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American Annals of the Deaf

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Educational Interpreting: How It Can Succeed

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A study of K–12 educational interpreters working in nine western states during fall 2002 (JCCC 2002) found that 83 percent held no national interpreter certification. Clearly, improvement has not happened in the area of interpreter certification. However, some good news is evident. This same study found that 49 percent have, at least, taken the EIPA, 86 percent of that group within the past two years. The time frame is significant because it means that the majority has probably taken the new videotape-standardized version of the EIPA. Of these nine states, the state of Colorado shows the largest percentage of K–12 interpreters having taken the exam (85 percent). Of this 85 percent in the state of Colorado, 70 percent have met or surpassed that state’s minimum standard of 3.5 (personal communication, Kim Sweetwood, CDE interpreter standards coordinator, May 18, 2003), which is encouraging progress. Data of this nature for the other eight states are not yet available.

Some progress toward a qualified K–12 interpreter workforce is being made. But what about the interpreters who have chosen not to improve their skills and knowledge? Yarger (2001) found that every interpreter she studied self-reported a higher level of interpreting skill than was later actually found to be true by means of interpreting performance testing. From these data, we surely cannot say that interpreters who have chosen not to improve their skills would be more skilled than interpreters already evaluated for skill.

Yarger’s study clearly shows the need for standards of quality for these important support personnel. Even so, what benefits are there to placing a student in an interpreted education with unskilled interpreters? Ramsey (1997) has suggested,

The mere placement of deaf and hearing children in the same room is a waste of deaf children’s developmental time and a thoughtless burden to place on them. . . . Unless a school principal and teaching staff [and interpreting staff] can make a commitment to preparing themselves to communicate with and understand the educational needs of deaf children, simply scheduling periods of integration is a fruitless exercise in logistics. . . . If students cannot engage with instruction and with others, it is hard to imagine how they will be able to acquire language and school skills. (113)

“Engaging with instruction” is not possible for deaf and hard of hearing students who use an interpreter with either questionable qualifications or unknown qualifications. One cannot help but wonder how an individual educational program (IEP) team can make an appropriate educational placement of a deaf or hard of hearing student without knowing whether that student’s communication needs are being met. At least 50 percent of the time, we cannot know the answer to this question because the empirical data show that at least half of the K–12 educational interpreters in the United States are not certified, or have not been tested for their skill.

According to Sanderson (1991), “Ninety percent of deaf children born to hearing parents will not be fluent during the critical years of language acquisition, so only the best interpreters should be working with them” (67). Affonso (1998) also echoes this notion. Bowen-Bailey (1996) notes, however, that “too often, the interpreters who work with young children are the interpreters most in need of models for their own language development” (16). The reality is that “most often education attracts inexperienced, unskilled interpreters” (Winston 1994, 61).


Table 1, compiled from data in Jones, Clark, and Soltz (1997) and Jones (2001), compares characteristics of educational interpreters in 1993 and in 2001 and shows little difference. The educational sign language interpreter working in the public school setting in 2001 had the following characteristics: The interpreter is a White female, averaging 31–40 years of age, with 6–10 years of experience, having attended college, but having earned no degree. She earns $11.01–$13.00 per hour in a full-time job and may be working in a rural or urban setting. She has expressed the need for opportunities to continue upgrading her skills, but those opportunities are not readily available and, if available, are rarely supported by the employer (i.e., the LEA).

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