Friday, January 22, 2010

Read Across America - a new twist!

Today I'm bringing you a post from Thom Lohman. Thom Lohman is the Communication Services Specialist for the Described and Captioned Media Program and strongly believes in the educational benefits of captioning and description for all students. He is also an ardent supporter and practitioner of accessible, semantic, standards-based web design/development.


The fifth-annual Read Captions Across America campaign (RCAA)—a partnership between the Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) and the NEA’s Read Across America—will be officially observed by thousands of students on Tuesday, March 2, 2010, the birthday of Dr. Seuss. Before you don your Cat in the Hat stovepipe hat, however, it helps reflect on why one of the most common forms of accessible technology is so beneficial to literacy.

Let’s start with a straw poll of sorts: How many of you have casually picked up a DVD case, intending to pop in a video for your class (after carefully vetting and previewing the content, of course), noticed the little “CC” or “SDH” notification on the back, and thought nothing of it? If you’re now reading this post with a virtual hand in the air, you’re likely one of many who are one step away from transforming a common educational tool (classroom video) into a multi-sensory literacy-building extravaganza.

Forgiving the bravado reflected in the last sentence for a moment, it’s imperative that everyone understand what the “CC” (closed captions) and “SDH” (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing) represent. Both terms are common industry jargon for what we at the DCMP simply refer to as “captions.”

What Are Captions?
Almost everyone, at one point or another, has seen closed captions on television, but there is a great deal of information packed into those streams of white letters on black backgrounds that is easy to miss at first glance. Captions consist of the textual equivalent of a program’s spoken dialogue or narration and also include speaker identification, sound effects, and music description. Whether they are open or closed, Line 21 (or the newer digital 708 specification), SDH, or one of the many web formats, captions are available on a growing number of educational media products.

Obviously, the primary function of captioning is as a means of accessibility for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The concept of captioning as accessibility is one of the pillars (along with description for people who are blind or visually impaired) of our Equal Access in the Classroom video, which I recommend everyone watch and share with a colleague or friend in the field of education.

Captioning: A Useful Literacy Tool
To quickly dispel a common misconception, captioning is not “just for people who are deaf.” Students of all ages and learning abilities, people learning English as a second language, and just about everyone else can benefit from the use of quality captioned media whenever it is available, including those areas outside of formal educational environments. Is it such an audacious idea that viewers of video-based media (especially kids, who spend much more time with their eyes focused on some sort of electronic display than they do with their noses buried in books) might benefit from some textual reinforcement?

Think about it: a common thread throughout seemingly all of the video-based literacy tutoring programs (and, to wit, programs intended to teach ESL) available on the market is the concept that emergent and developing readers—especially young children—benefit from simultaneous presentation of language in text and auditory form. Captioning takes this concept and seemingly one-ups it by including transcribed sound cues—including onomatopoeia—within the stream of text, allowing learners to develop phonetic awareness and reinforce the relationship between what is heard and what is represented in text.

If you’re interested in reading more about captioning use and its contribution to literacy, the DCMP provides a collection of compelling research summaries, case studies, and journal articles about many facets of accessible media. Visit the DCMP Clearinghouse and select “Research and Studies” under the “Captioning: General” heading for a complete listing of applicable resources.

(More Than) A Few Words About Accessing Captions Without an “Easy Button”
Now for the inevitable hitch in the system—certain classroom media setups make accessing closed captions an exercise akin to jumping through hoops. This is why the DCMP offers open captions on virtually every title in our collection. When captions are “opened up” (or, as some say, “burned in”), they become an integral part of the video signal that is transmitted from a source component (DVD player, computer, etc.) to a display component (TV, monitor, etc.)—these captions are “always on” and cannot be turned off.

Subtitles (including SDH) on DVDs/Blu-ray discs can generally be turned on via a menu option (likely headed “Captions/Subtitles,” “Languages,” “Set Up,” or something similar) or,on many discs,by pressing the “subtitles” button on the player’s remote control or software interface. Note that pressing a “CC” or “captions” button on the TV’s remote control will not activate disc-based subtitles, something that adds to many a teacher’s confusion when trying to access captioned content.

Other types of closed captions are, by definition, off by default, closed into some closet of external data until you, the user, open the proverbial door to allow them to be displayed. Theoretically, all televisions built since 1993 are required to provide for the display of closed captions. However, if your content is coming from anything other than a TV tuner (i.e., if you’re receiving your programming through a set-top box, DVD/VHS/Blu-ray player, DVR, or other component), or if you are watching the content on anything other than a TV (i.e. if you are using an LCD projector to project on a screen or interactive whiteboard), you might hit a few snags.

For starters, many displays enable closed-caption decoding only on inputs that connect to the TV’s tuner (usually a coaxial connection labeled “cable,” “TV,” “RF,” or “antenna”). That means if you’re connecting your player via a component cable (typically labeled Y, Pb, and Pr, and using a cable with green, blue, and red ends) or S-Video (a round connector with a square black pin and four small, round pins), you’ll need to be sure that your television supports closed caption decoding for these inputs.

Digital captions are another matter completely. Unlike Line-21 captions, which were included in the picture signal, digital captions must be opened up by the player. If you plan to show high-definition (or even enhanced standard-definition transmitted digitally) programming in your classroom, you’ll need to make sure the player you’re using enables the closed captions on your media to be decoded and burned into the picture before it makes its way to your display. If the combination of players and displays you are using does not decode closed captions, you can purchase an external closed-caption decoder (but many of these don’t support high-definition video output).

A quick word about web video: Although a great deal (certainly more than just a year or two ago) of web content is finally being captioned, there is no one universal standard (in the sense that television has a standard) format or player interface for displaying closed captions. It’s best to fully research a content distributor’s accessibility options to ensure captions are available (and of sufficient quality) before committing to use of that material.

Now It’s Time for That Hat
By launching RCAA in 2006 as a partnership effort with the NEA’s Read Across America, the DCMP hoped to expand peoples’—primarily educators’ and parents’—perceptions of “reading” to include the viewing of captioned media.

Now in its fifth year, RCAA has spread beyond the schools for the deaf and into public libraries, public schools, homes, churches, and other venues where conscientious educators (whether by profession or on a de facto basis) understand the need to utilize every available tool to ensure that literacy remains a top priority.

We invite you to participate by planning an RCAA event for your school or organization, especially if you’re planning to celebrate Read Across America already. We’ve put together a convenient, free all-in-one RCAA Event Kit containing posters, bookmarks, certificates, and—for registered DCMP members (see below for membership requirements)—a DVD containing six popular Dr. Seuss titles (with open captions, of course).

About the DCMP
Among its many accessible media-focused services, the DCMP provides free-loan access to thousands of quality captioned and described educational media titles to teachers, parents, and others involved in some educational capacity with K-12 students who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired, or deaf-blind. If our services would benefit the students you serve, please register today for a free account.

Even if you don’t qualify for a lending account, you may access our informational resources or subscribe to our newsletter for up-to-date DCMP news. Don’t forget to become a fan of the DCMP on Facebook, follow the DCMP on Twitter, and subscribe to the DCMP YouTube channel. The DCMP is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and administered by the National Association of the Deaf.

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