Classroom Interpreting

Classroom Interpreters - Interpreters and Children - Interpreting and Language


The number of words a typical school-age child knows is astonishing. It is estimated that a child enters first grade already knowing 6,000 words. During elementary school, children learn as many as 10 new words every day!

Words are concepts. When a student knows words such as recycle, rain forest, and ecology, he/she learns more than a definition. There is an entire concept behind knowing and understanding the word. In addition, students must learn how to use the word correctly in sentences. The student must learn how that word relates to other words. The student must recognize and understand the new words in class discussion, reading, and tests.

Vocabulary and Concept Knowledge

One major educational goal for all students is to increase vocabulary and concept knowledge. Vocabulary knowledge also is essential for reading. Students who have larger vocabularies become better readers.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing often have smaller vocabularies than their hearing peers. A smaller vocabulary will affect learning, reading, and even interaction. Vocabulary learning is a primary goal in the Individual Education Plan (IEP) for many deaf children.

Educational interpreters must have a large English and sign vocabulary. This is not as simple as it sounds. Sign dictionaries are very poor, and they do not show the signs commonly used with children or the signs used for more complex and technical content. This creates a real challenge for the educational interpreter. She/he must often spend time researching and learning specialized vocabulary.

It is very difficult to invent signs "on the fly" for new and often important concepts. It is also poor professional practice. All interpreters need to prepare in advance to ensure that they have signs for essential concepts.


There is not a sign for every English word. Therefore, fingerspelling is an important tool in learning English vocabulary. Children who produce fingerspelling and who comprehend fingerspelling tend to have better reading vocabularies. Fingerspelling skills should be introduced and fostered in the language development of young children.

Often hearing professionals believe that fingerspelling is difficult. Sometimes schools wait until a child begins to read before they use much fingerspelling. However, deaf children as young as 2 years of age are able to fingerspell simple, common words. Of course, a 2-year-old’s spelling is typically incorrect but still understandable. At first, children view a fingerspelled word as a single word. Later on they learn that the fingerspelling can be broken down into individual letters. This is a natural progression.

Children develop fingerspelling skills in the following stages:

Fingerspelling and Educational Interpreting

Often interpreters will invent a new sign just for that student and class. The sign is unique and is not shared by the community of sign language users – deaf adults, interpreters, teachers and other children.

Rather than inventing new signs, interpreters should use fingerspelling to convey English words with no sign equivalent. Students need to develop good fingerspelling skills. Research shows that students who fingerspell better and understand fingerspelled words also have bigger reading vocabularies. Fingerspelling helps students read English better.

Teachers’ Speech

A teacher’s speech often contains information about whether a word is new and whether the student should know the word. In the following sentence the teacher used prosody to emphasize the word ecosystem for a second grade class. From her speech, it is easy to tell that she did not expect the students to know the word but did expect them to learn it. Also, notice that she provides additional examples to help the students understand the new term.

“Rain forests are one type of ecosystem. We have studied other types, such as deserts and mountains. Today we are going to talk about another type of ecosystem.”

It is important that the interpreter convey the more subtle prosody in this type of teacher talk. Prosody is rich with information to the student. It tells which words are important and often provides information about what the word means.