Communicating with your deaf child

With the right support, commitment and encouragement from families and professionals, deaf children can learn to communicate as effectively as other children. This page introduces the communication approaches or methods available to deaf children and their families.

What are the different communication methods for deaf children?

The different methods can be grouped into three types of approaches:

  • Listening and speaking (Auditory-Oral or Oral / Aural)
  • Sign language as a first language (Sign-Bilingual)
  • Using a combination of methods flexibly – sign, speech and hearing, fingerspelling, gesture, facial expression and lipreading (Total Communication)
Children with all levels of deafness can try communicating with any of these approaches. There is no one method which should be considered better than another – it comes down to what works best for your child and your family.

If you’d like more details about any of the methods discussed on this page, download our Communicating with your deaf child booklet.


Listening and speaking

These approaches are founded in the belief that deaf children can learn to use what hearing they have to develop good listening and speaking skills which will enable them to communicate with hearing people. The idea is that oral language better supports the development of English literacy skills – reading and writing.

Gwen talking to sister


Sign language as a first language

Most children will be fitted with hearing aids or cochlear implants soon after they are identified as deaf, giving them the opportunity to develop spoken language. However, using sign language can help with understanding speech and can also be particularly useful at times when a deaf child is not using hearing aids or cochlear implants.

A common concern about using sign language is that it will delay or prevent speech development. There is no evidence that shows this is the case provided that a rich spoken language environment is still available for the child.

One approach is for sign language to be a child’s first language and the spoken language of the family is learned as a second language. This is called a Sign-Bilingual approach. It also possible for a child to communicate using sign language in combination with other approaches, as described in the next section.

A Sign-Bilingual approach is based on the principle that for deaf children to have full access to language learning, education, information and the world around them, together with a strong positive deaf identity, a visual language is essential.

British Sign Language (BSL) is the language of the UK Deaf community and it is estimated that about 70,000 people use it as their first or preferred language. BSL has its own rich history, and choosing this option can also bring with it a connection with Deaf culture and the opportunity and expectation of taking part in the Deaf community as well as the hearing world.

Joshua signing


Using a combination of methods

Total Communication uses a variety of methods flexibly – sign, speech and hearing, fingerspelling, gesture, facial expression and lipreading – in whatever combination works best for the deaf child. It is based on the principle that deaf children can learn to communicate effectively by using any and all means that they can.

Cued Speech
Cued Speech uses hand shapes to represent the sounds of English visually. Technically it can be used to supplement other approaches which are either Auditory-Oral or sign based but its major function is to support the understanding of spoken English and the development of literacy. Hand shapes are ‘cued’ near to the mouth to make clear the sounds of English which when lipread look the same. It is based on the principle that cueing in this way will make every sound and word clear to deaf children and therefore enable them to have full access to spoken language.

Lipreading (sometimes called speech-reading) is the ability to read words from the lip patterns of the person speaking.

It is hard to say how much speech can be understood just by relying on lipreading, as many speech sounds are not visible on the lips and lip patterns also vary from person to person, but it is estimated that only about 30% to 40% of speech sounds can be lipread even under the best conditions. Lipreading is never enough on its own and is used to support other communication approaches.

Fingerspelling uses the hands to spell out English words and letters. Each letter of the alphabet is indicated by using the fingers and palm of the hand. It is used to support sign language to spell names and places and for words that don’t have an established BSL sign.

Fingerspelling can also be used in Total Communication and can sometimes help children who are using Auditory-Oral approaches, by helping them recognise perhaps the first letter of a word which is being spoken.

Download or order a copy of the fingerspelling alphabet.