Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2000, Vol. 19 No. 1
Beginning with Braille: Firsthand Experiences with a Balanced Approach to Literacy, new from the American Foundation for the Blind, begins with a discussion of the whole language and traditional approaches to teaching reading and writing. Author Anna M. Swenson is a Braille teacher who favors the whole language philosophy, but who has taught in various settings, and includes ideas and techniques that will work with the traditional approach as well. The book’s focus is on creating an atmosphere that promotes literacy, no matter what the teaching approach.
According to Swenson, Braille teachers, who are the book’s primary intended audience, are not only teaching the Braille code, but are also teaching reading and writing. Swenson encourages Braille teachers to keep up to date with current approaches to teaching language arts, to get samples of sighted students’ work in order to understand the level of classroom expectation, and to consult with the reading specialist or learning disabilities specialist in the school if the blind student seems to be having difficulty learning to read.
Swenson makes detailed suggestions regarding working out the technical aspects of teaching Braille to a student in the mainstream, especially in a whole language classroom. In the section “A Morning in the Mainstream,” the reader can get a vivid view of how the Braille teacher can work alongside the classroom teacher to ensure a solid foundation for the blind student.
While the book is primarily written for Braille teachers (and new Braille teachers will especially benefit from the author’s many ideas), Beginning with Braille will certainly be an excellent resource for parents, classroom teachers, and paraprofessionals as well. The book is full of creative ideas for making the learning of Braille meaningful for the student. Sprinkled throughout the text are thoughtful tips from an experienced teacher, such as how to determine if a child is confusing a Braille e with a Braille I because he cannot discriminate between the two shapes or because he cannot remember which name goes with which shape. Swenson reminds the reader that blind children need real‑life experiences in order to understand the concepts they will encounter in school.
The author provides step‑by‑step instructions and activities for taking a young blind student through the beginning stages of Braille reading and writing. Many activities are aimed at teaching a young student how to complete an assignment independently. The ideas could easily be used by parents for enrichment, homeschooling, or remediation, or for older children whose development has been delayed but who are now ready to learn to read. Although a classroom teacher may not have time to read the whole book, a parent or Braille teacher could pass along many ideas that would work well in the classroom.
The author, a creative teacher who understands the importance of keeping a child interested, offers explicit directions for teaching Braille reading and writing; creative, logical, easy‑to‑make worksheet ideas; guidelines for when the use of worksheets is appropriate; and ideas on how to include “meaning‑based” activities in the child’s instruction. Some delightful ideas, such as making a book out of musical greeting cards so that the child hears a new song every time she turns a page, make me wish I had a little one of my own to teach!
Swenson lists techniques and activities for teaching Braille within and outside the regular classroom. This information ends up highlighting the pros and cons of mainstreaming and the delicate balance between the expectations of the mainstream classroom and the need for individual instruction in Braille skills, especially for the youngest students. Swenson observes that some students need extra individual instruction to prepare them to participate fully in the mainstream classroom. She warns that insisting on full‑time mainstreaming in the beginning for students such as these may result in less mainstreaming later on. Swenson also reminds teachers, though, that the goal of the specialized instruction is for the student to be able to function in the mainstream.
Beginning with Braille also contains ideas and resources for blind students with reading disabilities, suggestions for functional Braille for the child with more severe additional disabilities, assessment tools, literacy skill checklists, and record‑keeping forms. The author supplies resource lists of useful books, videos, and organizations, as well as templates for making books and ideas for sharing Braille with the child’s sighted classmates. A list of books featuring blind characters is included, but without any indication as to how blindness is presented. (I have read many of these books, and some of them I would never recommend!)
A few times in the book, some unfortunate language creeps in. The author refers to learning Braille as “a time‑consuming and complex process that requires daily instruction by a teacher of visually impaired students.” Could we not say the very same for learning print? I think the point is that Braille must be taught by a qualified teacher who knows the code and knows the techniques that will work. Swenson also once or twice refers to the Braille teacher’s instruction as “intervention.” Lastly, among many ideas for meaningful Brailling opportunities, the author suggests that the child Braille out certificates of appreciation for classmates who served as sighted guides. Certainly other reasons to communicate with classmates—ones that keep the blind student on a more equal par with sighted classmates—could be found. She also recommends sighted classmates’ trying out sighted guide under blindfold (why not try out the cane?). Many of us discourage the use of sighted guide for our blind children, preferring instead more independent mobility. Despite these small criticisms, I do not hesitate to recommend this book.
The author of this book certainly loves her work. Her genuine enthusiasm is apparent on every page. By reading the case studies she includes, we can share in the excitement of seeing a student progress. Anna Swenson’s students are surely having fun and learning well. Now others have the opportunity to benefit from this teacher’s creative work.