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Story time is a classic part of the school day for the nation’s youngest learners. Before they can read, preschoolers and early elementary school students sit with teachers and watch and listen as stories are narrated to them. Besides learning new vocabulary words and starting to connect written and spoken language, they learn to love stories and build a foundation for reading that can serve them for the rest of their lives.
Melissa Malzkuhn has developed a new way for deaf children to get the same benefits of story time through an app. Malzkuhn is the founder and creative director of the Motion Light Lab in the Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. The VL2 Storybook Apps, available as individual books in the Apple app store, bring together English and American Sign Language so young children can connect the two languages.
Children (or those reading with them) can choose to take in the story in one of two modes – watch or read. “Watch” mode features the narrator telling the story in American Sign Language. The goal, Malzkuhn said, is strictly to give deaf children the chance to understand a story and enjoy it in their native language. “Read” mode looks like any other children’s book, with English words on a page. Children can swipe to go from one page to another, but, uniquely, vocabulary words are bolded on each page so if children don’t understand them, they can tap them to open a video in which a narrator will offer the ASL sign for the word as well as the finger-spelled version (letter by letter).
“Read” mode builds up children’s English vocabulary so they can access traditional books, too. Once kids know how to read in English, Malzkuhn says, they can go the library and pick out any book they want.
“They do and can become bookworms,” she said through an interpreter.
Each VL2 Storybook App also has a “learn” mode, where children can tap any of the book’s vocabulary words and get the video tutorial of the sign and finger-spelled word. Beyond being good for kids, this can help parents or teachers who are learning sign language expand their own vocabulary.
The apps are being used in schools in 30 states, according to Malzkuhn, with more than 50,000 total downloads so far. And a companion app, VL2 Storybook Creator, allows individuals to create their own bilingual books with the VL2 template, designed with the best research about bilingualism and visual language in mind. There are also stories available in Russian, Japanese, Arabic and Dutch, along with their respective sign languages.
Researchers from the Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning have studied how deaf children use the app. Those who have greater fluency in American Sign Language spend significantly more time with its “read” mode than children with fewer ASL skills, who rely more on the “watch” and “learn” modes. This confirms for researchers that early sign-language fluency leads to greater English-language literacy. That’s similar to the research supporting bilingual instruction for the nation’s English learners: The more skills students have in their first language, the more likely they are to learn a second and the more quickly they’ll be able to do it.
But the value of these apps goes beyond improving literacy among deaf children to offering an experience Malzkuhn said can be profound for readers.
“Sign language needs to be documented in a way that English storybooks have been for decades,” Malzkuhn said, “with deaf narrators, so that young children can receive language and culture from deaf adults, find their role models and develop their identity.”
The biggest demand from those who have tried the apps? More stories.
This story about digital learning devices was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.