Our Research Based Design
Reading is a complex task, and learning to read is undoubtedly one of the most important skills children must master during their early school life. Previous research demonstrates that good language skills lay the foundation for good reading skills and this is true of both signed languages and spoken languages. However, the process of learning to read is more multifaceted when children’s primary language is a signed language and different from the spoken/written language they encounter in school. Importantly, over the last decade, there has been considerable progress in understanding how young deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) bilingual learners deploy their dual language resources in learning to read. Specifically, compelling evidence of how signed language phonological skills, in particular signed language phonological awareness (PA), supports DHH children’s language and literacy development is increasing. This research underscores the brain’s capacity for language learning independent of modality and demonstrates that the established link between a phonological code and reading is not limited to or dependent upon spoken language.
Of interest, recent studies have shown that when deaf signers see printed words, the associated sign is activated in their mind. Evidence of co-activation of signs during written word recognition has been observed in both DHH school-aged children and adult readers in several signed languages/written languages studied to date (e.g., Swedish, Dutch, German, Chinese, Spanish). That signed language phonological information is directly accessed (co-activated) during reading demonstrates that print and signs are closely linked for deaf bilinguals. School-based studies focused on strengthening this link show that explicit instruction targeting signed language phonological awareness (i.e. handshape categorization; visual rhyme & rhythm) facilitates sign vocabulary learning. Additionally, instruction focused on strengthening the connections between signed language phonological representations and written word representations (we refer to this as developing a “sign–symbol” aptitude) improves word-reading skills in DHH signing children.
Decades of research have indicated strong positive relationships between sign language proficiency and reading ability. Yet approaches to teaching reading to DHH children have, for the most part, remained focused on spoken language phonologically-based instruction. While the investigation of signed language phonologically-based instruction is relatively new in comparison, existing literature indicates that reading expertise can be achieved via different paths or trajectories and that exploiting assets from signed languages (i.e., phonological processing) will offer a strength-based pedagogical approach to literacy learning for many young DHH readers.
The Co-Design Project
Although there are numerous educational software products available both at home and at school to support and enhance the influence of spoken language skills on learning, there are few accessible interactive educational products to support and enhance the influence of signed language skills on learning. To address this gap, we embarked on a ground-breaking design process bringing together Deaf children (ages 6-13), teachers of Deaf children, research scientists, interactive media developers, and graphic artists – the result was the development of a suite of innovative skill-building dual language (ASL – English) vocabulary apps designed to support, improve and/or augment young deaf children’s early language and literacy learning. The apps embed signed language phonological awareness and print skills practice within a technology-enhanced digital games environment that is highly motivating, easily accessible, and transportable. To date, the user interface of the dual language apps has gone through several iterations adapting the language, challenge levels, and key visuals based on input from young deaf co-design partners during user evaluation prototype sessions. Future plans include adaptation of the apps for use with other world signed languages.