Saturday, March 1, 2014

Considering Captioned Media

I arrived at a school recently to observe a seventh grader in English class. The class had just finished reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In preparation for performing selected scenes in small groups, the class would be watching the movie for character inspiration. The shades were drawn, the projector shone blue on the screen and the desks were pushed aside to allow space for students to sit closer on the rug. As the students filed in, excited chatter about a movie filled the room.

A boy (not my student) approached the teacher. “The movie will have subtitles, right?” he asked. After the teacher confirmed that, yes, there would be subtitles, the boy exclaimed quietly, “Yes!” and headed to the rug. In this class, captions are for everyone, not just my student with hearing loss.

As teachers of the deaf, we often remind school teams about the importance of using captioned media in order to ensure that our students have access to the information presented. As students get older, it is important to engage them in the process as part of building self-advocacy skills. Once captions are used consistently, all students begin to see the benefits, as with the student above. Helping classroom teachers see how captions benefit the whole class lessens the burden on the student with hearing loss and increases the likelihood that captions will be used as a matter of course. Here are a few things to keep in mind when working with school teams:

  •  Many factors make it especially challenging for students with hearing loss to access information presented in documentaries and educational videos through listening alone, including background music, narrators with accents, unfamiliar vocabulary (including names and places), and the inability to always see faces for speechreading cues.
  • Watching an educational film is different from watching a TV show or movie for fun. Most of my students use closed captions at home as well, but for those who do not, sitcoms and “fun” movies typically have an easy to follow, predictable plot line and missing pieces may not affect the overall meaning. In contrast, educational films do not have the same predictability, students are generally less familiar with the topics and are expected to walk away with a comprehensive understanding of the information presented. Missing even a small piece will affect their understanding of the overall meaning. Even when movies are “just for fun” at school, captions are still necessary in order for our students to feel included and to participate in casual conversations afterwards. 
  • Media is frequently used to enhance a lesson, introduce a new topic or conclude a unit. Without captions, students with hearing loss may misunderstand or completely miss information, creating confusion rather than improving their understanding of a topic.
  • When new information is presented through media, enabling the captions allows all students to correctly identify people, places and events. Teachers can pause the video with the captions on the screen to discuss aspects of the video, providing all students with access to the information being highlighted by the teacher.
  •  The student with hearing loss, as well as a few typically hearing peers, can take ownership of captioned media. I’ve worked with students as young as third grade who have learned to enable captions on the classroom computer and projector with adult supervision. These students have written out directions in their own words and included illustrations for turning on the captions. This ensures that even when the teacher is out, my student with hearing loss will have access to the media presented.
  •  That said, movies are often left for substitute teachers. Captions should be enabled, or clear directions for how to do so must be left.
  • Many websites claim to host videos with closed captioning. Be sure to preview any media with the captions enabled if you are not sure about the quality of the captions. For example, while YouTube offers a closed- captioning option, if the captions are not already embedded, the captions that can be viewed will be via Beta Captioning. These instantaneous captions are often incorrect – or even inappropriate –because the technology is not quite there yet in terms of accuracy. More reputable options are BrainPop or Discovery Streaming. Both require the school to purchase memberships but host videos on a variety of topics with reliable captioning. You might also encourage schools to sign up for a free membership to the federally funded Described and Captioned Media Program ( Captioned DVDs can be accessed free of charge from their lending library, and webstreaming is also available.
  • Enabling captions does not mean that students with hearing loss can take notes while watching films. Students will continue to require notes from a teacher (preferably prior to watching the movie) or from a peer so that they can read the captions without having to look away to write, missing the next segment.
  • Placing the FM microphone near the speaker does not enhance the quality of sound for most students with hearing loss. Use of a splitter is preferred by my students; it allows the FM to be plugged directly into the computer or TV without changing the sound for the rest of the class. (See “Maximize FM Use” for more information on use of splitters).
  •  All students can be encouraged to add captions to their own media projects when shared in class. With the increasing integration of media in the classroom, students are expected to create projects using a variety of computer programs. iMovie, for example, makes it easy for students to add subtitles to their own movies using the “subtitles” option.
  • Work with your student to determine how teachers should discuss captioned media in class if questions arise. Generally, statements that highlight the full class benefit rather than singling out the student with hearing loss are preferred.
The most recent AG Bell email newsletter included links describing the new captioned media guidelines. That information can be found here:

On a final note, my colleagues and I often find that once teachers become used to using captions and they see how they benefit all of their students, they often continue to use them as standard practice long after the student with hearing loss has moved on to the next grade. It can be reassuring for a first-timer know this! How do you help teachers incorporate captioned media?

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