4. Format


Video and TV are not used in the same way as books are, and viewers may have different expectations for signing books than for printed books. For some productions, a television or video format may be more appropriate than a ‘book’ format; for others, an interactive multimedia format may be preferable. 

A format that is effective for the mainstream population, may not be the most appropriate format for a Deaf target group. The target group may not have access to the same peripherals as the general population, and/or they may not have the same experience with, and/or expectations of a certain format. 

Three common formats for signing books are: printed (picture-)books presented in sign language; mainstream TV- and videoprogrammes with sign language superimposed, and original productions in sign language for Deaf viewers.


Format is a concept that covers various aspects of a production. It is the ‘packaging’ of the message that you want to deliver with your production. On the one hand, format refers to the ‘medium’ you use to store the production: videotape, CD-ROM, or DVD. On the other hand, it refers to the ‘genre’ or ‘type’ of production: is it a documentary, a game show, a ‘soap’, a story, or one of the many other genres that are available including ‘mixed’ genres such as ‘docu-drama’, or ‘info-tainment’. 

Medium: Tape, CD-ROM, DVD? 

The medium: will you distribute your video on videotape, on CD-ROM, DVD, or DVD-ROM?
To decide on the medium, you will have to take into account your objective, your target group, and the resources you have available.
CD-ROM and DVD (DVD-video or DVD-ROM) have a number of advantages over videotape: 
  • The physical size is smaller (easier and cheaper to send by mail; easier to store);
  • The physical medium is less vulnerable, more robust; 
  • Copies can be made when needed ('just in time production'); 
  • The video quality (DVD) is better; 
  • The navigation possibilities are better;
  • Interactivity can be included; 
  • User-control can be included over the interface: a user may be able to change the colour of the background, the size of a signing window, whether or not a voice-over is heard, whether or not subtitles are visible (and possibly: a choice of several languages for the subtitles);
  • Hypertext options can be included, as well as dictionaries, search options, book-marking, and the option for the user to add personal notes (in text, or even in video format);
  • The output is more portable: (parts of) the production can be used for other productions, for translation into other (sign) languages, etc. ; 
  • In the (near) future, DVDs and DVD-ROMs will replace videotapes and CD-ROMs. 
Some disadvantages of CD-ROM and DVD: 
  • If interactivity and user control are to be included, production costs are much higher;
  • Most target groups still have easier access to video-recorders than to DVD-recorders, or to computers with CD-ROM or DVD-players;
  • Viewers have different expectations with respect to videotape versus CD-ROM. Children expect CD-ROMs to be highly interactive and to resemble computer-games; 
  • DVDs and DVD-players are still much more expensive than VCRs; the target group may not be willing (or able) to buy more expensive equipment - certainly not when the supply of DVDs (both mainstream and sign language) is still limited.   

Genre or type of production

Everyone has certain expectations of a TV-programme, a CD-ROM, or a book – based on one’s experiences with these formats. In many countries, Deaf viewers have little or no experience with signing books: videotapes and CD-ROMs in sign language. There is no generally accepted ‘format’ for signing books, and we don’t yet know what the optimal format is. 
At the moment, many signing books for children are translations of printed picture books into sign language. 
In the UK, there is a large number of mainstream educational videos with sign translation superimposed, and in the Netherlands there are mainstream children’s films with sign language superimposed. 
Some signing books for Deaf adults are translations from printed books or brochures also, but most seem to be ‘original’ productions that were made specifically for Deaf viewers. These three genres will be described in more detail below.

Translations of printed picture-books 

Children usually begin to read picture-books with a parent, teacher or other adult. The adult reads the text, adapts the text if necessary, points at pictures, relates the pictures and the story to the child’s own life, and tries to actively involve the child in the story. 
Most picture-books are read over and over again: in subsequent readings, the adult will elaborate more and more on the text; then, step by step the child and the adult will change roles, with eventually the child reading the story to the adult. 
Mainstream TV- and video-programmes for young children are cartoons, shows, and children’s films. They have a lot of action but little or no interaction, and the role of the child is that of passive onlooker. 
Although all books on young children’s TV-use urge parents to watch TV with the child, to talk about the programme with the child, and to help the child understand what s/he sees on TV, studies show that most parents don’t have the time to do this. In many families, television is used as a visual pacifier or comforter, and often replaces reading to the child. As a consequence, you will have a number of problems to overcome when you decide to produce a translation of a picture-book into sign language for young Deaf children: 
  • Action, visual information, and visual interest

Children will expect your production to have a lot of action, a lot of visual information, and a lot of visual interest. They will expect your production to resemble Disney cartoons and the shows they watch on television. 
Most producers don’t have the resources for this, and some producers explicitly state that they don’t want their productions to resemble mainstream television. They want to make signing books that resemble books, not television shows. Picture-books are stepping stones to reading ‘real’ books. With ‘real’ books, readers re-create the message of the author in their own minds – on the basis of words and sentences on the printed page. In picture-books for very young children pictures and words usually tell the same story as the printed words: the verbal and visual messages overlap. 
As children get older, the books become more verbal. The pictures tell only part of the story, and more and more the child has to re-create the story on the basis of the verbal information alone. At first, the verbal information will be the words read out loud by the adult, later the child will read the words her-/himself. Some producers want signing books for young children to be used in the same way, as stepping stones toward understanding a story on the basis of the verbal (signed, later printed) information. 
In their productions, pictures are included in the same way as in printed books: still pictures whose function depends on the book, and the age of the child. In most of these productions, a signer signs part of the story, then the pictures from the book are shown. 
The format is very predictable, the attractiveness is in the story, the signer, and in the still pictures, not in fancy camera-work, animations, or other gimmicks producers can use to add visual interest to a picture.
  • Parents and children may have to learn how to ‘read’ these videobooks

Children may find them boring in comparison to television shows, or may not be used to watching long stretches of sign language without interaction. 
Parents (teachers, adults) will have to learn to ‘read’ these videobooks together with the child, to pause the video as often as is necessary, to repeat and elaborate on what is signed on the screen, to point out details in the pictures, etc. 
Most of these signing books are marketed as mixed media: a videotape together with the picture book. The picture book will make it easier to interact over the pictures and the story (parent and child can point in the book instead of on the TVscreen), and will facilitate the transition from signed to printed story for the child.
Some recent productions in this area were produced on CD-ROM and show the sign language alongside the printed text and the pictures from the book (e.g. Elmer, BBC, GB).
More information on the use of visuals and visual interest is presented in Chapter 9.
  • Language and content level 

Most parents who read a picture-book to a young child don’t read the printed text word-for-word. They tell the story in words that the child knows, include examples that the child can relate to, and skip what seems irrelevant or too difficult. 
On repeated readings, the language and the story will move slowly from a story ‘made to measure’ for the individual child, to the ‘ready-made’ story in the book. A video usually only shows one ‘reading’. More on language level and content will be discussed in Chapter 5 and Chapter 8.
  • Pace and interaction

A reader reading a book decides how fast or slow to read, what to re-read, what to skip, when to turn the page, and when to stop. 
A viewer watching a videotape is ‘paced’ by the video. In theory, the viewer is able to pause the video, replay a part, or speed forward, but children watching independently won’t do this – and adults don’t usually do this either. CD-ROMs – if supplied with good navigation aids – allow the user almost the same interaction possibilities as the reader of a book. 
More on pace is presented in Chapter 13, more on navigation in Chapter 15.
In some productions, the signer signs the story to an audience of one or several children – to simulate the signer interacting with the viewer. The child watching the video however, of course cannot participate in the interaction and is still an onlooker. Generally speaking, children prefer a signer to directly address the viewer (the camera) instead of other visible or invisible children. More on this in Chapter 11 and Chapter 12.

Translations of read-it-yourself books 

  • Visual interest

Most books for older children and adults have few, if any, pictures. Most productions that are translations of read-it-yourself books do add (some) visuals, for visual interest. Very few productions for children show only the signer, because it is generally assumed that children will find this boring, and that it is very tiring for viewers of all ages to watch a signer for long stretches of time, without interaction, and without visual variation. For more information on visual interest, see Chapter 9 and Chapter 13.
  • Content and language level

The content and language level of a printed book may not be appropriate for the target group. The target group may lack the required background information or may not be familiar with the vocabulary or concepts used in a printed story. Many printed stories were written for self-reading, not for being read to an audience. A sign language translation however is like a story being read to an audience. A printed story may be too compact, too abstract, too lengthy, and/or too complex for a straight-forward translation into sign language.
Some producers select ‘easy-to-read’ books as source texts for translations. These books are usually less demanding with respect to language and background knowledge and are usually short. Some of these books, however, may have been written on the basis of readability formulas (word length, sentence length), and may prove to be quite difficult to translate into sign language. For more on this, see Chapter 7 and Chapter 9.
  • Length 

Books are usually read in a number of sessions over a period of days or even weeks. A video on the other hand, is usually watched in one session. Most signing books for young children are (very) short: 6-10 minutes. Videos for older viewers may be longer – but are rarely if ever longer than 2 hours. 
Longer videos are usually divided into chapters or segments and provide the viewer with clearly indicated ‘break points’. CD-ROM or DVD may be the preferred medium for longer productions, because of the better navigation possibilities (see Chapter 15).

Mainstream films and videos translated into sign language  

Superimposing a sign language translation on a mainstream production, may be the preferred option, for: 
  • Educational videos: most signing book producers don’t have the resources that mainstream production companies have. Superimposing a sign language translation gives the Deaf viewer access to the same information as the hearing viewer of the video, independent of reading skills. For some productions subtitles may be preferred over a sign language translation, see Chapter 17.
  • Children’s films and programmes: Deaf children should be able to enjoy the same televisionprogrammes and the same films as hearing children do. Deaf children below the age of 10 usually can’t read well enough to benefit from subtitles. 
Adding a sign language translation to mainstream productions will serve several goals: the child can enjoy the programme in the same way as the hearing child, the Deaf child can enjoy the programme in ‘mixed’ company (Deaf and hearing), the child acquires sign language vocabulary and syntax in an implicit way, and by watching these adapted mainstream movies, the Deaf child has access to the language and the interactions between hearing peers and hearing adults, that s/he usually has only limited or no access to in real life.

Original sign language productions

Original sign language productions are written from a Deaf perspective, and for a visual language. At the moment, we don’t know what the characteristics are of a typical ‘Deaf’ production. Many original Deaf productions that are available today, were produced by mixed Deaf/hearing teams, and/or by teams that were schooled in the mainstream tradition of video-production. Informational productions for Deaf people include role play, drama, and documentaries to support verbal, signed information. 
Some Deaf authors and teachers say they use a visual and spatial arrangement when they present a story or information – instead of the temporal, sequential arrangement that is used in most mainstream productions. 
It is to be expected that Deaf producers, directors, scriptwriters, and signers in a team will change their style as they get more experienced. At the same time, viewers’ expectations will change as they watch more videos. The first productions of an all-Deaf team may seem to be most ‘Deaf’, whereas later productions may seem more professional. This may be the effect of two different developments that should not be confused: over time, a team may become more professional, and a team may adapt more to mainstream conventions. 
An in depth comparison and analysis of Deaf vs. hearing video and literary styles is very much needed.


Before you decide on a format, look at existing productions – made in your own country, or in other countries – compare the formats that were used, and discuss the usability of each format with representatives of your target group.
Adapting a mainstream production (script, book, video) may seem the most efficient option; however, if your target group does not have the background knowledge or expertise that is required to understand this production, it will not be effective. 

Long term vision!  

Take into account that both technical possibilities and user preferences are changing rapidly. Videotape may be the best option now, but not in 5, or even 3 years from now. Preferences with respect to genre and style may change even more rapidly. 



The usability of CD-ROM or videotape for children

In 1997, Effatha (NL) produced a children’s Bible on CD-ROM (de Kijkbijbel): Bible stories, in text, pictures, and sign language. The target group was children between 6 and 8 years of age and their parents. At that time, however, many parents didn’t have the hardware that was needed to play these CD-ROMs. 
In families that did have a computer, the computer was not associated with storytelling or joint book reading: parents associated the computer with work, children associated the computer with playing computer games. Looking back, the production team supposed that this production would have been used more often, and in more families, if it had been produced on videotape.  

The effectiveness of CD-ROM or video, for students

Part of the usability testing done for the Signing Books project, was a comparison of instructional material on videotape versus CD-ROM for Deaf students in Germany. The same material was produced twice: once in linear form on videotape, once in interactive form on CD-ROM (See Del. 5.1 and 6.1). 
Students who were familiar with computers and CD-ROMs liked the extra interactivity that the CD-ROM offered. However, the expectations of the production on CD-ROM were higher than for the videotape, and the production costs of the CD-ROM equaled about 4 times the costs of the videotape. 
At the same time, the videotape was just as effective as the CD-ROM in teaching the students the content matter: students who used the videotape studied as long as students who used the CD-ROM, and both groups had similar scores on a comprehension test that was completed afterwards. 

Children’s preferences 

For the user tests in the Netherlands, Deaf children and teenagers (7-19 years old) were asked to rate different formats for attractiveness. 
They were shown a ‘typical’ signing book, with a signer signing a story next to an illustration from the book (Cinderella, by Chase Video, GB), a mainstream children’s film with a signer superimposed (Het Zakmes, by OV-Amsterdam, NL) and a cartoon with a sign language bubble (Sign Toons, by Sign Enhancers, USA). 
They found the mainstream video most attractive, the cartoon second, and the signed picture-book least attractive. 
The children were also asked to indicate the attractiveness of different kinds of signing books, for which no examples were shown. The order of preference for the 8 alternatives was (high to low): 
  • Funny videos in sign language, that make you laugh; 
  • Videos about Deaf children, Deaf youngsters; 
  • Scary videos in sign language; 
  • News for children, with sign language superimposed; 
  • Videos about hearing children and youngsters, with sign language superimposed; 
  • Educational TV with sign language superimposed; 
  • Videos to learn sign language; 
  • TV programmes with sign language superimposed. 
Teachers were asked what productions they wanted for the pupils they were working with. Their preferences, in order from highest to lowest:  
  • Non-fiction videos, specifically made for Deaf children/teenagers;
  • Videos specifically made for Deaf children, with stories for and about Deaf children and adults; 
  • Mainstream educational programs, with sign language superimposed;
  • Mainstream TV-programmes, with sign language superimposed; 
  • All good children’s literature, presented in sign language, on video; 
  • Mainstream children’s movies, with sign language superimposed;
  • “Easy-to-read” books in sign language, on video; 
  • Picture books in sign language, on video; 
  • Mainstream cartoons, with sign language superimposed.