'From a Distance': U.Va. Program Helps Sign Language Interpreters Hone Classroom Communication Skills

June 29, 2010

June 30, 2010 — Interpreting for deaf or hard of hearing students so they can then understand a math problem, a biology lecture or even the discussion of a novel in English class can be a challenge for educational interpreters. It's not simply about signing the words; it entails comprehension and synthesis.

A new University of Virginia program, "From a Distance: Interpreting and Language Mentors," guides K-12 educational interpreters in weekly mentoring sessions to help them improve their skills.

The nine-month program, funded by the Virginia Department of Education, is designed to help meet a 2009 state mandate to improve qualifications of K-12 classroom interpreters.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:

Training has not kept up with demand for qualified interpreters, said Kathleen O'Varanese, coordinator of deaf and hard-of-hearing services at the Elson Student Health Center and one of the program's co-creators.

Currently half of the classroom educational interpreters are under-qualified, she said.

"As an expert and professional, interpreters can be of great benefit to the schools they serve," O'Varanese said.

"The demand for working interpreters is great and the need to fill the jobs with qualified interpreters is even greater."

Skype session
Virginia Beach school district classroom interpreter Lianne Stevenson in mentoring session with "From a Distance: Interpreting and Language Mentors" co-creator Kathleen O'Varanese to improve interpreting skills.

She worked with Laurie Shaffer, the University's staff interpreter, to develop a sustainable model of mentoring that could reach classroom interpreters in all regions of the state.

They enlisted the help of Department of Education-designated grant coordinators in eight regions of the state to identify potential program participants. The first six-member class began in March and includes interpreters from four regions of the commonwealth.

The interpreters and mentors make use of technology to strategize more effective ways to provide interpretative services through weekly online conversations.

The interpreters use digital video cameras to film themselves working in the classroom. They send the video cards to O'Varanese and Shaffer, who transfer the video files to DVD and return them to the interpreters for review. O'Varanese and Shaffer then conduct one-on-one Skype sessions on the computer with each interpreter to evaluate areas the interpreter has identified for discussion. The computer screen is split: half is the DVD image, and on the other half they can see each other and converse as they simultaneously review the classroom interpretation.

"It's an opportunity for the mentees to look at their own work and see what's in their interpretations," O'Varanese said. "We guide and encourage ways to be more successful."

There may be 15 errors in a recorded classroom session, but they often are the same three errors repeated, Shaffer said. "We help them see patterns that need correction. That's more remedial. That's our job – give them something that's doable."

"We are teaching to the issues and tailoring to individual needs of each interpreter," O'Varanese said.

Mentoring interpreters in rural areas that may not have local support played a major role in developing the distance-learning program, she added.

In the classroom, the interpreters are digesting content and interpreting simultaneously. O'Varanese and Shaffer work with them to strategize ways to manage that process.

American Sign Language proficiency is only part of the communication process, O'Varanese said. Sometimes the solution is simple; by the use of body movement, such as pointing to what a math teacher is writing on the board rather than trying to interpret, the interpreter can help bring clarity to the communication while saving energy. It's not unusual for an interpreter to work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a number of different students in various class subjects. "It can be exhausting," she said.

"My interpreting product and thought process have improved tremendously," said Lianne Stevenson, an interpreter in the Virginia Beach school district. "I try to put out a conceptually accurate message rather than sign for every word I hear."

Camille Richie, an interpreter in Fairfax County, commented, "My actual product has become more interesting and more holistic. I have vastly improved my transitions and summary skills."

O'Varanese and Shaffer also suggest ways to negotiate with subject teachers to get lesson plans in advance so they can familiarize themselves with content prior to interpreting in the classroom.

"This program has not only given me confidence in my signing, it also gives me an effective way to troubleshoot," said interpreter Melodie Brown of the Frederick County school district.

O'Varanese and Shaffer are seeking funding to expand the program to include two deaf language coaches to tutor program participants in American Sign Language fluency to aid in representing classroom content. They also plan to double the pool of mentored interpreters.

Generally interpreters have limited or no contact outside their classroom with adults who have hearing loss and use American Sign Language, which would expand and reinforce their language communication skills, O'Varanese said.

Interpreters are language models for the students and the interpreter's language fluency is crucial. Greater American Sign Language fluency enables interpreters to better represent classroom concepts to the students, she said.

"Student advancement is tied to interpreter's communications skills," Shaffer said.

Already the interpreters have seen the program's impact on their students.

"With my newfound enthusiasm, my students are much more engaged and asking more questions," Richie said.

Brown said, "My student is absolutely thrilled with this program. This is helping the deaf student as much as it helps me. This has also enabled me to interpret the Standards of Learning and nine-week tests more effectively."

— By Jane Ford