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AFB JOURNAL OVISUAL
IMPAIRMENT& BLINDNESS
  
Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss  
 

March 2009 • Volume 103 Number 3

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Louis Braille Celebration

Supporting Students' Literacy Through Data-Driven Decision-Making and Ongoing Assessment of Achievement

M. Cay Holbrook

Print edition page number(s) 133-136

The guest editor of the JVIB Louis Braille Bicentennial Celebration is Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D., consultant and retired vice president for International Programs and Special Projects, American Foundation for the Blind.


We often take reading and writing for granted. There was a time, not so long ago, when literacy was not available to everyone. Louis Braille recognized the importance of access to information, and his simple but ingenious code has had an impact on the lives of generations of people who are blind. Two hundred years after the birth of Louis Braille, parents and educators must still work to ensure that students with visual impairments receive appropriate literacy instruction and access to information.

Children who are visually impaired learn to read the same way as children who are sighted. The five key components of a reading program identified by the National Reading Panel (2000)--phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension--are as important for children who read braille as they are for children who read print. In addition, the overall goals of reading for children who are visually impaired are exactly the same as for children who are sighted. These goals include success in academic pursuits, but also development of the joy and excitement of allowing reading to transport the reader to a different place and time, and participating in writing to communicate with a broad audience on a diverse range of topics. With this in mind, the value of reading through braille is equal to the value of reading through print.

Adults with and without visual impairments use a wide range of literacy tools (hard copy materials in braille or print, computers, and personal electronic devices) to accomplish communicative tasks. Access to a variety of literacy tools is more critical today than ever before for professional and personal success. In order to become proficient users of a variety of literacy tools, adults must possess strong, efficient basic reading and writing skills (Koenig, 1992). These skills are built through a home-school partnership that values and recognizes the life-long importance of literacy.

Children who are sighted and have no physical or cognitive disabilities develop basic literacy skills through reading and writing print. Children who are visually impaired have two media options for developing basic literacy skills: braille and print. The challenge facing parents and teachers of these children is to determine the most effective literacy medium or media for each individual child, especially as they develop strong basic literacy skills. In many instances, the decision of the most appropriate reading medium is clear. At some point in a child's life, typically as the child enters school, a decision is made to begin basic literacy instruction in braille, print, or both, which is also known as dual media. The process by which many educational teams gather pertinent data that documents the decision-making process for selecting a young child's literacy media was outlined in the mid-1980s and is called learning media assessment (LMA).

Prior to LMA, literacy media decisions were made by teachers of students with visual impairments who used their best professional judgment in deciding whether braille, print, or dual media would be most effective for a particular student to learn how to read and write. Although these teachers had a great deal of knowledge and experience in working with children with visual impairments, without gathering critical data to support the learning media decisions, students and teachers were often put in precarious positions related to their confidence that learning media decisions were based on appropriate, individual information and not on convenience or preconceived attitudes or opinions on literacy for this population. LMA was designed to support teachers, parents, and students in both the initial and ongoing learning media decision-making process, allowing for the most effective use of literacy tools for basic and functional (applied) reading and writing according to individual need.

Learning media assessment

LMA is a general term that applies to all assessments designed to provide support for literacy media decisions. There are several examples of LMAs that have been developed by individuals or state departments of education (Sanford & Burnett, 2008; South Carolina Department of Education, 1993), however, only the most commonly used LMA that was developed by Koenig and Holbrook (1995) will be discussed in this article. Other LMAs have similar characteristics and components to the one discussed here, and are based on similar principles.

LMA is an ongoing process designed to assist teachers to monitor the visual functioning of their students over time and allow for necessary changes in learning media. Since the purpose of LMA is to gather information that will inform decisions regarding literacy media, it is important that all members of a child's educational team--including the student, the student's parents, teachers, and other staff members, as appropriate--understand the need for and participate in collecting and updating information as it becomes available (for example, recording the results of clinical low vision evaluations or state-wide school-based achievement tests).

Phases of LMA

Teachers, parents, and other members of a child's educational team (including the student himself or herself) use LMA as an ongoing process of decision-making and monitoring achievement throughout a student's school career. To that end, there are two distinct phases of LMA.

Initial phase.

The first phase of the LMA is designed to collect data to inform educational teams about the decision to teach braille, print, or dual media to children with visual impairments who are typically beginning preschool or elementary school and have not yet entered a formal literacy program.

Data gathered in this phase include information on how the child uses his or her senses both naturally and through guided assistance as part of diagnostic teaching. In addition, information is gathered about working distances and size preferences, implications of the child's eye condition, and the presence of any additional disabilities that may have an impact on acquisition of literacy skills.

Continuing assessment.

It is recommended that an LMA be conducted every year to provide the educational team with information on whether the student's current literacy media continues to be appropriate with the existing level of instructional support and literacy tools available to the student. Additional instructional time and literacy tools need to be considered by the team and added to the student's educational plan when appropriate. This second phase of LMA should include data that will inform members of the educational team about a student's progress and success related to academic and functional tasks in literacy. Data needs to be collected on visual functioning, academic achievement, handwriting, the student's progress in reading comprehension and fluency, and whether or not they are adding tools to their literacy toolbox. In recent years, educators at all levels and disciplines have increased their appreciation for monitoring the progress of their students. Such assessments are now used more frequently to ensure that students' academic performance is at expected levels and to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. Following this trend, during the annual LMA, educational teams consider the progress of students and monitor the levels of and effectiveness of literacy instruction.

Principles of LMA

The details and processes of conducting an LMA can be found by referring to the instructions in the resource guide by Koenig and Holbrook (1995). All LMAs contain various forms to be completed by members of the student's educational team. It should be noted, however, that completion of the forms is not enough. Appropriate use of LMA requires that data collected through the various forms be synthesized and discussed annually as literacy decisions are made. The following principles should guide the use of LMA.

Parent involvement.

Involvement of parents is critical in the collection of data and making decisions regarding literacy media. The parents' voices and the thoughts and opinions of the student must be included throughout the assessment process. Although literacy decisions are important from an educational standpoint, they are also intensely personal, and making decisions regarding literacy media will have a long-term impact on the education, employment, and life of the student.

Diagnostic teaching.

LMA is meant to be "media-neutral," meaning that it is designed to treat braille and print equally. Both print and braille should be seen as equal media for literacy and both are valid tools for acquisition of literacy. The decision is not driven by the media. Rather, the decision is driven by the characteristics of the child and the data collected. Having said that, it is likely that children with low vision may have had more experience with visual opportunities and, therefore, may be more likely to respond visually to tasks that are required of them rather than having equal footing in touch and seeing. Therefore, the underlying premise of LMA is that of diagnostic teaching, in which information on the child's use of his or her senses is collected in the process of instruction. That is, throughout the process of gathering information, educational teams should provide children with rich and varied opportunities to use their touch, vision, and auditory senses so that they can demonstrate use of these senses and feel equally comfortable in all three. During the initial phase, decisions about learning media must not be based solely on the basis of a student's natural use of his or her senses, but rather on a thoughtful examination of how a student responds to sensory input when provided with strong and motivating opportunities to use all senses.

Ongoing monitoring of progress.

With ongoing, consistent instruction by a qualified teacher of students with visual impairments, students using braille or print or dual media should make progress in reading achievement and fluency equal to that of sighted students. Conducting an annual LMA requires collection of data from an informal reading inventory or similar assessment. Educational teams are able to use this information to help determine if the student is making appropriate progress and if not, should stimulate open conversations about the student's literacy media and the need for general review as well as consideration for additional literacy tools.

Data-driven decisions.

Decisions about learning media should be based entirely on the characteristics of each individual student and not driven by philosophical beliefs or attitudes. Although many issues will enter into the decision-making process, literacy decisions, whether at the initial or continuing assessment phase, should not be based on issues related to cost, availability of resources, administrative convenience or inconvenience, or preconceived general notions about braille or print.

Summary

Students who are blind or visually impaired have the right to appropriate educational services. Developing and maintaining a high level of literacy skills with suitable and effective basic abilities to use braille, print, or dual media is critical for long-term success. In order to ensure that students acquire solid basic literacy skills and then develop the ability to use more complex and sophisticated literacy tools, it is critical that educational teams actively engage in deliberate decision-making and ongoing monitoring of student achievement. LMA is designed to support students and their educational teams in this process.

References

Koenig, A. J. (1992). A framework for understanding the literacy of individuals with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. 86, 277-284.

Koenig, A. J. & Holbrook, M. C. (1995). Learning media assessment of students with visual impairments: A resource guide for teachers (2nd ed.) Austin, TX: Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

National Center on Student Progress Monitoring. (n.d.). Home page. Retrieved February 9, 2009, from http://www.studentprogress.org/

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Sanford, L. D., & Burnett, R. (2008). Functional vision and learning media assessment for students who are pre-academic or academic and visually impaired in grades K-12. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.

South Carolina Department of Education (1993). South Carolina Literacy Media Assessment. Columbia, SC: South Carolina Department of Education.


M. Cay Holbrook, Ph.D., associate professor, University of British Columbia, Faculty of Education, 2125 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4, Canada; e-mail: <cay.holbrook@ubc.ca>.


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