Interpreting children's stories: A workshop

David Bar-Tzur

Created 8/13/2001, links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

child signer with big eyes

Materials needed by students:
One blank videotape (VT) and copies of the handouts mentioned below.

Materials needed by teacher:
3 VTRs (if possible) and 1 VCR;
audiotapes: children's stories made from the scripts;
videotapes: children's stories (specific ones are suggested on the last page of this handout);
handouts: this article itself, one copy of scripts for each student and enough copies of the Eng->ASL feedback sheets and ASL->Eng feedback sheets for all the stories the students will give feedback on.


Workshop summary

I will model and you will practice interpreting children's stories from English to ASL and ASL to English. We will concentrate on conveying meaning appropriately to Deaf children in the K-12 environment. Conveying meaning means breaking free of the English words used and choosing signs that fit the child's language in terms of (1) placement on the English-ASL continuum, (2) understanding the extent the child understands hearing culture and Deaf culture and using this in the perspective you choose, and (3) the age of the child. Placement on the English-ASL continuum: How can you determine what the consumer needs? Ask this and all following questions to the class and write the answers on board. What things will make a Deaf person more to one side or the other on this continuum? Understanding hearing and Deaf culture: Deaf people do not the same access to information that we have. Much of what we know is overheard. What are some of the sources of our knowledge? How does this differ for Deaf people? What things may make up for this? The age of the child: We shall see that this will profoundly affect our understanding of young children who are signing to us, but for now let's think about how we will tell a story differently to children of different ages. How would you tell a story differently in English to a 5 year old than you would to a 15 year old? How will this apply to how we sign to these different age groups?

It is not unusual for things to be read aloud in K-12 and this sometimes happens in post-secondary and even in formal presentations such as professional conferences. Written language and spoken language are actually structured differently. In the lower grades, written English is more like children's spoken English and the way that adults would tell a story to children. As the age increases, the language becomes less like spoken English and more like a text book. There is also less of a story-like quality to the writing, but as we shall see, some of the ASL features that make for a good story can also be used even in the most abstract texts. The features we shall concentrate on are: use of space, classifiers, clarifying cultural assumptions (cultural mediation), characterization, role shift, and eye gaze. We will discuss what these term mean, I will model them in storytelling, and you will have a chance to practice them and receive feedback from myself and your peers.

Use of space: Perhaps the least developed and yet the most important part of any young interpreter's work is use of space. Nothing makes an interpretation more muddled than putting everything in one place, which ends up being nowhere. Imagine if you listened to a lecture where ever noun is mentioned only once and from then on is replaced by it and you start to get a feel for what the Deaf consumer is experiencing. The first time you hear a noun, that it seems will be referred to several times, put it somewhere. If this is the first thing to be spatialized during this new topic, put it on your dominant side (right if you're right-handed, left if you're left.) Then the next important noun will go on your left. If a third thing is mentioned it can go in the center. It should become comfortable for you, as you become more experienced, to add two more things between these three for a total of five spaces. (Make overhead of Cokely-Baker pages on use of space.)

In this way you can point to the place where you spatialized this thing instead of having to mention it repeatedly, either by sign or fingerspelling. This will reduce the amount of fingerspelling necessary as well as making your sign more economical, that is, you won't have to use so many signs to get across the same idea. This will be kinder to your body in terms of injury as well as easier on the Deaf person's eyes. The eye, which is a muscle, can not take in as much information as the ear, which processes things through vibration of the cilia, and does not tire easily. ASL developed in such a way that it is possible to use the whole body and the space around it to convey information rather than simply depending on constantly moving hands. This space can also have things done to it, or show that the thing in that space is doing something to another space or is related to it in some way. "My mother told my father that I shouldn't stay in New York. I should move to Chicago." Show without spatialization (4 things in one place: mother, father, New York, and Chicago) and then show the same sentence with spatialization.

Classifiers: Much can be said about classifiers, but for our purposes, let's us review some of the handshapes. 3-CL for vehicles (car, boats, bicycles), V:-CL for an animal or seated human, V-CL for a person (or animal) that is standing, (2h)F-CL for thin tubular things (kitchen pipes, thin columns, test tubes), (2h)C-CL for thicker tubular things (water mains, Grecian columns, the Transatlantic Cable), (2h)B-CL for a pile of papers, (2h)G>bO-CL to show a tiny square, 1outline-CL to draw the shape of something, a lens [(2h) 1outline-CL'side view of convex lens'], or a polygon [(2h) outline'draw trapezoid'], (2h)5:-CL to show an audience or large group of standing animals, a moving herd of animals, (2h)5wg-CL to show the movement of animals, people or fluid, and (2h)5wg-CL to show the progress of a forest fire. For more information on classifiers, see Use of classifiers in technical discourse.

Clarifying cultural assumptions (cultural mediation): What makes Deaf and Hearing culture different? (Sound, access to information from media, passersby, parents, relatives, education.) In what sorts of ways do Hearing and Deaf culture differ? (Closeness through Deafness rather than religion, nationality, similar work. Attentiveness to visual clues rather than auditory ones. Possible disinterest in music.) So what kinds of things will we need to mediate?

Characterization: Become the character, such as the innocent expression and body language of a little boy, then switch to the narrator (eye gaze forward to address the audience), and then the stern expression and body language of an evil step-mother. Personification: For example, "particles of the same charge don't want to remain close together and will spread out on a conduction sheet until they are distributed evenly". Particles can't "want" anything but it is nevertheless acceptable to say something like this. Show what the particle sentence would look like in ASL. In ASL, theories that "disagree" with one another can actually be spatialized and "argue" with one another.

Eye gaze: It is important to have eye gaze agreement with spatialization. In less formal settings and close proximity, the spatialization may happen with eye gaze only. For directional verbs (you-GIVE-TO-me, me-GIVE-TO-you, he-GIVE-TO-her) the eye gaze should follow the flow of the action. For distributive aspect (INFORM"all", INFORM"each"), the eyes should sweep across for "all" and rest on the direct objects individually for "each". "all" means the sign is swept towards the dominant side, as if performing the action for everyone (on everything) at the same time, while "each" means the sign is repeated while moving towards the dominant side. Finally for direct discourse, where a conversation is going on, not only should there be torso twisting but also the person quoted should be gazing from their spatialized location to that of the person/people s/he is speaking to. Deaf people do check in with their audience from time to time to monitor for comprehension and indirect discourse ("My son told me he was hungry" as opposed to "My son said, 'I'm hungry'") is rarely used in ASL.

Role shift: When people are spatialized as in the previous example, we can now take advantage of this fact and won't have to say the annoying "he said. . . she said" or as young people like to say nowadays, "he goes. . . she goes". This is accomplished by turning your head as if you were standing in the place you have spatialized that person. In English we often use indirect discourse: "My friend asked me why I had missed class on Tuesday, and I told her that I was sick. When she asked me why I hadn't told her that I wouldn't be there to do the presentation with her, I said that I was just too ill to contact her." The direct discourse for this would be: "My friend asked me, Why did you miss class on Tuesday?" I said, "Because I was sick.' She said, Why didn't you tell me that you were sick?' I replied, Because I was just too ill to contact you.'" Notice one uses quotes and the other one rephrases what was said.

Discourse: You should not interpret into ASL using indirect discourse: MY FRIEND ASK ME WHY I MISS TUESDAY CLASS, AND I TELL #HER THAT I SICK BEFORE. WHEN SHE ASK ME WHY I NOT TELL #HER THAT I NOT SHOW-UP DO-PRESENTATION WITH #HER, I SAY THAT I TOO SICK CONTACT #HER. Instead, use body shifting to show who is speaking and talk as if you have become the character. I will use (>) to show the signer looking towards the right (which means the person who is being represented must be on the left), and (<) for looking to towards the left. Here is the preferred interpretation: MY FRIEND ASK ME (<) WHY YOU MISS TUESDAY CLASS. (>) SICK ME. (<) WHY NOT TELL-me YOU NOT SHOW-UP DO-PRESENTATION WITH ME? (>) ME SICK-AS-DOG. PHONE-you, IMPOSSIBLE. Have students practice doing something like this (it doesn't have to be full ASL) while you read the sentence again: "My friend asked me why I had missed class on Tuesday, and I told her that I was sick. When she asked me why I hadn't told her that I wouldn't be there to do the presentation with her, I said that I was just too ill to contact her."

Leveling: (my term, there may be a more commonly used one) is used to show people are at different levels in a physical sense (either short term because one is standing on a higher level or long-term because one is taller than the other). It is also used to show differences in status or authority. Using leveling makes it even more clear who is speaking and paints a clearer picture of the dynamics of the situation. One last thing to add about eye gaze is that it also shows thinking behavior. When a hearing person stops the discourse and starts to think to themselves (they may even start to talk to themselves aloud: "What was the other thing I wanted to say?") they will typically look anywhere but at their audience: up, down, or to the side. Deaf people do this too, and the interpreter who attempts to become the speaker should also follow this linguistic/psychological phenomenon.

Caveats (warnings): When new interpreters first start working, they often stare fixedly at their consumer, not knowing what else to do with their eyes. This makes the consumers feel like they must watch the interpreter every second to be polite. Actually there are many vital things that the eyes should be doing, as we shall discuss. When there are lengthy pauses in the text for whatever reason, the interpreter should look down or away from the consumer so as to signal that now is a good time for an eye break and an opportunity to check out the environment. Also take care not to single out the deaf person; if the speaker says to the audience, "Do you know the answer?", don't use the singular form of YOU. As with hearing people, eye gaze shows whom the floor is being yielded to. Use your eye gaze to show who is being given a turn, or if a person is just taking it, make sure you indicate with your eyes as well as a simple identifier who is the next speaker ("The guy with the brown striped shirt."). If you put your hands down, the Deaf person will feel free to look at who you are talking about. Also if the teacher asks a Deaf student a question, make sure to wave at him/her to get his attention although s/he may be looking at you, because they won't see that the teacher is talking to them personally.

children gathered around an adult reading a book

Student interprets children's story with feedback from others (first shift)

(1) Students break up into 3 groups with three cameras (more groups if you have more cameras). (2) Hand out scripts and enough copies of the Eng->ASL feedback sheets to cover the number of stories you will do. (3) Students read Script A. The teacher may read these scripts beforehand and offer signs and ways of interpreting the more difficult portions. (4) Students discuss among themselves how space, role-play, characterization, eye gaze, and classifiers could be used in this story. (4B) For this first shift only, the teacher will play a tape recording of Script A and interpret it to serve as a role model. (5) Ask students to decide who will be A, B, and C (more letters if necessary). One person will be responsible for operating the camera and the others will observe the interpreter and be prepared to give that person feedback. The camera operator can also give feedback, of course. Use the feedback sheets to write down comments while watching. Please write your name on your videotape and write the name of the person you are observing on the feedback sheet. (6) Presenter determines which lettered person (A, B, C, etc) will interpret the story. (6B) Go over how to fill out the feedback sheet. (6) Replay AT of Script A and selected interpreter in each group interprets while the other VT him and write out feedback. (7) Allow interpreter to comment on how it went. (8) Observers now give their feedback and when finished hand the feedback sheet to the person analyzed. (9) Students should bring their feedback sheets home and watch their videtapes to see what their feedback meant.

Student interprets children's story with feedback from others (second shift)

Continue the process above for the other scripts. Steps 4B and 6B will no longer be necessary. There are 8 scripts. Enough for each student to have two turns with four groups.

ASL to English interpreting for children (20 min)

Since you have all had experience hearing children who are native speakers of English, what would you say makes their speech different from grown-ups? Write answers on board. Possibilities are: slurred articulation (pronunciation), inability to pronounce certain letters (train->twain, with->wit), strange pacing while searching for the right word. grammatical errors from overgeneralization like "seed" for "saw", sudden change of topic, sudden changes in pace due to emotion, and unaware of what is private knowledge (who's Joe? use of intimate discourse from parents). Add what the students didn't include. Now ask what parallels there might be in young signers.

Preschool and grade school

Interpreting for very young signers presents special challenges, most of which will disappear as the child matures. These children are still learning ASL themselves and make mistakes we might not predict. For the very young, handshapes are not clearly formed or tend towards unmarked handshapes, that is [5], [B], [I], [A], [S], [O], and [C]. Young children have difficulty focusing on the topic they started and when they make sudden changes in the topic, the clozure we use to make sense of what is to many of us a second language will not work. Children are not as aware of what is private information that needs to be explained, such as home signs (gestures that their hearing parents made up to communicate with them), name signs, and local signs from other areas. English influences from teachers, previous interpreters or parents, may skew what we expect because of (a) non-conceptual sign choice: LIGHT'lamp' BLUE to mean "pale blue", (b) unexpected initialization: R-RIGHT'correct' NOW, (c) signing with MCEs (Manual Codes for English: SEE1, SEE2, or LOVE) that represents every lexical item in English: I-ME A-REAL R-REAL -LY E-EXCITED.

Get to know the children you work with: the language systems they have been taught and their idiosyncrasies (signing style that is uniquely their own). You may have to help them learn how to use an interpreter. You will have to work out with yourself, the teachers, the school administrators, the parents, and the IEP (Individual Education Plan) just how much you need to represent the English as opposed to using ASL. Even if you plan to move more towards ASL than has been done for the child in the past, you do need to understand the system the child has been taught to help you understand him/her and wean the child towards ASL if appropriate.

Interpreting from ASL to English for very young children also offers the special challenge that you need to sound like a child of that age, not like an adult. Some characteristics of children's voices and language you can think about to get yourself into the proper mind-set are: (1) children tend to be tentative or unsure of exactly what they want to say, (2) their voices are more highly inflected and emotional (going from very high to very low and doing it more frequently than adults), (3) there are some grammatical errors that show up frequently ("I sawed him do it"), (4) their vocabulary is simpler, (5) they may be na�ve about the world, (6) their attention span is short, and (7) they may suddenly change topics without warning. Every child is an individual, but look for body language, facial expression, and the signing that fits into these categories and learn how to sound that way yourself when interpreting. This is important in mainstreamed environments so that other children and teachers can relate to the Deaf child as the child s/he is rather than the adult you might accidentally portray her/him to be.

Junior and Senior High

This period is a transitional one between being a child and an adult, and some of the things stated before may apply or these young adults may be very sophisticated. Use your judgment by observing body language, facial expression, and signing to determine just how much you need to sound younger. Keep your ear open for what hearing teenagers sound like nowadays ("rad", "totally", "dude", and so on), and use theses sorts of expressions when you think it would fit the Deaf individuals you are interpreting. Find out what the "cool" signs are for young people, so that you can and use them to fit when young hearing people are talking that way.

Avoid words that seem too adult: "family members" might better be "relatives", use "weird", instead of "novel", "tough homework" instead of "a very involved assignment. Unless you see this person as rather sophisticated for her/his age. Also remember to make cultural adjustment for the other students if they don't know much about Deaf culture: "spell out each letter" rather than "fingerspell", "a person who can hear" rather than "a hearing person", "all-deaf school" rather than "residential school". And don't forget to sit back and enjoy the energy of youth.


I'd like to add a summary of (with some additions to) an excellent article by Brenda Schick called "Interpreting for children."1. Adults do not speak to children in the same way that they speak to other adults. Sometimes they go a little overboard with their cutesy speech, especially with infants, but there is a need to change one's speech, and it has been labeled Child Directed Speech. The prosody of this speech is more dynamic, which means it has a greater range of change. For prosody, this means pitch will have greater highs (which shows loss of control) and deeper lows (conscious control). This is familiar to use as "screaming" and hyper(overly)-controlled speech. Volume may be loud (attention getting) or soft (awe), pace quick (excitement) or slow (clarity or still thinking), duration stretched out (emphasis) or clipped (irritation).

Besides dynamic prosody, there should be repetition (for emphasis and reinforcement), simpler word choice ("silly" instead of "ludicrous"), and less complex grammatical structure, such as avoidance of embedded phrases. The sentence "Albert Einstein, who was born in Germany, was a famous scientist" for younger children would become "Albert Einstein was born in Germany. He was a famous scientist." As interpreters we should mimic these behaviors in teacher's speech and possibly add them if they are missing to get the best comprehensibility. We don't have to totally reteach the lesson, but the goal of education is learning and if you can facilitate this by clarity of style, by all means do so.

Child Directed Speech is found in ASL as well and our interpretation should use this to parallel how the teacher is communicating. ASL also has more dynamic (greater range of) prosody. Greater range in prosody in ASL involves a number of factors: Ballisticality, meaning the extent to which signs are produced with more snap in the wrists, will be range from high (if there is loss of control) to low (hypercontrol); sign space may be large (attention getting) or small (awe); pace may be quick (excitement) or slow (clarity or still thinking); duration may be stretched out (emphasis) or clipped (irritation).

Besides dynamic prosody, there should be repetition for emphasis and reinforcement, more sign negotiation, and less complex grammatical structures. A teacher using ASL or an interpreter, who also serves as a cultural mediator, should check in with the Deaf students to see if the meaning of new signs or concepts is understood. For more discussion of sign negotiation, see Preparation and sign negotiation. ASL has non-manual ways of taking simple sentence and making them complex, compound, conditional, and adding relative clauses. For an excellent treatise on this see Bienvenu, MJ and B. Colonomos. The face of ASL. (Set of four videotapes: Basic declarative sentences; Basic questions, Conditional and relative clauses; Complex sentences.) Sign Media Inc. For very young children, however, sentences should be kept simple.

As you will see when you interpret the children signing in our videotapes today, children need to learn how to express themselves more clearly, and this is done for hearing children through the school system and other language models. Like it or not, we are language models for children, especially if their parents are not Deaf. We need to be as skilled in ASL as possible, remembering to use Child Directed Speech so that we don't talk over their heads. Because children will not always be clear, it is vital that they have an interpreter that can understand them. They need feedback about the completeness and clarity of their message, and hopefully we are representing the children accurately. If the interpreter doesn't understand the child readily, the child may dumb down his language or even stop communicating altogether. This may lead to delayed language development, as the child gets little feedback or practice. Language helps us learn new information and build our thinking skills. Research shows that delays in using language lead to delays in fundamental thinking skills. Children learn from each other and the trend towards collaborative learning and the children's ability to participate in these groups is dependent on an interpreter's ability to understand the child.

(1) Play first production of Deaf children signers: 10 year-old storyteller (there is no interpretation) for comprehension. The full reference for this tape and others that can be used in this section are listed at the end of this handout. Ask students to watch and analyze Scott's signing style and how they would find an English and vocal equivalent. (2) Play second production with interpretation and have them make comments on how the interpreter matched or didn't match the signer and how they might improve it. (3) Play second story on this videotape ("Jack and the beanstalk"). (4) Ask for a volunteer to tell a small part of the story and then another to continue the story, and so on until it is retold to the best of their ability. (5) Ask the students to reconstruct how space, role-play, and characterization were used or might be used in this story. (6) Ask students which classifiers they noticed or think could be used in this story. (7) Model an interpretation.

Student interprets a Deaf child's story with feedback from others (first shift)

My recommendation for six children's stories you can use are (see "references" at end of document for links): More Deaf children signers Selections 5, 6, and 8-10 - Amanda Beasley (9) "The world. . . according to Amanda." Ryan Clouse (9) ""Playing with my brother" and "My new clothes". Leafy Miller (7) and Leigh-Ann Myers (10) "An intimate interview". Anna Musick (11) "New Kids on the Block". Tyler Bazzi (11) "Basketball tournament" and "Educational interpreters". If you need more than 5, Even more Deaf children signers Selection 5 - Donna Hall (12) "Life at the school for the Deaf."

If you use these, some hints for signs they may not know are : (Selection 5, first tape) "Portland, Oregon"; (8) "park" looks like PARLIAMENT, "Harry Big Foot", and "Ben" her brother's name sign is B-TALL; (9) "favorite" looks like 4-MOUSE; (10) "OSD (Oregon School for the Deaf)".

(1) Form groups of three (more if necessary) and decide who is A, B, and C. (2) Hand out ASL->Eng feedback sheets. (3) Presenter will play each story on the VCR and say which letter (A, B, or C) interprets the story. One person will interpret into English and the others will listen to the interpreter, watching the screen to judge accuracy, and write down feedback on the form. Use the ASL->Eng feedback sheet (make sure you have the right one!) to write down comments while listening. Please write the name of the person you are observing on the feedback sheet. (4) Aim the camera at the TV screen and play the VT while interpreter and listeners do their thing. (5) Allow interpreter to comment on how it went. (6) Others now give their feedback and when finished hand the feedback sheet to the person analyzed. (7) Students should bring their feedback sheets home and reread them.

Student interprets a Deaf child's story with feedback from others (next shifts)

Continue the process above with other Deaf children's stories as time permits.

Allow time for questions and feedback.


Bar-Tzur, D.

Bowers, S. (2004, March). Educational team members roles and expectations. VIEWS, 21, 3.

Deaf children signers:

Fant, L. (Here are examples of how to tell a story to a Deaf child.)


Schick, B. (Winter-Spring 2001). Interpreting for children.