Sometimes I play it safe. Braille reading upper secondary students' use of English in school and in extramural activities
CARINA: Welcome. My name is Carina Söderberg, I'm an advisor at the Swedish National Agency for Special Needs Education in Schools. I'm here to talk about my degree project. 15 credits called "Sometimes I play it safe" braille reading upper secondary students' use of English in school and in extramural activities. And this was the very last part of the programme in special needs training, visual impairment at Stockholm University, and I finished my studies in May last year. Slide two. So how come I chose to focus on English for students with blindness? Well, as an advisor, I've been told by many teachers that their students with blindness struggle more with English, than other school subjects, theoretical subjects that is, and this problem seems to occur in compulsory school, from around grade five, six, maybe seven and there could be difficulties in spelling, vocabulary but often just described as a general lack of fluency. In other languages, Spanish, French, German on the other hand, these difficulties are not noted. So, here students with blindness seldom fall behind their sighted peers, quite the contrary actually. So, the aim in this study was to find some answers to why English is a difficult subject for students with blindness, and are there strategies to overcome these difficulties? And also, could there be factors within or even outside of school and education? That's what I wanted to look into. Slide three. This is a qualitative study with some structured interviews, with five braille-reading students in upper secondary school. So, they were between 16 and 19 years old, both boys and girls, but all of them were referred to as boys here in this presentation. I have my reasons for focusing on upper secondary instead of the lower grades. Hopefully the difficulties in English learning are left behind, and they could thereby reflect on their use of English as younger children, and now in their later teens. I also interviewed English teachers who had a braille reading student in class, but they are just mentioned very briefly in this presentation. And a thematic analysis was used to find common themes in the data in the interviews. Slide four. When looking at difficulties and strategies in English education, two themes emerge from the data Students need to sort of juggle between short-term and long-term goals, and also English education based on a sighted norm. Slide five. Lack of time here symbolised by a picture of an hourglass. It was something all students talked about in English education. So long-term goals have to stand back for more short-term ones. A quote goes, "Since you have to finish the assignments quickly, process information quickly, I tend to listen much more than before not as much braille" unquote. Slide six. So, listening, not tactile reading despite negative effects on spelling. That's the first example of short-term focus. So, lack of time makes the students more or less abandon braille reading in English, although they know is not good for their writing or spelling, but instead they listen to written information much more now than in primary school then. And here's a picture shown of a boy wearing headphones in a classroom. Actually, four out of five never read braille connected to schoolwork in English, or perhaps just a word or two on the refreshable braille display. Just one of them, a very fast reader, a tactile reader chooses to read braille in English class. And he says to boost his writing is one of the reasons why he does that. I was told that a typical vocabulary practise when younger, doesn't exist any longer. So, no more cramming of words and spelling. They're expected to look up the words themselves. So, one of them struggling with spelling actually wanted this vocabulary for homework to continue just like before. And when you always listen and never read in braille, it's difficult to use dictionaries. And this example refers to an online dictionary, which of course requires a reading approach but it's the same with, well, dictionary is in print. The quote goes, "it requires me to read the word to know how to look it up in a dictionary. Otherwise, I spell it wrong. And then I do not get the result." Unquote. So, this boy likes music. He likes the lyrics, but he isn't able to look up the difficult words, since he always uses his iPhone to well use voiceover to listen to the lyrics. And so he never reads the lyrics in braille. Another consequence of not reading braille is explained by a student whose words also gave title to my degree project. The quote goes. "Sometimes I played safe. When I know the meaning of words but not the spelling, I avoid using them in writing. My teachers told me I'm holding back." Unquote. So, his writing is actually held back not by his language skills, but by poor ICT skills, that is Information and Communications Technologies. So, the teachers are aware of this non reading approach, and they are concerned about the effects on the writing, but they experienced the same lack of time, and therefore not really encourage to students to read braille in class. So, keeping pace with the classmates, that's more important. That's, well, that's how I interpret the data. Slide seven. Independently or with the help from a paraeducator? That's another aspect of this dilemma aiming for short-term or more long-term goals. So online work for example, when it gets too challenging, the paraeducator steps in, if the student don't master the online work themselves already, there's no time to practise during class. But in order to become more independent, they do practise keyboard shortcuts, for example, or at least were doing it when they were younger, but some seem to be good at practising sort of in that setting. But when it comes to the real work in the classroom, they still don't manage to do it when time is limited. So in conclusion, meeting deadline is more important than independence. The short-term goal sort of always win. That's how I see it. Quote goes, "obviously I could do it myself, but sometimes you have to think to what extent I mean how much time does it take to aim for total independence? Is it worth putting that much time into it?" Unquote. So I do understand this choice they're taking but it's also pushing the problems ahead of you. A paraeducator can help out in school, but in the spare time activities, they need to be able to do the online work themselves without help. Slide eight. The last example of short-term versus long-term is organisational changes in order to sort of create more time. And here's a picture of the German, Spanish and French flag crossed out. And by choosing not to study a modern language from sixth grade, it's possible to practise braille reading or other core skills during those hours every week. And two of the students chose not to study a modern language. Another option is to take an extra year in upper secondary for the same reasons to sort of create more time, perhaps reducing stress levels as well. Only one of the students had planned for this fourth year. And this was a high achieving student who just wanted some extra time when aiming for good grades. And in this picture, there's a white student hat shown worn at graduation, raised up in the air towards a blue sky. Slide nine We're still focused on school but move onto the theme of sighted norm. And some teachers told me that they tend to use more auditory input with the braille-reading students in class. And in general, the students seem pleased with the teacher's adaptation and so on, but still three areas worth mentioning based on a sighted norm. For example, films were used much more sparsely when pupils with blindness were in the class, but films were used often replacing a novel. The pupil was given a pre-understanding of the film: the setting, the characters and so on, but still found it difficult to work with these movie assignments on equal terms as their sighted peers. And sometimes English subtitles were used, making it easier with vision to pick up the dialogue. Quote, "I didn't know who was who, it was a bit confusing. The task didn't go well, I didn't pick up as much from the film as the others. I prefer working with novels for obvious reasons." and well, unquote, sorry,. Well, in written analysis the details matter. And this boy thought that it wasn't fair to be graded on film analysis. He had preferred reading the novel instead. The use of direct quotes and literary analysis is also based on a sighted norm. Quote, "I guess sighted peers can just browse through the book to look for quotes. Me listening to an audio book, it's pretty difficult to find the right quotes to use." Unquote. And some but not all of the teachers, were aware of the difficulties in finding specific quotes to use. One teacher adapted instructions all together for all students, giving a number of quotes to choose from when writing their analysis. And this saved a lot of time for the student with blindness who was listening to an audio book, and it also included him in the class with the same instructions for everyone. Slide 10. This is about Britain feedback. And this is the last example of the site and norm in the education. And here's the photo of a text in English with many handwritten correction marks in writing and a pen on top. And in language studies, receiving specific comments on your texts, help improve the writing that the five students however, they mainly receive general feedback on their texts, not the type of specific comments as seen in this photo. A quote, "I don't know what kind of feedback my classmates receive, but my texts are mostly commented on a general level. That might be a bit negative. I don't know, well, I'd say it is." Unquote The teachers that I interviewed, they wanted to be able to give the same kind of written feedback to everyone. But many of them didn't know how this could be done in an accessible way in a digital format. Slide 11. will leave education and move on to spare time or extramural activities in English. And I'd like to share a quote with you from a boy who certainly uses English in his spare time. The quote goes "a lot of podcasts, facts, reading reviews of novels and games and stuff I'm interested in, check out some presentations or TED-talks on YouTube. Well guess I'm a bit of a geek." Unquote. And it sounds so easy when he describes what he's doing in English in his spare time. And that's the way it should be for everyone. Originally, extramural meant learning that took place outside the walls or boundaries of school. But nowadays, the term refers to situations where learning isn't a main purpose. It just sort of happens anyway. So binge watching a Netflix series, for example, in English and chances are you pick up new words and phrases, but entertainment, not learning, is still the main purpose. And the questions asked in this study are, what's accessible without vision? and what is more difficult for braille readings students regarding activities in English? Students take part in a wider range of spare time activities in English, mainly auditory some listen to music and audio books, while others, the more skilled ICT users look for information more actively, even describing English as a natural part of life and not surprisingly his main interests are computers and programming. However, all five students are aware of limitations due to their lack of vision, but all also have strategies to gain access to English and spoken or written form. However, opting out of activities. also seem to be a strategy especially for those with poor ICT skills. Slide 12. First we'll have a look at the accessible activities in extramural English. Only one student the one into programming uses his computer for spare time activities in English. The others only use their iPhones. So English is almost never read in print or on the refreshable braille display. And all but one listen to audio books in English in their spare time. Quote, "I read with my ears actually." Unquote. The boy says. And a picture in this slide shows four books with large headphones around them. And two of the students say that they read English novels in print as often as they listen to audio books. And I do believe that reading novels is less common among their sighted peers, but it's just a guess. I didn't ask them. Slide 13. More literature than films and series. Literature is considered more accessible, more equal than films and series since it's all verbal information. And one boy states, "I'm more of a book type kind of person." Unquote. And in this slide, the novel "Lord of the Flies" is shown and also a photo from the movie with Peggy wearing his glasses and Ralph holding a spear. Accessible activities online are auditory information such as TED-talks, basically just the person on stage talking, I was told, documentaries, usually a good speaker describing what happens but also more verbal YouTubers, that is videos not depending a lot on visual information. But I was a bit surprised that no one mentioned podcasts since they're all sound, no visual information. But perhaps they're more popular among an older generation, or the fact that podcasts generally are quite long. I don't know Slide 14. If we move on to more inaccessible activities for extramural English. Actually quite a lot is inaccessible to various extents. And the students mentioned films, series, YouTube, social media, online gaming, chat rooms. Taking part in online information requires good ICT skills, but some of the students aren't very good with this Social media, very popular, mostly visual however, and here's the TikTOK logo shown, and memes for example, these humorous combinations of photos and texts. The screen reader can't read this information unless it has been technically accessible. So, without vision you miss out on this exposure to English, but more importantly as I see it, these students cannot be part of the social aspects of social media with their sighted peers. Quote, "there's a lot of focus on visual images and pictures and now when TikTOK is so popular, people use it, they use it differently than I do." Unquote. So this student can read the comments, but the comments don't make any sense unless you can. Well, know from the context of the photograph. But just like social media, many YouTube videos are also based on visual information. So you can listen to spoken English, but it doesn't really make any sense unless you know the context. the visual information where it's connected to. Slide 15. According to the students, there are a few series with audio descriptions, and just like social media, they therefore miss out on the social aspects of talking about the shared experience. And some said they wanted to be part of that. They also miss an important exposure to spoken English that sighted peers get quite a lot of. And few online games are based on sound or verbal information, and thereby accessible. And the chat rooms connected to these games might be accessible, but there's nothing to write or talk about unless you play the games. Quote, "the online games I've played based on sound were single player, you don't talk to anyone then. There's no community for players of audio-based games as with regular games. It's quite limited." Unquote. So even the skill ICT users miss this opportunity to communicate and thereby becoming more fluent in English. So only the one into programming has found online friends with mutual interests, and they communicate in English. slide 16. There is no previous research on extramural English for students with blindness in Sweden. English language skills among sighted children on the other hand, benefit a lot from extramural activities symbolised and disliked by red heart, between the words skills and gaming. Several studies by Sam Fists and Sylvia, show that the more time you spend and the more players you interact with in so-called massively multiplayer online games, the better their vocabulary. So in these games, English is used since players come from all over the world, not just your group of friends. Gaming also improves vocabulary more than reading, which was a bit surprising. In gaming you use the words more actively communicating with others, contrary to a passive use when reading. So gamers are prosumers of English. That is being both producers and consumers. And the students I interviewed were mainly consumers listening not producers, talking, writing in English. Slide 17. I'd like to share some final quotes and thoughts with you. The students I interviewed believed that visual information enables young learners to take on more difficult tasks in English. And there's a picture of the person reaching the finishing line, with several others running behind. I quote, "many of my friends were watching English movies from an earlier age than me. I started watching English films on YouTube when I was about 15, while others had been doing that since there were like seven." Unquote. So children with liners seem to have a slower start in English. They have to know the language quite well before taking part in extramural activities. And whereas children with vision are often exposed to English and films or using English in online gaming and so on, even though they aren't very fluent yet. And there's a massive Anglo-Saxon influence in Swedish culture, very different from the other languages you study in school. They often stay being just school subjects. The quote, "in Spanish, I was one of the best, because none of us knew anything beforehand. There were no series in Spanish that people watched that could mess things up. All of us were on the same page." Unquote. So this is quite insightful, I think, and this might be the key factor when many but not all students struggle more with English than their sighted peers. Because they don't have the same mileage using English in their spare time. Slide 18. Discussion and implications. I didn't expect this listening approach in English education in upper secondary school. So braille reading I believe is still important, and could also improve their writing and spelling. Secondly, braille-reading students, ICT skills are important in their studies of course, but in extramural learning as well, where they don't have a paraeducator to help them out. So long-term goals such as improved independence in ICT skills, need to be addressed. I also like to comment on lack of time. There's a picture of an emoji with her hands in the air, palms upwards for the language for, I don't know. Core skills in Norway, expanded core curriculum in the US, are addressing the needs of students with blindness or visual impairment. But in Sweden, well, braille reading students are supposed to keep up the pace in their studies and practise specific skills, but aren't given an extra time to do this. So it just doesn't make sense, does it? But so no wonder all of these students I interviewed at least feel almost a constant lack of time. And this makes me a bit sad actually. And the last one, the question is: what fun accessible activities are there without vision to boost English and prevent children with blindness from falling behind sighted peers around grade five and on? In time when others start using English more frequently in online activities. So accessible activities should be fun, not just not another school type of activity. So, there is such an array of applications and games to practise English in a playful way, but without vision, these activities seldom work, I'm afraid. Slide 19, the final slide. I just wanted to say that you're welcome to contact me with comments or questions. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for listening.