Deaf learners often have English as their second language. In the U.S., ASL is usually their L1, especially if they are exposed to it from birth by their parents or other family members.

Deaf learners generally experience tremendous difficulty in acquiring spoken languages in contrast to their natural and effortless acquisition of signed languages (Berent, G. 2004)

Their situation is like that of international students learning ESL.

For deaf students in the United States, it is clear that a sound knowledge of English is a critical factor in students' academic success and the attainment of gainful employment (Assessing and addressing learners' grammar development).

English has a strict SVO word order that hearing learners acquire naturally if they are born and raised in an English-speaking environment. But like ESL learners, the deaf often find difficulties in more complex constructions.

Consequently, whenever the basic SVO order is "disturbed" in a more complex sentence, the resulting sentence structure is one that often poses a challenge for deaf students in their reading comprehension and written expression. English structures in which patterns of major constituents deviate from the basic SVO order include passive formations, questions, sentences containing relative clauses, and sentences with infinitives, participles, and gerunds, to name a few (Assessing and addressing learners' grammar development).

The deaf community has a culture. Within that culture there are subcultures just like in the hearing world.

The deaf have their own culture. Learning English will help them connect to the culture of the hearing world. Deaf students learning English may know their L1—their national sign language—German Sign Language, for example. For them both American Sign Language (ASL) and English are new languages. Since English is their second language, deaf people who are native to the host country run into some of the same problems as non-native speakers who are studying ESL. Deaf people face challenges that are similar to those whose L1 is not English since their L1 is usually ASL (Magrath, D. August 16, 2020).

American Sign Language is a part of deaf culture in the U.S. since for many deaf, it is their L1.

A common misconception is that it's language without culture, when in fact there's much culture and variation within ASL, including Black ASL, an area that, Johnson signed, is difficult to preserve, especially without the curriculum and diverse ASL educators in place to expose it to more people (Johnson, C.August 23, 2020).

These different cultures have developed their own dialects, and the black community is no exception. Their dialect gives them an identity and a sense of belonging in the same manner that spoken dialects do.

"A Black person might use language differently than somebody else," Johnson signed. "The goal is to teach them all to understand and be comfortable interacting with people from different cultures."(American Sign Language educator exposes the power and culture within the language)

"Deaf culture" is used in a positive way.

Note that "Deaf culture" is a positive term, indicative of pride and a communal identity, whereas terms like "hearing-impaired" and "deafness" do not connote any particular pride or sense of community. There are oralists (deaf as well as hearing) who deny that there is such a thing as Deaf culture. They prefer to see it as an artificial political construct formulated in recent times, more of a self-conscious, posturing attitude than a reality. This view denies the importance of ASL to Deaf people (For Hearing People Only: Third Edition, 2005-2016).

Teaching hint: ASL

Research at Gallaudet University shows that deaf children need ASL when learning to read and write. It is their L1 and can provide a base for learning a new language.

Here are some more helpful hints for teachers:

  • Learn how to read the student’s facial expressions;
  • Deal with a student's social delays and emotional problems (fatigue, frustration, self-consciousness, and loneliness) in addition to the learning difficulty;
  • Remember to face the student as often as possible (keeping objects and hands away from their faces as they teach);
  • Think about other students in the class (refraining from exaggerating sounds when speaking);
  • Spend more time prepping (bringing in visual aids or adding captions to videos);
  • Be sensitive to the challenges the student has in and outside the classroom;
  • Remember to check in regularly to make sure the hearing-impaired student is still engaged and understanding the content;
  • Search for useful resources for the learner. (English Club 1997-2020)

An ESOL class might be mixed with some hearing-impaired students and others who are hearing. Like their peers, they need to learn regular survival skills along with ways to survive in the hearing world.

In some classrooms, hearing impaired learners are also immigrants or refugees. Their reason for learning an additional language is to survive in an English-speaking country. Teachers should focus on survival skills that are needed most, including some of the following:

  • Writing out instructions;
  • Writing point form notes;
  • Filling out forms;
  • Teaching gestures that English speakers recognize;
  • Showing others how to use basic universal signs;
  • Researching useful sites, apps, or visual materials that come with transcripts or captioning. (Teaching English to hearing impaired learners)

Colleges are looking for more students, and another good resource would be deaf students.

Undergraduate enrollment trends look bleak for colleges and universities, with another dire prediction ahead: a declining number of high school graduates. But the nation's postsecondary institutions need not be victims of a single disturbing trend. If demography is destiny, higher education can shift its focus to an entirely different demographic category: adults with no college credentials(Klein-Collins. B. March 4, 2021).

Literacy is a struggle for the pre-lingually deaf.

Mastering written English is a lifelong struggle for many deaf people. Deaf adults develop literacy differently than do their hearing peers (Holcomb,T.&Peyton, J, (July 1992)

The authors suggest the following approaches.

…which (a) are student-centered, (b) require meaningful use of both ASL and English, (c) incorporate and build on the language and cultural backgrounds and actual home and workplace issues facing deaf adults, and (d) use creative visual means to teach reading and writing, promise to make the educational process more meaningful, positive, and successful for deaf learners. The use of these approaches for developing the literacy skills of deaf adults needs to be carefully documented and the degree of success determined (Holcomb, T.& Peyton, J, July 1992).

By becoming aware of these hurdles faced by deaf learners, instructors will be able to help their deaf learners compete and achieve success.


Berent, G. (2004)Assessing and addressing learners' grammar development, National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) (2004)

English Club (1997-2020) Teaching English to hearing impaired learners,

Holcomb, T.& Peyton, J. (July 1992)Literacy for a linguistic minority: The Deaf experience. Klein-Collins. B. vice president for impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (March 4, 2021), As colleges stare down declining demographics, now is the time to support adult learners

Newhouse, K. (August 23, 2020) KQED,

Johnson, C. (August 23, 2020) Duluth News Tribune. American Sign Language Educator exposes the power and culture within the language,

Magrath, D. (August 16, 2020) Tips for teaching deaf students, TESOLMultibriefs,

MSM Productions, Ltd (2005-2016) For Hearing People Only: Third Edition, Chapter 55