Taking CELA to school: Educator Access improves student choice

by Rachel Breau

When Resource Teacher Antonia Del Monaco began working with her new student Sara*, it quickly became clear that Sara was struggling to read.  Sara, who has a visual impairment, loves to have books read to her, but the process of learning braille was challenging, and Sara was losing motivation to develop her tactile skills.

“Sara’s educational team, including her parents and classroom teacher, came together at a meeting and decided that our main goal for the next two years was to help Sara learn that reading was fun. It was as simple as that. We knew if she learned to love reading, the other skills would fall into place,” said Antonia.

This is where CELA, the Centre for Equitable Library Access came in. CELA is Canada’s largest accessible reading service, providing books and other materials to Canadians with print disabilities in a variety of accessible formats through local public libraries. Antonia, a Resource Teacher with the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board who works with students who are blind or experience low vision, was able to access CELA resources on behalf of her student through their Educator Access program. This program is available to any educator who holds a public library card with a CELA member library. Teachers can sign out materials on behalf of their students with print disabilities and also help students register for their own CELA account. People with print disabilities include students like Sara, who experience low vision or blindness, as well as people with learning disabilities or physical disabilities, which make it difficult or impossible to hold a conventional book.

“Because Sara’s listening skills were strong, we uploaded accessible versions of audio books from CELA onto her Victor Stream and then requested braille versions of those same books so that Sara could read along and read out loud to us,” says Antonia.  Sara’s Victor Stream is a device which plays DAISY books, MP3, MP4, EPUB, and many other media formats of accessible literature. The Victor Stream allowed her to access to CELA’s collection of nearly 400,000 DAISY narrated audio, e-text, and braille books and magazines.

“The key to getting Sara excited about reading was choice. I remember once I ordered books for her and I quickly realized my mistake when she was bored by them. Other kids have lots of choices in their reading material, and CELA gave Sara that same type of selection. Choice made a huge difference in her reading,” says Antonia.

Mike DiDonato and Brian Hayes, both teachers at the provincially funded Sagonaska Demonstration School, agree that choice is key. The Sagonaska Demonstration School is a residential school offering a program of highly individualized instruction and support to students who have severe learning disabilities in the area of reading. Having a selection of books available to engage kids at different levels is a key aspect of the program.

“We have kids coming into our school who are reading at a grade 2-3 level, but who want to read The Hunger Games. We can help them do that using CELA resources. Because our kids can read what interests them, they develop motivation and a love of reading alongside key reading skills like vocabulary development. Reading books they are engaged in encourages students to dig deeper into the material, and that process improves their comprehension,” says Brian, a Grade 7 Special Education Resource Teacher.

The kids at the Sagonaska Demonstration School often use the free CELA Direct to Player App to play DAISY audiobooks directly on their own devices which also reduces some other important barriers.

“Kids who come to us have always struggled with reading, and in lots of cases, they are giving up. With the Direct to Player App, I can get reading materials in their hands right away and in ways that make it easy for them to access. Kids in grades 5 or 6 aren’t likely to go to the listening centre to hear a book on tape because it’s not cool. But if I can direct them to books at or slightly below their reading level that they can access on their tablets or phones, they are more likely to read. Because they can read along with audio, their fluency increases dramatically and they get to know what reading success feels like,” says Mike, also a Grade 7 Special Education Resource Teacher at the provincially funded residential school.

Geoff Mortaley, who is the IT specialist at the Sagonaska School, helps connect students to online resources and sets up their devices for learning. He was the one who discovered that the Sagonaska kids could use CELA services. He also liaises with the Belleville library to get all the students library cards, so they can access the CELA materials while they are at school or at home. 

“CELA is one of those things I wish I knew about 5 years ago. Before I came to Sagonaska, I thought I was ahead of the game in terms of using technology in the classroom, and now with Geoff’s help, I know so much more. CELA has been a big part of that,” says Mike.  

Because not every school has a tech specialist like Sagonaska, CELA offers training, webinars and support to teachers who are interested in learning more about how to integrate CELA services into their classrooms.

Educators can attend monthly webinars, offered in both French and English, to learn about CELA’s services and book collections, and have access to videos outlining how to sign up for an organizational account. CELA’s Educator Access webinar covers the role teachers play in providing books to students with print disabilities, eligibility criteria and how teachers can promote the Educator Access program to colleagues, School Boards, and parents. The webinar also discusses the scope of the collection which includes books for all ages, and titles on many subjects to support classroom activities.

“We’ve received comments from teachers about how valuable our collection is in their classroom. Non-fiction audio books for kids aren’t easy to come by in commercial audio format, but we have a good selection. Our collection also includes classics, award winners, and plenty of Canadian authors, which makes it easier for teachers to plan inclusive programming for all their students,” says Margaret Williams, Director, Content and Access at CNIB. Approximately 25 percent of the CELA collection is aimed at children and young adults.

Materials in the CELA’s collection are specifically designed to be accessible by people with print disabilities. For example, CELA’s audio formats are structured to allow readers to navigate through the content more easily than if they were listening to a commercially available audio book. This is especially important for non-fiction or novels that students are reading and discussing in class. DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is one of the most popular formats and allows for up to six navigation levels for content, including embedded objects such as images and other graphics. Students can search, place bookmarks, and navigate precisely through a document. Other formats such as electronic text (e-text) and electronic braille can be read by people with a print disability with the aid of assistive technology such as a screen reader or magnifier, a refreshable braille display, or literacy support software. CELA provides brief descriptions about applicable assistive technologies if you are interested in learning more.

The Educator Access program allows teachers who work with students with print disabilities to access CELA’s downloadable collections. An exception in the Canadian Copyright Act allows these resources to be produced and used by people with a print disability, and teachers are asked to agree to CELA’s Term of Use to ensure materials will only be used within the parameters allowed. Once registered for CELA, teachers and students may also apply for free access to Bookshare. Bookshare offers more than 280,000 titles to Canadians, many of which are from educational publishers, bringing the number of titles teachers can access through CELA to nearly 400,000.

To sign up for an Educator Access account, teachers must have a public library card from their local library. All Ontario libraries are CELA member libraries and CELA services are available in most provinces and major cities across Canada. The registration process is a quick one and educators can submit their application form online. More information, including the application form, can be found on the Educators section of the CELA website (http://www.celalibrary.ca/Educators) and CELA’s support staff are available to assist with any questions or concerns.

“It’s our goal to make the service as easily available to as wide an audience as possible,” says Michael Ciccone, Executive Director of CELA. “All Canadians should have access to quality reading materials through their public libraries. Reading is an important component of our national conversation, and making sure that Canadians with print disabilities are fully included in that conversation is our mission. With Educator Access, we are addressing the needs of our nation’s children whose access to this material is vital to their future success.”

* Name changed to protect the identity of the student

About the Author

Rachel Breau oversees the Educator Access program as part of her role as Manager of CELA Member Services. Rachel has worked in accessible library services for over ten years and has supported public libraries in their efforts to provide equitable library service to patrons with print disabilities.