“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melissa Herzig and Melissa Malzkuhn

Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2),
a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center at Gallaudet University


Melissa Herzig

Melissa Herzig

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.

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Melissa Malzkuhn

Melissa Malzkuhn

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:

  1. Watch Mode—the storyteller signs the story from beginning to end with images of the story in the background;
  2. 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
  3. 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.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Melissa Herzig
Posted by
PEN Associate Director and Strategic Focus Areas 4 Leader, Gallaudet University
Melissa Malzkuhn
Posted by
Digital Innovation and Media Strategies Manager, Gallaudet University

ED Welcomes OSERS Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett

Johnny Collett

Johnny Collett

The U.S. Department of Education welcomed Johnny Collett, the new U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), on Jan. 16, 2018.

Collett, a former high school special education teacher, has served as the program director of Special Education Outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and as the Kentucky state special education director. Collett has also served as an assistant division director and exceptional children consultant both at the Kentucky Department of Education.

Collett will lead OSERS towards its mission to improve early childhood, educational, and employment outcomes and raise expectations for all people with disabilities, their families, their communities, and the nation.

OSERS comprises the Office of Special Education Programs, which administers the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Rehabilitation Service Administration, which administers titles I, III, VI, and VII, as well as Section 509 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by title IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). OSERS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary administers a number of special projects.

Challenges and Barriers to Successful Employment for Man with Visual Impairment

By Louis Herrera

Louis Herrera

Louis Herrera

I was born with normal eyesight, and at the age of three and a half it was determined that I had a visual impairment. By the time that I was about seven years old, I had lost most of my eyesight.

At the inquisitive age of four, I wanted to know how things work and how a box could have different voices coming out of it. Learning about radios was the beginning of a path to a career in the technology industry.

At the age of 15 I built my first computer at a time when components were starting to decrease in size.

Jerry-Rigged IT Systems

In the early 80s, I went to work for a Fortune 500 aerospace company. I was hired as an “experimental employee” because they had never hired a blind person before.

Back then there was hardly any assistive technology to speak of. Several companies were starting to develop a screen reader for MS-DOS, but in many cases these screen readers only worked with some specific programs.

Some of us with visual impairments, in order to maintain our jobs, had to be creative and figure out a way to generate speech output.

For me, I used an old Votrax speech synthesizer like a printer driver. Every time I wanted to know what was on the screen, I executed a print command that would convert the data on the screen to a format that Votrax could read and then speak aloud in probably the worst speech synthesizer voice that one would want to hear. Nevertheless, I was able to get the job done.

As technology continued to evolve in terms of processing speed and better video graphics, it paved the way for the beginning of a graphical user interface, which today is commonly known as Windows. This progress made it difficult for the blind user to keep up with the new changes because the screen reader at that time could not accommodate off-the-shelf hardware and software improvements. Partially-sighted people had to modify video settings to accommodate their visual requirements.

Mobile Devices

As technology continued to move towards a touch screen environment with no real interaction solution for the blind consumer, it seemed as though the blind and individuals with various degrees of visual impairment would not be able to move away from conventional mechanical user interface technology like the flip phones with the tactile keypad.

Once multilayered technology was introduced to hardware and software developers, companies like Apple and Google started to develop a user interface that consisted of gestures and tapping concepts that allowed for the interaction and execution of commands and operations.

As part of their Universal Access initiative in 2007, Apple introduced VoiceOver, a screen reader output interface for the iPhone 3GS. Apple demonstrated that touch technology could be made accessible for everyone, and in today’s work environment mobile technology is something that we all depend on.

We still have to deal with third-party applications that have the potential to be used by the visually impaired community, but we can’t use these apps because the developers either are not familiar with accessibility coding guidelines or choose to make apps more visually appealing in the hope that screen readers will provide a level of accessibility for the blind or visually impaired user.

One of the first barriers that we had to deal with had to do with educating the developers on what text-to-speech technology is and how it differs from speech recognition. This has been a problem for a long time and will continue to be a problem that affects us because developers believe speech recognition programs meet our needs. The reality is that these programs make it possible to receive speech input, but they do not read what appears on the screen.

In the case of smartphones, many app developers feel that built-in artificial intelligence (AI) programs are the same as the devices’ built-in screen readers (Apple’s Siri vs. VoiceOver, Android’s Google Assistant vs. TalkBack, Windows’ Cortana vs. Narrator) and that the built-in AI programs are all the visually-impaired user requires. Unfortunately, these AI programs are voice-driven search services that will in most instances provide audio feedback, but they are not screen readers that function without internet connectivity.

The issues described above are quite common in the desktop environment as well. The best way to resolve this issue is by requiring developers to submit their applications to a level of accessibility compliance verification before an application is deployed.

Technology in the Workplace

While technology has come a very long way and has made it possible for the blind and visually impaired to be competitive employees, there are many road blocks to still overcome for equality in the workplace.

Even with all the new advances in technology and software development today, blind or visually impaired professionals are still encountering barriers with their ability to carry out their job duties.

For example, the idea of providing PDF file attachments so that anyone, regardless of the platform being used, should be able to open the file can sometimes be an issue for some of us that use screen readers or screen magnification tools.

Often because of company policy, we are issued a computer equipped with a common commercially-available PDF reader, which does not do well making PDF images accessible. Some companies, like my employer, have smart printers/copiers that can scan a document and generate a PDF image that is not easily converted to text that can be read by the screen reader. Sometimes it is easier to print the image file and then use an optical character recognition tool to scan and read it. This is time consuming and a waste of paper.

Another on-the-job issue that we face is a lack of quality interaction and support with Information Technology (IT). While the IT staff is able to maintain and support staff using the general issued computers and software, they often don’t have the knowledge or experience to install, configure and maintain the adaptive technology.

If the IT specialist installs the specialized adaptive software, many times they do not install it correctly causing the program to fail to operate properly or at all due to the lack of the resource requirements needed for the software to run efficiently.

This is like keeping a car engine pristine with four flat tires.

In many cases, permission to update the software as needed is denied due to company policies, which leaves the assistive technology unable to keep up with the many updates and changes that the operating system and other programs the IT department regularly update to keep the hardware and software running at peak performance.

Support in the Workplace

My previous job as well as other companies will hire an assistive technology specialist to install the needed software and provide specialized scripting for the software to run on the company created software.

The software runs great until the first major update the IT specialist pushes to all computers on the network. This can affect scripting performance that was created so that the disabled user could fulfill his/her job. Often the assistive technology user has to make due with inadequate software accommodations until the company will bring in the assistive technology specialist again at a substantial fee to reinstall the scripts or create new ones if needed.

These costs and roadblocks could be minimized if employers include the employee who will be using the assistive technology so that he or she can provide input during the discussion and planning phase up to the point that it gets delivered and installed.

Developing and implementing all-inclusive collaborative meetings to address assistive technology needs will yield a more positive interactive communication and success among all participants.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

My story: The Benefits of Working with Agencies like the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind

Odyssey Sea

Odyssey Sea

By Odyssey Sea

Getting a job right after I graduated was a very exciting and scary experience. Luckily, I had Washington State Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) staff to help me along the way because without their help, experiencing new things would have been difficult. At first, I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. Luckily DSB staff stepped in and helped me figure out some things. I am getting job experiences with different companies like the Museum of Flight and at PAVE, a nonprofit that assists young adults like me. PAVE also assists parents, families and anyone connected to a child, youth or young adult with disabilities.

Reasonable accommodations were part of this experience. Some of the new experiences that worked for me were asking for accommodations such as getting a larger keyboard so it would be easier to see and type. Another accommodation I had was using an iPad to use the speech to text feature. This helps me get my thoughts in order instead of typing them out.

DSB also helped me get situated to find the right resources such as how to use shuttle services. It took a while to fill out all the paperwork but in the end, it was very simple to figure out and the wait was worth it.

They have helped me find job experiences which have helped me get to the job and do the work, stay busy and get ready for the real world.

I encourage you to try to get the help from agencies like the DSB or any other agency that will help you get a job. They will guide you all along the way!


Background on YES Programs that Assisted Odyssey

Programmatic Information:

Youth Employment Solutions (YES) II is a six-week program in Seattle, Wash., designed to provide valuable work experience and learning to high school students, age 16 through high school graduation. Accepted candidates are provided five weeks of paid work experience at internships created for them in cooperation with Seattle-area businesses. Positions are assigned to students based on their interests, abilities, and experience.

YES II is a residential living experience that provides students the opportunity to refine their daily living skills, such as planning, purchasing and preparing meals, and maintaining their own personal effects and common living quarters at the YES residence. Additionally, students learn skills in using public transportation techniques for travel to worksites. They are encouraged to participate in community social and recreational activities.

Washington State Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) provides training, counselling, and support to help Washington residents of all ages, who are blind or visually impaired, pursue employment, education, and independent living. Our goal is “Inclusion, Independence, and Economic Vitality for People with Visual Disabilities.”


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

A Vocational Rehabilitation Success Story: Joseph Cali

Note: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Joseph

Joseph Cali

The New Jersey Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS), which receives Federal funding from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services’ Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), is pleased to share Joseph’s success story in honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).


Following an automobile accident in 2006 resulting in paralysis, Joseph spent several months in physical therapy and rehabilitation and now uses a motorized wheelchair. Joseph went on to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling in 2014—both from Rutgers University. Joseph also acquired specialized certificates in physical rehabilitation, supervision, and management.

When Joseph connected with the Vocational Rehabilitation program at DVRS, he was working part-time as an Adjunct Professor at Brookdale Community College. Joseph sought assistance from DVRS with modifying his van to independently travel to work and obtaining full-time employment. With the support of DVRS, Joseph took part in a pre-driver and behind-the-wheel driving evaluation to assess his driving needs. DVRS also supported the funding of modifications to Joseph’s van along with the necessary driving instruction.

On the employment front, DVRS certified Joseph as eligible for the Schedule A hiring authority with the federal government. After attending a federal job fair, Joseph interviewed with the Social Security Administration, who hired Joseph as a Claims Adjuster in Neptune, N.J. Joseph now works full-time and reports being satisfied with his career path and the services he received from DVRS. A special congratulations to Joseph who recently shared that he is engaged and will be getting married soon!

For more information about DVRS, please visit New Jersey’s Career Connections.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Chris Pope
Posted by
WIOA Implementation Team Facilitator Rehabilitation Services Administration U.S. Department of Education

Advocacy: The Foundation for My Success

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Carla Priest

Carla Priest

Carly Priest is a rising senior at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she studies history and English. In her free time she dives for the Swimming and Diving Team, works in a local kindergarten, and writes for the school newspaper. Carly attends the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) conference as a representative for Eye to Eye, where she has served as a mentor, intern, camp counselor and Diplomat. 


Everyone has a different path to figuring out who they are. My own journey is far from over!  As a senior in college, I continue to learn about myself every day, but the ability to advocate for the resources I need continues to make all the difference. I share my story as a different learner to remind others who struggle with learning and attention issues, as I do, that success is not only possible, but critical. In learning differently, we have something unique and important to offer the world.

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I was seen as the “wacky” kid. Even though I was the “wacky” kid who had difficulty with spelling and a hard time following sequential instructions, no one suspected a learning disability because I loved to learn. Even with my love for learning, thinking back on my early education, I vividly recall feeling hopeless in the classroom. I had no words to communicate how I struggled!

My elementary school was a small public charter school that centered on a nature-based education model. The school’s kinesthetic and experiential approach to education allowed me to learn with my body, oftentimes outdoors. This emphasis on learning in motion, along with alternative instructional methods, ultimately mitigated my learning challenges enough to get by until high school.

Although mostly unnoticed through elementary school, my learning differences became apparent when I transitioned into a traditional high school. Within the first few months, my English teacher, sensing something was wrong, suggested we look deeper into what was going on. Evaluations revealed my visual processing disorder as well as attention deficit. It was good to finally have a diagnosis, but as I quickly realized, finally having a “name” for the difficulties I had always experienced was only the first step in the ongoing journey. Even though my diagnosis meant I suddenly received several types of accommodations, I still didn’t understand why I had accommodations, how they would help me, or when I should use them. I still needed to figure out what kind of tools would allow me to succeed.

Things dramatically changed for me in high school once I became involved in mentoring a younger student through Eye to Eye. Eye to Eye is a nonprofit, art-based mentoring program for students with learning and attention issues. Each art project focuses on developing students’ self-esteem, self-advocacy skills, and helping them understand how they learn and what they need to succeed.

More than anything, mentoring with Eye to Eye taught me so much more about myself. I learned that different accommodations could be helpful in different situations. I started to understand that extended time on tests was important, but in my case, it was far more important to have a testing environment with limited distractions. I looked for strong allies at school and found them. When I realized I processed information much better if my body was in motion, a psychology teacher encouraged me to walk around the back of the classroom during lectures, and would toss me baseballs to keep me focused and engaged in class. With these newfound allies, I was able to explore new ways of learning. With newfound confidence, I embraced my capacity to think differently, and began to explain to others what my “labels” meant. If I could self-advocate, success in college would not only be possible, but (as my allies assured me) inevitable.

Research shows that self-awareness and self-understanding are keys to success for young adults with learning and attention issues. A Student Voices study by the National Center for Learning Disabilities shows that young adults with learning and attention issues who are successful after high school have three things in common: a supportive home life, a strong sense of self-confidence, and a strong connection to friends and community. My community of support and allies, including my family, Eye to Eye, and my teachers, helped me develop and grow in these areas.

Now that I am in college, advocating for myself has become more important than ever. I speak to each professor about which accommodations I need and when I’ll need them. I am able to customize learning in a way that works for me. In addition to college, I have even had opportunities get involved in advocacy on a larger scale through an internship with the U.S. Department of Education as well as working with the National Center for Learning Disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy and personalized learning.

As I began to understand how I learned differently and developed the ability to communicate those differences to others, I laid a foundation for my future. Every learner should have the same opportunity to understand how they learn differently and embrace those differences. If we do not help our students access the resources they need, we will lose out on the intelligence, creativity, and passion of so many students with learning and attention issues who fail to see their future as one full of opportunities for success.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Carla Priest
Posted by
A student at College of the Holy Cross and a Diplomat with Eye to Eye

Our Highs are Higher

Carrie Woodcock and her family posing in front of a lovely rural stream

Carrie Woodcock and family

Carrie Woodcock is director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.


This summer, I attended a conference alongside doctors, nurses, physician assistants, therapists and other medical professionals, all of whom work with children with special healthcare needs and disabilities. I was there to represent parent voices as the director of the Maine Parent Federation, an OSEP-funded Parent Information Center. I am a big supporter of, and was very excited for, the keynote presenter that day, Dr. Brian Skotko.

Dr. Skotko is a genetic specialist and co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Down Syndrome Program. He has also gone on to facilitate the creation of many such clinical programs throughout Massachusetts. I was first introduced to him at the annual Massachusetts Down Syndrome Conference. I was so impressed with our first encounter that now, whenever I attend events at which he’s speaking, I always attend his sessions—regardless of their subject matter—and  always walk away having learned something new.

At the conference we attended this summer, Dr. Skotko discussed the impact of a Down syndrome diagnosis on the immediate family. He and his staff had conducted some of the first surveys of parents, siblings and individuals with Down syndrome. To say that I was thrilled that a physician and sibling of an individual with Down syndrome himself took this opportunity to raise awareness for family engagement, a crucial subject many times overlooked by medical professionals, was an understatement. His data were brought to life by his personal experiences, and were overwhelmingly positive. They indicated that a large majority of surveyed immediate family members love and are proud of their family member with Down syndrome.

During a question and answer period following the presentation, a professional in the front of the room challenged some of the data Dr. Skotko had presented. She brought to his attention that perhaps the data were positively skewed because parents and family members would have guilt associated with speaking negatively about their experiences and, ultimately, their own family member. Well, I am not one to hold my tongue, but I did have to pause to ensure I reigned in my “mommy” emotions and represented the parent voice in an assertive yet positive way.

In that moment, memories from my 10 years of being a mom to my precious gift rushed back. Some of the first feelings to come back to me were those that I have been ashamed to admit as a parent. For example, the diagnosis at my daughter’s birth had me thinking that I would always be a parent to a child living at home. The hours in the hospital enduring her open heart surgeries had brought me emotionally to my knees, wishing my child was healthy. I recalled the times her anxiety caused bathroom accidents in public places, which had me wishing for normalcy. Listening to friends talk about their gifted and talented children had me feeling like an outsider. I remember feeling sad because the birthday party and play date invites were few and far between, if at all. For a second I thought that maybe this woman was right; maybe I do sugar coat my family’s reality because I am too ashamed to admit otherwise.

But in the next moment, I saw Sami’s hand reaching for my mom’s face, days after open heart surgery. This was the first expression of her personality shining through. I remembered my toddler son translating her words and being so proud that he was the only one who could understand her. We celebrated her first everything and then celebrated her first everything all over again when she regained a lost skill. I recalled the way that, no matter where we are, she makes people smile, no matter what kind of day they may be having. And the oh-so-many little things in life I would have completely overlooked were it not for her.

I gathered my thoughts, raised my hand, and explained this concept to the group. In fact, the professional that asked the question was right; the challenges are hard and often. We do have doubts about our ability to parent and yes, horrifyingly enough, we will ask “why me?”

However, we celebrate and appreciate all that is positive. We do this in a way that is bigger than any outsider could know, and we do it time and time again. The impact has been so positive—my family completely changed for the better the moment Sami came into our lives. In addition to the daily joy we experience with her, all of us are dedicated to her cause, and the cause of others. My professional career has shifted from sales and marketing to assisting families with their own special loved ones. My husband, who was and still is a physical education teacher, has brought her spirit to the way he interacts with his students, including those with special needs. Lastly, but perhaps my proudest family accomplishment, is how Sami refers to her 13-year-old brother as her hero. No matter the circumstance, he shows no embarrassment towards her, only love and admiration.

I summed up my comments that afternoon, and I’ll leave the same simple thought for you here. “You see, our lows may be lower at times, but our highs are more often, and they are always so much higher. We wouldn’t dream of trading it for anything!”


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Carrie Woodcock and daughter, Sami.
Posted by
Director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.

Helping Youth Meet Their PROMISE

PROMISE: Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income

What is PROMISE?

Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) is a five-year research project that advances employment and postsecondary education outcomes for 14–16 year old youth who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). PROMISE began October 1, 2013 and will continue until September 30, 2018. The program is an interagency collaboration of the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Social Security Administration. Under this competitive grant program, state agencies have partnered to develop and implement model demonstration projects (MDPs) that provide coordinated services and supports designed to improve the education and career outcomes of children with disabilities receiving SSI, including services and supports to their families.

2017 represents the fourth year of the projects (the first year was primarily dedicated to recruitment and enrollment). Thanks to the ongoing efforts to support families and youth, we look forward to hearing about bright future outcomes for the thousands of youth and families being served by PROMISE.

Further information is available at the PROMISE TA Center:

PROMISE TA Center logo

 

PROMISE Success Stories

Model Demonstration Project Success Stories

The PROMISE MDPs were created to facilitate a positive impact on long-term employment and educational outcomes by reducing reliance on SSI, providing better outcomes for adults, and improved service delivery by states for youth and families receiving SSI. The six MDPs are comprised of 11 states:

Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), projects are coordinating with vocational rehabilitation agencies so that youth are receiving pre-employment transition services, to include paid employment. By April 30, 2016, the MDPs recruited a total of 13,444 youth and their families with half of them receiving intervention services targeted around improving outcomes in employment and postsecondary education.

Personal PROMISE Success Stories

Cody—a Youth with Promise

Wisconsin PROMISE

Cody is excelling as a student at Burlington High School and employee at McDonalds. He plays video games, rides bike, and is learning to drive and weld. His goal is to be a welder after college. Cody was born with a brain tumor and has just one hand, but that’s not stopping him.

He’s a youth with Promise, on a journey to achieve his personal, educational, and career goals.

Watch Cody’s story on YouTube.

Xavi’s Story: Youth with Promise

Wisconsin PROMISE

She’s like most #teenagers… she hangs with her cats, dances with her friends, and loves Criminal Minds. She’s also going to have a lung removed. She’s a youth with Wisconsin Promise, on a journey to achieve her personal, educational, and career goals. Xavi shares her dreams, challenges, and the steps she’s taking with Wisconsin Promise to plan for her future.

Watch Xavi’s story on YouTube.

Dorian Shavis—A Firm Foundation

Arkansas PROMISE

As someone who expressed an interest in architecture, one of the Arkansas PROMISE youth participants expressed his desire to work at an architectural firm. Working with the local workforce board, Arkansas PROMISE staff set up an interview with a local architectural firm and secured an internship that resulted in the PROMISE youth and the firm staff learning from one another.

Watch Dorian’s story on YouTube.

More PROMISE Success Stories

You can find many more PROMISE success stories at:


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Lillian Durán,
 National Center on Improving Literacy

Lillian Durán standing in front of a school

Lillian Durán

Lillian Durán, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. Her research is focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán leads National Center on Improving Literacy’s (NCIL) work on creating and translating resources for DLLs, and provides expertise on the topic of recommended practices in assessment and intervention with young DLLs with and without identified disabilities. Prior to Dr. Durán’s work in higher education she worked for 9 years as an early childhood special education teacher. 


ED:  How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?

Lillian:  I started my career as an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I was hired without special education licensure to teach a self-contained special education preschool class that was deemed “cross-categorical,” meaning the children all had disabilities but the type of disability varied by child. Around this same time I enrolled in a master’s program at George Washington University. I eventually became licensed and graduated with a degree in ECSE.

My next job was working with an early intervention home visiting program in rural Minnesota. We worked in home settings with infants and toddlers with identified disabilities, birth to age three, and their families. Many of the families were native Spanish speakers. Through this work, I started to become very interested in young dual language learners (DLLs). I grew up in a multi-lingual house. My mother was German and father Mexican, so I grew up learning and speaking 3 different languages and always saw the value in being multi-lingual.

I was surprised at the number of Spanish speakers in rural Minnesota. Many were agricultural workers and in some of these rural districts 30–50% of the families were Latino. I started helping these rural school districts by conducting Spanish language assessments, which piqued my interest in DLL assessments and literacy. I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program and working with Scott McConnell, at the University of Minnesota, who developed the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) to measure preschool literacy. The focus of my doctoral work was on

  1. assessment and intervention with DLLs whose home language was Spanish and
  2. second language acquisition.

I have been an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Special Education Department for the past two years and last year had the opportunity to join NCIL.

ED:  What efforts have you and NCIL been involved in to improve the quality of early learning and early literacy?

Lillian: NCIL’s efforts in early learning are emerging. Our first year has really focused on laying the groundwork. We have been busy:

  1. building our repository of existing resources,
  2. developing professional development materials for educators and families around evidence-based instruction, screening, and assessment for students with literacy related disabilities including dyslexia, and
  3. forming partnerships with key stakeholders and audiences.

NCIL has a number of activities planned this October to raise awareness and improve understanding of dyslexia. I was specifically brought onto the NCIL team because of my expertise in screening and progress monitoring, especially for young DLLs. I am also a co-principal investigator for a research grant, funded by ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, focused on developing a Spanish version of the IGDIs for both screening and progress monitoring. This research and expertise will be wrapped into NCIL’s body of work.

In the second year of NCIL, we will focus more intentionally on early learning, particularly screening and assessment tools.  We are forming a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop a simple tool that pediatricians can use to identify risk for reading-related disorders. We are excited to begin work with preschools, including building partnerships with existing Head Start and statewide Pre-K programs that are interested in improving early literacy screening, monitoring, and instruction. I have an early childhood background and it is my role on the NCIL team to ensure we are thinking about how to translate our work so it is appropriate for younger children and the various early learning programs they participate in. Working in an elementary school or classroom can be very different than working in an early learning program. There can be so much variability across different early learning programs—the education level and expertise of the teacher, whether or not they implement a specific curriculum, the overall quality of the program, and much more. You really need to understand the program and meet them somewhere in the middle if you want to be successful in helping them improve their instructional quality and contributions to early literacy. Our specific early learning work scope is still in development, but we are hoping to identify local Head Start and Pre-K programs to partner with and, within these programs, to establish regular early literacy screenings. We also hope to teach evidence-based intervention strategies to teachers within the programs so that once children are identified there is actually a system of targeted and systematic instruction in place to meet their identified needs.

ED:  What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Lillian: One major challenge is helping practitioners and administrators understand the systematic need for universal screening. Universal screening isn’t just about identifying children who may have a developmental delay or disability; it is also about identifying the instructional needs of all children. We need to do a better job getting this message across.

Related to this is figuring out how we train and support teachers to differentiate instruction. Once you do know where the kids are functioning (e.g., in a multi-tiered system of support, once you know which tier level the kids are), what do you do? How do you differentiate instruction based on children’s instructional needs? This is the research-to-practice challenge. Through research we can identify instructional approaches to meet the needs of various children, but translating these practices into real classrooms and early learning programs isn’t always easy. We need to understand the context and build strong partnerships with programs. We need to understand what programs are currently doing to see how the research-based practices can be embedded. For example, do programs have enough staffing to support the implementation of new instructional approaches? Do programs have an existing curriculum that these practices align with?  We need more people that are focused on this challenge—getting evidence-based practices into the hands of people working with children. I believe what’s crucial to this is researchers taking time to roll up their sleeves and get into classrooms, working directly with practitioners. This allows researchers to partner with programs to work through the practical challenges that always come up.

The final challenge I’ll mention is the need to address and improve the overall quality of early learning programs. I worked with migrant Head Start programs in Utah to implement a semi-scripted curriculum focused on early literacy and language. We found that with the right support they were able to easily implement this early literacy curriculum, and then found that it changed teachers’ practice throughout the day (not just when they were implementing the curriculum). The teachers were hungry for guidance and support on how best to help their children. Again, the message here is that researchers need to become more embedded in the classroom, conducting more focused observations of how what they’ve developed could be implemented in different classrooms and programs. A researcher’s work isn’t done after developing a product or intervention; this is just the beginning. The next critical step is figuring out what support is needed for the product or intervention to actually be translated into daily practice on a large enough scale to actually make a difference.

ED:  What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting literacy development in young DLLs?

Lillian: My first bit of advice is to understand your own attitudes toward DLLs. This can be tough, but thinking from a strengths-based model is much more effective than from a deficit model, where you primarily think of the kids as not knowing English. Bilingualism is an asset and not a deficit. If we attend to children’s home language in addition to English when it comes to assessment and intervention, we will have a better picture to understand a child’s language and literacy development. This provides tremendous information when determining whether there is a language or literacy delay or disability. Additionally, it is important to learn more about bilingual development. What may be considered a concern with regards to monolingual development may actually be typical when children are developing two or more languages. Finally, seek out bilingual resources and hire bilingual staff.  And simply hiring bilingual staff is only the first step—they need support and training in order to implement evidence-based interventions. I’ve been in many preschool programs where there is a lack of attention to what the bilingual staff are doing. They need:

  1. training about language development, assessment, and interventions and
  2. curriculum and supports in place to guide their instructional practices.

Overall, the big frame is prevention. We need to screen and monitor the progress of all young children and ensure the instructional approaches we are using with young DLLs are meaningful and effective. By intervening early, we will hopefully prevent reading problems from developing down the road. Early intervention is a cornerstone in preventing reading difficulties and I hope to make that a key focus of NCIL. A house is only as solid as the foundation.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Words of Wisdom

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jordon Bills

Jordon Bills

Jordan Bills, M.A., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) at Washington Speech in Fairfax, Virginia. She works with children of all ages with various speech, language, and feeding disorders. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and master’s degree from the George Washington University. You can read more about Jordan’s credentials and accomplishments on the Washington Speech staff page.


Why did you become a speech-language pathologist (SLP)?

In high school, I volunteered at a center for blind and visually impaired children for three summers. I worked side-by-side with the speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists at the center. The work they did was incredible and I knew this is what I wanted to do! One child in particular had a large impact on me. He was three years old and unable to respond to his name. By the end of our summer together, he was not only turning toward others when they said his name but also responding to their greeting. I’ll never forget the feeling when I heard him say, “Hi, Jordan!” In that moment, I understood the power of communication. Communication is what connects us to one another. It’s what makes our lives so beautiful! I feel lucky to spend my days helping children communicate more effectively.

Why do you enjoy working with children with Down syndrome?

As a pediatric SLP, I have the privilege of working with children with Down syndrome across their lifespans. This is one of my favorite populations to work with because of the great potential for growth. Every milestone is celebrated, even the small ones, as each child works so hard to develop their speech and language skills. Every child with Down syndrome has unique strengths and interests, which I use to support the development of new skills. I have targeted bilabial sounds /b, p, m/ in functional phrases while playing basketball; used a child’s desire for hugs to teach expanded question forms (Can I have a hug?); and taught subject-verb-object sentences using Disney characters.

With younger children, I spend a lot of time playing on the floor. Children tend to learn best through repeated experiences with real objects and situations. Play is their vehicle for learning. As they enter elementary school, our sessions include more structured tasks focusing on the skills they need to participate fully in the classroom and to interact with friends. My goal for all of my clients with Down syndrome is for them to be able to effectively communicate with friends, family, and professionals across environments. My hope is that improved communication will allow them to experience the joys in life that come from making connections with others.

One of my favorite events is the annual Buddy Walk in Northern Virginia. Attending this event gives me the opportunity to see some of my patients outside of the therapy room. I love watching them with their families and friends participating in a community event. It reminds me of why I love what I do!

What are some tips that you have for families with children with Down syndrome?

Parents and other caregivers are the primary communication partners in a young child’s life. Therefore, parents play a critical role in helping their children develop speech and language skills. Below are some strategies for families to support communication development from birth through early elementary school.

Strategies for Birth to First Word Users

  • Focus on pre-linguistic skills. These are skills a child needs to master before words emerge. They include: joint or shared attention, social referencing (checking parents’ facial expressions to understand how to react appropriately in new situations), turn taking, pointing, sustained engagement and attention, and imitation.
  • Use language stimulation techniques in everyday activities to help your child develop his/her understanding and use of new vocabulary words. Techniques include: self-talk, parallel talk, sentence completions, choices, and communication temptations (actions you can take to set up the environment to tempt your child to communicate with you).
  • Consider a Total Communication This evidence-based approach incorporates speech, manual signs, gestures, pictures, and/or a speech-generating device to help children communicate as effectively as possible while developing verbal speech. This approach can reduce frustration and support long-term vocabulary development.
  • Familiarize yourself with the stages of play. Challenge your child to engage in symbolic and early pretend play.
  • When teaching new words, use real objects or pictures of real objects. Incorporate vocabulary learning into your daily activates.
  • Don’t forget about your child’s oral-motor and feeding skills. Children with Down syndrome are at risk for feeding difficulties. A certified speech-language pathologist can evaluate your child and develop an individualized treatment program to help him/her improve oral-motor skills for feeding.

Beyond First Words: Learning to Combine

  • Research shows children begin to combine words when they reach a single word vocabulary of around 50 words. Ensure your child has a variety of single words (e.g. nouns, verbs, pronouns, social words, adjectives) he or she can use to combine. Keep a record of the words your child uses to monitor vocabulary growth.
  • Continue to build your child’s vocabulary during play and daily routines. Teach 2-3 word combinations and encourage imitation. Children with Down syndrome benefit from repeated experiences with the same activities and vocabulary.
  • Use expansions (adding one word to what your child says) to model phrases. Do this often! It will likely take many repetitions before your child imitates your expanded phrase.
  • Try a pacing board to help your child learn to combine words. Pacing boards provide a visual and tactile cue to remind your child to use two words. They are helpful for children with Down syndrome given their strengths in visual learning. A simple pacing board can be two large dots on a piece of cardboard or thick paper. Point to the first dot and say the first word, then point to the second dot and say the second word.
  • Read often! Try books with repetitive phrases your child can learn and eventually fill in.

Early School Age

  • As your child’s vocabulary and utterance length increases, speech intelligibility often becomes a main concern. Again, a pacing board can be a useful tool. This time, your focus will be on teaching your child to speak slowly and producing each word deliberately while touching one dot on your pacing board. Speaking with a slowed rate can help improve your child’s overall intelligibility.
  • In speech therapy, your child may be working on specific speech sounds or patterns of sounds. Work closely with your child’s speech-language pathologist to continue practice at home. To increase your child’s motivation, incorporate target sounds into highly meaningful words. For example, if your child is working on the /k/ sound, “cookie” and “car” may be very motivating words. Daily practice is key!
  • Use recasts to help your child develop appropriate grammar. Grammatical recasts are when you take your child’s utterance and repeat it using adult grammar. For example, if your child says, “dog eat,” you would say, “Yes, the dog is eating.”
  • Consider AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) to supplement verbal speech. This may increase your child’s ability to be understood, participate in class, and engage socially. It may also decrease frustration.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.