Ideas for Teaching Deaf Children in Primary


Micah sits in class watching the other children. Sometimes he looks at the teacher, sometimes he gazes out the window. Sometimes he just fidgets. Micah is deaf.

Still, he enjoys going to Primary with his friends. He can’t hear the songs or stories; but he likes the pictures, sometimes reaching out to touch one as the teacher holds it up. Whenever there is something physical to do, he always participates. And he seems to feel that those around him care.

Living in a world of silence, Micah is just as excited about learning the gospel as his hearing classmates are. He is bright and receptive. Still, when I became his Primary teacher, I was intimidated: How could I reach this one child without losing control of my whole class of active five-year-olds? How could I help Micah fit in with the other children?

I knew that children can be fearful, even cruel, when they encounter a child who is different. A mother of one deaf boy confided that her son had no friends; he was teased in the neighborhood and left out at school. I wanted Micah to find understanding and acceptance in my class.

Here was a wonderful opportunity for the entire class to learn to appreciate those who are different yet so much the same. Initially, my efforts were frustrating. But a few insights and ideas have helped me enjoy the challenge. Using them can help make your Primary class a bridge of understanding as well as a place for learning gospel principles.

1. Find out from the deaf child’s family what means of communication they use—sign language, speech reading, or total communication. The family should be able to share practical ideas about their communication methods that you can use to communicate with the child.

Of the methods available to you, signing is probably the easiest method of communication to learn. Speech reading is a difficult art to learn in the short time a deaf student may be in your class, but you can learn enough sign language to get by. Begin with the deaf alphabet. You can also find books in your local library to help you. To learn signs for gospel-related concepts, you will want to get the Church’s Dictionary of Sign Language Terms (available at Church distribution centers; stock number PBIC0369).

You need not be an expert to communicate with a deaf child, but if you want to learn more, enroll in a signing class at a local college or in a community education program. Many wards also organize signing classes for interested members where there is a special need.

2. Take time to explain to the children why the deaf child doesn’t respond when they speak to him and why he may not be able to talk. Children who lost their hearing after they learned to talk may read lips and speak well. Those who have been deaf from birth are just learning. In fact, they are often learning two languages at the same time—verbal English and sign language.

Try an experiment to help the children understand what it is like to be deaf. Ask the children to cover their ears tightly while you tell a story from the lesson manual. Then ask, “Is it easy to sit still when you can’t hear the words?”

You might also divide the children into pairs. Have them take turns—with one covering his ears while the other tries to explain something. This can help them understand what it’s like to try to understand someone when you can’t hear him.

3. Explain to your class that the deaf have a special language that helps them communicate without hearing or talking. Tell them that they too can learn to talk with their hands. Children are naturally curious and enjoy learning sign language.

Whenever my class gets restless, I take time out of the lesson to teach a few signs. Occasionally, I have Micah come up front and show the signs for things in a picture. This makes him part of the class and gives the wiggly children something to do with their hands. I also hide the picture, make the sign, and let the children guess. With my thumbs entwined and fingers fluttering, it’s easy for them to see a butterfly.

Children not only enjoy learning the signs, they also enjoy using them. A deaf boy in one class appointed himself watchman over children who left their seats without permission. Whenever someone stood up, he would hold out the first two fingers of his left hand and drape the first two fingers of his right hand over them. The class soon realized that this sign meant “Sit down,” and all of them began using it when a child would leave his seat. These children are not just learning signs; they are learning understanding.

4. Vary your teaching methods. Visual aids are helpful in teaching all children; they are indispensable in teaching the deaf. You can also make a story come alive by having the children act it out after you tell it. This makes the story more understandable to the deaf child, as well as more memorable for all.

Many Primary songs have actions so that the deaf child can join in singing. For example, “Do As I’m Doing” (Sing with Me, D-22) is a favorite among young ones. The class may also learn signs to go along with the songs.

5. Avoid giving the child such special treatment that he stands out as different. Involve him as a regular class member, calling on him for prayers, letting him take turns holding pictures, and disciplining him when needed.

6. Help not only your own class but also the rest of the Primary understand and feel comfortable relating with the deaf child. Assign him to give talks in sharing time or take part on Mother’s Day programs, if it would not prove embarrassing for the child. Ask a family member to interpret, if necessary. When your class is assigned the sharing time presentation, you could have them prepare to sing with signs or even act out a story.

7. Approach your teaching assignment with prayer and careful preparation. I have found that the Spirit can convey what words or signs alone cannot. Your calling gives you a responsibility for each child. You can call on the Lord to help you know their individual needs and how to fill them.

My whole class has been blessed by Micah’s presence. We have learned to appreciate him, and he has found friendship and acceptance. Hand in hand, we are learning the gospel of love.

[photos] Photography by Michael M. McConkie

Connie Lewis serves as Beehive adviser in the Pleasant Grove (Utah) Fourteenth Ward.