Working with Interpreters

Many deaf and hard of hearing students receive some form of interpreting support at school. Reviewing the use of interpreting support and knowing ways of working with interpreters are crucial to monitoring and supporting the progress of students who use interpreting support for all or part of the school day.

Types of Interpreting

The most common type of educational interpreter for students who are deaf and hard of hearing is a sign language interpreter. However, children who are deaf and hard of hearing may use also use other types of interpreting services. Types of interpreting services include:

  • Sign language interpretation: The interpreter translates from spoken English in the classroom to American Sign Language (ASL) for the student. When a student responds in ASL, the interpreter then voices for the student. Some students, however, may choose to voice for themselves. Classroom interpreters should be certified, and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) offers an Educational Certificate: K-12. Interpreters who hold that certificate have shown they can effectively convey classroom content and receptively interpret student sign language.

As explained by RID, sign interpretation may not occur using only ASL. “Because ASL is not English, educators have developed a number of signed codes which use ASL vocabulary items, modify them to match English vocabulary, and put them together according to English grammatical rules. These codes have various names including Signed Exact English (SEE) and Manual Coded English (MCE). Additionally, when native speakers of English and native users of ASL try to communicate, the "language" that results is a mixture of both English and ASL vocabulary and grammar. This is referred to as PSE (Pidgin Signed English) or contact signing.”

  • Cued Speech transliteration: Cued Speech is a visual mode of communication in which mouth movements of speech combine with “cues” to make the sounds (phonemes) of traditional spoken languages look different from one another. A Cued Speech transliterator will use these “cues” with corresponding mouth movement to clarify spoken language. Students may or may not use the cues themselves when communicating. Transliterators must possess a skill set that goes beyond the ability to cue fluently.

  • Oral interpretation: Oral interpreters use silent lip movements to repeat spoken words. This type of interpretation is effective for students who can rely on residual hearing yet benefit from speechreading to receive information. Oral interpreting is a beneficial support in a classroom where not every face is visible and close enough for speechreading and where the teacher is moving around while talking, facing in directions other than the deaf or hard of hearing student. RID offers an oral transliteration certificate.

Considerations for Working with and Hiring Interpreters

  • When an interpreter is provided, it is important to clarify via the IFSP, IEP or 504 process what role the interpreter will have, in the classroom and out. This may include the following, depending on the type of support the student needs in each classroom or for each school activity:

    • Direct interpreting of what is said or signed in the room; and
    • Interpretation from spoken English to sign language, with explanations and clarifications to expand on the concepts discussed.

  • Interpreting is beneficial only if a child already knows the language or communication system that the interpreter uses to convey the information. For instance, if a child is very young or only beginning to learn language through signing, watching a sign language interpreter is not an effective way to learn sign language. Learning sign language is an interactive process, as is learning spoken language.

  • Certified interpreters have a code of conduct they must follow. Their role in the classroom cannot conflict with this code. See: Classroom Interpreting for Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

  • Interpreters should be qualified to interpret using the language or communication system used by the student. For example, if a student is using ASL, an interpreter using another manual communication system such as Signing Exact English (SEE) would not be appropriate.

  • Keep in mind that not all individuals who sign are fluent, not all fluent signers can interpret, and not all interpreters function well in a full-time school setting.

  • Don't assume that just because the interpreter has signed what has been said that the student understands it. There could be a breakdown between the student's understanding of the interpreter's signing, or it could be that the student understood the signing but did not understand the content/concept.

  • Don't look to the interpreter to solve problems related to a student's understanding of content or problems with behavior or inattention (unless specific arrangements regarding these issues have been determined).

  • Include interpreters in the in-service training that is provided to other school professionals throughout the year.

  • Keep interpreters apprised of the IEP goals, the language skills, and the hearing levels and abilities of their students.

Hints and Strategies for Working Effectively with an Interpreter

The following hints and strategies might be helpful to classroom teachers or others working in educational environments with deaf or hard of hearing students and interpreters:

  • Determine the best placement for the interpreter and the student in the room so the student has the best visual access to the teacher, interpreter, and other students. Be aware that this placement must be flexible and may change as the communication situations change.

  • When communicating with the deaf or hard of hearing student, direct your conversation to the student, not to the interpreter. This means speaking in the first person and looking directly at the student. Expect the student to respond to you rather than to the interpreter. During these exchanges, remember that the student will need time to shift his or her attention as needed from the speaker to the interpreter.

  • When a student is old enough:

    • It is helpful for him or her to meet independently with the interpreter to agree on specific signs or sign abbreviations for vocabulary specific to the class content; and
    • Determine the role of the interpreter in social situations. Students may not want an interpreter to be a part of their peer interactions. It is therefore important and necessary for students to communicate with their interpreter regarding the role they would like them to have in their social interactions.

  • Provide the interpreter, in advance, with materials that will be discussed in class. This is particularly useful when interpreting movies, books, handouts, or readings from a textbook. When interpreters are given opportunities to preview or read materials ahead of time, there is improved accuracy in their ability to convey the message.

  • If spelling tests are part of the child's program, the interpreter and student should agree upon signs to represent each spelling word during the test. Some of the words for the test may have existing signs, while some words that would typically be fingerspelled may need a sign developed for the purpose of testing spelling. Keep in mind that these created abbreviations are codes, and should be used for this limited testing purpose only. These codes should not be considered a part of ASL.

  • Be sensitive to the fact that interpreting places additional visual demands on the deaf or hard of hearing student that may cause fatigue.

  • When either reading text or referring to text that is being used in the classroom, provide a written copy for the interpreter with ample time for thorough review.

  • During group discussion, remember that the deaf or hard of hearing student will receive information slightly delayed in relation to the rest of the class. It is not necessary to pause after each sentence or phrase, but look to the interpreter to assure he or she has completed interpreting questions presented to the entire class so that the deaf or hard of hearing student has an equal opportunity to respond.

  • Be aware of information you communicate to the class non-verbally through facial expressions, gestures, or body language that may not be interpreted. A good interpreter should be able to convey some of this information, however, deaf or hard of hearing students who are watching the interpreter may miss visual messages you are demonstrating.

  • When you are describing concepts that are not said aloud, but shared through other visual representations (i.e., if you draw a picture on the blackboard or outline an angle through the air), make sure the interpreter has seen it and includes it through interpretation or that the student has seen the teacher's representation.

  • Keep your rate of speech at a moderate pace. In most cases, speakers' normal speed should be fine. Know that speaking too fast or too slow presents challenges for interpretation.

  • Understand that the work of an interpreter is mentally and physically challenging and that the interpreter requires sufficient breaks throughout the day.

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