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Hearing Impairment

Teaching Methods

According to Lou Ann Walker, "the first real efforts to educate deaf people began around 1550 when Pedro Ponce de León, a monk from Spain, taught deaf children in a monastery in San Salvador" (p.11). Seventy years later, Juan Pablo Bonet, a follower of Ponce de León, published the first book on the education of people who are deaf. In it he explained that he used a one-handed manual alphabet to build language. In 1700 Johann Ammons, a Swiss doctor, devised a method to teach speech and lipreading (now more accurately referred to as speechreading) to people who are deaf. In the mid-1700s, schools for deaf children were established in Scotland, Germany, and France. Teaching methods, according to Walker, focused, for the most part, on a combination of oralism–teaching students speech and speechreading–and manualism–teaching students a manual alphabet. Schools for the deaf did not reach the United States until 1817, when Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a divinity student, and Laurent Clerc, a deaf student of the National Institute of France, opened the American School for the Deaf (originally named the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons) in Hartford, Connecticut. Many teachers trained at the American School, which focused on American Sign Language.

The controversy surrounding how to teach children with hearing impairment, sometimes referred to as the oralism-manualism debate, began centuries ago and continues into the twenty-first century. Opponents of oralism contend that denying children sign language is tantamount to denying them a language to communicate. However, children who can learn language orally are better prepared for a hearing world. Most educational programs at the turn of the twenty-first century involve a total communication approach–a blend of oral and manual techniques; however, some members of the deaf community contend that it is inadequate, and they prefer a bicultural-bilingual approach, whereby students learn about the history of deaf culture after learning American Sign Language and English. A controversial piece of this approach is the focus on American Sign Language–a true language that has evolved over generations but one that does not follow the same word order as spoken English. Proponents of American Sign Language contend that it is natural, fluent, and efficient, whereas signing English systems, which correspond with spoken English, are cumbersome and awkward. To date, however, few public schools use American Sign Language.

Regardless of teaching method, students with hearing impairment experience difficulties acquiring the language of the hearing society. Educators pay very close attention to the age of onset of the hearing impairment and the degree of hearing loss because each is closely associated with the severity of language delay. The earlier the hearing loss occurs and the more severe the hearing loss, the more severe the language delay. For many years, professionals believed that deficiencies in language among individuals with hearing impairment were related to deficiencies in intellectual ability; this is not the case. Unfortunately, results of research indicate that students with hearing impairment are behind their hearing peers in terms of academic achievement. Reading is the academic area most affected, wherein students with hearing impairment experience only one-third the reading growth of their hearing peers. They also lag behind their peers in mathematics. According to 1999 figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, "approximately 1.3 percent of all school-age students, ages six to twenty-one, who received special education services during the 1996–1997 school year were served under the disability category of hearing impairment" (Schirmer, p. 20). It is important to note, however, that estimates of the number of children with hearing impairment can differ markedly depending, for example, on definitions used, populations under investigation, and accuracy of testing.

Students with hearing impairment receive services in a variety of settings, from the general education classroom to residential schools. Parents and many professionals have not embraced the current controversial trend toward policies of inclusion (i.e., placing students with disabilities in general education classrooms for most or all of the school day). They caution that the general education classrooms are not necessarily the most appropriate placement for students with hearing impairment. However, some students with hearing impairment experience academic and social success in general education settings. This indicates that the preservation of the continuum of placements, whereby placement decisions can be made on individual bases, is in the best interest of students with hearing impairment.


HALLAHAN, DANIEL P., and KAUFFMAN, JAMES M. 2000. Exceptional Learners: Introduction to Special Education, 8th edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

SCHIRMER, BARBARA R. 2001. Psychological, Social, and Educational Dimensions of Deafness. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

WALKER, LOU ANN. 1994. Hand, Heart, and Mind: The Story of the Education of America's Deaf People. New York: Dial Books.



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