Teaching Reading in Braille

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

Young blind children learn to read using braille just as young sighted children learn to read using print. Both blind and sighted children are learning the meanings of symbolic representations (print and braille characters) and how those representations form words, sentences, paragraphs, etc., which when put together communicate a unique message.

Many teaching methods which work for sighted children can also work for blind children. Sometimes a few modifications are needed in order to use a method most appropriately with a blind child. Choosing the method or combination of methods which best suits the student’s needs is critical to the student’s success in learning to read. (Holbrook and Nannen, 1997)

Principles of Reading Instruction

It is important to remember that teaching a child to read in braille is more than simply teaching the braille code. The child must learn how to manage braille reading material effectively so that ideas are retained during the process of reading and comprehension is achieved, braille material can be used effectively as reference material, etc. For further information, see 12 reading processes.

During recent years, methods of reading instruction have become more student-centered, fostering not only knowledge and ability but also independence. (Sweet, 1994) It is vital for students to have a strong knowledge base when they begin to learn to read. (Gillette, 1994; Rex, Koenig, Wormsley, and Baker, 1994; Young 1995) Children who do not have a strong knowledge of the environment and concepts about print will experience reading problems which may endure. These include comprehension problems, decoding problems, and problems with vocabulary. Blind children may have deficits in concept development because of their inability to observe the same things naturally that their sighted peers observe. Addressing these areas during the emergent literacy period or during remediation is crucial (LaRose, 2000; Rex, et al, 1994; Swenson, 1988).

Things to Remember

Several factors influence the teaching of reading in Braille (Heinze, 1986). Some things to remember when planning instructional strategies include:

  • The individual cell, rather than the whole word, is usually considered to be the perceptual unit.
  • The shape or arrangement of dots, not the number of dots, is critical to recognition of the Braille character.
  • Braille readers use a synthetic approach–that is, they must recognize individual characters in a series, remember them, and then integrate them to read the whole word.
  • Context and syntax clues are helpful for familiar material.
    Phonetic and structural analysis are better for difficult material.
  • Reading rates may or may not be slower than those of print readers.

It is also important to take into account any emotional factors or aspects of the environment which may be influencing the child’s ability or willingness to read. Children who are depressed may use reading as an escape; on the other hand, they may experience difficulty because of low self-esteem. Children whose families have positive attitudes and realistically high expectations will be more likely to thrive and enjoy reading.

Teaching Methods

The Basal Reader

The basal reader has traditionally been the most popular teaching method, and many visually impaired students have grown up using the same basal readers as their classmates. The advantage of the basal reader is its sequential presentation of skills. The disadvantages for the blind student are its heavy reliance on pictures and its lack of consideration of difficulty of braille contractions.

Patterns

Patterns: The Primary Braille Program was developed by the American Printing House for the Blind to present the elements of the Braille code and reading skills in a sequential manner which is focused on the experience and needs of blind students. It is designed to function alone as a method of teaching reading in braille to blind children; however, parts of it may be used in combination with other approaches. Patterns clearly has the advantage of being appropriate for the blind student. It has several disadvantages if used as the only approach to teaching reading. It requires the teacher of visually impaired students to be available on a daily basis. It may require that the blind student be separated from his/her classmates for reading instruction. In addition, access to recreational reading material is limited during the learning process because of the gradual introduction of contractions. (Holbrook and Nannen, 1997) Some children who are highly motivated might do better with an immerssion approach to contracted Braille.

Whole Language

The whole language method involves less use of the basal reader and more use of real literature. It takes advantage of naturally occurring learning experiences. Students are encouraged to read independently and respond to their reading in various ways, including writing and speaking. The teacher may use materials spontaneously to teach new words. Students are encouraged to share their writing with each other for evaluation. When a teacher of the visually impaired or classroom aide who is familiar with braille and the needs of the blind student is available throughout the day, the blind child can be integrated into a regular whole language classroom. The disadvantages of the whole language approach involve the use of pictures and the inaccessibility of materials. Technology can be used to make materials accessible more quickly if it is available.

Castellano (1994) and Koenig and Farrenkopf (1995) present a number of suggestions for making the whole language experience successful for the blind child. This requires commitment on the part of the classroom teacher as well as the teacher of visually impaired students.

The whole language approach requires a considerable amount of time on the part of the teacher of visually impaired students to prepare materials and spend time in the classroom with the student, but Holbrook and Nannen (1997) report that teachers who use this approach feel very comfortable with their knowledge of their students’ reading and writing abilities.

Language Experience

The language experience approach is an approach in which the student’s own language and experiences are used to create meaningful reading material. This approach allows the student to observe how writing is produced and to read words with which he/she is familiar. The steps involved in producing a language experience story as presented by Rex, et al (1994) are:

  • Give the child an experience that provides the content for the story.
  • Have the children describe the experience orally.
  • Transcribe the student’s oral language.
  • Help the student read what was transcribed.

The advantage of this approach is that it helps children to understand that print is “talk written down”. It is often used with younger students before they begin to use Patterns or one of the other approaches or in combination with another approach.

Activities for Responding to Reading

The most important thing to remember when planning response activities is that they should be meaningful to the blind student. It is not helpful for a student to be guided in coloring a picture which he/she does not understand. Instead of this, he could be assisted in creating a tactual picture. Meaningfulness of tactual pictures depends, of course, on prior knowledge and understanding of what is being conveyed by the picture.

If the student is writing his/her own responses, the responses should be available both in braille for the student and in print for the regular classroom teacher. This can be accomplished either by having the VI teacher transcribe the student’s work or by having the student use technology with which he/she is familiar and which can produce responses in print. It is important for young students to write their responses using a Perkins Brailler, slate and stylus, or other Braille input device.

Hints for Building Reading Speed

There are many ways to improve reading speed. The more reading the child does, the faster he will read. Some teachers use controlled-exposure devices to encourage children to build reading speed. Willoughby and Duffy (1989) present several additional hints for improving reading speed.

Silent Reading

  • Encourage children not to move their lips while reading silently. Silent reading is often accomplished much more quickly than oral reading. Moving the lips limits the child to the number of words which can be spoken.
  • In considering this approach, it is important to remember that comprehension may be valued over speed. A student who reads 300 words per minute but cannot remember or understand what has been read has no advantage over a student who reads 175 words per minute and remembers and understands what has been read. Some students move their lips because they experience problems with attention and find that the extra source of exposure to the material helps them to retain it.

  • Explain varying speeds of reading. It is important that students understand why they may want to read more slowly or quickly in various circumstances.
  • Some students find it helpful to use both hands. However, recent discussions among professionals, parents and blind adults have revealed that some people perceive characters in reverse when reading with the two hands. In these cases, the person will read much more fluently with the preferred hand. Often this is the nondominant hand.
  • Encourage recreational reading. Students who read more will naturally become more skilled at it. There are a number of sources of recreational reading material for blind children.
  • Teach children to turn pages quickly and to estimate instead of looking at every page number.
  • Enter contests. Students enjoy competing and may be motivated to read for rewards.

Oral reading

  • Take turns reading.
  • Read aloud in chorus.
  • Do not always interrupt to correct errors. Students may correct their own errors.
  • Read aloud on tape.

Students with Low Vision

Braille is becoming an increasingly accepted option for students with low vision, especially those who rely on extremely large print. Many of these students are learning to use both media and to make choices about which is best for a given situation. Teaching Braille to students with low vision successfully depends a great deal on the teacher, parents, and student having a positive attitude about Braille. It is important that Braille not be viewed as a symbol of weakness or as “just for blind people” but that as a tool which can empower people in situations when the use of large print is cumbersome or impractical. (Ianuzzi, 1999; Niceley, 1991)

Holbrook and Koenig (1992) emphasized the importance of using methods and materials which will motivate students with low vision to learn Braille. These methods and materials may include Braille menus and schedules, reading material which is relevant and of interest to the child, and correspondence with a pen pal.

It is important to encourage students with low vision not to “peek” at the dots. Many will try to read the Braille visually. This contributes to much slower reading. Willoughby and Duffy (1989) recommend using sleepshades to discourage peeking and provide suggestions on how to introduce them in a way which they report leads to little or no resistance.

Psychological factors may also affect the progress of students with low vision in learning to read braille. (Erin and Sumranveth, 1995) Exposure to blind people who use braille efficiently may help to alleviate some of the fears and negative attitudes associated with braille.

Students with low vision may or may not need instruction in the reading process, depending on their prior success with visual reading. Students who have been successful in visual reading may need only to learn the braille code as a means of reading.
(Holbrook and Nannen, 1997)

Several materials exist for teaching braille to older students or adults. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and the same program will not work for every student. These have been reviewed by Rex and Richesin (1996)

Gaining the Support of Family Members

Encouraging family members to learn Braille is another way of reinforcing students’ motivation to learn. The ability to read and write Braille provides family members the opportunity to assist students with their schoolwork as well as to correspond when they are away from home. It also demonstrates to the student that Braille is important enough for family members to learn it and is therefore worth using. Curran’s (1988) book is an excellent introduction to Braille for family members.

Mentoring

Mentoring is another way of encouraging students during the process of learning to read in Braille. Exposure to a blind adult who uses Braille regularly shows the student that Braille is normal and a respectable and efficient method of reading.

Sources of Recreational Reading Material

Garber (2000) identified a number of organizations which provide reading material in braille appropriate for children. Many of these sources also provide materials for adolescents and adults.

The Library of Congress allows its patrons to download books in digital braille and talking book form for use with digital braille displays and audio playback devices. Using an ID and password which can be obtained through NLS cooperating libraries, patrons can access a database containing braille-format books produced by the NLS. These files must be read via a braille note taker or display or embossed. Hard copies may also be ordered from NLS libraries, along with hard copies of many additional titles not available online. The URL for this site is http://www.loc.gov/nls/

References

Castellano, Carol. (1994). Making whole language work. Future reflections; fall.

Curran, Eileen P. (1988). Just enough to know better: A braille primer. Boston: National Braille Press.

Erin, J. N.; Sumranveth, P. (1995). Teaching reading to students who are adventitiously blind. Re:View; (89)27(3) 103-111.

Garber, M. (2000). Where to find braille books for children.

Gillette, Jean Wallace. (1994). Understanding reading problems: Assessment and instruction. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Heinze, T. (1986). Communication skills. in Scholl, G. T., ed. Foundations of education for blind and visually impaired children and youths: Theory and practice. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Holbrook, M. C. and Koenig, A. J. (1992). TEACHING BRAILLE READING TO STUDENTS WITH LOW VISION. Journal of visual impairment and blindness; V86, 44-47.

Holbrook, M. C.; and Nannen, L. O. (1997). Methods of literacy instruction for braille readers: Exploring all options. Journal of visual impairment and blindness; 91(5) 420-422.

Koenig, A. J. and Farrenkopf, C. (1995). Providing quality instruction in braille literacy skills. Houston: Region IV Service Center.

LaRose, S. J. (2000). Emergent literacy and the young blind child.

Rex, E. J.; Richesin, C. (1996). Report on a review of textbooks to teach braille to blind adults. Journal of visual impairment & blindness; 90(3), 266-268.

Rex, E. J., Koenig, A. J., Wormsley, D. P., and Baker, R. L. (1994). Foundations of braille literacy. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Sweet, Anne P. (1994). Transforming ideas for reading and learning to read. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Education.

Swenson, A.M. (1988). Using an integrated literacy curriculum with beginning braille readers. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness; V82, 336-38.

Willoughby, D.M. and Duffy, S. (1989). Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Baltimore: National Federation for the Blind.

Young, B. S. (1995). Reading instruction for the total inclusion classroom. Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University.

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