RISE (reading involves shared experience) - bilingual bimodal eBooks for adults to share with deaf children

What if every deaf child had a firm foundation in a first language at home and could build later literacy skills on that foundation?

Photo of Donna Jo Napoli
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Most good readers were read to as children. Not deaf children; adult and child often don't share a language. Mirus was a member of the National Theater of the Deaf. Napoli writes books for children. We met at a linguistics event and realized our skills were synergystic. We decided to enter the deaf child's home with a good signing model that parent and child could enjoy together, thus giving them the shared experience that would support the child's psycho-social and cognitive growth.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)

If you chose to self-identify your race, ethnicity, or origin, please share here: (the answer will not be public)

Gene is deaf. We follow the adage: Nothing (about us) without us.



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • District of Columbia

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Washington, DC and Swarthmore, PA

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Our ebooks are offered free on the Internet, so their impact is global, which is fitting, since the problem we address is global. Most ebooks are in ASL-English (North America). Others are in the sign language and text of various countries (Brazil, Fiji, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Nepal). Others are in progress (Germany, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Switzerland).

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

96% of deaf children are born into hearing families. Most are given cochlear implants (CI) and no signing. Many do not acquire a firm enough foundation in language from CI, and wind up severely delayed cognitively and psycho-socially. By the time they turn to signing, their brains are no longer plastic enough to acquire language fully. We put a fun signing model in the home so parent and child can get involved in and confident at signing.

Language is how we express our full humanity.  And it's how we gain information beyond what our senses can tell us about the immediate environment.  A firm foundation in a first language (which must be acquired before the sensitive period ends -- around 5 years old or earlier) supports not just many other cognitive activities (including being able to do mathematics and to read), but allows a person to communicate thoughts, make jokes, share fears and hopes, be eloquent, and on and on.  Deaf children born to hearing parents need explicit help acquiring language, and if that is given through engaging parent and child in a shared reading activity that is fun and stress-free, they will not only both progress in signing but their relationship will flower in a way that shows the deaf child that the parent accepts their deafness.  This leads to a confident identity -- and full membership in family and in humanity in general.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Child and Family Services
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

We've observed our ebooks in families and in deaf schools. Deaf children mimicked the videos starting as early as the second viewing. Then they re-told the stories to others, varying them to make their feelings about the plot obvious and to add details that personalized the stories. Most important, they had fun with the ebooks, claiming ownership of the ability to tell the stories in a sign language. Some parents mimicked the signing and used the ebooks as a fun way to learn some sign. They discussed the stories with their children, asking open-ended questions like, "If you were that dog, what would you do next?" Thus informational and inferential information was shared. The ebooks strengthened parent-child bond through language.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

From January to May 2016 we had over 8000 downloads. Many parents downloaded all, and tell us the ebooks improve their ASL. Quote: "I just want to thank you and the entire team for creating these wonderful books, and for your support and advocacy for ASL. I have been dismayed to discover how hard it is to find real support for ASL in the education system, but the internet has also become the platform for many fabulous resources, which we take full advantage of." We expect our impact to increase dramatically. First, our students develop professional skills and go on to make more ebooks. Second, we are now working with groups in many other countries to help them make ebooks. Third, we plan to train children in two deaf schools (in Philly and in DC) to act in future books, so that they can go on to make ebooks in the future and spread the word to others who might want to do the same.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1k - $10k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We have been producing our ebooks with our students as a joint course taught simultaneously at Gallaudet U and Swarthmore C. Our colleges have supported us by paying for our students to bus between the two campuses several times over the semester, buying us a set of iPads for classroom use, paying for film studio time. Each time we offer the course, we ask for these funds. So long as we are productive, we hope to receive them.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Many are concerned with the poor print-literacy achievements of deaf children and take the approach of explicit reading lessons. Our approach is unique in that we target from the very youngest children through the early elementary school years with a focus on fun. Parents who are instructed in how to read a book with their child feel worried -- each shared reading activity is a test -- if the child's attention wanders, both parent and child feel they've failed. Our ebooks are made to encourage emotional involvement -- to get parent and child having fun together, so they communicate freely.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

All deaf children should be taught a sign language as soon as deafness is detected (see the article in PEDIATRICS in June 2015). Once this message gets across to the medical professions and proper advice is given to parents, then the job of helping families learn to sign begins. We need public support of ASL classes for families of deaf children. If children succeed at speech (with a CI or hearing aid) and they sign, hurrah! They will be bilingual -- which is a cognitive plus. But so long as they sign, they will have language, and their cognitive health will be protected.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Dr. Poorna Kushalnagar. She taught in the Dept of Psychology at RIT at the time. (She is now teaching at Gallaudet University.)

Program Design Clarity

Anyone can download our ebooks online for free. To access the text, you must read the language. But all can enjoy comparing different sign languages telling the same story. So our beneficiary community is global. We make the books and let people know they are available. It takes many months to make a single book because we pay attention to the art of storytelling, so our signers have to revise several times. But this is how we want it; art takes time. We are creating art that will delight child and adult, so they will share ebook after ebook.

Community Leadership

We show early drafts at deaf schools and revise according to feedback from children and teachers. We let them know they are the experts here; they are the reason we are making these ebooks. It's their opinion about visual storytelling that matters. Too often deaf children (and adults) are told that signing is inferior to speech. We let them know all forms of language are equal citizens, and whether you speak or sign, you can be eloquent.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 0-1.5
  • 1.5 -3
  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

We have given presentations at 3 international conferences and published 3 journal articles to publicize our work. Our students continue to make ebooks. We have connected with people in several countries; we supply templates and production tips as they make their own ebooks. We plan to have deaf children be signers in future ebooks, so we can teach them visual storytelling techniques and they can become the next generation of ebook-producers.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Many people equate literacy with print literacy. But stories can be told in many modes. Our ebooks show children (and parents!) that sign literacy is valuable. They are delighted to find ebooks made precisely for them. They are excited to realize that they can become eloquent in a language that is natural to them. This increases their appreciation for their own language and for their own expressiveness. It builds self confidence and pride.

Leadership Story

Gene and Donna Jo entered into this as a project in the arts, with an educational goal. But our work has brought us face-to-face with people who are initially skeptical that sign languages are complex enough to deliver the full range of information that languages need to deliver. This attitude is harmful to signing deaf children; it assigns them to a somehow inferior level. So we are constantly trying new techniques to involve our readers, letting them marvel at the glories of sign languages, and helping strengthen each child's identity as a capable, eloquent, deaf person.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Swarthmore C. awarded the project a Constance Hungerford Faculty Support grant, a Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility grant, and a SEED (technology) grant in 2013. That helped us get started. Napoli got a Fulbright Fellowship in 2015 to lead workshops on sign ebooks in Siena, Italy.

Organization's Twitter Handle


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Join the conversation:

Photo of Christy Beighe-Byrne

This proposal definitely offered the reader a glimpse into the life of a parent raising a child who is deaf. The hearing community seems to take for granted the opportunity that a parent has the ability to talk, read to and connect verbally. This sounds like a service that is needed for this population.

Photo of Donna Jo Napoli

thank you, Christy.  thank you so much.
Parents of deaf children feel betrayed by the system -- everyone points their finger at the parents when the children have problems -- everyone says it's the parents job to make sure their children "talk" and "listen".  Well, it's not.  Deaf people can't hear.  Cochlear implants give them input that human brains were not evolved to process into language.  So the child with a cochlear implant needs a lot of training in order to decipher the electrical impulses the implant supplies -- and, basically, we simply don't know enough about how the brain works to be able to train the children successfully in most instances.  It is NOT the parents' fault.  But we don't even have to worry about "blame" if we simply make sure the children have a firm language foundation.  And sign language will give them that.  Then if they are lucky enough to be successful with a hearing aid or an implant, they'll be bilingual.  Yahoo!
All adults and children have the right to enjoy sharing books together -- no matter who is hearing and who is deaf.
Fun is not a frivolous goal.  Fun builds character and cements family bonds.
love, Donna Jo

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