Braille Monitor                                                    July 2008

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Hearing Words versus Reading Words


by Robert Leslie Newman

From the Editor: Robert Leslie Newman is president of the NFB Writers Division. As the editor of the Braille Monitor I agree with the points he makes in the following article:

Robert Leslie NewmanIt happened to me again--I wrote something based on what I had heard read aloud, and it was spelled wrong. It was the name of a friend, and I misspelled it because I assumed it was spelled like the name of another friend. I hate it when I make mistakes like this, and I really donít have a good excuse because I am a Braille reader. But alas I must confess that I read most of my email and longer pieces using speech, either by synthesized voice on my computer or the recorded human voice from my Talking Book machine. So I feel compelled to write about this hearing-of-the-written-word thing versus the reading-of-the-written-word method. On the one hand I appreciate the convenience of voiced material; however, when I realize the magnitude of its negative impact on my literacy and feel how surely I am its victim, I do acknowledge that it is my responsibility to manage this deficit by using the blindness alternatives available to me.

First, let me go on record by saying that Talking Books or reading by any auditory medium in and of itself is not a bad thing because keeping up with information that comes through newspapers, magazines, and books is an endeavor worth doing, no matter how we accomplish it. In fact, for the largest group of blind people, those of us who used to be print readers, listening to recorded material is an immediate and easy fix for the deprivation of print, since it requires little to no new learning, just becoming familiar with the Talking Book player or screen-reading software.

But what are the limitations of listening to the written word and not reading it yourself? Talking Books by their very nature provide a quick and inexpensive presentation of material. The rules governing Talking Book narrators preclude description of the way the passage is laid out. It is rare to have the name of a person or place spelled or to be informed of punctuation or formatting. The goal is to provide an easy-to-listen-to flow of the material. So how would a reader/listener know if two names pronounced the same way were spelled differently? Additionally, though we may learn punctuation rules in the classroom, most of us cement them into our writing by seeing them used correctly in the material we read.

What are the consequences of listening versus reading? When we speak of the reading process, it is important to note the significant difference between reading through listening and reading through the fingers or eyes. Considered as mental activity, listening is passive. Reading tactilely or visually, on the other hand, is active, and active learning has a positive effect on building short- and long-term memory. Guess what happens to anyone who reads using voiced material only when the intent is actually learning, not just enjoying? Think of the consequences to a student who uses recorded books as the primary method of reading. Consider the quality of a writerís work if he or she depends solely on listening to read style or reference material.

The nonprint student or reader who wishes to write for others has reading options, and it is his or her responsibility to learn what they are and make use of them. The first and most obvious alternative is Braille. However, we are in an era in which Braille is not widely encouraged, even though it is more available than ever because of the ease with which the written word can be digitized and translated into Braille. Braille translation software has made conversion fast. File storage is extremely efficient, and refreshable Braille displays have made most hard copy unnecessary. Almost best of all, the price of acquiring Braille is less than ever. So is Braille for everyone? Of course not. But if you donít read using Braille and are reading with a computer, it is imperative when using names of people or places to develop the discipline to stop on unfamiliar words to note their spelling. Additionally, if using the spell-check when writing, examine each so-called misspelled word and check to be sure that the program has not flagged a word that you know to be spelled correctly. If you believe that the spell-check has the word in question in its dictionary, look down the list of suggestions for the correct word. Assuming that the first choice or the first word that sounds right is the one you should choose can get you into bad trouble. It is easy to choose a similar-sounding word or a homophone (a word that sounds the same but may be spelled differently from the one you really want). You can also use the grammar checker in your screen-reading software that provides information about punctuation and formatting. This will catch many errors, but it is not perfect; it makes lots of mistakes and flags many perfectly good word choices. Finally, if you are a reader who does not use Braille or the computer, good luck correcting spelling and format. Your task is multistep, time consuming, and dependent on feedback from other readers.

In conclusion, I would say that, if you want to learn to tell stories, any form of reading, Talking Books, screen readers, or Braille will help. But if you want to learn how to write a story down, you must find a way actively to read good writing, not just listen to it. So be smart; develop and use effective blindness alternatives.

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