Concepts can be so difficult for students with an intellectual disability. They are abstract which makes them cognitively demanding. Take the concept of being deaf, for example. It seems simple, but there will be some students who do not fully understand it.  When you think about this, there is the definition of this concept (can’t hear), and there is the ‘picturing what it means’ aspect of this concept where we need to imagine what it would be like to not hear. This second part is what is harder to understand.

I have found that there are a number of fairly simple concepts that students with an ID might partially understand, or not understand at all. For example, I discovered that my 16-year-old daughter, Lily, who has Down syndrome, did not fully understand what ‘deaf ‘meant. She is pretty sharp, and so I figured she knew what that meant. We were reading the Austin & Lily Alexander Graham Bell book, which mentions his wife being deaf. When I asked Lily what ‘deaf’ meant, she responded that ‘it was a bad word’.

After talking to her a bit, I figured out what Lily was thinking. She knew ‘deaf’ was a disability word. While there are some derogatory disability-related terms we want to avoid, Lily over-generalized this concept and thought that all words associated with disability were in that category. Somehow that is what she understood, and so that is what she filed in her long-term memory. That was her understanding of the concept of being deaf. She missed the fact that it had to do with not being able to hear.

When you come across a concept that you want to explore, there are some things that you will want to include as part of your instruction that may be helpful as you work on a concept.

Here are the strategies:
  • Use short sentences to address impaired working memory.
  • Incorporate repetition by talking about the same information in a number of ways to help file it in long-term memory.
  • Use a variety of questioning strategies to keep students engaged.
  • Provide a simplified, working definition of the word.
  • Give examples as well as counter examples of the concept.
  • Have a visual to interact with.
  • Incorporate movements into instruction.
  • Share examples of the concept to help generalize it.
  • Use a very engaging voice expressive teacher voice (See my post about using your voice to teach).


Here is an example of things that I might say while teaching this:


(I would have a picture projected of the page of the book that talks about Alexander Graham Bell’s wife, Mabel, being deaf.)

“Class, Mabel was deaf.

Deaf means that a person can’t hear.

What does ‘deaf’ mean?

That’s right. A person who is deaf is not able to hear.

Mabel can not hear. Mabel is deaf.

Who is deaf?

Yes, Mabel is deaf.

Please point to Mabel. Yes, this woman is Mabel. Mabel is Alexander Graham Bell’s wife.

Mabel is dead now. She lived a long time ago.

When Mabel was alive, she was deaf.

Mabel’s ears did not work. Mabel was deaf. Mabel was deaf because she had scarlet fever when she was a kid. That sickness made her deaf. Because Mabel got sick with scarlet fever, her ears did not work.

Why was Mabel deaf? Could Mabel hear? Is Mabel alive right now?

Mabel could not hear people talking. Please point to Mabel’s ears. Point to your own ears. When I whisper in your ear (demonstrate) can you can hear what I am saying? Everyone whisper in the ear of someone sitting near you. (let kids do this) Could you hear that? You are not deaf.  The noise from the voice goes in your ear and you can hear. Mabel’s ears did not work.

Mabel could not hear noises. Mabel could not hear horns honking.

When someone said something, Mabel could not hear what they said.

(make a sound) Class, could Mabel hear that? No, she could not. She was deaf. She could not hear.

Put your hands over your ears. (whisper something)

Did you hear that?

No, you covered your ears.  That sound did not go in your ears.

If someone is deaf, sound goes in their ears, but they can’t hear it.

If someone is deaf, can they hear this (bang something down on the table)?

No, person who is deaf can not hear that bang.

How about this (play music on computer or make other sounds)?

If someone is deaf, can they hear the radio?… No they cannot. Their ears don’t work. They are deaf.

If someone is deaf and they walk into the cafeteria, what will they hear? (cup ear with your hand like you are trying to hear)…. Nothing.

Let’s all be very quiet. No one say a word. No one make a sound. …….Ok, that is what someone who is deaf hears when they go in the cafeteria. Nothing.

Can a person who is deaf see things? Yes they can.

Can people who are deaf see people? Yes they can.

Can a person who is deaf walk? Yes they can!

Do people who are deaf have friends?  Yes they do!

Deaf means that their ears don’t work right and so they can’t hear when people are talking. They can’t hear sound.

If a person is deaf can they hear if they want to? No. There is a problem with their ears. They do not work.

Caleb, are you deaf? No, you are not. When I am talking you can hear me.

How about Brittney? Is Brittney deaf? No. She can hear when things are banging, she can hear music. Her ears work.

Was Mabel deaf? Yes, she was.

Do you know anyone who is deaf? What does it mean when someone is deaf?”

Take away

This is an example of following best practices for teaching this population of student. The strategies utilize a lot of repetition and questioning to unwrap a concept in an understandable manner so it can be filed in long-term memory.

 If you would like to use my Alexander Graham Bell with your students, I would love to give it to you free of charge as a “thank you” for looking at my materials. Simply create an account and purchase the unit (it’s free) and you will find it in your materials. I also give away other things for free, so you will see more land in your materials section over time. No credit card is needed. 

(According to the National Association of the Deaf, the term deaf is preferred by most over hearing impaired)