Audio description in education

 “Było sobie życie”

by Agnieszka Walczak

The role of audiovisual translation becomes more important in our daily lives. In general, until recent times, young visually-impaired media audiences have been the focus of a fairly small amount of academic research. The existing studies have concentrated on adult rather than young viewers of audio described programmes. Research concerning the accessibility and reception of audio description (AD) services by the group of blind and visually impaired children, especially in the case of educational programmes, is particularly lacking. Since this audience constitutes quite a large group within AD receivers in Poland, a research study focusing on AD for children was undertaken.

The study was aimed at examining the acceptability and reception of an educational programme with text-to-speech audio description (TTS AD) by young visually impaired viewers. It focused on a rather demanding audience group which requires special approach towards AD creation on the part of the audio describer. The task seemed to be even more challenging due to the fact that the audio visual material chosen for the project was not a feature film, but an animation programme designed to be used as an educational tool. It was the author’s contention that audio described films can greatly enhance the learning process of children and make classes more enjoyable.

About the audiovisual material used
The audiovisual material employed in the study was an episode from the educational animation series Once Upon a Time… Life. Directed by Albert Barillé, this programme was originally produced in France in 1987 and then aired in numerous countries in the world. The episode chosen for the purpose of this research was titled Blood and it was meant to be used in the biology/environment class in schools for blind and partially sighted children.

A definite advantage of the material was the combination of an entertaining storyline with a significant amount of factual information. Every episode of this series tells the story of a different organ or system within the human body. There are, for instance, episodes devoted to the functions of heart, brain, liver or kidneys and the ones dealing with lymphatic or nervous systems. The depiction of human body is made thanks to numerous animation characters introduced into the series. They are divided into two groups, namely the group of good characters represented by defence mechanism of the body (i.e. white blood cells) and the group of bad characters (i.e. viruses and bacteria) being a threat to the human body.

Screenshots and short clips of the film (in Polish) are presented below.

Here are two samples of text-to-speech audio description with two different voices:
TTS AD (IVONA text-to-speech, voice: Zosia by Loquendo)

TTS AD (IVONA text-to-speech, voice: Ewa by Ivo Software)

more >>
This text-to-speech audio description was recorded with Subik (

Why text-to-speech audio description?
Bearing in mind possible inconveniences as well as prohibitive costs connected with preparation of traditional pre-recorded human AD, the delivery of AD in this study was made with the use of text-to-speech software.

The freeware programme BESTplayer (version 2.0) together with the text-to-speech application Ivona Reader and a female Polish synthetic voice named Ewa (manufactured by Ivo Software) were used for the purposes of the screening.

Study participants
A total of 76 children (35 girls and 41 boys) participated in the study. They were the learners of the following schools:

  • Róża Czacka Educational Centre for Blind Children in Laski;
  • Louis Braille Special Educational Centre for Blind and Partially Sighted Children in Bydgoszcz; and
  • Special Educational Centre for Blind and Partially Sighted Children in Kraków.

They were aged between 8 and 17 years of age (see the chart below).

Participants by age


For Children
The questionnaire was administered after each of three screenings of the film.
The first part of the questionnaire aimed to establish participants’ personal characteristics, such as gender, age, type (congenital or acquired) and degree (blind or partially sighted) of sight loss. Then they were asked about their previous experience with audio described films as well as their familiarity with speech synthesis software.

The second part of the questionnaire was meant to verify whether the respondents could answer any questions concerning the film’s content after taking part in the screening.
The last part of the questionnaire focused on determining whether the text of TTS AD was clear and intelligible to them, on gathering opinions on the use of synthetic voice for reading AD and on the participants’ eagerness to watch other episodes of Once Upon a Time… Life series with TTS AD.

For Teachers
If possible, a specially prepared questionnaire was distributed also among teachers in order to collect their views and opinions concerning TTS AD and its use in educational films aimed at visually impaired children. The questionnaire was also designed to show whether it is possible for such programmes to be applied as additional didactic tools during the biology/environment classes in the future.
Below you can find partial results of the study. In order to obtain the full report, please contact me at: agnieszka_walczak(AT)

In general, the results of the study appear to be quite promising. The overall findings confirm the assumption that animation series under analysis have the potential of becoming an educational tool for blind and partially sighted children. Since the majority of participants reported to gain new information after the screening of the film, which was the intention involved herein, it is suggested that the series could complement the courses of biology/environment classes, thus making the lessons more enjoyable. It was found that previous exposure both to audio described films as well as synthetic speech could affect the acceptability of the programme under analysis. Although the responses on the use of speech synthesis software to read the AD script were varied, with some negative commentaries on the speed rate and voice intelligibility, a large majority of participants enjoyed the voice employed (see the first chart below) and opted for future screenings of the other episodes of the series (see the second chart below).

Participants’ opinions on the synthetic voice used

Participants’ eagerness towards watching next episodes of the series

Both the screening and the questionnaire were greeted with much excitement by children and they arouse a lot of interest and curiosity also among teachers. Furthermore, not only learners, but also teachers were enthusiastic about this initiative and its innovativeness.

The generally positive results of the study suggest that the service of TTS AD in educational animation films should be developed in the future. Although there is still room for improvement, participants’ feedback seems to be the best motivation to undertake such actions. Among the commentaries elicited when conducting the questionnaire after the screening of the film, the following ones are definitely worth citing here:

“I’d really like to watch more episodes. Up till now I have watched films without AD. My parents described me the action of the film. But I prefer films with AD.”
Boy, 13 years old

“I liked the voice and the series is really interesting. If there were more episodes, I would definitely like to watch them.”
Girl, 14 years old

“I want to watch the next episodes, because thanks to them I can better understand what is going on in my body and that is very interesting to me.”
Girl, 15 years old

“I’m very happy that there are films with AD. I think this one was faultless. If I didn’t know this was a synthesiser, I would think a real person was reading the text. In general, good and clear AD.”
Girl, 13 years old

This experience is thought to open up not only a new accessibility avenue of university research, but also a possible accessibility mode that has a potential to be implemented on a wider scale. It may result to be a much cheaper and time effective alternative to traditional audio description provided by human voices.

 Audio description and guided attention

ICACS and AVT Lab carried out a study on the application of text-to-speech audio description (TTS AD) to education.

The goal of the study was to find out whether audio description can – and if so, how – be used in the education of sighted children. Our hypothesis was that AD can help children to better understand the educational content of films and to guide their attention to the most relevant parts of the screen. Thus, AD can be an attractive alternative to traditional education and can be used as its supplement.

The study took place in the ICACS laboratory at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities in February 2010. Our participants were 44 children aged 7-9 from Didasko Primary School in Warsaw.

The children were divided into two groups: the test and the control group. Each watched two 2-minute clips from an episode about blood from the Once upon a time… life educational series. The test group watched the clips with TTS AD, whereas the control group watched the film without any AD.

One of the clips with TTS AD used in the study

First, we recorded eye movements of children from both groups with an eyetracker (Eyelink CL 500 Hz).


Recording eye movements when watching films

Our hypothesis was that children from the test group would have more fixations on selected areas of interest (i.e. parts of the screen which were being audio described – see yellow viruses in the figure below) and that their time to first fixation on particular AOIs would be shorter, meaning they would notice those parts earlier than children from the control group.

Selected area of interest: viruses

After watching the clips, the children were asked to do a screen recognition (visual memory) test. They were shown ten pairs of screenshots and had to identify which picture in each pair was taken from the film they had just seen.

Scene recognition test

Finally, in a post-test interview children were asked a few comprehension questions. Our hypothesis was that children from the test group would have higher comprehension scores.

We also predicted that thanks to AD they would also be more familiar with specialised terms such as white and red cells, viruses, oxygen, etc. For instance, when describing the film, they would use more terms such as ‘viruses’ rather than ‘yellow creatures’. This, in turn, would confirm the educational value of AD.

Specialised vocabulary: viruses or yellow creatures?

The results of the research were presented at the ARSAD 2011 conference in Barcelona by Izabela Krejtz and Agnieszka Walczak.

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