the instructions on the IEP (of which you should receive a copy).
  • Accommodations for students with hearing loss may include allowing the student to explain the concept to you in addition to keeping a science journal. Although ASL is not a written language, deaf students often write in that syntax which may be difficult to read.

Working with students who have a hearing loss is quite different than working with students with other exceptionalities. Language, reading, writing and communication can challenge each interaction. Ensuring the student understands the concept is critical to successful teaching of science. There are so few scientists with hearing loss. Cultivate deaf scientists.


Dexter, D. D., Park, Y. J., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). A meta-analytic review of graphic organizers and science instruction for adolescents with Learning Disabilities: Implications for the
intermediate and secondary science classroom. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 24(4), 204-213.

Harris, M. & Terlektsi, E (2011). Reading and spelling abilities of deaf adolescents with cochlear implants and hearing aids. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16 (1), 24-34 doi:10.1093/deafed/enq031.

Qi, S., & Mitchell, R. E. (2012). Large-scaled academic achievement testing of deaf and hard-of-hearing students: Past, present, and future. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12, 1–18. doi: 10.1093/deafed/enr028.

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