The importance of being visual in early parent-child communication

by Beatrijs Wille

(Note: video is in American Sign Language.)

This is a blog post about a longer article: Wille, B., Van Lierde, K. & Van Herreweghe, M. (2019). Parental Strategies Used in Communication With Their Deaf Infants. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 35(2),165-183.

Hearing parents should receive training in visual communication and associated visual communication skills. Often their child is the first deaf person they meet, and some visual communication strategies linked to the visual mode (e.g. exaggerated waving, touching etc.) may violate their cultural norms. Hence, hearing parents do not automatically think of these strategies as useful. Therefore, deaf role models are best positioned to inform hearing parents on visual communication, sign language and Deaf culture.

Deaf children need to see language, regardless of whether they acquire a signed language or a spoken language. It goes without saying that visual attention to the parent and the parent’s face is necessary for perceiving signs. However, this visual attention is equally important for communication in a spoken language since (deaf) children also pick up essential information about the spoken message from lip movements and facial expressions.

Most deaf children grow up in families where naturally acquiring their parents’ spoken language from birth is almost impossible. During the first year of life and potentially also later – depending on circumstances, setting, and the presence and functionality of any auditory devices (1) -, deaf children acquire all information through the same sensory channel; that is visually. This means that these children have to actively learn to systematically divide their attention between the linguistic and the non-linguistic information – respectively language input and the discussed object-, and to make the connection between these two consecutive visual stimuli. This illustrates the fundamental difference between acquiring language as a hearing and as a deaf child, where the first acquires all information simultaneously through an auditory and visual input, whereas deaf children acquire language through one.

That being said, hearing parents with deaf children are not as fully aware of their children’s visual needs as deaf parents are. In order to obtain smooth communication the parent can adopt a number of strategies. They can opt to actively or not actively seek their child’s attention; respectively through the use of explicit and non-explicit strategies. Attention-getting strategies such as waving, tapping, displacing signs into the child’s visual field, and manipulating objects are considered to be active and explicit. On the other hand, waiting for the child’s visual attention or signing without the child’s complete focus of attention can be seen as non-explicit methods to get the child’s attention. Our research – even though it is based on the small group of 10 participating dyads – was able to reveal two tendencies supported by international literature:

  1. There any noticeable differences in use of strategies related to the hearing status of the parents.
  2. There are gender-related differences in the usage of these strategies

Overall, our research indicates that the attention-getting strategies used by the deaf parents are closely linked to the visual nature of their language use within the family. They rely significantly more on a combination of non-explicit strategies and explicit-tactile strategies (e.g. tapping on the child), while they only apply a minimal number of explicit-oral strategies (e.g. making sound with an object, which was more frequent in hearing parents’ interactions). Hearing parents were often found to demonstrate a more active and more controlling attitude while interacting with their deaf child. Rarely incorporating non-explicit strategies – such as waiting for the child to look – could indicate differences in attitude compared to the deaf parents. This attitude of more actively seeking the child’s attention should be interpreted more broadly and could be due to a range of factors, including the parental level of experience with the visual mode and Flemish Sign Language, parental knowledge about visual communication, and the personality of the parent and the child. Furthermore, the quality, intensity and use of these attention-getting strategies are subject to change over time. Generally, parents use fewer strategies when the child gets older. One deaf mother in the study gradually narrowed this set of strategies down to the most effective strategies within her interaction with her deaf child. Further, during these 18 months the use of explicit strategies decreased, while that of non-explicit strategies increased. This could indicate that her child needs more overt and explicit strategies during the first year, while only later in this process the non-explicit strategies are introduced into the interaction.

One case clearly underscores the importance of informative training on visual communication for hearing parents with a deaf child, whether the main language in the interactions is a spoken or a signed language. A hearing mother with a deaf girl incorporated Flemish Sign Language into the interactions with her deaf child. On top of that, she took additional classes on how to visually communicate with her deaf child (2). Our results indicate that she managed to integrate both modalities and took her daughter’s hearing status into account during the dyadic interactions. She was able to successfully implement more non-explicit and explicit-tactile strategies, which also resulted in a higher duration of interaction time. Attending these classes helped her to create a linguistically stimulating environment for her deaf child and to implement the attention-getting strategies.

Furthermore, gender-related differences exist between father–child and mother–child interactions. Focusing on the deaf parents in our study, the fathers displayed a stronger preference for non-explicit strategies compared to the mothers, who tend to have a clear preference for explicit strategies. Thus, deaf fathers are found to display more an attitude of waiting, while deaf mothers rather tend to control the child’s attention and tend to initiate the interactions more.

Apart from some inevitable personal differences, this research demonstrated gender-related differences and differences that can be linked to parental hearing status. The overall finding confirms very convincingly that parents revert to the strategies closely related to the modality of their native language or the language used within the home. Nevertheless, some hearing parents do display an intermediate mode by incorporating strategies initially attributed to deaf parents. These results indicate the importance of visual communication instructions to (hearing) parents of a deaf child and of the support that deaf parents can provide to (hearing) parents; as role models.


(1) Before their first birthday 94% of Flemish deaf children receive unilateral or bilateral cochlear implants.

(2) In 2014, a parental support intervention practice was established for families with a deaf child in Flanders. The two key pillars of this project were (1) family coaching and (2) teaching parents about visual communication and how to incorporate this into daily life interactions within the family context. This course Leren visueel communiceren in VGT met dove baby’s (LVC; Learning how to Visually Communicate in Flemish Sign Language with deaf babies) offered parents information on their deaf children’s developmental needs and visual communication. Further, parents were also introduced to some relevant Flemish Sign Language lexicon (i.e. 150 signs needed for the early interaction with a child). Over the past years, the organization of this course heavily depended on sporadic funding, teacher availability, participants, convenience of location and timing etc., however no follow-up or long-term support is secured. For more information on this course see website Mijn kind is doof or e-mail


Beatrijs Wille is a postdoctoral researcher at the Mayberry Lab for Multimodal Language Development (UC San Diego). In 2018, she earned an interdisciplinary PhD in Linguistics and Health Sciences from Ghent University. She has a background in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences (MSc from Ghent University) and in Linguistics (MA from KULeuven). Her research interests include early visual communication, language acquisition and early literacy of deaf children in Flanders. She’s on Twitter as @BeatrijsWille