Free article: Mild deafness - Significant challenges

Published: Wednesday, 07 September 2016

Rachel O’Neill looks at the impact of mild deafness on children, and explains why calling something mild does not prevent it from being a real challenge to the affected student.


  • Screening in the UK does not usually identify babies who are mildly deaf.
  • Ask parents at school entry about early and frequent glue ear episodes.
  • There are several changes you can make so that your school becomes a deaf-friendly environment, and to prepare you to support any deaf child.

Newborn screening and its limitations

Since 2002–5 all babies in the UK have been screened for deafness at birth. Those that fail the screen are referred to audiology clinics and parents usually know by three months the degree of deafness their child has. Although it’s usually a shock, the early start allows parents to plan what to do and learn more about different ways of developing their deaf child’s language skills. 

The approach to screening in the UK picks up children who are moderately deaf or deafer in one or both ears. It does not usually identify babies who are mildly deaf. When newborn screening was introduced, the pre-school hearing test for all children was stopped in most parts of the UK. This means that it is possible for a child such as Melinda (see the case study) to come to school with really significant language delay, which had not been detected. She was probably mildly deaf in both ears at birth, and since then one ear has become more severely deaf.

Varying deafness: glue ear

Nursery teachers and early years staff are aware that the listening of many children goes downhill when they have colds or ear infections. Glue ear is the most common reason for middle-ear deafness. The most common time for otitis media/glue ear episodes is 0–2. If the child has many episodes, it could affect their phonic skills and listening in noise skills later at school, even if their hearing is perfect by the time they start. It would be useful at school entry to ask parents about early and frequent glue ear episodes.

Case study: Melinda

Melinda is five and at the end of Primary 1. Her teacher spotted she was deaf in the first few weeks of school – she is mildly deaf in one ear and severely deaf in the other. Her parents were surprised and upset that they hadn’t noticed the deafness. Melinda now has two hearing aids and she is learning to put them in and turn them on by herself. She receives a weekly visit from a qualified teacher of deaf children who liaises every week with the class teacher and reports by notes or emails to the parents. 

The class teacher thinks that phonics is the most important priority, but the teacher of deaf children has also identified that Melinda has a very small vocabulary. Melinda often uses creative ways to get by with a limited vocabulary – she says what things are used for or look like, or she makes up words like ‘tree-skin’ for bark. 

Melinda uses an FM system (radio aid) in school but not in the playground and not at home. With the FM system she can hear the teacher much better, but Melinda doesn’t hear her classmates so well in group work.

Supporting mildly deaf children

Use the ‘Handout – What teachers can do to support significantly deaf children’ and the ‘Checklist – Mild deafness: Primary and secondary’ and the ‘Form – Gathering information about a deaf child at primary or secondary level’ to prepare yourself to support a deaf child in your school. Your first ally will be the teacher of deaf children. Parents of mildly deaf children often report that they don’t get clear enough advice from class teachers or specialist teachers. Using the literature base provided (‘Handout – Studies into significant deafness and implications for teachers’), you can update yourself so you are ready to discuss the issues confidently with parents, colleagues and the visiting teacher of deaf children. The changes suggested in the checklist pages will mean your school becomes a deaf-friendly environment, and that you are ready to work collaboratively to support any deaf child.

Language development, reading and phonics

Chatting time is never wasted with deaf children. If you can provide a quiet environment, well-maintained hearing aids, an FM system (radio aid) and a few friends, the deaf child will benefit from talk time. Teaching assistants can work with a small group to discuss a particular topic, or to explore an invisible system with older children such as tax, recycling, going to college. You can make invisible systems visible by using Google image as visual prompts alongside the talk. 

Background knowledge gained this way helps with inference and reading comprehension. Children with mild deafness in the early years will need more time focusing on phonics, but check the child’s language base is firm first by using I CAN resources (see Further information box) and getting advice from speech and language therapists and the visiting teacher of the deaf.

Potential solutions for Melinda

  • Expect that the visiting teacher of deaf children should be able to assess her language development accurately and provide you with some clear guidelines about what she needs to do develop her speaking and listening skills.
  • Can Melinda wear the FM system in the playground with a friend wearing the transmitter? This would help her with friendships, play and self-esteem. Some local authorities are reluctant to do this because of the risk of breakage. Be an agent of change and argue why it will help Melinda.
  • Could Melinda take the FM system home or could the family find funds to buy one to use at home? Could a local Deaf Children’s Society group help?
  • The parents and you will need guidance from the visiting specialist teacher about how to use the FM system – for example, don’t shout, turn it off when you are not with the child, give the mic to a friend in group work, and teach the deaf child to point the mic at the person speaking.
  • Vocabulary development does not mean learning word lists. You can track Melinda’s knowledge of the most frequent words in English by using a book such as The Usborne First Thousand Words in English as a guide. Conversations in quiet areas and chatting about Melinda’s life will offer many opportunities to talk about different subjects. The book could be a checklist filled in by support workers, parents and teachers. Chatting time is never wasted.
  • Investigate an inflatable pop-up space in a classroom to keep the noise level down. Optix products, for example, could be provided from pupil premium funds and help many children in a noisy nursery or early years classroom, not just Melinda.

Further information


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Rachel O’Neill is a lecturer in deaf education at the University of Edinburgh and programme director for the MSc in Inclusive Education. Before coming to the university, Rachel worked as a teacher of deaf children in Greater Manchester. Her research includes a study of the achievements of deaf pupils at school, which led to her interest in mild deafness. Contact email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..