Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2),
a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center at Gallaudet University
Melissa Herzig is the Research and Education Translation Manager and the Director of Translation at the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) at Gallaudet University. She co-founded the PhD Program in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) at Gallaudet and is its Assistant Director. Her role is to facilitate two-way communication between researchers and educators.
Melissa Malzkuhn, digital strategist and creative director at Gallaudet, directs the university’s development of research-based creative and translational products, including bilingual storybook apps designed for early language acquisition for Deaf children. She leads the VL2 Storybook Creator program that provides training for and facilitates the development of bilingual storybook apps in multiple languages. As founder and Creative Director of Motion Light Lab, she leads projects intersecting creative literature and digital technology to create immersive learning experiences.
ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?
Melissa Malzkuhn (MM): I have master’s degrees in deaf studies and fine arts/visual narrative, which have given me the opportunity to do a lot of creative and innovative work, while focusing on the importance of narratives. When I started working at Gallaudet in 2008, I led efforts as managing editor of the world’s first peer-reviewed sign language journal, Deaf Studies Digital Journal, which provides articles in American Sign Language (ASL) with printed English. It was fun and challenging to figure out technological capabilities in publishing a visual and spatial language. That led me into my current role with VL2, which is to create innovative resources that help families and teachers promote evidence-based approaches for promoting language and literacy in young children. My work utilizes touchscreen technology to promote a bilingual experience for families with young deaf children. That’s my journey in a nutshell. I also come from a deaf family and I grew up with rich ASL stories. I’m grateful for my access to language, narrative, and word play since birth. My experience has led me to believe in the importance of ASL literacy. The challenge is that since ASL is an oral language, stories are passed on through generations, but can easily disappear. My motivation is to document ASL literature, but to also innovate ways in how we view and interact with ASL storytelling. I’m also the mother of a deaf 5-year-old, so watching his language and literacy development has had real implications for my work.
Melissa Herzig (MH): I’ve always enjoyed working with children and thought I’d be a teacher. I also had a natural curiosity about how the body and the mind worked. I majored in biology in college. After graduating, I worked as a research assistant in language and cognitive neuroscience labs and learned the science behind cognition and language. I started a master’s program in teaching and learning and bilingual education and learned more about language and literacy development. As I began to spend time in classrooms, I found a huge disconnect between what we know from research and what was happening in classrooms, so this became my passion: better connecting research and education. I also better understood the urgency of focusing on early language development in young children. I pursued a doctorate with a strong focus on literacy and motivation. In my current position, I direct the Translation in the Science of Learning Lab. This lab is responsible for translating VL2 research discoveries for applications in various learning environments that deaf children experience. We produce publications and resources for parents, educators, medical professionals, and policy makers as well as offer training for educators on bilingual education and language policy. I am also a mother of three hearing children who have grown up in a bilingual (ASL and English) environment, which has had a positive impact on their development.
ED: What is early sign language acquisition and why should parents of young children know about this?
MH: We know from brain research that there is a critical period for language to develop. For deaf children, there is a serious risk of language deprivation during this critical period. We also know that, for deaf children, including a visual language like ASL in the early years is critical to their later development of strong English literacy and language skills. Most deaf children are born to non-deaf families and many of them don’t have all the information they need to make important decisions about promoting language and literacy development. Research demonstrates that multiple modes of communication have a positive impact on all children’s language development. Sign language helps the child’s brain progress through the normal developmental milestones by activating the part of the brain that spoken language activates. Parents of deaf children are made to think that they must choose ASL or English, but they need to know that they don’t have to choose; they should try it all, and use it all! Bilingualism, regardless of the languages used, makes children’s language and literacy development stronger. Readers can check out our Early Education Literacy Lab website for more information on the latest research in this important area.
ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and influenced approaches to teaching early language and literacy?
MM: I’ve been developing bilingual and interactive storybook apps for deaf children using our VL2 Storybook Creator platform. Anyone can create storybook apps using this platform. Its research-based design has three modes:
- Watch Mode—the storyteller signs the story from beginning to end with images of the story in the background;
- Read Mode—the traditional book where you go from page to page and read the text, and the reader can click to have an individual page or a word signed to them; and
- Learn Mode—a list of vocabulary words from the story appear, and the reader can learn and explore words in both text and sign.
This has been a wonderful tool for both educators and families. These are engaging stories for children, and also support parents in learning sign language and sharing reading time with their child. Our goal is to support young deaf children who are learning to read and reading to learn.
MH: This tool has helped boost bilingual teaching in the classroom with deaf children. Teachers have long lamented the scarcity of bilingual resources, so it is a welcome addition to the classroom. We’ve also developed resources to help teachers use the storybook apps, including lesson plans that go along with most storybook apps. Resources provide ideas for how to use the storybook apps for guided, shared, and independent reading and teaching of ASL and English grammar. The best way to help deaf children read is through stories, getting the whole picture, and building background knowledge—not to just focus on English print. We think these visual and interactive storybooks are essential.
MM: Through the VL2 storybook creator program, we’ve collaborated with a number of countries to develop translated versions in their signed and written languages. We’ve worked with Norway, Russia, Japan, Italy, and the Netherlands. On top of this, there is tremendous interest to bring our platform to more countries and to more schools in the U.S. This is really groundbreaking work! Technology has finally caught up to our needs in this area; use of this technology can support literacy for deaf children in a way that hasn’t been an option in the past.
MH: We conducted a usability and efficacy study and found that a diverse group of children were accessing and using the apps, from beginning signers to fluent signers. We also found that participants do learn new English vocabulary words from the stories. The users really liked how the tool allowed for individualization. They can move through the story at their own pace and choose what works for them (watch the story, read the story, click “play” to see videos that aid with comprehension).
ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
MH: Overall, one of the major challenges is getting findings from the research base into the hands of families when they are making decisions about early language development. There is a misconception in the medical and education fields that children need to learn spoken language in order to read. This is not true. Visual sign can activate the brain in the same place as oral language. Strong language foundation in any language is best. Strategies we’ve used for countering the misconceptions include sharing our work through research briefs, websites, and presentations. Through our translation lab, we are continually creating resources to translate the research base for families and teachers.
MM: Another challenge is the huge demand for more ASL and ASL/English content because there is limited capacity in the field. We are striving to expand the number and type of visual storybook apps to cover more subject areas and topics. Through collaboration with others, we are building a global digital library of a variety of visual books that teachers and families could access.
ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting early literacy development in young children?
MH & MM: Reading is fun, signing is fun, and the bridging of two languages in bilingual education is natural. And start early. The earlier we introduce both languages, the better. Language play is so important, and finding ways for all children to be creative with language helps develop the important skills that foster strong literacy skills.
And finally, family involvement is crucial. We encourage schools to engage families in a meaningful way, potentially providing ASL classes at family-friendly times, and encouraging language immersion at home. We’ve developed a VL2 parent package to address this, with helpful FAQs and tips for families on developing language and literacy.
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