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Interactive Storybook App Puts Research into Children's Hands

Hogan, Michelle

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000429449.54739.7d






As an adventurous little girl searches for the rare fruit of a special tree, researchers at Gallaudet University hope children and adults will start their own journey in bilingual language learning and love of reading.



“We wanted to translate our valuable research findings into useful, exciting, and real tangible educational resources for children to use directly—to hold, play, tap, and touch in their hands,” wrote Melissa Malzkuhn, Digital Innovation and Media Strategies Manager at Gallaudet's Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning, in an e-mail interview.

An all-deaf team led by Ms. Malzkuhn developed an interactive, bilingual app for the iPad that tells the tale of a curious girl's quest for the delicious fruit of the baobab tree, an original story first devised in American Sign Language (ASL).

The storybook was designed based on three overarching research findings, Ms. Malzkuhn explained:

  • Early exposure to bilingual models leads to healthy cognitive development for both languages.
  • It's important for literacy development, especially reading, for children to see vocabulary words used in context.
  • Visual phonology—which is found in the forms of finger spelling as well as in the hand shapes, movements, and rhythm in sign language—plays a key role in the cognitive processing of deaf and hard of hearing children.

With these findings in mind, the developers included in the app 170 video-embedded vocabulary words that are signed and finger spelled, allowing users to tap on a video during reading when they don't know a vocabulary word or aren't sure how it is signed. The app can be viewed in three different modes: watch, read, and learn.

“In the watch mode, you enjoy the ASL storytelling, like a cinematic experience with an animated background showing the action as depicted in the story,” Ms. Malzkuhn wrote. “This is perfect for very young readers who are starting to learn to read or simply want to gain the concept of the whole narrative. This also is a good starting point for parents or others who want to learn and practice ASL.”

In the read mode, the video-linked words are highlighted, and readers can tap them to activate the video. The learn mode is a glossary of all the video-activated vocabulary words.

Ms. Malzkuhn and her team are developing two other apps. “The Little Airplane That Could” is a creative adaption of the classic “The Little Engine That Could,” featuring a little plane trying to take two dogs to their dog show over a formidable mountain, she noted. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” takes a new look at a timeless fable with ASL storytelling and emotive paintings.

In addition to these two storybook apps, the team has plans in place for future research.

“We are currently developing an eye-tracking study using the Tobii eye-tracking system, and we are now collecting user characteristics through two other methods: data tracking that's already built in the app and a survey that we have completed with over 60 schools for the deaf in the nation,” Ms. Malzkuhn wrote. “After identifying the user characteristics, we will then move on to efficacy studies, but this won't start until 2014.”

The hope of this work is to inspire a love for stories and learning.

“That's the number one motivating factor behind this all, that research findings can be embedded successfully in a design that executes a narrative so well that children will enjoy reading and learning, leading them toward more stories,” Ms. Malzkuhn wrote. “At the heart of this all, don't we all love a good story?”

The app is available for $6.99 on the iTunes store:

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© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.