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Language and Communication

This information is part of an online guide, Resources for Mainstream Programs

Deaf and hard of hearing children vary widely in how they communicate at school and in the home. A common misconception about deaf children is that providing them with a sign language interpreter is enough to ensure that they have access to learning in the classroom. Another misconception is that if a deaf or hard of hearing child uses a hearing aid, the quality of "listening" will be sufficient for a child to acquire spoken language. (See "Understanding Hearing Ability" for more on this.) There are children who may best access language through American Sign Language (ASL) or children who may benefit more from using other visual supports to assist in their development of spoken English (i.e., cueing, speechreading).

The most important thing is to put supports in place as early as possible so children who are deaf or hard of hearing can learn language as early as possible in the most accessible, least frustrating, and natural manner possible.

There are many factors to consider when determining the most effective way to facilitate language development for a young deaf or hard of hearing child. Will the use of listening technologies provide the child with enough hearing ability to acquire language and access that language for learning? Can the child most readily and comfortably develop language through ASL? Is Cued Speech, a system to visually assist a child in clarifying English, beneficial? And why or why not use a combination of everything to assist a deaf child in learning language?

Beliefs within the medical and educational communities vary as to the most effective approaches to provide a deaf or hard of hearing child with access to language for learning and communication. Success with one strategy rather than another depends on the confluence of many factors. The most effective strategies and technologies for one child and family may not work for the next child and family. No matter which decisions are made, the timely development of communication and language must be at the heart of the decision. We know through research that cognitive development correlates with development of a strong early language foundation that is wholly and naturally accessible to a child. The most commonly used communication and language strategies are described here, and links to additional online resources are provided:

  1. ASL/English Bilingual Education
  2. Auditory Modalities
  3. Total Communication
  4. Cued Speech

As your school plans for a student who is deaf or hard of hearing, it is crucial to be aware of the student's language and communication competency. Some students may be competent in ASL, some may be competent in spoken English, and some still may be in the language development stages of ASL, English, or another language used in the home. It is important to ensure that the student has complete and natural access to language both for continued language and cognitive development and for access to all academic information and social interactions. Keep in mind, also, that language and communication strategies may need to be reviewed and modified depending on how well a child is progressing.

The Clerc Center has additional information on language acquisition in deaf children, American Sign Language (ASL), bilingual education (ASL and English), and spoken language development in the Language and Literacy section of Info to Go.

Resources: Language and Communication

Boys Town National Research Hospital: My baby's hearing: Language and learning.

Easterbrooks, S. R., & Baker, S. K. (2002). Language learning in children who are deaf and hard of hearing: Multiple pathways. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Mahshie, S. N. (1997). A first language: Whose Choice Is It? Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center.

Raising Deaf Kids: Communication choices.


Schwartz, S. (Ed.). (1996). Choices in deafness: A parent's guide to communication options (2nd ed.). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

U.S. Department of Education: Opening doors: Technology and communication options for children with hearing loss.