Not all skills are equal: Knowledge-lean and Knowledge-rich skills

Interpretation Skills: English to American Sign Language, Second Edition Marty M. Taylor, PhD.

Knowledge-lean skills are those skills that can be learned in a relatively short period of time. For example, most people can learn the manual alphabet in an evening, or a day, or over the course of a few 3-hour classes. The same is true for numbers and even lexicon (i.e., vocabulary).

Knowledge-rich skills are those skills that take dedicated practice (learning and application) over extended periods of time, with a great deal of exposure to experiences that allow for these skills to be used over time, resulting in ever increasing accuracy and fluency. For example, using classifiers and structuring space are rich skills.

Graphic of skills categories

Signers and interpreters must have the ability to use both lean skills and rich skills fluently and effectively.  “Lean” skills do not mean they are of little value, or are less important than “rich” skills, as knowledge-lean skills form the foundation of any kind of successful high-level performance. 

For example, an Olympic diver must possess both kinds of these skills. Sometimes knowledge-lean skills are assumed to be unimportant or unnecessary, such as checking to be sure there is water in the pool prior to performing a dive. Not so. It is a crucial safety check for all divers as accidents have occurred in which people have dived into an empty pool. Another knowledge-lean skill is the ability to adjust the spring on the diving board. The spring tension needs to be changed, depending on the height of the dive that the diver will perform. 

Although these two knowledge-lean skills are fundamental to the practice of competitive diving, they are easy to learn and can be performed without learning a great deal of additional knowledge. In contrast, knowledge-rich skills require more in-depth training, as well as reflective and physical practice. 

In diving, the execution of a dive is a knowledge-rich skill. The forward dive pike (i.e., the jackknife) includes four distinct steps, and each step requires several components to make the dive successful. 

Step 1 “Hurdle” includes the number of steps the diver takes before leaving the board, the movements and positioning of the arms while walking and taking off from the board, and the physical positions of the diver’s legs, toes, head, as well as eye gaze. 

Step 2 “Takeoff” includes the position and location of the diver’s body upon jumping into the air and the location and movements of the body while in the air. 

Step 3 “Entry” includes additional skills and techniques related to the location and positioning of the head, hands, legs, and feet—such as tightening the stomach and squeezing the arms together while tightly pressing together flat hands in order to enter the water perpendicularly with the least amount of splash. 

Step 4 “Graceful movement” includes moving very smoothly through the three prior steps from the beginning to the end of the dive. 

The skills and sub-skills included in each of the four steps directly affect the diver’s level of success.

This is also true when applied to knowledge-rich interpreting skills.

Step 1 “Entry” includes the interpreter’s timely arrival to the setting, her appearance, as well as her attitude and communication approach to the individuals involved in the communication event.

Step 2 “Communicating” includes the ease with which the individuals involved in the communication event can participate fully and rely on the effectiveness and accuracy of the interpretation.

Step 3 “Fluency” includes the facility and finesse, breadth and depth of linguistic ability in English and in ASL with which the interpretation is provided.

Step 4 “Elegance” includes the overall effectiveness of the three previous steps, concluding the interpretation and finally leaving the setting in a professional manner.

Interpretation Skills: English to American Sign Language, Second Edition, urges interpreters to focus on identifying the 85 skills as lean or rich. Those that are knowledge-lean tend to be easier to identify, analyze and apply. Knowledge-rich skills are more challenging to identify and require more time to develop, due to the nuances and fluency required. When interpreters understand these concepts and their implications for application and further skill development, they can focus their deliberate practice on those skills that are knowledge-rich.

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