From time to time deaf students may be in one’s ESL classes. Remember that their L1 is likely a sign language system. Now they are learning a new language and possibly a new signing system since sign language is not universal.

Deaf students whose L1 is American Sign Language learn English or signed English as a second language, and they encounter the hearing culture in a similar way that L2 students encounter American or other English-speaking cultures.

For those who learn ASL as L1, English is a second language. They learn English in its written form, or "Signed English" or a mix of the two (Magrath, D., June 28, 2017).

Those who work with the deaf need to be aware of the cultural differences. Kumar Singh, a deaf entertainer, writes about his experiences.

Born deaf himself, he points to difficulties in bridging deaf and hearing communities in early education (Fraser, September 2, 2019).

Deaf children may experience language deprivation since they cannot acquire L1 in the same manner as hearing children unless they are exposed to sign language at an early age.

“ASL leads everyone to feel so connected by eye contact when they are talking to each other,” he said. (“Small community, strong connection.”)

Sign languages are considered by linguists as full-fledged and grammatically very sophisticated languages, which are essential to the communication of deaf people. But they also have unique insights to offer on how meaning works in language in general. In several cases, they make visible a logical structure that must be inferred indirectly in spoken language (New York University, November 6, 2018).

Deaf people face similar challenges faced by other L1 groups learning English.

Most educators and researchers in the field of deafness now believe that deaf people share similar language backgrounds and literacy challenges with other linguistic minority groups. Their difficulties with acquiring literacy in English are considered to have linguistic, cultural, and educational rather than pathological roots (Holcomb, T. & Peyton, July 1992).


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.

One of the primary causes of difficulty with English literacy is that English is a language that deaf people have not heard or have heard only in a limited way. Thus, for them, American Sign Language (ASL) or another form of manual communication is the most accessible language because of its visual properties (Holcomb, T. & Peyton, July 1992).

ASL can be more precise than English. For example, it uses the space around the signer to indicate pronouns, whereas in English the antecedent may not be clear.

For instance, the logical structure of the English sentence “Sarkozy told Obama that he would be electedis conveyed more transparently in sign language (Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language).

ASL, also called AMESLAN, is based on French sign language and was developed by the deaf educator Gallaudet.

It has its own morphology, syntax, and semantics, and its formal units corresponding to the phonology of spoken languages have been called cheremes by some scholars of sign languages (Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R., 1978).

Teaching hint No. 1

Closed-captioned television programs and movies can be a valuable resource since watching the programs is more of a recreational activity than a chore. Communicating by email or text is another way that the deaf can interact with the hearing world. Also, bilingual approaches can combine ASL, writing and signed English.

Teaching hint No. 2

The question of technology for teaching languages, including English, comes up in deaf education:

What can educators do to assist people with hearing and/or vision impairments who are learning a new language? (Mehringer, A., October 21, 2019)

Technology is a useful tool in many situations including deaf education. One such solution is ICT (Information and Communication Technology).

Similar to working with visually impaired students, ICT can be quite useful, such as visually explanatory software. Likewise, PowerPoints with pictures, diagrams, and visual aids may prove beneficial. Multimedia videos including signing could also assist in communication (Accessibility and inclusivity in Language education).

Teaching hint No. 3

Try to empathize with what the students are going through. They are learning a new language as well as content material in that language. They may feel frustrated at times, so be ready to offer help and encouragement. Encourage reading. Reading helps students understand the hearing culture as well as the deaf culture.

Some students, as they read conflicting texts, will be stopped in their tracks. They will say, “How can that be? One author said this and the other said something completely different.” That is an opening to get them digging through more texts to find evidence and analyze claims.

As they work through those issues, they begin to see the relevance of reading and how it can help them find their way through challenging issues happening around them—and maybe even to them—in the real world. By their very nature, those dialogues are going to encourage students to read more and engage with more challenging texts (Henderson, D.& Kerns, G.,December 6, 2019).

Reading is the best way for deaf students to interact with the hearing world. Both the deaf and hearing can read, and teachers should encourage reading at all levels.

Other teaching hints

Therapy Travelers gives these hints for working with the deaf:

  1. Be sure that the student wears his or her amplification device and you are wearing your microphone.
  2. Keep in mind that few people are totally Most have some sort of residual hearing, and we want to utilize it fully.
  3. Make sure your student has preferential seating with a direct view of your face and mouth.
  4. Don’t yell at your student. Speak in a normal tone. Remember the microphone you have on?
  5. If your student has an interpreter, then give him or her a copy of the lesson in advance.
  6. Remember that there is no need to talk to the interpreter.
  7. Don’t speak while writing on the board.
  8. Use lots of pictures and graphic organizers. These kids are visual learners.
  9. Repetition is key, as is the use of hands-on activities.
  10. Every lesson is a language lesson. Hearing-impaired kids often lack necessary language skills, so every word counts (December 29, 2019).


Sign language (ASL) and English are two different languages. Interpreters must translate from one language to another. ASL is not signed English. Deborah Gibson, a nationally certified sign language interpreter, says the following:

Signed English and ASL are two separate language like Mandarin and German are two different languages (Luxor, S., March 20, 2020).

Interpreters are very expressive as they seek to convey the message.

It’s all visual. And without the face and the movement of the body, it doesn’t work. Making your face a certain way is actually part of the sign as well as what I am trying to relate to the deaf person. (B4)


Akhbar, I. (October 4, 2017) Ian Akhbar stresses the importance of appropriate cultural educaxtion, Language Magazine,

Fraser, T. (September 2, 2019) ASL Slam host Singh gives new meaning to the spoken word, Orlando Sentinel v.142 no.245 B1, B4

Fromkin, V.& Rodman, R. (1978) An introduction to Language, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, NY

Holcomb, T. & Peyton, (July 1992) ESL Literacy for a Linguistic Minority: The Deaf Experience,

Henderson, D. & Kerns, G. (December 6, 2019), Language Magazine, All you need is read,

Luxor, S. (March 20, 2020), The Sound of silence, Orlando Sentinel V.144 No. 80

Magrath, D. (June 28, 2017), Teaching English to deaf students, MultiBriefs Exclusive,

Manager, Therapy Travelers, (December 29, 2019) Strategies for teaching hearing-impaired and deaf students,

Mehringer, A. (October 21, 2019) Accessibility and Inclusivity in Language Education, Language Magazine,

New York University (November 6, 2018) Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language. Science Daily, Retrieved November 14, 2018 from