The Braille Monitor                                                                                               April, 2002

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Learning Braille as an Adult:

Read Until You Bleed

by Jerry Whittle

From the Editor: Jerry Whittle has taught Braille at the Louisiana Center for the Blind for over fifteen years now, and he has learned a lot about his calling. Among other things he knows what works and what doesn't for adults trying to master this invaluable code. In the following article he describes frankly what one has to do to gain reading speed as an adult. Here is what he says:

Jerry Whittle speaking from Braille notes.
Jerry Whittle speaking from Braille notes

For the past fifteen years, while teaching Braille at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I have had the opportunity to work with some excellent Braille readers. Over thirty of them read Braille at rates exceeding three hundred words a minute. The average college student reads print at between two and four hundred words a minute. I also timed two students who read Braille at a rate exceeding five hundred words a minute. All of these students, except one, read Braille using both hands, starting the line with the left hand and finishing it with the right while the left tracks down to the next line. One reader who exceeds three hundred words a minute using only one hand reads in a most unorthodox style. He turns the book so that he can use his entire right index finger to read down the line in the direction of his stomach, quickly snapping the hand up to the next line. All of these excellent Braille readers learn Braille either in preschool or in first grade. None of those exceeding three hundred words a minute learn to read as an adult or even in upper elementary school or high school.

Over the same period I have also timed many Braille readers between two and three hundred words a minute and many more between one hundred and two hundred words a minute. Most of these people use only one hand, are eighteen to twenty years old, or have learned Braille in grammar school.

This recounting of reading rates brings me to the point of this article. During my fifteen years of teaching Braille, I have observed that no student who came to the Center as an adult and did not know Braille previously exceeded eighty words a minute during the six to nine months of training. Several students who did not know Braille when they entered the Center achieved more than sixty words a minute during their training--all excellent achievements; however, most, if not all, of the students who learned Braille at the Center did not increase their reading speed after leaving the program. If anything, many of them lost some of their speed even though most of them vowed to work hard and improve on the foundation they had built at the Center.

Let it be understood that all of these students were diligent and dedicated to improving their Braille literacy, and many of them are quite bright; however, the demands of life after Center training prevented them from increasing their reading rates. Moreover, since most of them needed to read a minimum of thirty-five pages a day in order to increase--about two hours a day of concentrated effort--most of them lost speed.

Thus one can conclude that once a person has achieved a rate of sixty words a minute, he or she must dedicate two hours or more each day to make increases. The problem does not lie in the lack of dedication or enthusiasm or in an unwillingness to work sedulously to accomplish this goal. The problem is that hardly anyone facing the press of life's demands can find the time to read that much each day.

An active social life, the demands of a job or of academics, child-rearing, and many other demands make it virtually impossible to improve the reading rate. This point has not been substantiated from studies but from sixteen years of observation and commiseration with former students who are sometimes exasperated because they cannot seem to improve.

The answer to this problem appears to be finding a way to work on Braille reading in a concentrated way for a prolonged period of time--three to six months. Fortunately, I can make this observation because two of my former students convinced their counselors to sponsor them at the Center for periods of six weeks and three months to do just that. The first student, aged thirty-seven, learned the Braille code at the Center and reached a rate of forty words a minute before graduation.

He went back to work and did not increase his reading rate; in fact, it dropped to twenty-seven words a minute. After convincing his counselor that his ability to read was very important to him in his work, he returned to the Center for six weeks of intensive reading. He started by reading thirty-five pages a day between the hours of eight A.M. and five P.M. with occasional breaks. He continued to read steadily and began to build speed; therefore he increased his reading goals to fifty pages a day. After six weeks he increased his reading rate to sixty-seven words a minute.

Another student, aged twenty-one, had learned Braille in our summer training program at the age of thirteen. She returned to the adult training program at eighteen and increased her reading rate to ninety-two words a minute before graduation. She attended college and maintained a very active social life; thus her reading rate diminished to approximately sixty words a minute. Recognizing how much she needed to increase her speed in order to read aloud fluently, she convinced her counselor to allow her to return to the Center for three months after graduation from college.

She, like the other student, read steadily from eight to five with appropriate breaks, and she read one hundred pages a day at first. She also read at night when she did not complete the one-hundred page goal during class hours. She began to increase steadily, and she increased her page goal to one hundred fifty pages a class day. She maintained a high degree of motivation throughout the three-month period. At the end of three months she had more than doubled her reading rate to one hundred twenty-three words a minute. Incidentally, she reached an ideal reading rate to read aloud, and, for the first time in her life, she read a paper she had prepared in Braille before an audience of over two hundred people--a lifelong dream.

Without a doubt, the answer for someone who has learned Braille as an adult and who has not exceeded sixty to eighty words a minute is to find a way to dedicate three to six months of intense reading in a place where Braille books are readily accessible. One of the advantages of coming back to the Louisiana Center for the Blind is that we have a substantial collection of Braille books on every subject; students are apt to read more if they can find books to their liking. After observing this intensive dedication to reading for a prolonged period, I am convinced that this is the answer for blind people who have learned Braille as adults and who have been frustrated because they cannot find the time or the readily-accesible Braille library to improve reading rates.

Furthermore, the old myth about Braille reading being slow can also be dispelled. No person, Braille or print reader, who has learned to read as an adult can gain high reading rates without prolonged, sustained reading. Like the blind student trying to gain speed as an adult, a print reader will need the same type of regimen to attain adequate literacy skills. In other words, the problem is not the method; it is finding the time in a demanding adult schedule to read the number of pages necessary to go beyond the sixty-word-per-minute plateau.

With research analysis perhaps we can prove scientifically that these conclusions are true and find better strategies to improve Braille literacy for hundreds of adults who have the motivation but find it difficult to budget the time. Literacy is extremely important for every blind person, for it means cultural enrichment, upward mobility, and future employment. With this research analysis, perhaps rehabilitation counselors will be convinced of the importance of extra months of training, concentrating on reading speed for motivated users of Braille who have had the misfortune to learn Braille later in life.

Have you considered leaving a gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will? By preparing a will now, you can assure that those administering your estate will avoid unnecessary delays, legal complications, and substantial tax costs. A will is a common device used to leave a substantial gift to charity. A gift in your will to the NFB can be of any size and will be used to help blind people. Here are some useful hints in preparing your will:

Make a list of everything you want to leave (your estate).

Decide how and to whom you want to leave these assets.

Consult an attorney (one you know or one we can help you find).

Make certain you thoroughly understand your will before you sign it.

For more information contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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