Content literacy in students with hearing loss: Vocabulary is key

by Amanda Dunaway, MSDE, CED, LSLS Cert. AVEd

Vocabulary is an integral part of learning. We need new words to discuss original ideas and relate them to previous experiences and knowledge. Students are often faced with a multitude of vocabulary in school.

Let’s consider 3 types of vocabulary:

  • Content vocabulary found in content classes such as science and social studies
  • Academic vocabulary
  • Abstract vocabulary

Memorizing and reciting definitions does not demonstrate comprehension of these new content vocabulary words. As an illustration, the word “characteristic” is defined as “something you can observe in a living thing.”  For the second grader immersed in life cycles, repeating this definition or even writing it on a test may be a reasonable expectation. But can the student look at a flower and provide its characteristics? If the child does not understand that a whole object can be broken down into definable parts, then the child does not comprehend the vocabulary word, “characteristic” even if he/she can give a definition for that word. Therefore, the child must have an opportunity to experience the word in order to comprehend the embedded concept. For example, students may collect different leaves or plants and group them according to characteristics. Most likely, students will need to repeat this activity with different objects to master the concept.

While a student may understand the content of a lesson, she may be unable to answer questions or complete a task related to the topic if she does not comprehend the academic vocabulary. Examples include: list, label, draw, recognize, describe, separate, combine, etc. A student who could identify all his shapes may be unable to complete a task such as “draw a line from the circle to the square.” Your student may be able to tell you countless facts about the marine life, but falls short when asked to “describe the animals that live in the ocean.” Students must learn the task related to these words before they are able to communicate the content. It’s important to practice the task associated with these words so your child understands the task when reading them in directions. Other words may appear in text and definitions that are not content-specific, but are age appropriate and must be also taught explicitly such as surface, simple, or surrounded.  It can be helpful to create a binder or poster at home to serve as a reference for these words when doing homework.

Abstract vocabulary words are often intangible and require personal experience to grasp- for all children! Some come easily like love, whereas other such as liberty may be more difficult to explain. One important point to consider is that students may overgeneralize a familiar form of a word and not know how to conjugate it into the appropriate grammatical form. For example, a student may understand that honest (adjective) describes something true. But the concept of honesty (noun) has a different connotation. As students get older these nuisances in language must be explicitly taught. Students may attempt usage with the right concept, but wrong syntax. “You should not lie, you should be honesty.”  It is necessary and important that students are provided opportunities to practice after explicit instruction. Abstract words often appear in literature or social studies texts.

The CID Vocabulary Card template provides students opportunities to explore new vocabulary words in depth. Writing a definition, linking synonyms and antonyms, identifying the part of speech, examining alternate endings and communicating meaning give a student a deeper understanding and experience of a vocabulary word.  Download it at by clicking here.

Amanda Dunaway has worked in the Virginia J. Browning Primary School at Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) for over 10 years currently serving as the Instructional Facilitator. In 2009 she became a certified Listening and Spoken Language Specialist (LSLS Cert. AVEd). Amanda teaches Math and Content Instruction for Children who are Deaf/HH for the Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine. Her professional interests include elementary content curriculum, executive function skills in students who are deaf/hard of hearing, teacher preparation, and educational technology. She is a CODA (child of a deaf adult) and a SODA (sibling of a deaf adult).

7 replies
  1. Nurul Akmar
    Nurul Akmar says:

    Thank you for the wonderful post about vocabulary. I am currently student teaching in a total communication setting in a self-contained classroom for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. All of my students are English Language Learners and some are only recently amplified. However, they are still required to learn the same content as other 4th and 5th graders (even though their listening age ranges from 2 to 3 years old) in Science and Social Studies. Needless to say, the students are struggling. For example, in a recent topic about organism’s behavior and response, many of the vocabulary are foreign to the students. We had to define ‘organism’, ‘behavior’, ‘response’, and many other content-specific words. Some of these words are abstract in definition. This process is tedious and too hard for the students, and we have not even started reading the text yet. How can we make this process more fun and manageable to the students so as not to overwhelm them?

    • Giannina Andino
      Giannina Andino says:

      Nurul, I struggle with this on a daily basis in my classroom. Students who are DHH do not have the opportunity to pick up language through incidental learning, so this plays a significant part in language deficits and limited vocabulary knowledge.
      Language acquisition during infancy plays a huge role as well. DHH children that are not exposed to language in infancy (spoken or manual) often struggle with vocabulary in school, which leads to a bigger problem–reading comprehension.
      As stated in the article, students can memorize and recite definitions for words, but that does not mean they will be able to use it in context or transfer their knowledge into other domains.
      Repeated exposure to vocabulary and allowing students to experience vocabulary through meaningful interactions or activities often leads to the comprehension we so desperately hope they will achieve.
      My focus are multiple meaning words. I teach the vocabulary across all content domains, for reinforcement, transfer of knowledge and so that students can comprehend text during reading. I also try to find ways to include these words during my interaction with the students, in the cafeteria in the gym, or even during informal conversations.
      For one of my lessons on multiple meanings, I assigned a worksheet where the students had to write down the definition of the word, write a sentence, and illustrate the the word.
      I was surprised on how well the students performed. Their illustrations clearly demonstrated their knowledge of the word. They also used other multiple meaning words within the sentence and illustration. One of my students used 3 multiple meaning words in one sentence and in his illustration, which demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of the 3 words.
      My assessments usually involve quick writes in the morning, often pertaining to target multiple meaning words or anything we have been learning about in content specific areas. The goal is for them to demonstrate their understanding of the multiple meaning words in relation to other things we are learning in Science, Social Studies or Literature.
      They often achieve the target. When they don’t, I know I have to go back and reinforce the vocabulary and remind them to use it in future writing assignments.
      The need to bridge the gap of language and vocabulary is still a problem. There are many programs that have been created to try to tackle this problem. I am hopeful that someone will create curricula designed specifically for DHH to achieve this and perform at grade level, comparable to their hearing peers.

      • Libby Cruz
        Libby Cruz says:

        I am very interested in this topic, though my level of teaching is to undergraduate. I’ve never been in a teaching situation like this, but of course, it means a great challenge in my professional growth. I want to help my students indeed, but I don’t know how.
        This is a regular group of ELF, and this semester I was assigned with three hearing loss students. I feel very stressed because I understand nothing of Sign Language and I didn’t know the issues that I have to consider in planning a class. I failed in teaching them last unit, so I want to be ready for the next.
        A colleague who taught them for three semesters, told me they fail long way back in grasping and using vocabulary, and of course grammar. That is clear for me now, but how can I help them to improve a little bit?
        I was wondering if you could help me with some ideas in doing this. We are going to talk about Natural Disasters, Literature and Fashion.
        Thank you in advance.

    • CIDprofessionaldevelopment
      CIDprofessionaldevelopment says:

      You could use a bingo or jeopardy game to build vocabulary or to review. For example, you could use synonyms for vocabulary words for the bingo spots or clues.

      • Michelle
        Michelle says:

        Thank you so much. This is a great idea. I’ve used jeopardy before for test prep but not specifically with vocabulary. I love the idea to use synonyms for bingo so that children can be exposed to even more words.


    • Giannina Andino
      Giannina Andino says:

      Using technology can be a fun, exciting, and motivating strategy to get students to learn vocabulary. I like to use QUIZLET. It provides multiple ways for learning vocabulary. It also lends itself to assessment, since it keeps track of their achievement and progression. It is very easy to use and even has the option of providing pictures for more visual learners.

      I use it for vocabulary across all subject areas. My students love it!!


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