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Music student Steph using sign language to make songs accessible

Steph Pullen, a 21 year old music student from Peterborough, stumbled into volunteering for Peterborough Reads, the city's literacy campaign.
Steph creates videos, like this one for I Can Sing a Rainbow, where she uses British Sign Language alongside the nursery rhyme

She'd uploaded a video to her personal Facebook page of her performing a nursery rhyme using British Sign Language (BSL) and - as is the positive power of social media - it found its way to Lisa Clissett, the events and volunteering officer for the Peterborough hub of the National Literacy Trust.

Over the past year, she's made a number of videos for the charity that have been shared on social media. From Old MacDonald to I Can Sing A Rainbow, her musical talent lies alongside her sign language skills to make music more accessible for all Peterborough children.

Steph has known sign language since a young age; her dad was a teaching assistant at a local primary school and they used to use signs around the house as she grew up. 

"It wasn't until I was a little bit older that I saw how much it meant to the deaf community for me, a hearing person, to make an effort to learn BSL," she said. "I'm certainly not fluent, but I know enough to have a basic conversation. I know enough to make the videos!"

Research shows that nursery rhymes help improve children's literacy - and imagination. Repetition of songs and words encourages the development of early phonics skills, improves vocabulary and introduces easy to remember stories into children's learning. And using sign language alongside these nursery rhymes makes them accessible for children of different abilities.

"It's been great getting to work with Peterborough Reads to get these videos out there to families," Steph continued. "I've done videos to celebrate Nursery Rhyme Week, and of course we did a Christmas-themed video, but otherwise I really can work around my university commitments.

"I was really nervous to do my first one - I didn't know what it would be like, people paying attention to me in my bedroom singing nursery rhymes! But I thought that even if it just helped one person, I would be fulfilled by that. I'd feel like I'd made a difference."

And she did - to much more than one person. Thousands of people have watched the videos on the Peterborough Reads Facebook page. Since that first video, Steph has heard from a number of people, old friends and new faces, who have all commended the work she's doing with the charity.

"I got a message from a total stranger the night my first video went up, and it was a video of her and her son signing along with me to Old MacDonald. That brought a tear to my eye, just seeing that enjoyment their family got from it.

"That's how amazing language is; emotions, dreams and imaginative thoughts come alive through language, spoken or signed. That's why I think everyone should learn even the basics of BSL. It's a small skill that could be the key to a more accessible world for everyone. It's a small skill that could help so much growth."

Steph is studying Music at the University of Lincoln - although she's studying from home due to the pandemic. She's in her final year of her music degree, and plans to stay another year to complete her postgraduate certificate in education so she can become a primary school teacher.

"I'd like to do music therapy on the side, and eventually become a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO).

"I remember my Year 4 teacher, when I'd be picked up from school slightly later than the other children, used to encourage me to play my violin and really inspire me to find what I love and do it well. If I can be a teacher like that for someone, that'd be amazing."

See one of Steph's BSL videos below.