Deaf Team at Gallaudet University Create New iPad Storybook App


Home / Deaf Team at Gallaudet University Create New iPad Storybook App

Sign-Language App Interview

The Baobab Glossary. Image by Gallaudet University

The Baobab Glossary. Image by Gallaudet University

Decoded Science contacted Melissa Malzkuhn, Digital Innovation and Media Strategies Manager for VL2, who led the development of this app, and Kristen Harmon, Ph.D., Professor of English at Gallaudet University, to ask for some additional details about the newly released app:

Decoded Science: What is the size of the deaf children population that would benefit from these books in language acquisition?

Dr. Harmon: The CDC would probably have the most up-to-date numbers on the incidence of deafness among the school age population. This is also intended for all visual learners and for all hearing students interested in learning about ASL.  

Decoded Science:  Who chose the subjects and vocabulary content of the stories?

Melissa Malzkuhn: As the project director, I had the final decision on subjects, content, and design approach. … We had a team craft The Baobab, and then after it was developed in ASL, we translated it to English and worked around the vocabularies, trying to fit in a balance of several challenging words for young readers, as well as introducing commonly used words. It’s important to note, all the ASL signs for this storybook app are content-based.  

Decoded Science:  ‘Baobab’ isn’t a common word, was word frequency taken into account in vocabulary choice?

Melissa Malzkuhn:  We liked putting “Baobab” in this story because while it’s not commonly known, it is something real, a tree that sits in a land far away. If you are from America, you’ll learn that the Baobab tree grows commonly in the southern part of Africa including Madagascar.  It didn’t change how we determined vocabulary.

Decoded Science:  What future research do you have planned?

Melissa Malzkuhn: We plan to do further studies from this app, including eye tracking and assessments, in particular how children use the gestural interface. If you play with the app, you will see that there are two different gesture controls to view vocabulary, one to tap and play, the default setting, and the other to touch and hold to view. We believe that by touching and holding the text to view, we encourage children to focus and we intend to do studies to see whether that is effective in learning.  We are very excited about the planned studies, which are now pending review with the Institutional Review Board, and will start in a few months.  

I’d like to add that we also hid an Easter egg in the app. (Hint: it has to do with the iPad accelerometer when in the read mode). We want children to discover something on their own.

Language Learning should be Fun

Melissa Malzkuhn also emphasized that the main goal of their app was for children to have fun while acquiring language and reading skills. The team tried to make the story imaginative, compelling, and educational – and also one that can be enjoyed by children and parents.

Research shows the benefits of acquiring a second language. If the team succeeds in improving language acquisition in deaf children through an entertaining app, the same principles and technology may be applicable to other second-languages as well; potentially improving cognitive abilities for a whole generation of kids.


Gallaudet University. Gallaudet research center releases first of series of three bilingual storybook apps. (2013). Accessed March 4, 2013.

Baker, Colin. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Multilingual Matters. (1993). Clevedon. 118-129.

Cook, V. Multi-Competence and the Learning of Many Languages. Language and Culture and Curriculum. (1995) Vol.8 No. 2.

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