Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Imperfect World of Captioning

Our family likes to watch movies. Julia was completely spellbound at age three when she watched her first movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the past couple of years, she's matured into a bigger kid movie viewer. We watched all of the Harry Potter movies and the Chronicles of Narnia. We only remembered the Lord of the Rings trilogy when preview started for the new prequel, The Hobbit.

So Christmas break became a Lord of the Rings marathon.

Quite on accident, LOTR Fellowship of the Rings started displaying the closed captions from the moment the DVD was inserted. Tim went for the remote to turn the captions off, but I asked him to leave them. Maybe they would help.

Watching the bigger kid movies with Julia isn't always completely enjoyable.

"What did he say?"
"What's going on?"
"What? WHAT?"

The Fellowship of the Rings was pure bliss. Julia was relaxed and didn't ask for mid-movie plot explanations. Tim and I agreed that we may not have known what was going on when we first saw the movie. Hobbits, Elves, and Orcs have tough accents. Background music crowds out the dialog. Why don't we all use closed captions?

The second movie was also a DVD with identical captions to the first. I recorded the Return of the King from a free preview weekend of Starz and we found those captions weren't as good. Instead of popping up when the character was speaking, these captions were late, often continuing after a scene had ended. Though flawed, it was still better than nothing.

After enjoying the full nine hours of the trilogy, we went to our local theater to see The Hobbit. The theater offers closed captioning at most shows. We chose a matinee and requested a closed caption device.

Cinemark selected the CaptiView Closed Caption Viewing System (CaptiView) to transmit the closed captions to audience members who desire the assistance of captioning.  CaptiView provides captioning to those who have significant difficulty hearing the movie soundtrack via an OLED display on a bendable support arm that fits into the theater seat cup holder. (
The device is a little screen on a long stalk that fits into the seat's cup holder. Three rows of text appear between shades that keep the light from bothering other patrons. The long bendy pole is meant to be super adjustable, but Julia is shorter than an adult (we've been teasing that she might actually BE a Hobbit). It was nearly impossible to get the thing to the right spot in her field of vision without blocking the movie screen. We spent a good ten minutes wrestling with the set up.

None of the previews were captioned. I kept checking expectantly, but the little display just said, "Captions are not available for this preview. Captioning will start with the feature presentation." Bummer.

Finally, the movie started. Julia was captivated. I could see her look to the captions frequently during scenes that were heavy on dialog. Afterwards, she said it was okay.  Her main complaint was those shades that make the screen look dark unless it's angled just right. For some of the movie she actually held onto the screen to keep it tilted so she could see.

Though imperfect, captions have made life better. On our TV, we showed Julia how to turn them on herself. Now, most times we find her watching Doc McStuffins with the captions. She likes it and we've even convinced her that she can turn the volume down a bit. Good news all around!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

DIBELS and other nonsense

Second grade has been interesting. That is to say, Julia adores her teacher, loves school, and every day I think about pulling the plug on it and homeschooling her. I think that's called a dichotomy: my equally impressive, simultaneous, and completely opposing feelings that school is great and I don't want to send her there anymore.

It started with the DIBELS. "The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) are a set of procedures and measures for assessing the acquisition of early literacy skills from kindergarten through sixth grade." ( Basically, it's a test given periodically to make sure students are gaining those important building blocks on the way to reading fluency.

By all accounts, Julia was doing wonderfully. One paper came home from school showing her reading comprehension on par with that of a child halfway through third grade. She was... is a fluent reader. She can understand and retell stories read to her and that she read independently. But in October, she didn't achieve benchmark on the nonsense word portion of the DIBELS.

Trouble with nonsense words seemed to snowball or at least coincide with a bunch of other less than promising findings. We discovered she couldn't decode short vowel sounds. Then I began to pick apart the mechanics of her whole process. She doesn't use phonemes but seems to read by patterns. Suddenly there are all of these holes in her emerging literacy. She has started confusing b's and d's while reading, expanding a problem that had previously been contained to just her own messy handwriting.

For a while it seemed everything was falling apart. At least one source indicated DIBELS is not a good assessment for kids with hearing loss. Should we just do away with DIBELS? But we can't let her fall behind in reading. I was starting to lose sleep over it.

Fortunately, I am in regular contact with a handful of people that have infinitely more knowledge than I do about teaching kids to read. These experts suggested visual phonics. Visual phonics pairs a hand shape/motion with each sound. There are 46 of these sounds in the English language. (

I figure it's worth a try.

There was some delay in implementing visual phonics. I learned that our school district doesn't use visual phonics. They made up their own set of cues to avoid the cost of training teachers on the already developed, standardized program. Though completely baffled that there's even an option, I had to decide whether Julia should learn visual phonics (like the rest of the world) or the other thing.

We chose visual phonics.

So far, Julia has learned the cues for long and short "o". She announced afterwards that she doesn't like it and doesn't see how it's going to help.

"I never understood how this helped you remember to make an /s/ sound," I told her waving my index finger in front of my mouth like I've done so many times over the years. "But it did."

So we're forging ahead. Julia is getting extra practice at school with those nonsense words. She's got a stack of flashcards with different syllables that she combines to make her own nonsense words. I've increased the amount of daily independent reading time she has in case it's my corrections that are messing her up when we read together. She'll learn visual phonics whether she likes it or not.

And I, always the anxious mother, will attempt to trust the public school system... and breathe.