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Most teachers of deaf children would agree that there aren’t enough resources to help them teach deaf children basic literacy. So that’s why the NDCS, the National Literacy Trust and the Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen are backing a £1.5million literacy initiative from ITV which aims to close the educational attainment gap between deaf and hearing children. Signed Stories is a free online library of the best British children’s books presented in British Sign Language, animation, text and sound, designed to stimulate interest in reading, and boost language skills – taking a child-centred approach which Susan Daniels says is ‘vitally important’.

A child-centred approach

The children and teachers from Northern Counties School for the Deaf in Newcastle were involved in the project from the start. Headteacher Judith James says the website is now a firm favourite in the classrooms,
"They like the fact that they can use it in their break, so they can just enjoy a story without needing to have people to help them read. They just like to look at the books, flick around and play around with them. And they’re making choices as well. It’s a way of going into the library without having to leave the classroom – you can sit there and choose the books.

Just as any teacher would use a story book to stimulate ideas and talk about themes and text, we use it in exactly the same way. Because it’s up on a screen, you can pause it, you can stop and look at a certain picture and talk about a bit of the story, so you can use it as you would any piece of literacy to extend writing. It’s lovely!"

Teachers and pupils at Dunbar Primary School in Scotland agree. Emma Skene and Doreen Sheerin who trialled Signed Stories believe it is a fantastic resource for young children in school.
Many children in their classes have deaf parents and rarely show their ability to sign – but after watching the stories they began to proudly discuss, “My Daddy can do sign language.”
One child even stood up in front of the class and showed the other children how to count to ten in sign. But most importantly, they say the website supports their Curriculum for Excellence guidelines from the Government – by helping the children to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. The website is taking off around the world – it’s already being recommended to schools in Norway, featuring on deaf websites in Holland, Germany and Latvia and has been viewed by children from almost 30 countries worldwide.

How to use the website

The website holds a wealth of information for parents and teachers, with a range of advice from teachers working in both mainstream and special schools and a growing repository of downloadable resources and useful links.

There is a unique approach to classifying the books. On the advice of child development experts and authors, the books are not targeted at specific ranges, but instead are grouped together more subtly using difficulty branches on the Story Tree.

"A child of nine might be tentative and unsure about reading and to give them a book that says 9+ will reinforce their sense of failure. The book should be suited to the individual child."
Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials trilogy.

Stories on the website are zoned together under six broad themed ‘worlds’ including Adventure, Funny and Slimy Scary. Each of these book ‘worlds’ has a different look, designed to be used by adults and children alike to facilitate storytelling as a shared experience. The books can be searched via the Browse All Books page, a full alphabetical list, and the search engine will show books most recently uploaded.

Developed by ITV

The website was developed by deaf and hearing professionals at ITV SignPost based in Gateshead. ITV SignPost is the company’s centre of excellence for on-screen British Sign Language access across various platforms. It has provided BSL interpretation for clients including the Discovery Channel, One North East, the Driving Standards Agency and the Disability Rights Commission.

Here is ITV's Signpost website -

picture of homepage of SignPost website

Malcolm Wright, Managing Director of ITV SignPost, comments,
"It was a natural progression for us at ITV SignPost to extend the reach of sign language from the TV screen to the Internet – using both our expertise in website production and British Sign Language access.

I echo Susan Daniels in saying that the only way to prove inclusion has worked is by measuring what deaf children actually achieve in school. Signed Stories is a tool that encourages synergy between school and home because all children can use the same stimulating resources. I really believe Signed Stories can help close the attainment gap between deaf and hearing children.

At the launch of Signed Stories in London, children’s author Mary Arrigan said something poignant to me - that storytelling is the common ground between adults and children. I think it is especially important – in families which may have communication challenges – that everyone can share fun family activity, deaf or hearing, old or young. Signed Stories has been designed and built with this real inclusion at its heart.

And we hope that our celebrity supporters, including Dame Helen Mirren, Robbie Coltrane, Joanna Lumley and Ricky Hatton will show kids out there that reading is 'cool'.

At ITV SignPost, we’re developing other web products as part of our commitment to keeping British Sign Language in the public eye in order for it to promote greater levels of acceptance and inclusion for deaf people. They too will include the provision of new resources for younger people. Some of the UK’s best children’s writers have taken the Signed Stories initiative to their hearts. "

Best-selling author GP Taylor, who was born to profoundly deaf parents thinks that the website is ‘the most exciting thing to happen in children’s reading since the invention of the book’. Graham visits over 200 schools every year to inspire children to read.
Teacher-turned-author Malachy Doyle feels that the website means that ‘everyone can enjoy stories as much as I do’.

Adelle Hopper is the Web Producer with ITV SignPost.
Published in BATOD Magazine May 2009