Classroom Interpreting

Parents - Considerations for an Interpreted Education

Accessing Communication via an Interpreter

Communication at school is either direct (one to one) or interpreted (relayed by the interpreter between two or more parties), or a combination of both. While some students who are deaf or hard of hearing can communicate directly with their peers and instructors, many others require a qualified interpreter who’s proficient in their mode of communication to convey all that’s going on in the classroom. Even students with hearing loss who have strong auditory skills may be missing a lot of information when new concepts and language are introduced, when group discussions become faster-paced, or when they are positioned some distance from the speaker—like during a school play or assembly. Interpreters can be a conduit for information flow for any or all classes, school-sponsored sports, and/or extra curricular activities.

Parents need to consider every part of their deaf or hard of hearing child’s school day - even times spent on the bus-and assure that there is effective communication access available to him or her. While educational interpreters may not be the answer in every situation, they can be an integral mechanism for communication access. In this role, their function is complex and varied, based on the unique needs of the student. The use of an educational interpreter has advantages and disadvantages.


Interpreters can make inclusion into the mainstream educational setting possible for many students who are deaf or hard of hearing. They can translate instruction into the mode of communication used by the student, enabling him/her to access the general curriculum taught to typical hearing peers in a regular classroom. Choosing interpreter access means that a student who is deaf or hard of hearing may be able to attend his/her neighborhood school with local playmates and siblings rather than having to attend a state school for the deaf or another deaf education program.

As determined by the IEP team, interpreters can take on additional responsibilities for the student who is deaf or hard of hearing. They can facilitate social interactions with hearing kids. They can pre-teach and re-teach vocabulary; check for comprehension; and remediate speech, language, and general instruction in a tutorial role. An interpreter’s consistent presence in the classroom can provide a necessary perspective in IEP team discussions of the student’s functionality and unique needs.


Many states do not require certification or performance standards for educational interpreters, nor do they have monitoring or quality assurance policies in place to provide guarantees of proficiency in the student’s mode of communication. Even when states have minimum requirements, school districts can often hire an unqualified interpreter if they can show that they were not able to hire a qualified person. Since the quality of educational interpreting is inextricably linked to the academic outcomes of deaf and hard of hearing students who use interpreters, this is a major weakness. Qualified interpreters are not easy to find

Socially, any deaf or hard of hearing student who is constantly accompanied by an interpreter may experience difficulty fitting into or identifying a group of hearing peers. In fact, the interpreter may be the only language peer for a signing deaf student in a mainstream “hearing” school. When boundaries are not clearly defined between adults in authority and adults “as friends” at school, problems can arise.

Concerns About Interpreted Education

Federal special education law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) mandates that IEP teams must consider the opportunities for deaf or hard of hearing students to communicate directly with peers and professionals in the student’s own mode of communication. This special consideration for deaf or hard of hearing students (note: click to #7 on law) is based in part on the acknowledged advantages of direct communication.

It has been argued that an interpreted education is a compromised education for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The concern is that information that’s at least once removed from its source has lost something in translation. For a variety of reasons, the message could be altered, even slightly. Prior content knowledge, sign skill, mode proficiency, selectivity, and basic misunderstanding all play into the quality of the interpreted message. Critics of interpreted education contend that the interpretation may partially change or completely misrepresent the intended meaning. Interpreting is a complex and challenging skill, and only the most experienced and proficient interpreters can get most of the message across.

Although providing a qualified interpreter in the classroom plays a critical role in a student’s academic success, the public schools face additional challenges as they try to find available and qualified interpreters for extracurricular or community activities. Frequently, interpreters are not even requested by hearing people (teachers, coaches, principals, doctors, camp directors, etc…) who lack understanding and commitment to communication access for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Being aware of these potential problems is the beginning of problem solution. Hearing parents do their deaf and hard of hearing children a great service when they develop a sensibility about life with hearing loss and proactively consider solutions to the complicated and sometimes undesirable dynamics of interpreted education.