The Braille Monitor                                                                                       July 2003

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The SAL (Speech Assisted Learning): A Review

by Robert Jaquiss

Robert Jaquiss uses SAL.
Robert Jaquiss uses SAL.

From the Editor: Robert Jaquiss is a member of the technology department staff of the National Federation of the Blind. He is a lifelong user of and advocate for Braille. Here is his report on an exciting new piece of learning technology that will interest every parent or teacher urging a child to master Braille:

Years ago, when I learned Braille, all the materials I used were handmade, most of them by my mother and by my teacher. About the time I started third grade, I began receiving books from volunteer groups and a few that had been produced by the American Printing House for the Blind. But my mother made most of my beginning Braille books. She didn't know Braille, but she had a Perkins Brailler and a copy of the 1959 edition of the Braille rules. She figured that she could Braille my books because she only needed to know a bit more Braille than I did. My pre-Braille materials were strings, rick-rack, and other materials glued to pages in a book. Soon I could read Braille far faster than Mother could produce it. Mother would Braille for four hours, and I would come home and read all her work in less than thirty minutes. When I learned Braille, 30 percent of blind children learned Braille.

In the twenty-first century things have changed. There are fewer volunteer Braillists, and we have a shortage of Braille teachers. Only 10 percent of blind children are taught Braille. Dr. Sally Mangold, the developer of a new product, SAL (Speech Assisted Learning), hopes to improve this situation. SAL is a teaching and learning aid that will assist blind children and adults to learn Braille and good reading habits. SAL is sixteen inches long, thirteen inches wide, and one-and-a-half inches high. Most of the top surface is a touch screen that will hold an eleven-by-eleven-and-a-half-inch piece of Braille paper. In front is a keyboard like that on a Braille 'n Speak. On the right side is a floppy disk drive for loading lesson materials. SAL uses a combination of synthesized speech, standard paper embossed sheets (eleven-by-eleven-and-a-half inches), and barcode identification technology. The speech is used for tutorials, posing questions, or providing spoken feedback to the user about his or her performance.

To use SAL, a user places a bar-coded SAL worksheet on the touch screen and then closes a latch. SAL has a barcode scanner that reads the print barcode on the underside of each page. The built-in computer uses the barcode information to identify an electronic copy of the embossed Braille page under the latch. The system will then respond correctly to the user. The user listens to spoken instructions, presses a prompt button when a request has been completed, and changes pages when requested. SAL responds when a student presses points on the lesson. A student might hear requests like the following:

"Press all the letter G's in the first column."

"Press on the end of the third line."

When a student responds correctly, SAL makes encouraging comments. If a student responds incorrectly, SAL will say "wrong answer." When a lesson page has been completed, SAL gives a score so that the student knows how well he or she has done. The student can press on a word when reading a book, and SAL will voice the word. Press on the same word again, and SAL will spell the word and describe Braille contractions. The keyboard allows a teacher to perform administrative functions such as setting the language and backing up records and allows a student to enter answers for math and advanced courseware.

When a new lesson is used for the first time, the user is asked to insert the diskette that comes with the lesson. SAL reads the diskette and loads the appropriate files. A teacher can load all the needed lesson materials before a student starts using the equipment. SAL also helps teachers by recording student responses. A teacher can upload these responses to a computer for further analysis.

In the future software will become available for the creation of materials so that teachers can create customized materials as needed. The first version of this software is expected to be released by July 2003 and an enhanced version by December 2003. In order to create courseware, a teacher will need a Braille embosser and a wide-format inkjet printer or a printer that can print on sticky labels. The print printer produces the barcode information.

SAL is well designed. A lot of thought has gone into designing the hardware and courseware. The SAL firmware is stored in flash memory, so it will be possible to upgrade the SAL without returning it to the factory. The SAL hardware costs $4,500, so its purchase is more feasible for a school than for an individual. While it is too soon to know what impact SAL may have, it is a well-designed tool with a lot of potential. SAL will not replace a Braille teacher, but it certainly can help reinforce good reading practices.

References

Exceptional Teaching Aids, Inc., 20102 Woodbine Avenue, Castro Valley, California 94546; toll free (800) 549-6999; phone (510) 582-4859; fax (510) 582-5911; e-mail <ExTeaching@aol.com>; <http://www.exceptionalteaching.com>

Freedom Scientific Inc., <http://www.freedomscientific.com>

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