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Tutoring Deaf Clients

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Tutoring Deaf Clients

This resource addresses barriers deaf clients may face when participating in writing tutoring with hearing tutors. This page was created for tutors who are not familiar with the Deaf culture, community, or communication methods. The goal of this resource is to strengthen writing tutors’ overall confidence in tutoring strategies to ensure success in the absence of specific training on working with deaf clients.

There are multiple ways for deaf persons to communicate, including speech, lip-reading, American Sign Language (ASL), and other methods of signing and translating. As there is no single iron-clad strategy, knowing how to best serve deaf and hard-of-hearing clients in a writing center can be challenging for many tutors.

Remember, the talents and difficulties of deaf clients are just as diverse as hearing clients. The advice in this resource may not be applicable to every deaf client. In times of doubt, simply maintain basic tutoring etiquette and treat your deaf client with the same respect and dedication as your hearing clients.

Main Challenges

There is a common misconception that ASL is simply a gestural interpretation of English, with the same grammar and syntax. This is far from the truth. ASL is an independent language that consists of its own grammatical rules and social norms. The language is entirely visual, with a smaller vocabulary that is reliant on facial expression for context. Because of this, deaf clients who use ASL as their primary form of communication approach English as a second language (ESL), which is important to understand when tutoring deaf clients. Rebecca Babcock, a researcher on deaf tutoring practices, says it is likely that sessions with deaf clients will focus on grammar, literacy, and general use of the English language, much like hearing ESL clients (Babcock “Tell” 164-7). For more resources relating to ESL clients, visit the OWL's ESL resources for instructors and tutors.

However, not all deaf clients use ASL. There are many forms of signed language, and some deaf clients do not sign at all. There is a wide range of communication types. Assuming a deaf client uses ASL based on their deafness may hinder your approach. As a rule of thumb, do not make assumptions when working with a deaf client. Making assumptions about clients is not only insensitive, but your tutoring session will not be as productive if you do not individualize your client’s experience.

Because ASL is a completely visual language, using visual aids, such as keeping the document within sight and using a computer to facilitate communication, can be helpful (Babcock “Researching” 95).

Written Communication

A common mode of communication between deaf and hearing people is writing back and forth. This can be done by hand or by using technology, such as laptops or erasable writing pads. Tutors working with deaf clients without an interpreter may feel hindered by using writing as a way to communicate. It typically takes more time than speech, requiring additional planning and tutoring in the document development. One way to think about this kind of written communication is teaching through immersion, a device typically employed when teaching a second language. For many deaf clients, English is not their first language, and therefore; they may not have the same opportunity for conversation groups and overall language immersion as second language learners do. By communicating through writing exclusively, using proper grammar and syntax, tutors can offer an immersive experience in English writing (Babcock, Wood).


If your client has an interpreter with them, be aware of interpreter etiquette. Do not face the interpreter when you are speaking. Remember, you are talking to the client; the interpreter is there as a resource for communication. Many interpreters stress that patience is key when using this “triangle” form of communication (Babcock “Tell” 119).

While learning about Deaf community and culture is an exciting prospect, a tutoring session is not the time to pursue such endeavors. Breaking the ice with a new client is necessary for comfort within the session, but please make the most of your session by concentrating on tutoring rather than cultural or personal questions.

Considering or referring to your client as charity or inspiration is insensitive and offensive to deaf clients. As a tutor, you must offer the same amount of dignity and respect for your deaf clients as you do hearing clients.

Works Cited

Babcock, Rebecca Day. Tell Me How It Reads: Tutoring Deaf and Hearing Students in the Writing Center. Gallaudet University Press, 2012.

Babcock, Rebecca Day, and Terese Thonus. Researching the Writing Center. Peter Lang, 2012.

Wood, Gail F. “Making the Transition from ASL to English: Deaf Student, Computers, and the Writing Center.” Computers and Composition, vol. 12, 1995, pp. 219-226.