A team of students from the Louisiana School for the Deaf were a bit surprised when they entered and won the preliminary round of Battle of the Books this school year.

Battle of the Books is a competition in which students have a limited time — about a month or so — to read and discuss the same four books, said Kelly Jumonville, librarian for the school and faculty adviser for the team. At each level of competition, the teams answer questions about the stories they’ve read that get progressively harder as teams are eliminated. And they had to give their answers, some written and some signed in American Sign Language, in front of an auditorium full of people.

When they advanced to the national championship at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., Nthabeleng MacDonald, 13, said, they were elated.

It meant an expenses-paid trip to D.C. for Nthabeleng and her two teammates, sisters Chelsey and Kate Scott, 14 and 12, respectively, and tours of several points of interest around the city. The White House was a favorite for all three girls. “I think we may have seen the president, but I’m not sure it was him,” Nthabeleng said.

But when they were in a dead heat with the Illinois School for the Deaf for the championship, they were stunned.

“It’s the first year we’ve ever had a team,” said Kelly Jumonville, librarian at the school and faculty sponsor for BOTB. “We didn’t really know how we’d do.”

In the end, the schools tied with scores of 58 points each, Nthabeleng said, and were named co-champions for the 2014 title.

“I couldn’t be prouder of this team,” Jumonville said, who has gotten a large response from students for next year’s team. The girls competed at the beginner level of competition, she said, but she hopes to add intermediate and advanced teams next year.

“We were all very nervous,” Nthabeleng said. “Some of the questions were pretty tough.”

Nthabeleng felt more comfortable with the written questions than she did with the signed questions, though it took some time to acclimate. “Because you only had 20 seconds to answer (the written questions), so it was hard at first. And we had to discuss what we were saying (in that 20 seconds).”

The Scott sisters, however, were more comfortable with the signing portion of the competition. It was helpful, the girls said, to have different team members who could make different contributions.

The school’s team competed against a total field of about 32 other schools for the deaf nationwide.

“I wasn’t really allowed to help them, other than to offer limited guidance.”

Jumonville knows firsthand how difficult it can be to get children interested in reading at the junior high level, she said, and it can be that much harder for deaf students. Since a large part of learning to read is phonetic and sound-based, learning to read English is tantamount to learning a new language.

But, she said, they didn’t need much encouragement. “It was amazing. They got together right away and came up with long lists of possible questions. I was impressed.”

All the hard work paid off. “One of the books used a lot of onomatopoeias,” she said —words that are formed by imitating a sound, like hiss, chug, choo, screech, cluck, whoosh, etc. Without ever having heard these sounds, Jumonville said, the concepts behind these words can be especially confusing for the deaf. “So, we did a lesson on onomatopoeias for example.”

All three girls said the trip was a great experience, and they made friends from all over the country. They also learned a lot about themselves. “I had butterflies in my stomach (at the competition)” said Kate, but it helped having her sister there with her. “They told me to stand straight and not to move around a lot on stage,” she said. “That helped.”

Chelsey said she overcame her shyness to compete.

“I tried to act like there were no people in the room at all,” she said. “We also tried to encourage each other.”

Along with the girls, Jordan Howard, a seventh-grader, and Ari Latino, eighth grade, were on the team for the preliminary rounds, Jumonville said, and made invaluable contributions to their success. Only three team members could go to the championship round, she said.