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Sign Language Interpreters in the Educational Setting

The interpreter is present in the educational setting to faithfully facilitate communication, and in doing so, convey the spirit and content of all communication that takes place in the classroom. Interpreters are not to be confused with teacher aides or assistants, tutors or note takers. Interpreters are not responsible for learner attendance, study habits, or efforts made on coursework.

The interpreter’s job starts well before the time in the classroom. A qualified, professional interpreter will familiarize themselves with course content through reading and researching course materials, preparing the needed signs and vocabulary to accurately convey the material that will be presented.

When working with an interpreter in the classroom, instructors can engage in a variety of strategies to make the experience more successful for everyone:

  • Seating arrangements. Work with the learner and the interpreter to allow for the best seating arrangements. Ideally, the learner will want to see the interpreters, any visual supports such as boards or screens, and the instructor in one fluid sight line.
  • Speak at a natural pace. Do not slow down for the interpreter and but also, do not speak too fast. If the interpreter needs to ask for repetition or clarification, they will ask. Otherwise speak at a natural pace.
  • Natural pauses when presenting are important. The learner will not be able to watch the interpreter and listen to instruction or look at a presentation and listen to instruction at the same time. 
  • Spoken and writing work. If assigning written work, the learner will be focused on that work, and will not be able to listen to anything spoken while engaging the written work at the same time.  If anything is spoken, the learner will stop writing so that they can watch the interpreter.
  • Ensure all streaming video, films, or other multimedia presented has captions whenever possible. Work with our service provider to ensure you know how to operate the captions.
  • Turn taking can be challenging in a learning environment. Ask learners to raise their hands and wait to be acknowledged before speaking. If possible, give the interpreter a chance to catch up to the conversation as they will likely be a few seconds behind. This ensures the learner who is relying on the interpreter also has all of the information needed to participate in the discussion.
  • Plan for breaks. The work of visually attending to information can be challenging and visually fatiguing. Interpreting is a mentally and physically demanding task. Often, interpreters will work in teams of two. However, there may be times when there is only one interpreter.
  • Speak in the first person. When addressing the learner, look directly at them as opposed to looking at and speaking in the direction of the interpreter. Use I and you statements, rather than asking the interpreter to tell him or tell her; or does he or does she.

In summary, learners who use a signed language to communicate are first and foremost, learners. They have unique communication needs, but otherwise, they are present to learn, achieve, and succeed like those learners who use a spoken language. Academic ability will range across the continuum as it does for any learner. Having a relationship with the learner will help both you and the learner work well together with the interpreter.