A new literacy landscape has emerged that is whispering farewell to the clothbound books of my childhood. Classrooms today are moving away from traditional print-based texts to incorporate digital media, often referred to as “new literacies.” Elementary school classrooms now come equipped with Smart Boards, computers and even iPads.
The digital format is intrinsically motivating to children because it uses familiar applications—from sending texts and emails to surfing the Internet and playing computer games.
Our school discovered another benefit of this ever-advancing technology. It has allowed our elementary-aged students who are deaf or hard of hearing to enjoy books in both English and American Sign Language. Unlike English, ASL has no written form. It is a visual language expressed through hand movements and facial expressions. It happens “in the moment,” and because technology in the past was limited, this language has gone largely undocumented.
Happily, that is changing. Advances in technology have made it possible to capture ASL and incorporate it into today’s new literacies. This year, two innovative ebooks have been published, Pointy Three by Adam Stone and Strollin’ with Little Baby Owen by Owen Tales. The e-books, which can be viewed using iBooks on an iPad 2, break new ground by allowing English text and ASL video to coexist on the same page.
This is a huge benefit for bilingual children utilizing English and ASL because it supports both language and literacy development. “By making the English text available, a deaf child can make connections between ASL and English and become more proficient in English which may not happen with English-only texts …,” author Stone explained in an article.
English/ASL ebooks are also an engaging resource for elementary classroom teachers interested in exposing students to other languages and cultures. When other educators find out that I teach young children who are deaf and hard of hearing, they share stories about teaching the sign language alphabet and some basic signs to their students. I have also had requests for my class to Skype with other classes so those students could practice their sign language skills.
To support those teachers, Owen Tales contains a picture glossary of words and phrases in English with photos and ASL video. There are also games for emergent readers that build on their knowledge. The design ensures that a wide array of readers is supported in their learning while having a good time.
It’s learning that sneaks up on you no matter who you are. I look forward to others following the example of these pioneering authors and creating more interactive ebooks with ASL. The possibilities seem endless.
Wellbrock is an early elementary teacher working with both deaf and hearing students in New York City.