Supporting deaf learners using visual modes of communication within mainstream schools to access the curriculum

Publication Details

Many deaf learners are geographically dispersed and many attend local mainstream classes, which can result in linguistic isolation with little access to natural visual language models. There is concern that they don’t always have adequate access to the curriculum because of their communication needs. The Ministry commissioned this report from Fitzgerald and Associates to understand their communication needs and current provision of services, whether different services might better meet their needs and how current services might be reconfigured. This report informs ongoing work on improving access to education for deaf learners.

Author(s): Fitzgerald and Associates. Commissioned by Sally Jackson and Yvonne Hope, Special Education Strategy, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: June 2012

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This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.


To provide context for this report, there are 125 deaf learners enrolled at the Deaf Education Centres, with 103 at Kelston Deaf Education Centre (KDEC) and 22 at van Asch currently. There are also 750 deaf learners attending mainstream schools throughout New Zealand. Of these, there are 72 school-aged deaf learners who are not enrolled at the Deaf Education Centres but are enrolled at mainstream schools and who are primarily reliant on visual modes of communication, including NZ Sign Language (NZSL1) or Sign Supported English (SSE2). The term “deaf learners” is used in this report to refer to this small group of 72 and a smaller sample of 20 whose needs were analysed in greater depth.  

This project aims to achieve two outcomes. Firstly, it aims to identify current and preferred resources by these mainstreamed deaf learners in order to see if existing resources can be better configured to meet their needs. Secondly, there is a commitment to develop clear guidelines for educational staff working with these mainstream deaf learners that is based on best practice, providing an adaptive and individualised focus and resulting in consistent access to the curriculum across the country.


  1. New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is a visual language with a complex linguistic structure. The signs that are used convey meaning through hand-shape, orientation, movement and location. Accompanying these signs are facial grammar, expression, use of space, a system of body posture and usually the absence of voice.
  2. Sign supported English is an oral mode of communication with the addition of key signs. These signs provide an additional visual avenue of meaning. The signs are borrowed from New Zealand Sign Language and are used simultaneously with speech to provide the most meaning during communication.

Where to find out more

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