American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) PREPARATION AND PLANNING
by Conchita Hernandez
From the Editor: At many IEP meetings involving children with low vision, the choice of reading media is a major concern. How can parents and teachers determine whether a child should be learning to read print, Braille, or a combination of both? In this article Conchita Hernandez discusses the assessment tools that can help teachers and parents make wise decisions. Conchita Hernandez is a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) in Washington, DC, and she is earning a doctorate degree from George Washington University. At the 2016 convention of the National Federation of the Blind she was awarded the Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship in the amount of $12,000. Many Federationists know her through the salsa dancing classes that she teaches at national convention each year.
I constantly observe the ways in which individuals from different religious, political, and cultural groups interact. Sometimes interactions can be enlightening. At other times they can be harsh, even violent, and it may seem that there is no way to come to an understanding.
One such area of controversy seems to be the reading media assessments that are done on blind and visually impaired students. These assessments are carried out to determine the media that the school will use to present information to a particular child. Media options include Braille, print, and dual (print and Braille). Sometimes the choices include audio as well.
Currently two main assessments are being used in the field. The first is the Learning Media Assessment (LMA), and the second is the National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA). Let's understand a bit more about what each of these assessments does and how it can help us gain information about our children.
The Learning Media Assessment is a qualitative assessment. Qualitative data is based on observations by a professional, typically the child's TVI. As stated by Carmen Willings on her website, http://www.teachingvisuallyimpaired.com,
The teacher observes sensory preferences, learning environments, and intervention materials and methods. [The assessment] identifies sensory preferences, [and it] allows the teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) to understand how to present information to the student and identify adaptations and intervention strategies to promote effective use of the senses.
In other words, the LMA is used to gather information to determine which reading media will be used with a blind or visually impaired child. It gathers valuable data based on qualitative observations in the classroom and sometimes in other settings. It takes into account colors, clutter of images, and other visual tasks. The TVI writes down her or his observations and makes an informed decision based on these observations. Because the assessment is qualitative, the results may reflect the teacher's own thoughts and biases.
The National Reading Media Assessment is a quantitative assessment. Quantitative data is data that can be numerically measured. The NRMA website states that the NRMA seeks to:
determine the most appropriate reading medium/media for students who are blind/visually impaired; to ensure that the reading medium is appropriately identified both for current as well as for future need; and to ensure that student success is not hampered by incorrect identification of literacy needs (2017).
The NRMA takes quantitative data on a child based on standardized indicators, resulting in a score. This score places a student in Braille, dual, or print as learning media.
I am completing my doctoral degree in special education. One of the things I have focused on is neuroscience and how the brain works. The better we understand the brain, the better we are able to come up with strategies to work with all students. At the forefront of recent research is the idea that we have been completely wrong about the workings of the brain. We used to believe that each part of the brain has a specific task. We thought that artistic people use the right side of the brain more than the left. We believed that students have a preference for auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learning. We have now found that these beliefs are completely false! An article published in 2014 by Paul A. Howard-Jones lays out these commonly held myths. Howard-Jones states right at the beginning,
"For several decades, myths about the brain—neuromyths—have persisted in schools and colleges, often being used to justify ineffective approaches to teaching. Many of these myths are biased distortions of scientific fact" (2014).
He goes on to state that the most commonly held myth of learning is the idea that students "[learn] most effectively when they are taught in their preferred learning style" (2014). He goes on to explain,
The implicit assumption seems to be that, because different regions of the cortex have crucial roles in visual, auditory, and sensory processing, learners should receive information in visual, auditory, or kinesthetic forms according to which part of their brain works better. The brain's interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound, and reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support this approach to teaching (2014).
In other words, I may have a preference for the color red; however, that does not mean that all material should be presented in red to me. Rather, all students should be presented information in all manners possible.
The LMA gathers valuable information, but it is limited in that it seeks to find a preferable learning medium for the child, when this idea is not supported by research.
What does this mean for the instruction of blind and visually impaired students? In my experience in the field as a TVI, I have found that qualitative and quantitative data are each limited. The LMA can be an effective tool, but not by itself, as many of the indicators that it looks for are based on outdated neuromyths. The NRMA can be a powerful tool as well, but not alone. It gives great data, but it lacks qualitative information to give a more in-depth report. I believe that the only way to paint an accurate picture of a student's needs is to perform both qualitative and quantitative assessments. I personally perform both the LMA and the NRMA on my students. I find that when coupled together, they provide me more information on my students. Quantitative data gives numerical information and qualitative data helps create a richer picture that can give more information than either assessment can provide on its own.
Will we ever decide which is best, the NRMA or the LMA? I believe not, but I believe that is a good thing. Both assessments provide information. As TVIs we are constantly looking for ways to help our students and to get a more detailed picture of their needs and learning processes. I believe that the conflict over assessments can come to a resolution when we understand that the more tools that are available to educators, the better. A dual LMA/NRMA approach can be the bridge between different generations of TVI's.
I recommend that parents ask for both quantitative and qualitative data from the school. The more information the parents and the school have, the better the outcome for the child. The collision of two worlds can work in your favor and ultimately challenge the field to grow.
Howard-Jones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 15(12), 817-824. http://dx.doi.org.proxygw.wrlc.org/10.1038/nrn3817
Willings, C. Learning media assessment (LMA). Retrieved from http://www.teachingvisuallyimpaired.com/learning-media-assessment.html
National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA) for Youth with Visual Impairments Quick Start Guide. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.nfbnrma.org/admin/users/about.php