Involvement in ASL – More Prep Material

Roadrunner, Coyote, and Lightbulbs

Building Involvement in ASL Texts

by Doug Bowen-Bailey

Author’s Note | Abstract | Introduction | Importance of Involvement | Involvement in ASL Narrative | Involvement & Interpreter Role | Conclusion | References


This paper was written for a Discourse Analysis class through the Teaching ASL and Teaching Interpreting Certificate program at the University of Colorado-Boulder. It is part of the Project program and more information can be found about it at: The paper is offered not as a definitive paper on the subject, but a resource for preparation.


Interpreters working with young deaf children often find themselves challenged by the fact that these students find little reason to pay attention to the interpreting process, or more generally, to be engaged in communication. This study is an analysis of how involvement can be built into ASL texts. It looks at the use of constructed action and changes in reference scale within a specific ASL narrative, as well as the use of mechanical metaphors of Deaf adults interacting with Deaf children. These examples may provide some strategies for interpreters to more effectively engage deaf students in communication and the interpreting process, and thereby start them down the developmental path to independence. Back to Top


“What do you do when the student won’t look at you?”

In my experience mentoring educational interpreters, (and as an educational interpreter myself), it is a question that I have heard and asked frequently. Deaf and hard of hearing students, who have an interpreter specified as part of their IEP, don’t necessarily understand how to work effectively with an interpreter, or in what ways an interpreter can be a key in their own communication and education. Particularly as young children, they may have limited experience with successful communication, and thus may not have a basis for feeling like there is a reason to pay attention to someone who is attempting to communicate with them, even if the form used may now be more accessible to them.

“So, what do you do…?”

This paper is an attempt to answer that question by looking at strategies for engaging and involving young deaf children in communication. In particular, I will look at the use of ASL narrative – and constructed action within narrative in particular – as a tool for making texts more interesting and for introducing children to the possibilities of language. In addition, I will offer some other strategies from my experience which have proven successful in both my work as an interpreter and as a mentor.

(I want to note here that I am intentionally using the term “deaf” with a lower case “d” to denote that these are children who are not culturally Deaf, signified with a “D.” This lack of acculturation is important because part of what it signifies is a lack of exposure to the involvement strategies which will be discussed in this paper—and thus a lack of engagement with the process of communication and the development of language.)

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Deborah Tannen (1989) articulates involvement as “an internal, even emotional connection individuals feel which binds them to other people as well as places, things, activities, ideas, memories, and words.” In addition, she sees it not “as a given, but an achievement in conversational interaction.” (p.12.) In other words, involvement is related to the level of engagement someone has in the process of communication —recognizing that it is required of both listener and speaker in a dialogic situation. Listeners, just as much as speakers, need to be involved and engaged for communication to be successful.

As part of the language acquisition process, children begin to learn and recognize strategies for being involved and involving others in conversation. . Claire Ramsey (2001) references the work of Vygotsky, a psychologist, who established a framework recognizing that “higher cognitive functions, like language and thinking, have social origins. Based on this, he made the strong claim that learning drives development and that we can only learn through our access to interactions with others.” Vygotzky suggests that learning between a teacher and learner takes place in what he calls a “Zone of Proximal Development,” (ZPD) a place where joint attention is established and maintained.

The problem for deaf children, of course, is that they do not necessarily have access to these interactions in a way that allows them to utilize their innate capabilities. Unless they have Deaf parents, or ones who learn to effectively communicate in a visual mode, to use Vygotzky’s term, deaf children do not learn how to participate in this ZPD. While it is outside the bounds of this paper to fully explore the challenges for deaf children’s language development, my point to make is this: many deaf children enter schools with language delays; but not only in a way that prevents them from communicating, but that impedes their understanding of how and why to be involved in communication.

For many interpreters working in educational settings, the reality of this is daily self-evident. I have heard stories of, and personally experienced, many situations where an interpreter works without the student actually watching. While there could be many factors outside the control of the interpreter, there are some strategies which increase the level of involvement in communication—and thus can be utilized to engage students in the communication process.

Tannen (1989) suggests two categories of involvement strategies: one based on the use of sound and one based on meaning. The category based on sound includes: rhythm, patterns based on repetition and variation; and figures of speech. Strategies which use meaning include: indirectness ; ellipsis; tropes (metaphor, irony, proverbs); dialogue; imagery and detail; and narrative.

Her list is obviously based on research in spoken conversation, but linguistic research has shown that these strategies are utilized in ASL. Tannen’s first category is not based on sound in ASL, but on the prosodic nature of the language and the patterning of handshapes and movements. In the second category, Metzger (1995) analyzed more specifically the use of dialogue and narrative. In her work, she concluded that within narrative, ASL uses constructed action (that is the recreation of an event through classifiers and role-playing) to build narrative. Moreover, considering that ASL uses the same features to report dialogue, she concludes that constructed dialogue actually is a sub-set of constructed action. From Metzger’s analysis, it is clear that constructed action is worthy of noting as an involvement strategy.

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Spatial Mapping: A Study in Scale

Winston and Mather (1998), in their study of involvement in ASL storytelling, focused on the use of a spatial map as a means for creating involvement. In their analysis of an ASL re-telling of an English story, Too Much Noise, they found that the presence of a spatial map – evidenced through the use of constructed action and visual patterns – helped to create both coherence and involvement in the text. For the purposes of this paper, I will look at the spatial map within another ASL narrative, “The Roadrunner Wins Again,” by Ella Mae Lentz, (1990) and analyze what features build involvement and engagement.

My reason for choosing this text is an extremely practical one. For the past several years, I have been using Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons as texts for interpreters to practice their skills in creating constructed action. Before I ask them to create scenes from an actual cartoon, I show them Ella Mae Lentz’ creation as a model of how it can be done. Until this class, I had not done an extensive analysis of this text, nor did I have the theoretical framework for recognizing that as a narrative, it served to create involvement on the part of the audience through various techniques. So, my analysis comes out of the hope that I can more effectively use this text in the future—in working with interpreters on ASL narrative skills and in working with them on the importance of creating involvement.

As a preface, I’ll offer a short synopsis of the story within the framework of Labov’s narrative structure. (This structure is outlined in a later section.)

Abstract:The roadrunner and coyote are introduced, invoking the frame of the cartoon series.
Orientation: The coyote then puts together a motor scooter that is powered by a propeller and then sets out after the roadrunner.
Complicating Action: He catches up once, and then is left in the dust as the roadrunner speeds away. True to his character, the coyote continues the chase—pushing the scooter to its limits. Just as the coyote is about to catch the roadrunner, they come to a cliff. The roadrunner takes a sharp turn left, and the coyote heads straight off the cliff, suspended in mid-air for a moment as the realization hits him, and then the scooter and coyote plummet to a canyon shaking impact.
Evaluation: The coyote pulls himself out of the ground and snaps his fingers in disgust.
Coda: The frame of the cartoon returns with the signature sign-off of Warner Brothers: “That’s all folks!”

Features of the Map

The text is a brief one, lasting under two minutes. Within that time frame, however, Lentz creates a richly textured spatial map. To begin with, I will delineate the nature of this map, and how she places the characters within it.

The story contains the perspective of narrator as well as the two characters: the roadrunner and the coyote. In establishing these perspectives, Lentz uses consistent spatial mapping that is cued by the use of physical space and eye gaze. The roadrunner is mapped on the right side of her signing space with the coyote on the left. Narration generally happens in the same space as the coyote, but with an eye gaze that is directed toward the audience. Another factor in this mapping is the change in stance of her left leg. As both narrator and coyote, Lentz stands with with her feet spread comfortably apart. When she shifts into the role of the Roadrunner, her right foot remains stationary, but her left leg closes the gap between her legs. This both adds to the characterization of the Roadrunner as a thin bird, and clearly establishes the spatial framework of where the Roadrunner is located.

The text itself is primarily composed of constructed action—with short connecting segments of narration. Within the different aspects of constructed action, my focus will be on the shifting of reference scale. As will be shown, a signer has the option in reporting action of choosing to use what has been termed “role-playing” or “characterization.” This is the cinematographic equivalent of a close-up. Or a signer can choose to show action in a smaller scale—again in movie terms, a wide-angle shot. Schick (1990), in her work on classifier predicates, labeled these different scales as, “Real-World” and “Model” to identify these different types of space. Other linguists have chosen different labels to mark these changes in scale. Lidell (1995) uses “token space” instead of “model”, and divides the category of “Real-world” into “real” and “surrogate,” depending on whether or not the actual person or object talked about is present. Emmory and Falgier (1999) propose the use of the terms “Diagrammatic” and “Viewer” space to show these scales in the context of signers describing a map of a town and a convention center. Since my focus will be on the reference scales used, I will use Schick’s terminology: real-world and model scale, since it is sufficient for the purposes of my analysis.

Within the parameters of her spatial map, Lentz uses a combination of Real-world (RW) and Model (M) scales. In terms of distribution, Lentz uses Real-World scale for 78 seconds; Model scale for 20 seconds, a combination of RW and M for 9 seconds. There are four transtions into RW and M, each initiated from and returning to RW scale. There are 12 transitions into Model scale. The text begins in RW scale and continues this way for the first 26 seconds (Time code 00:04 – 00:32) At this point, she maintains the character of the coyote in RW scale with her body and left hand, but uses her right hand in M scale to show the coyote moving forward. This mixing of scales occurs intermittently throughout the narrative. Primarily, she uses her right hand in M scale to show the motion of the Roadrunner, and maintains the RW scale body posture of the coyote. However, in one instance, (Time code 1:03) her right hand and body maintain the RW scale of the Roadrunner running, and her left hand uses M scale to show the coyote on his motor scooter catching up.

Scale Total Time Number of Instances
Real-World 78 seconds 17
Model 20 seconds 12
Real-World and Model 9 seconds 4

Scale Shifts and Narrative Structure

The distribution of these transitions between scales has a significant discourse function and understanding narrative structure. Labov (cited in Wilson, 1996) suggests that a fully-formed narrative may consist of these sections, in order:

  1. Abstract: A sentence at the beginning that summarizes the story
  2. Orientation: Clauses near the beginning which provide a setting.
  3. Complicating Action: The events of the narrative
  4. Evaluation: The point of the story
  5. Coda: The narrative is brought back to present time.

In terms of narrative structure, the absence or presence of shifts in scale can serve as markers for sections of this narrative: The Abstract is the first 11 seconds which serve to introduce the characters in RW scale. Lentz uses freeze frames of each character, providing a fingerspelled caption, just as each Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon begins with a freeze frame and some absurd scientific name. The abstract thus serves to invoke a cartoon framework. The Orientation happens in the next 17 seconds of the narrative in RW scale provides close-up information of the coyote. This, in many respects, serves to provide character development and clearly establish the context of the story. The shift in scale at 00:32 serves both to introduce the character of the Roadrunner and to mark the stage of Complicating Action in the narrative. Over the course of the next 1:06, there are 32 shifts in scale—which provide tremendous texture to this portion of the spatial map and creates suspense and involvement. The final 13 seconds of the narrative occur completely in RW scale. Time code 01:38-01:45 serve as evaluation and provide a close-up of the coyote—showing his emotional reaction to the events of the story. The final 5 seconds serve as Coda by returning to the framework of the cartoon—with Warner Brothers’ signature sign-off, “T-H-A-T-S A-L-L F-O-L-K-S.”

Implications for Involvement

Focusing on the three middle segments of Labov’s narrative structure, I want to take a look at what the use of different reference scales means for involvement in the story.

In the Orientation, the use of the RW scale provides close-up attention to the coyote. This perspective, combined with effective facial characterization, provide the audience with insight into the character of the coyote within a short amount of time. Within this time frame, it is important to note that Lentz does not purely stay in character role, as if this were purely mime or a play. Rather her telling of the coyote’s construction of the motor scooter is punctuated with shifts into the narrator role. Each time a new object is removed from the box (body, propellor, handlebars, seat) she briefly assumes the role of narrator with eye gaze that is directed either to the audience or at the object. These referential shifts provide the texture within a section that does not have a shift in scale. These shifts, combined with effective facial expression, serve to provide an involving example of character development.

Once Complicating Action begins, shifts in scale happen, on average, once every three seconds. These shifts occur both within character—Time Code 00:41-43 close-up of the Roadrunner running (RW scale) and then a classifier construction of the Roadrunner stopping (M scale) followed by close-up of Roadrunner looking at Coyote. As well, the shifts can be between characters – for example, 00:58-01:02, which is a RW scale Coyote riding the scooter, then M scale classifier construction of Roadrunner, then RW scale Coyote on the scooter again. In terms of involvement, these shifts in scale create the effect of a tremendously engaging visual narrative.

In terms of Evaluation, Labov places this section near the end of the narrative. Its purpose is really to convince the audience that there is a point to the story. Changing back to RW scale allows the audience to focus on the emotional impact of the events on the coyote. Wilson (1996), in her study of ASL narrative structure, noted that facial expression can provide evaluative force throughout a narrative. Lentz, through her use of RW scale across the narrative, is able to show what the emotions and motivation of the characters without using lexical selections. For example, the facial characterization of Coyote licking his lips at 00:44 shows that he wants to eat the Roadrunner, without signing WANT EAT. This presence of facial expression and characterization is crucial to efficiently providing evaluative clues, and thereby increasing audience involvement.

Lessons for Interpreters

From my time in an Interpreter Training Program at St. Paul Technical College, I remember a poster that hung on the door of one of our classrooms. It was the picture of a person with a paper bag over their head. Written on the bottom of the poster were words to the effect of : Don’t be an interpreter like this! It was a daily reminder of the importance of facial expression—both for purposes of grammar and for not being too boring too watch. In other words, the poster expressed that our faces were tools for creating involvement. Given my analysis of Ella Mae Lentz’s story, The Roadrunner Wins Again, interpreters also need to pay attention to shifts in reference scale. Within narratives, it is clear that shifting back and forth from Real-World to Model scale creates suspense and involvement in the midst of a story.

While it is outside the scope of my research, I think it would be interesting to compare the use of reference shifts in interpreted narrative and compare it to how Deaf people use these shifts. While my study is limited to only one example of an extremely gifted storyteller, my observation from experience suggests to me that interpreters use far less frequent shifts in scale than do Deaf people. Furthermore, within the same scale, I would suggest that interpreters provide less texture through shifting perspectives between different characters and the narrator.

In this further research, it would also important to analyze how the content of the story influences the use of shifts in reference scale. “The Roadrunner Wins Again” focuses on the rapid movement of two characters. This type of content may be more conducive to the shifting between reference scales. Other narratives that focus more on character development, rather than action, may make use of a greater amount of Real-World scale. While not part of a research study, my observations have led me to believe that within narratives which take place mainly in Real-World scale, there still are significant uses of shifts in perspective—between that of characters and that of the narrator.

So, for interpreters who are asking the question: “What do I do if the deaf student won’t look at me?” one answer is to start developing the skill of shifting between perspectives and transitioning between Real-World and Model scales in narrative. The use of these shifts can dramatically increase the level of involvement within a story, and perhaps lead to more engagement on the part of the student.

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Developing ASL narrative skills is certainly one answer for an interpreter being more effective in engaging deaf children in communication. Particularly for interpreters working in elementary settings, consideration must be given to the context in which language occurs and the role that members of the educational team each need to play in creating involvement skills and to make a meaningful Zone of Proximal Development that Vygotzky suggests is necessary for student growth and development.

One important thing to note: the story under study in this paper was an original creation, and not an interpretation. Furthermore, it is one solely told in American Sign Language. Contrast this to the narrative structure that most deaf children see in classrooms with interpreters. There, the interpreted narrative is broken into sections by a picture being shown to the class. At times, the picture is shown at the same time as the interpretation is provided—thus competing with the language input. For children who are not fully engaged with language, it’s been my experience that full attention is often given to the picture, rather than dividing attention between picture and language.

Mather and Winston (1998) make the point that, of the teachers involved in their study, the only one who effectively created an ASL interpretation with a spatial map and a high level of involvement, was the one who read the entire book first, and then retold it in ASL without the English text. In order to build involvement with a student, interpreters may need to find an avenue for telling entire stories directly to students—rather than interpreting from an English text. A decision to create this kind of language-rich situation needs to happen within the context of the educational team. It may be there is another member of that team who is more appropriate to provide such language exposure, but consideration should be given to ways that the classroom environment can be changed to create more involvement.

Child-Directed Speech

Interpreters also need to recognize the different ways adults use language in talking with young children. Brenda Schick (2001) stresses the role of prosody—pacing and intonation—in what researchers call Child-Directed Speech. This type of speech plays a significant role in children’s language development.

While not part of a systematic study, I have observed a feature in Deaf adults communication with children which serves as very successful involvement strategy. For lack of a better term, I will call it “mechanical metaphor,” meaning that the human body is shown as some type of machine. The first example I saw was, for the concept of “sudden understanding,” a Deaf man with one hand pulled an imaginary string under his chin and with his other hand signed light above his head—carrying out the visual metaphor of the light bulb going on. At the end of the interaction, this same man said GOOD-BYE as if there was a string attached to his left hand and that the pulling of his right hand controlled the motion of his left. Another Deaf adult, in conversation with a student about their participation in the classroom, asked if they needed to use a car jack to raise their hand—produced by making the ratcheting motion with his right hand and raising his left hand in stages in coordination with his ratcheting.

These “mechanical metaphors” provided a high level of involvement in conveying a concept. Based on this observation, I began incorporating these and other mechanical metaphors in my work with young children. The string-controlled GOOD-BYE led to a similar O-K where pulling the string changed the O to K. Initially, I pulled the string, but through its engagement of the student, this technique led to the student pulling the string and then incorporating this metaphor in their own language use. As the student became more involved with this language play, strings became jammed, had to be cut, and sewn back on. All of this language involvement began in situations of direct communication with students. However, it translated to an increased level of involvement of the student in interpreting situations—and I found that I could occasionally include such “mechanical metaphors” into my interpretations to provide a higher level of involvement when necessary and appropriate. Click here for examples of mechanical metaphors.

Involvement and Independence

Tannen (1986) claims that the twin desires of communication are to show our involvement and to maintain our independence. In many respects, these are two competing goals, or perhaps, two ends of a continuum that communicators move back and forth between. The relationship between these two goals is vital to consider in the context of educational decisions for deaf students. In an article in the RID Views,(Bowen-Bailey, 2001) I argued that using the framework of fostering student independence is an effective way to explain our roles as interpreters in classrooms. While I still believe that to be the case, I think this focus on independence necessitates an understanding of involvement—and how involvement in language is necessary for young children to gain the skills to become independent. Important in this is recognizing a distinction between being involved and dependent; that is, involvement strategies should lead to patterns of growth and development, rather than a pattern in the student of relying on the interpreter or other specific individuals to do the work for them. With caution about developing dependence, a focus on involvement is necessary for many deaf students to develop the language skills necessary for being able to move back and forth on the continuum of involvement and independence.

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Throughout the course of this paper, I have attempted to provide examples of involvement strategies that interpreters can implement in their work to more effectively engage deaf students in language use and communication. Within an ASL narrative, the use of shifts in reference scales serve to create a high level of involvement and help to create narrative structure. Developing these competencies can enable interpreters to include a degree of involvement in their interpretations that will more effectively match the source texts that they are called upon to interpret.

Beyond that, other strategies, such as creating opportunities for direct ASL storytelling and the use of “mechanical metaphors” can help meet the needs of deaf students who are both learning language and learning how to be involved in language. In my work as an interpreter, and as a mentor of other educational interpreters, I have found that these techniques of involvement can be effective tools toward setting deaf students on the educational path to independence.

“What do you do if the student won’t look at you?”

The answers to that question are complex and certainly not fully answered by this paper. I do hope, however, that I have offered a few ideas to put in an “interpreter’s bag of tricks” that can lead to that question being answered more effectively, and subsequently asked less frequently.

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Bowen-Bailey, D. April 2001. A Declaration of Independence. In Views. Silver Spring, MD: Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc.

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Wilson, J. 1996. The Tobacco Story: Narrative Structure in an American Sign Language Story. In Multicultural Aspects of Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities, C. Lucas, Ed. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
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