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Deaf Children Learn to Sign By Toying With RFID

Southeastern University researchers developed a system that uses RFID-tagged toys to teach American Sign Language to deaf preschoolers.
By Claire Swedberg
Sep 11, 2009When early-childhood instructor Susannah Ford takes out her bucket of RFID-enabled toys at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, the children, ages three to five, gather quickly. These small cars, airplanes and stuffed animals look like any other toy, except each is equipped with a passive 125 kHz RFID tag to help the kids learn how to use sign language.

A small number of deaf students in Louisiana and Texas are using this new system, known as Language Acquisition Manipulatives Blending Early-childhood Research and Technology (LAMBERT), to learn American Sign Language. The system, designed and built by researchers at Southeastern University, was first developed in the fall of 2008. An expanded version of the system is now in the works, due to a $390,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

The LAMBERT system

Assistant professors Robert Hancock and Becky Sue Parton developed the system, seeking to address the language needs of deaf preschoolers, their teachers and their hearing parents. Software developed by Parton and Hancock enables a child to use an RFID interrogator to scan an item's tag and view a video on a computer screen that shows a person demonstrating that item's sign.

In the 1990s, when Parton was student-teaching at a school for the deaf, she noticed a lack of stimulating instructional tools for kids to learn American Sign Language. Many children of parents who can hear simply are not exposed to sign language until they come to a preschool where teachers can instruct them, and such instruction can often be limited. For example, Parton recalls photocopying pages of words, with each page containing a drawing depicting the sign for a specific word, such as window, and the pages were then taped to the object for students to view. Not only were the signing pictures difficult to discern since they weren't animated, they were not very interesting.

Although there is computer software dedicated to learning American Sign Language, Parton says, it can often be difficult to manage for small children, and is less palatable for kids since it is all presented on a screen with pictures—with no real objects to see and touch.

The Lambert solution combines the real objects with technology. The system comes as a kit with a laptop or desktop PC, a small RFID interrogator that plugs into a computer's USB portal, and objects with generic off-the-shelf passive 125 kHz tags (made with EM Microelectronic's EM4102 RFID chips) attached to them. The kits come with 25 tagged objects, from an airplane to balls, household items and animals, all in the form of small toys.

The researchers initially tried bar-coded labels instead of RFID tags, Parton says, but the smaller children became frustrated attempting to scan the bar-coded labels, which were not always readable unless they were presented to the scanner exactly right.

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