Many deaf people face the same issues as ESL students when they go through the educational process along with hearing students. The first language for many deaf students is American Sign Language (ASL); this is not English but a separate language. It differs from English in the same way German or French does.

Prelingually deaf children grow up in a silent environment and acquire English through secondary channels such as reading, signed English or speech (lip) reading without the benefits of oral communication. Their L1 — ASL is considered to be a complete language with a visual mode rather than an auditory system. They learn ASL naturally from other deaf children or from their parents if the parents are signers.

English is a second language, usually in its written form, although there are varieties of signed English in which the signs (words) are in English word order and English function words are added along with the different forms of "be." The students' needs are similar to those of international students, but there are some important differences.

The severe restriction on auditory access generally delays English language development and, for the vast majority of severely and profoundly deaf individuals, translates into a lifelong struggle to attain high English literacy skills.

Like any language, ASL is acquired by children exposed at an early age in much the same way as a spoken language is acquired by hearing children. In the case of the deaf, handshapes, movements, position of the hands in relation to the body and facial expressions make up the words and ideas.

For example, the sentence, "He helps me." is expressed in one continuous movement in ASL. The signer moves the handshape "help" toward his own body.

As one learns ASL, less marked handshapes are produced first; they are later followed by more marked hand configurations just as one learns the less marked words of a spoken language. Children proceed to simple words (signs), which are later followed by more complex "utterances" (handshapes, motions and facial expressions) as the child masters the system.

More syntactic features are added as the child becomes more competent in the language. Like speakers of a spoken language, signers make "speech" errors that are visually similar to the intended word rather than being auditorially similar. Signers may make a wrong handshape, for example, or move their hands in the wrong direction.

Deaf students show errors similar to those of ESL learners when they write. Since ASL is their first language, these learners would benefit from ESL instruction.

One of the primary causes of difficulty with English literacy is that English is a language deaf people have not heard or have heard only in a limited way. Thus, for them, ASL or another form of manual communication is the most accessible language because of its visual properties.

Communication is their access to language, and developing literacy skills is more difficult. They have not had the constant listening and speaking practice that typical ESL learners go through in addition to the input of spoken language from radio, television and their mobile devices.

ESL teachers educating the deaf have a unique situation. They are teaching a language solely through the written code. It is a lot more than just paragraph development or essay writing; it is a new language for the learners.

Deaf students often are placed alongside hearing students, often with an interpreter who translates the teacher's comments. Just like students with a non-English-spoken L1, they may need intervention when it comes to production, which in their case would be written English.

As increasing numbers of deaf students enter postsecondary degree programs at colleges and universities around the world, the spoken language literacy challenge extends to mastering English for Academic Purposes (EAP). ESL instruction is necessary for these students who rely on the written form of English to communicate unless they have some residual hearing, in which case they may master lip reading or be able to hear with amplification.

English essays written by deaf learners are generally indistinguishable content and cultural perspective notwithstanding from essays written by hearing ESL students at comparable proficiency levels.(Professional Development) Deaf writers often make mistakes in vocabulary and grammar, particularly with articles, prepositions and verb tenses, and they have difficulty with embedding. Here is a writing sample from an ASL student (errors are left in place):

The man name is Mr. Koumal, was very depression after what he had done with himself. He tried to suicide by jumped in the deep water and drank a lot of wiskey and smoking the cigarettes, It never happened to cause him to die.

Notice the errors in word forms, spelling and verbs in the above passage that parallel typical ESL errors. Also note the interference from ASL as shown by the lack of possessive endings and missing relative pronouns.

In ASL, the link between sign and concept is much closer than the word-concept link in English or in other oral languages having a written form.