Classroom Interpreting

Classroom Interpreters - Interpreters and Children - Learning through an Interpreter

Interpreting vs. Direct Communication

Deaf adults say that learning through an interpreter is not easy. Information may be missing in the interpretation, and the interpreted version may not have the richness of what the speaker meant. It is more difficult to coordinate visual attention to an interpreter and a speaker than to a single person. And the process time involved in good interpreting makes participation difficult.

There is some evidence that learning through an interpreter might not be as easy as learning through direct communication. Kim Brown Kurz, in her dissertation, found that students were successful at learning new information through an interpreted version, but they did learn more in general when they received the information from direct communication – from a teacher signing and teaching.

There is other research that shows that deaf students may not learn as much as their hearing peers in the same lecture when learning through an interpreter. Of course, hearing students do not comprehend everything either. Marc Marschark and his colleagues have found that hearing college students understood about 85-90% of a college lecture, but the deaf students only understood about 60-75%. Surprisingly, the deaf students’ comprehension was not related to their reading level, degree of hearing loss, age of onset, parent hearing status, or the age at which sign language was learned. This may mean that learning through an interpreted education may not be as easy as the direct learning that hearing students experience.

It is important to keep in mind that the research also shows that students can learn through an interpreter. However, it also means that simply providing an interpreter does not provide full access to the information. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing probably need additional supportive services, such as teacher outlines, tutoring and note-taking in order to compensate for what they miss because the information is interpreted.

In addition, most research that has looked at how much students understand through an interpreted lecture has used highly qualified interpreters. Unfortunately, we know that not all educational interpreters (and community interpreters) have even minimum qualifications. We know from one research investigation that students learned about twice as much with a skilled interpreter than with an unskilled interpreter.

Contrary to popular opinion, allowing students to pick whether they prefer a more ASL-like interpretation or an English-like interpretation doesn’t seem to affect comprehension that much. Students seem to do equally well regardless of their own language identity provided the interpretation is complete.


Marschark, M., Sapere, P., Convertino, C., & Seewagen, R. (2005). Educational interpreting: Access and outcomes. In M. Marschark, R. Peterson & E. Winston (Eds.), Sign Language Interpreting and Interpreter Education (pp. 57-83). New York: Oxford University Press.