What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Using Closed Captioning to Support Literacy

Image above from Captions for Literacy
Closed captioning---what? I thought that was for people who are deaf, to use when exercising in a gym or when I'm having a beer in a pub! Well, research is finding that same-language subtitling can actually support literacy. In fact, we are learning that captioned media increases literacy skills in people of all ages. Simply having the captions on dramatically improves vocabulary, word recognition, comprehension, and reading. So next time you turn the TV on, go ahead, have the sound on but also turn on the closed captioning option as listening to English and reading English subtitles helps in decoding words and reading better for struggling readers with additional print exposure.

Talk about a motivating, engaging, and inexpensive way to help build the foundations for reading skills! In fact, the linguist and researcher Martine Danan calls captioning an “undervalued language-learning strategy.”

By linking spoken and written vocabulary, struggling readers are exposed to phonics and word identification. The benefits of closed captioning appear to be especially strong for struggling readers, who might avoid books and other printed media: By adding subtitles to TV shows, movies, and video games, struggling readers are exposed to many more hours of written words than they otherwise would see. It can make a big difference for those learning to read in their native language because of the increased exposure to print.

Think of it this way:  "Our eyes are naturally drawn to the text we see on screen, turning passive screen time into an opportunity for active learning. Closed captioning also helps with word acquisition, reading comprehension, and reading speed and fluency. By turning on subtitles on Netflix, iTunes, and other media channels, you create more learning opportunities for your kids. Nearly all services offer closed captioning as an option—even YouTube allows you to turn on closed captioning for some videos," says ReadingRockets.

A study by the University of Nottingham, in England, looked closely at just this process—what our eyes are doing when we are listening and reading simultaneously—and its implications for K-12 education seems significant. Schools- if you do nothing else, turn Closed Captions ON.  

Educators like Dr. Robert Keith Collins have also studied the benefits of captions in the classroom Closed Captioning Helps All Students. Three other primary individuals - Brij Kothari, Greg McCall (US) and Alice Killackey -  have all  completed successful research into the link between the use of subtitles and the ability to significantly improve children's and students' reading and literacy skills. The research has demonstrated that the benefits of subtitles and captions include:
  • Subtitles and captions help children with word identification, meaning, acquisition, and retention.
  • Reading subtitles is motivating to reading.
  • Subtitles and captions can help children establish a systematic link between the written word and the spoken word.
  • Pre-readers, by becoming familiar with subtitles and captions, will have familiar signposts when they begin reading print-based material.
  • Subtitles and captions have been related to higher comprehension skills when compared to viewers watching the same media without them.
  • Children who have a positive experience in reading will want to read; reading subtitles and captions provides such an experience.
  • Reading is a skill that requires practice, and practice in reading subtitles and captions is practice with authentic text.
  • Subtitles and captions provide missing information for individuals who have difficulty processing speech and auditory components of the visual media (whether this difficulty is due to a hearing loss or a cognitive delay).
  • Students often need assistance in learning content-relevant vocabulary (in biology, history, literature, and other subjects), and with subtitles and captions they see both the terminology (printed word) and the visual image.
  • Subtitles and closed captioning is essential for deaf and hard of hearing children.
  • Subtitles and captions can be very beneficial to those learning English as a Second Language.
  • Subtitles and captions can help those with reading and literacy problems, and can help those who are learning to read.
The first Research formally published by the Department of Education in the United States was in January 2013 which linked the use of subtitles on video and the ability to improve children's reading and literacy skills.

The other student group to consider is English as Second Language (ESL) learners. For students who are learning English, captioned media can help improve vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension, word recognition and decoding skills.

If your students are very low-level readers, consider using videos aimed at a younger audience or those that relate to their areas of interest—for example, an animated action series or film or pop culture content, such as interviews with musicians and actors. YouTube and Karaoke are also great resources. Entertaining, brief videos tend to have less challenging vocabulary and your students will still receive the literacy benefits of reading while listening. Audio books while following along with the text is another great way of providing text with the spoken word. The key is providing information both through text and through the use of the spoken word (and video when appropriate) can be motivating for students.
Consider recommending that students (and caregivers) turn on captions or subtitles at home to maximize exposure to print.

Resources to learn more:
  • This is a wonderful TEDx talk where using captioning to support literacy and other literacy support strategies are discussed. 18 minutes of your time, it promises to be enlightening! Thank you, Chris Bugaj: "Disability-led innovations for the masses".
  • Listen Current is an online resource. Supporting listening with transcripts, it curates the best of public radio as a resource to keep teaching connected to the real world and build students’ listening skills at the same time. Nonfiction storytelling, carefully chosen for relevance to a teacher’s curriculum and students, works for science, social studies, and English/language arts. The audio stories come with lesson plans that are aligned to standards and learning objectives. A premium model of this program offers a live transcript with same-language subtitling projected onto a computer screen as the audio is being streamed, so that the students can follow along. If the emerging research is correct, when students listen to a story while tracking the transcript, their literacy skills will get a boost. They added this listening-subtitling feature because teachers asked for it.

While it’s definitely a good idea to limit the access kids have to devices, the occasional episode of their favorite show doesn't have to hurt either. In fact, if you turn on the show’s subtitles, your kids can also get a literacy lesson while watching.

Data from PlanetRead has shown that even 30 minutes of weekly Closed Captioning exposure over 3-5 years, enables adults and children with basic familiarity of the alphabet to become functionally literate.Wow!!

The impact of including captioning in all media dramatically increases literacy skills in all areas for people of all ages because we naturally read text that appears on a screen, using captions and subtitles can help boost literacy skills in a fun and engaging way.  

It’s never too early or too late to start. Turn it on!