Working with an Interpreter

The following information is designed to help the teacher and the interpreter work together most effectively. Adding another adult to a classroom situation can be a confusing, and sometimes difficult, thing for all persons involved. Understanding an interpreter’s role can resolve concerns over authority, responsibilities, and distractions.

The role of the Sign Language Interpreter is to facilitate communication among participants in an interaction. The interpreter is placed in the classroom for the benefit of all involved. Interpreting is not something that just happens to the deaf person’s words, but also happens with every person in the room. The interpreter is your interpreter, her interpreter, his interpreter, and “that student over there’s” interpreter.

The instructor is the authority in the classroom and is responsible for behavior management, including the deaf student’s behavior. Interpreters have no training in this area and are often involved in their work and unable to do these things at the same time.

Even though interpreting allows a deaf student much more access to classroom activities, it is still incomplete. Puns, jokes, and certain shades of meaning can be entirely lost in interpretation. Also, having to communicate through a third person (the interpreter) dampens personal interaction and relationships between the students and teachers involved.


If students in your class are expected to take notes, a volunteer should be found to note-take for the deaf student.

Notetaking services can be vital to a deaf student’s academic success. Combined with interpreting services, notes help provide the student with more equal access to classroom information. Because the student is watching the interpreter to “hear” the lecture, it is impossible to also look at paper to take notes.

In the first few days of class, a teacher should survey the class for students who take good notes. Notes should be legible, clear, complete, accurate, and should include pictures, charts, and handouts, when possible. One or several volunteers should be found and trained to help provide notes for the student. Pressure sensitive paper or photocopies of the notes can be used to duplicate them for both students. The teacher should check the notes from time to time to ensure the quality is still high.

Working with interpreters should be a rewarding and nearly unnoticed experience. If you have any concerns about how your classroom is functioning with an interpreter in it, please contact me so we can solve any problems and make it a positive experience for all persons involved.

The Student

The student should be seated in the front row of the classroom, if possible. The interpreter will sit or stand between the student and the teacher, blackboard, or other material on which the students’ attention is to be focused.

Focusing on the interpreter is very tiresome on a deaf person’s eyes. In an attempt to alleviate such eyestrain, the interpreter wears dark, solid color tops that contrast with her skin tone. Additional relief comes from changes in activities (some lecture, then written work or group activity) and short breaks.
The student may have additional language and/or learning disabilities.

The Interpreter

The interpreter should be given a copy of the lesson plans at least one week in advance of the lesson. This should include goals for the lesson, vocabulary, and assignments. The interpreter must read the material ahead of time, learn the concepts, find signs for technical vocabulary, and have the assignments modified before the lesson begins.

The interpreter should be notified of any schedule changes, field trips, assemblies, or room changes with as much prior notice as possible, by way of a short note or e-mail.

If the student is absent, the interpreter will also not be present.

If the interpreter is absent, every effort will be made to find a replacement. However, due to the type and length of job and the short notice usually accompanying unexpected absences, finding replacements is very difficult.
Occasionally the interpreter may have to interrupt the speaker (teacher or student) to clarify a point or have something repeated.

Interpreters are a distraction, particularly in the first few days of class. With time, most students learn to expect these distractions and either tune them out or learn what they can from them. Sometimes a visual learner can see the concept and understand it from the interpreter even though that person knows no sign language. Also, such exposure to American Sign Language (ASL), Deaf Culture, and Interpreters can be a valuable lesson in diversity for the classroom.

Classroom Interpreters – Professional Conduct Guidelines

Educational interpreters work in a totally different context than interpreters who work in the adult community. IDEA defines the educational interpreter as a “related service provider”, a legally defined member of the educational team. That legal definition provides the framework for describing professional practices in the K-12 setting.

Educational interpreting is based on a different set of principles that guide professional practice. Educational interpreters work in public schools and are legally responsible for implementing the student’s Individual Education Plan.

The national organization of interpreters, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, has developed a set of guidelines called the NAD RID Professional Code of Conduct. These guidelines can provide some direction to educational interpreters, particularly in the domain of interpreting as a profession. Educational interpreters also exist within an educational community, with many roles mandated by federal, state, and school district rules and regulations.

Quick Tips for the Classroom

Communication Techniques

  • Repeat or rephrase questions from the class before responding.
  • Face the class and speak naturally at a moderate pace.
  • Do not speak while writing on the blackboard.
  • Lecture from the front of the room – not pacing around.
  • Point out who is speaking in group discussions.
  • Do not stand or sit in front of a window where shadows will impede speechreading.
  • Beards and mustaches make speechreading harder. Keep them trimmed.
  • Discuss concerns about the student’s abilities privately, not in front of the class.

Providing Classroom Services

  • Provide handouts such as syllabus, lesson plans, and assignments to student and interpreter.
  • Write announcements and assignments on the blackboard.
  • Write proper names, technical vocabulary, formulas, equations, and foreign terms on the blackboard.
  • Always use captioned films and videos.
  • Assign or help find seating near the front for the student.
  • Arrange for special testing accommodations.
  • Be aware of and know how to use assistive listening devices.
  • Be familiar with interpreters and how to work with them in class.

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