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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 6

Product Evaluation

The Braille Teacher's Pal: A Review of SAL

This article reviews a new device, called Speech Assisted Learning (SAL), that is designed to help children and adults who are learning to read braille practice their skills. Its developer, Sally Mangold, a teacher, researcher, author, and the creator of several braille courses for adults through the Hadley School for the Blind, has long been a leader in providing instructional strategies and materials for braille reading and writing. SAL is a freestanding device with speech that gives feedback to the user during lessons. Using bar-code technology, a student places one of the program's braille pages on SAL, presses prompt buttons and follows the spoken directions, and receives comments and scores at the end. SAL is not intended to teach braille reading on its own; rather, it is "an enrichment device that supplements braille lessons" and aims to increase the user's speed and accuracy of reading. (An article by Mangold on how SAL was conceived, developed, and tested appears in the October 2003 special issue on technology of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness.)

Rationale for SAL

The critical shortage of personnel who are available to teach children and adults who are blind or have low vision has been well documented. Studies have found that there is an immediate need for 5,000 teachers of children who are visually impaired to meet the needs of students in our schools. The need for rehabilitation teachers is equally great. The skilled staff who are needed to teach and support the learning of skills, such as braille, assistive technology, and daily living skills, are not available in the numbers that they have been in the past.

Braille instruction is of special concern. While the advent of technology devices that read aloud or enlarge images has made some tasks easier, there will always be a need to read and write in braille. Braille is the simple and elegant technology that allows people who are blind to access information personally and privately without batteries or any intermediary. Children who are acquiring literacy will always need trained, certified teachers to instruct them in braille, since they are learning to read and write "from scratch." But what about older students and adults who have print literacy skills but would benefit from learning to use braille? What tools are available to assist them to practice their braille skills between lessons? And teachers always need materials—especially for young students—that are designed to increase reading fluency and accuracy and to reinforce braille reading and writing skills in a way that is perceived as enjoyable and motivating.

Physical Description

The SAL unit is a lightweight (6 pounds) flat panel, measuring 16 inches by 13 inches by 1½ inches, with a touch screen and an eight-dot braille keyboard. The unit has a floppy disk drive to use with lesson disks, a compact flash slot, an earphone jack, and toggle switches on the back for the speech rate and to turn the unit on and off. The bottom of the unit has rubber pads for nonslip use (often important for beginning braille readers who have "heavy hands" and push down hard on materials). A metal paper latch along the left side of the unit firmly holds the braille pages and hides the bar-code scanner that informs SAL which page has been placed on the touch screen. The physical features of SAL are well described in the helpful owner's manual, as well as on an audiocassette tape that comes with the sample lessons (included).

SAL comes with a carrying case containing a 12-volt adapter-charger, earphones, a foot pedal, and a user's guide in print and in braille. The foot pedal is an especially nice feature because it allows for hands-free usage during lessons. Overall, SAL is easy to set up. The manufacturer recommends charging the device for three hours before its first use, but then the SAL is ready to go. The manual says that SAL will hold a charge for eight hours. Since the device is sturdy plastic, it seems suitable for use in schools, where equipment is not always treated lovingly.

How Does It Work?

The SAL course work is packaged in envelopes containing 11-inch by 11 ½-inch braille pages. On the back of each page is a bar code. You insert the lesson disk into the side of the SAL, open the paper latch, place the page containing a braille reading activity on the touch screen, and close the latch again. The scanner reads the code from each sheet, so the correct instructions and feedback will be given during the lesson.

Figure 1: Photograph of SAL unit with touch screen and braille keyboard, manual, carrying case, and lessons.

Caption: SAL comes with a helpful owner's manual, a carrying case, and sample lessons. A variety of courses, with manuals and activities, are available.

The lessons are interactive, requiring a student to push the prompt (either key 8, by using the foot pedal, or by pushing an area of the touch screen) to get spoken directions and to receive a score. As the student goes through the activity, whether by touching the page on the screen or by entering braille on the keyboard, he or she gets immediate feedback via speech. For example, SAL may direct the student to touch a specific symbol or word on a line, or it may ask the student to touch a particular place on the page (e.g., "Press the last symbol on each line"). SAL may respond positively to the student's actions by saying "yes," "terrific," or a similar word or will let the student know that a particular response is incorrect. At the end of the activity, the student gets a score, recorded as the number of responses correct out of a total number possible, and how many attempts were made. So, a possible score may be "12 out of 16 correct in 21 tries."

Each set of materials comes with a calibration sheet that must be used prior to the lesson sheets. SAL will prompt you to conduct the calibration if you skip this step. Calibration pages are easily identified with rows of full braille cells at the top and bottom and down the left side of the page.

SAL has eight voices to choose from, and the speech rate is easily changed using either the toggle switch on the back or through menu commands. Menu commands are entered using the SAL keyboard by chording (pressing the space bar at the same time as you press other braille dot combinations) and are familiar to users of similar devices (such as personal organizers). This system is easy to learn even for people who have not used other computerized devices, although it would be helpful if the manual reminded neophytes that they must exit the menu each time they change something. Menu commands can adjust the speech volume, rate, and pitch and switch from English to Spanish.

The ability to change the speech sounds is especially helpful to people who are not familiar with synthesized speech. You can fiddle with the easy-to-set commands until you reach a speech level, pitch, and speed that's comfortable.

I expected that the Spanish feature would automatically offer the lessons in Spanish. However, it gives only the menu commands and lesson scores in Spanish; the lessons themselves, including the lesson prompts, are still in En-glish. (SAL does use Spanish to direct users to the next lesson page, however.) I hope that lessons in Spanish will be available in the future, as this is often an underserved population.

Other commands are available to allow one-handed use, to manage lessons, and to troubleshoot. When SAL is turned off with a lesson sheet still on the touch screen, it will remember where you stopped and does not have to be recalibrated. All these features make SAL user-friendly.

Features for Teachers

SAL is not only easy for students to use, it has helpful features for instructors as well. A Lesson menu can store and delete lessons on the device from a disk and—with technical support—to a computer via a cable (not included). A Journal feature allows a teacher to record a student's progress on a floppy disk and read it using the SAL Journal Viewer software, a free download from the Duxbury Systems web site. In this way, a teacher can keep a separate disk for each student and document each student's gains. The one-handed feature increases the population of potential students who can use SAL to include students who can use only one hand. A keyboard lockout feature allows the teacher to prevent students from "messing around" with the device and changing settings arbitrarily.

The manuals that accompany the lessons I saw were well designed and easy to use, which will come as no surprise to any teacher who is familiar with Mangold's widely used Mangold Developmental Program of Tactile Perception and Braille Letter Recognition. Although the manuals give the teacher helpful information and the full text of the SAL directions, they do not presume to instruct the teacher in how to teach braille. The materials I saw would clearly be used best by an experienced teacher who truly understands how to impart the mechanics and skills of braille reading.

Troubleshooting

The first unit I received had problems with the bar-code reader, which would either misidentify a page or would tell me that it couldn't read the bar code. Directions in how to enter the bar-code number manually on a lesson page are provided in the owner's manual. The bar code must be entered in the computer braille code. Since there are probably a number of users of SAL who are not familiar with this code, it would be helpful to include this information in the manual. In addition, the bar-code numbers are provided only in print, so instructors who are blind would not be able to read them. I returned this unit to Freedom Scientific, which replaced it with a SAL unit that worked with no problems.

SAL lets you know when its battery is getting low by beeping when only 10 minutes are left of its charge. A menu feature also informs you of the battery-level status.

What Do You Do With SAL?

However well designed the device is—and SAL is quite elegant—it is only as useful as the course work that is available for it. Information on the Freedom Scientific web site regarding SAL course work states:

The courseware is designed to teach in areas that are of emphasis to teachers and rehabilitation professionals. These areas include: students who need help developing faster and more efficient reading, writing and arithmetic skills; teens and adults who want to enhance learning through self-directed study; and children and adults who have socioeconomic and/or geographical barriers that prevent them from receiving direct professional help.

This last point worries me a bit because I believe that children especially must have direct instruction in braille from a trained teacher of students with visual impairments, no matter what the barriers. As useful as SAL is, it will not correct a student who reads over a page from right to left, instead of left to right. It will not notice if the student lazily uses the tip of one finger to complete a lesson page, rather than efficient hand-movement techniques that are described in the lesson. It doesn't notify you if a line of braille has been skipped, and while it gives a score, it does not suggest how a better score can be obtained. For these reasons, I believe that SAL works best as a learning tool for young children if a certified teacher is physically present to make sure that the learning objectives are being met. Adolescents and adults are the best target audience for self-directed study, as suggested on the SAL web site, but even they need to be highly motivated and serious about learning and improving their braille skills. But as part of a larger learning experience, SAL can play the admirable role of providing immediate feedback and opportunities to practice.

While this review focuses mainly on the device itself, I was sent several sets of curricular materials to try on SAL. I was able to spend some time with Braille Basics 1 for Teens and Adults: Introduction to Braille; Word Tracking: High Frequency Words; and The Deep Sea (contracted version).

The Braille Basics 1 course contains some innovative features that are designed to make it easy for a beginner to become oriented to braille materials. For example, while braille numbers are at the bottom of the lesson pages for the benefit of the instructor, it is not expected that someone who is unfamiliar with braille will be able to read them. Instead, a system has been developed that uses the braille "l" to represent the number "1" and a full cell to represent the number "5." Five lessons are included in this course, and the learning objectives are clearly stated for each. The scope and sequence have been clearly defined and seem not only logical but seamless. Plenty of practice materials have been developed for this course, and the activities will certainly allow adequate practice for adolescents and adults who are learning braille.

The materials in Word Tracking: High Frequency Words had been adapted from similar materials in print developed by Ann Arbor Publishers. I had used this book when I was a teacher of children with low vision to increase their fluency in reading print and was delighted to see a braille version made available. I wish there was a way for students who use these materials to time themselves as they complete each lesson or that SAL could report the time to complete an activity page as it reports the score.

Other courses that are available, as listed on the web site, include these:

  • Braille Basics 2 for Teens and Adults: Learning the Braille Alphabet
  • Better Braille Letter Reading and Writing (to promote accuracy and speed)
  • Sentence Tracking (to improve reading and word recognition)
  • Literary Braille Practice Sentences (for systematic review of the braille code)
  • Fun Facts of the World, Grades 3 and Up
  • Big Bear, Small Bear (a talking picture book designed for young children)
  • Series of High Noon books (high interest, low vocabulary books)

As new courses are added, the utility of the SAL will increase.

SAL Finale

SAL will not replace a skilled and certified teacher of braille and is not meant to do so. This point needs to be made clearly in the promotional materials for this device, especially to administrators who may see SAL as a panacea for the shortage of teachers. After all, even with its high price, SAL is cheaper than hiring a full-time teacher. SAL cannot give the same kind of feedback an instructor would give and cannot watch to make sure that a student is using correct hand movements (without cheating) and techniques, however. In short, it does not, in fact, teach. However, SAL is a device with a great potential for reinforcing instruction, especially if the SAL curricular materials are of a high quality. There is a great need for innovative technology options that teachers can use to support braille instruction.

The high price of the device, currently listed at $4,595, may prevent it from being used as widely as it deserves to be. The fact that it is a stand-alone device is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because SAL is certainly easier to use than are other computerized systems and can be used by people who don't have a computer; it is a curse because it is one more dedicated piece of hardware (with necessary software) that needs to be purchased by cash-strapped educational programs. The availability of more courseware will make the device useful to a wider range of students, which may help justify its cost to an agency or school.

Finally, while SAL is easy to use, it is still an electronic device, so technical support will still be needed. No matter how user friendly a computer is, it's still a computer.

Manufacturer's Comments

Freedom Scientific

"As stated under Troubleshooting, the first unit sent for this evaluation was damaged in shipping and was replaced. In normal operation there is never a need to manually enter lesson numbers— simply align the page and close the latch; the bar code registers automatically. Some courseware already has been translated into Spanish and is in test for release in 2004. We agree that SAL works best as a learning tool for young children with a certified teacher physically present."

Product Information

Product: SAL (Speech Assisted Learning)

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716–1805; phone: 800-444-4443; web site: <www.freedomscientific.com>. Price: $4,595.

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