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Is Your Student Interpreter-Ready?

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

The article on this page appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Odyssey. Cindy Huff of the New Mexico School for the Deaf contributed this article and the forms referenced within.

Prior to the passage of the All Handicapped Children's Act (Public Law 94-142) in 1975, signed language interpreting was a service reserved almost exclusively for deaf adults. Only when deaf students began attending their neighborhood schools at an accelerated rate did children become consumers of interpreting services in order to access their academic programming. In the 30-plus years since the passage of this law, the fields of deaf education and signed language interpreting have only recently begun to take a look at the implications of a student receiving the bulk of his or her school experience through third party communication.

Ideally, all students would experience direct, multidimensional communication in the K-12 setting. This experience is generally considered to be more efficient, effective, and empowering. Interpreted communication, because it involves a third party, tends to be more linear. This makes it critical that quality standards for interpreting services be in place when direct and multidimensional communication is not possible for all or part of the educational process for a deaf or hard of hearing student.  

A common assumption is that providing a deaf or hard of hearing student in grades K-12 with an interpreter is enough for that student to access his or her total school experience in integrated programs. The reality is that innumerable factors have an impact on whether a student experiences success with an interpreted education. To address these factors, it is vital that an interactive and trained educational team carefully consider each child's individual needs, skills, and readiness for accessing learning through an interpreter. It is the collaborative work of this team that will lead to successfully serving each student according to his or her individual language and communication profile.

How do educational teams determine when, or if, a student is ready to effectively use interpreting services? Considering "student readiness" may seem like routine practice, although more often than not, placing a student in an interpreted setting happens without a systematic analysis of student competencies to guide program design.

Considering Student Readiness to Use an Interpreter

The Outreach Department at the New Mexico School for the Deaf has developed specific procedures to help programs determine the appropriateness of providing interpreting services to individual students. A crucial part of making this determination is deciding, based on solid information, whether or not the student is prepared to receive those services. Not all students are ready to access instruction through an interpreter. Before a student is placed with an interpreter for any part of his or her academic schedule, it is essential to consider and evaluate a spectrum of student competencies (Broad-Spectrum Student Competencies and Student Language Competencies).

This information will assist the educational team in determining the student's strengths and needs in accessing both the academic and non-academic components of his or her school program through an interpreter. Once this information has been gathered, the team can better determine if a student is "interpreter ready" and which aspects of his or her programming could be successfully provided via interpreting services. The examination of student competencies is applicable to ASL/English and to any type of transliterating (i.e., Cued Speech, Signed English, oral interpreting).

Gathering and Using Student Information

As educational teams select the measures they will use to gather information, a variety of formal and informal approaches should be used. It is possible that the behavioral and language assessments already used by programs will be a good starting point as teams determine what additional measures they will incorporate into their own process. Establishing a protocol for determining "student readiness" will give the educational team a way to effectively gather comprehensive information that will lead to quality decision making and program design for each student considered.

Educational teams may use the data they gather to identify where a student falls along a continuum of student readiness for using interpreting services. The determination of "student readiness" is not entirely black and white. While some students will use interpreters for accessing their entire academic programming, others will use interpreters for a portion of their school day and still others will not find success using interpreters. Students may move up or down the continuum at various points of their school career depending on factors such as classroom setting(s) and curricular requirements.  

Identifying where a student falls along the continuum will subsequently impact implications for staff roles and student programming. It will also help Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams ensure that appropriate support services are identified as part of the IEP planning process.

When a Student is NOT Ready for Interpreting Services

When the educational team determines that the deaf or hard of hearing student cannot effectively access some or all aspects of instruction and/or interaction with peers and staff through an interpreter, the student should have:

  • An environment where he or she can communicate directly and fluently with staff and peers
  • An educational team that is formally trained in working with deaf and hard of hearing students
  • An educational team that is able to meet identified student needs in all incidental and structured learning opportunities outside the classroom
  • An educational team that has knowledge and skills in assessing student progress in communication and overall language and consistently incorporates assessment information into educational programming
  • An educational team that can provide a parallel experience in the classroom, exposing him or her to the same concepts being introduced to all students
  • An educational team that can simplify or expand concepts as appropriate
  • An educational team that can develop a specific plan to monitor and assess the development of his or her language

In Conclusion

With escalating numbers of deaf and hard of hearing students using interpreters, many aspects of an interpreted education have been explored. Interpreter skill and qualifications are frequently considered when determining whether or not a student is receiving quality access to the curriculum. As vital as this and other factors are, a student's readiness to effectively use interpreting services is independent of interpreter credentials. Student readiness should become a standard consideration for educational teams when planning and implementing programming that may include interpreting services.

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