How Does Description Benefit Students Without Visual Impairments?

Description expands the effectiveness of video-based media in the classroom and appeals to diverse learners.

In the DCMP’s Description Key for Educational Media, Dr. Kay Ferrell and Mary Ann Siller present a detailed and thoughtful examination of description’s role as a vital tool for students who are blind or visually impaired. Though the volume of formal research into the benefits of description is light, it doesn’t require a great leap of faith to understand how description can make or break the experience of watching a video for a student with a visual impairment.

For sighted children, description offers a promise of a new way to promote literacy and learning. This is consistent with the pattern that repeats itself throughout the history of technological development; innovations and accommodations made for people with disabilities benefit many people without disabilities. Even Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone grew out of his efforts to assist people with hearing disabilities. The following video overviews the value to most learners of viewing video with captions and description.



In addition, specialized learners such as students with learning differences, English language learners, and children on the autism spectrum benefit from its value in literacy development (e.g., vocabulary and reading) and content learning. The educational community has long embraced visual enhancements in instruction through use of videos and multimedia, but this has sometimes worked to the disadvantage of specialized learners. Video description is one assistive technology that can bridge the gap.

A Research-Based Foundation

Research has shown us that the brain processes information using two channels—visual and auditory. When information is presented using both channels, the brain can accommodate more new information. Multimedia learning can be defined as the delivery of instructional content using multiple modes that include visual and auditory information and student use of this information to construct knowledge. By taking advantage of this multimodal processing capability and technology-based tools, we can dramatically enhance student learning through multimedia instruction.

Baddeley (1992) supports this thinking that there is an auditory and visual channel in our working memory. The auditory channel handles information that is heard, while the visual channel processes information that is seen. Text seems to have unique processing requirements, with words initially captured by the visual channel and then converted to sounds in the auditory channel.

Research further suggests that the visual channel handles less information than the auditory channel (Spector, Merrill, Van Merrienboer, and Driscal, 2008). However, when information is presented using both the visual and auditory channels, working memory can handle more information overall.

The fundamental principle behind multimedia learning is best described by Mayer (2005), one of the leading researchers in this area: People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. In this context, words include written and spoken text, and pictures include static graphic images, animation and video. That using both words and pictures is more effective than words alone or pictures alone should not be surprising in light of what we know about how the brain processes information. Research tells us that the use of both words and pictures lets the brain process more information in working memory (Sweller, 2005).

Other Benefits of Listening to Description

Children learn through activity such as moving, searching, feeling, manipulation, and listening. We need to wake up young minds and get them involved in the programming they love to consume. Listening is a much higher-order skill than simple “hearing,” requiring constant training and practice. Using the premise that context-relevant description of visual content improves learning, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that description can aid in the acquisition and development of several important learning skills:

Language Development

Listening is one of the first steps in learning one’s primary or secondary language.

Auditory Learners

An estimated 20–30% of students retain information most effectively when it is conveyed through sound.

New Media Literacy

Listening is one building block in the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in many forms.

Writing and Speaking

Because good description is succinct and extremely context-relevant, listening to description can aid students’ written and spoken communication skills. Description provides excellent examples of descriptive writing.

Related Reading

Autistic Spectrum, Captions and Audio Description

Researcher and author Judith Garman looked at these two aspects of the autistic spectrum: 1) understanding human emotion and engagement; 2) momotropism. She then examined how audio description and captions could help with these problems. First, Audio description was originally designed for people who are visually impaired. Where it helps someone on the autistic spectrum is it identifies the emotion which may be difficult for them to pin down, and it also provides another input track to reinforce the information. If the person is struggling to identify the different people in the scene, audio description names the person so the visuals and the audio help create a complete picture. Second, captions also provide a reinforcement of what is going on visually and what is being said. Captions should identify the speaker and what's being said, identify other sounds (birds singing, car tires screeching, etc.) and song lyrics. For somebody who is on the autistic spectrum captions give a greater depth of understanding and context by providing a second input stream. People on the autistic spectrum may struggle with audio processing, that is filtering out different sounds and distinguishing between what's relevant and what is not relevant. If there is an audio overload, all or most of the audio could be rendered totally meaningless without captions to provide a backup.

Description on Videos: Improving Learning Opportunities for Everyone

Make something unusual happen in your classroom! Use educational videos with description that was created for students with visual impairments. You'll increase learning opportunities for your entire class, including students with visual awareness failures and those who are unable to gain meaning from standard video presentations due to learning differences or lack of proficiency in the English language.

Descriptive Children’s Television: Bridging the Gap for Blind Kids While Benefiting All Kids [PDF]

While some research has been conducted about the benefits of description and blind adults, no empirical data have been collected relating to benefits of description for children. In this paper by Melanie Peskoe, literature has been reviewed to discuss (1) the emerging trend toward educational programming for preschool-aged children, (2) the various theories about how children learn, and (3) the implications of description for both blind and sighted children. This paper serves as a foundation for future, needed research on this topic and calls for attention to be paid to both the social impact of description as well as the methods used for deciding when, what, and how to describe.

Descriptive Video: Using Media Technology to Enhance Writing

A lesson plan from ReadWriteThink about using description to improve students’ written communication skills. This plan focuses on utilization of Disney’s popular The Lion King, but teachers can broaden their approach to this lesson by utilizing any one of the hundreds of accessible titles available from the DCMP collection.

Critical Issue: Using Technology to Enhance Literacy Instruction

Although technology promises new ways to promote literacy, educators' reactions to it have been mixed. Some have embraced technology with unbridled enthusiasm while others have held it at arm's length with a healthy skepticism. Yet the growing influence of technology has caused many educators to acknowledge that they need information on teaching literacy skills in the Digital Age. To serve that need, this Critical Issue offers research, best practices, and resources that support integration of new technologies into literacy instruction.

Lights, Cameras, Pencils! Using Descriptive Video to Enhance Writing

The authors (Helen Hoffner, Eileen Baker, and Kathleen Benson Quinn) relate how described television programming can enhance reading and writing ability as well as provide a motivating educational stimulus in today's entertainment culture. Vocabulary, concept development, background knowledge, language precision, and descriptive writing are just some of the ways descriptive video can be used to enhance classroom instruction. From the Reading Teacher magazine, 2008.


Baddeley, A. Working memory. Science 255, pp. 556-559, 1992.

R.E. Mayer (Ed), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

J.M. Spector, M.D. Merrill, J. van Merriënboer, & M.P. Driscoll (Eds), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology. Third Edition. New York: Taylor Francis Group, 2008.