Sound advice


A practical guide to helping pupils with hearing impairments in the classroom

Many teachers in the UK, in a very wide range of settings, will have a hearing-impaired* pupil, with some degree of hearing loss, sitting in front of them. What should they do?

A low incidence disability such as deafness (one per 1,000 at birth – detected via the New Born Hearing Screen – rising to almost two per 1,000 at age nine) can inevitably be a huge barrier to learning, whilst not being a learning difficulty as such. Deaf children cover the full range of abilities in our schools. Over 30 per cent of deaf children have an additional difficulty (which may be a learning difficulty) but most will simply have a hearing loss, ranging from mild to profound.

There are many children suffering temporary conditions such as glue ear, which can cause a significant, but usually temporary, mild/moderate loss, particularly in the early years. If you believe that one of your pupils has this problem, let the parent know and contact the local sensory support service, through the SENCO, for advice. Your vigilance could lead to the discovery of an undiagnosed permanent loss, as children can slip through the net.

In this article, we are mainly referring to children and young people with a diagnosed and permanent significant hearing loss. If you have such a child in front of you on a daily basis, you should be familiar with the child’s peripatetic teacher of the deaf (ToD), from your local authority’s service, who can help you with strategies and techniques for that particular child.

When you look at the SEN advice books, the reason there is little in them about deafness or vision problems is that children with these conditions have access to experienced teachers with additional mandatory qualifications to help and advise their mainstream teachers regarding what would best help the specific child. Many ToDs teach those from birth to 19 years, so they really can advise on the difficulties of any individual hearing-impaired child or young person.

How does deafness affect pupils?

Children with profound, severe or moderate hearing loss cannot hear their teachers well, but they have hearing aids, maybe a cochlear implant and even an FM radio aid. The teacher wears a transmitter. So, you might think, there’s no problem. If only that were the case. Deafness impacts upon a great many aspects of a child’s life. These include:

  • processing time
  • language development
  • learning style
  • working memory
  • social skills
  • attention and concentration
  • literacy skills
  • auditory memory
  • incidental learning
  • self-esteem
  • stamina
  • concentration
  • tiredness.

Language acquisition and development can be affected by a large number of factors, such as age at diagnosis, cognitive ability, level of hearing loss and additional difficulties. What matters is that the child in front of you who appears to be coping well and looks like s/he is listening well may not have the language or concepts to grasp what you are talking about. So, even with minimal background noise and really good acoustics, the child may still not be able to follow your lessons. Listening and understanding are not the same. Even if the child appears to have age appropriate vocabulary and a reading age around his/her chronological age, the score on the British Picture Vocabulary Test (BPVS) may astonish you.

Sometimes, teachers say: “It’s like a child coming to school with no English”, but this is not the case; such children have their first language, in which they think and communicate, and at school they’ll build their second language onto it. Deaf children often begin school with the language level of a much younger child, which can create huge problems coping with the curriculum, hence the need for ToD teaching and support.

Language is developed primarily thorough conversation and interaction. These routines at home and in nursery school are so important. This is how we all developed language. An FM radio aid (which works through the pupil’s hearing aids) is a great piece of kit but it can’t work magic. The child is still deaf. We listen mostly incidentally, but trying to hear, to listen and to understand all day long is exhausting. Imagine doing listening exams all day long and usually against background noise. This is what it is like for your deaf pupil.

Young deaf teenagers may tell you that, as you have a loud voice, they don’t need you to use the transmitter and they would prefer to sit with their friends half way down your class and not at the front. Do not listen to this. Hearing aids cease to work effectively more than two metres away and it is very difficult to lip-read effectively from more than two metres away. Any further away than this and the hearing-impaired pupil will also be subject to increased levels of background noise, and reverberation, which will overwhelm your voice. The pupil may be an expert on what it is like to have a hearing loss, but may not necessarily be one on what would help him/her. The peripatetic ToD will be keen to talk to you, and to the whole school staff, to make sure that everyone understands the inherent problems and some of their solutions.

Many older people who lose their hearing can be condemned to a lonely life. Hopefully, they can use reading and subtitles to help. A deaf child however, with difficulties acquiring language in the first place, will undoubtedly find it harder to acquire literacy skills.

Deaf children risk cultural, linguistic and social isolation. They often, especially when younger, know no-one else with hearing aids. Indeed, 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. More than 80 per cent of school-aged deaf children are in mainstream schools. Many schools have only one deaf child, or none. Deaf children’s educational attainments have been improving over the years but they have not yet caught up with their hearing peers.

Some hearing-impaired children (those with a statement of SEN) may have a teaching assistant (TA), whose role can be a little bit like walking a tightrope.

Clearly, ensuring that the pupil’s hearing aids/FM equipment/cochlear implants are all working is crucial, but so are enabling the pupil to fully access all aspects of the curriculum and take part in social interactions, and supporting recommendations from the class teacher and specialist professionals. Some deaf pupils in mainstream schools will still require sessions of specialist teaching from the ToD, even in Key Stages 3 and 4, to help expand their language and knowledge of concepts in various subjects.

Five key areas of difficulty for the hearing-impaired pupil in secondary school (but not exclusive to that level of education) are: dictated spellings and notes, oral/mental arithmetic problems, listening tasks in foreign languages, working in groups or pairs in the classroom, and watching DVDs (most DVDs have subtitles which the teacher needs to enable). Any ToD who supports your hearing-impaired pupil will be able to give you (and an assistant, if there is one), a lot of sound, practical advice on these issues. They will also be very familiar with the specific access arrangements (such as a “live speaker” for modern languages) for GCSEs and A levels.

Tips for the classroom

So what helps? Well, simple things like not talking to the whiteboard and not turning your back on the hearing impaired pupil can make a big difference. Brona Rafferty, a student with a substantial hearing loss, has just completed her mainstream schooling and has embarked on her new life at Queen’s University Belfast, studying Modern History. In a recent article for the BATOD Magazine (September 2013) she stated that “…it can be difficult for the student when the teacher is facing the whiteboard when speaking and writing up notes, even if they are wearing the FM system…it helps when the teacher is facing away from the white board and is facing the class. This helps the deaf student to lip-read what the teacher is saying, especially … [when] there are other students … who are talking and it is more difficult to hear the teacher than usual.”

Another key thing, when pupils are working in pairs, is to make sure that your deaf pupil works with a peer and not an adult TA. Be very aware, when you are explaining new concepts to all and using a lot of new vocabulary, that the deaf pupil will really benefit if you write it on the whiteboard and reinforce it with examples. Repeating the oral responses others have given is another very helpful technique, as your pupil may not have caught them, especially if they were said far behind him/her.

All pupils are different. All classrooms are different and so are all teachers. Try to understand the specific implications of your pupil’s hearing loss. A few practical things can work well:

  • make sure the pupil is sitting in the most advantageous seat
  • have a stock of spare batteries available
  • know how to check that an FM radio aid is working and how it should be used
  • be aware of things you do which may make listening more difficult for your hearing-impaired pupil (for example, is your face in silhouette?)
  • encourage independent working and help build resilience
  • try to nobble the “peer police” who may be encouraging the young person, especially in Years 8 or 9, to think that they do not need their equipment or should not wear it
  • be aware that it is not possible to take down dictated notes when you are deaf (photocopies can work well).

Remember that secondary school students who have a hearing impairment are, or will soon become, teenagers. It’s not cool to be different and they want to be part of the group. However, they are different because they wear hearing aids (which perhaps they hate) and they have a TA seemingly velcroed to them. When the teacher asks “Can you hear me?” or “Do you understand?” the answer will always be “yes”, because teenagers want you to move on, get out of their face and pick on someone else.

Some older pupils start to experience real difficulty with drawing attention to themselves when handing over the transmitter to their teachers class after class. Far from appreciating that it is their right to access the lesson, they may become hung up on the embarrassment of this and stop using this vital equipment. Brona makes this plea: “The best thing for the teacher to do is to just take the FM system without drawing too much attention to it. If they have any questions to ask the student [about it], ask them at the start of class when they are being given the [equipment] or at the end of class”.

Teaching a hearing-impaired child or young person and helping them to access the language and the concepts of your subject specialism is incredibly rewarding. Vigilance to disadvantage is crucial however. Twice in Northern Ireland they have tried to introduce statutory computerised assessment in Key Stage 2, totally oblivious to the fact that it is virtually impossible for deaf children to achieve with this as they obviously cannot lip-read the disembodied voices. It may seem pretty obvious, but sadly not to some key decision makers.

Further information

Antonette Burns and Mary Gordon are peripatetic teachers of hearing-impaired children and young people aged 0 to19 working in different services in Northern Ireland. Both are members of their professional body, the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf (BATOD):

Photos courtesy of BATOD.

* The terms “deaf” and “hearing-impaired” are used interchangeably in this article.

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