Future Reflections Summer 1996, Vol. 15 No. 3
by Jerry Whittle
Reprinted from the December, 1995 issue of the Braille Monitor.
From the Editor: Developing good study habits and using readers effectively are important skills for any blind student to master. From time to time we have published articles on this important subject. (See "The Care and Feeding of Readers" by Peggy Pinder in the May, 1993, issue and "Of Readers, Drivers, and Responsibility" by Peggy Elliott and Barbara Cheadle in the March, 1995, issue.) Jerry Whittle is a staff member at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. He has worked with many students and has personal experience supervising readers successfully. His approach is a little different from that of Peggy Pinder Elliott, but his message is the same. This is what he says:
Over the past ten years the Louisiana Center for the Blind has had several students who had never used readers before and who sought to be more effective in their study habits. Usually I discover that these students have been making some fundamental errors in using their readers efficiently. First of all many blind college students make the mistake of hiring only one or two readers, usually college students attending the same institution as the blind person. One or two readers are not enough. Tests at a university often occur on roughly the same schedule in all classes; therefore, student readers need to study for their own tests, so they are unable to spend lots of time helping the blind student during these high-pressure periods in the school year. If, however, the blind student maintains a list of seven or eight dependable readers, the chances of finding someone to help study in times of crisis are far greater.
Another principle in using readers is not to hire university students only. It is important to hire one or two readers who do not attend college. At exam time all college students are necessarily engrossed in their own studies and do not have much time to help a blind employer. A reader from outside the university becomes extremely important in such times of concentrated study.
It is essential that the time you spend with your readers be effectively used. Some students make the error of relying on their readers to record tapes only. During my undergraduate and postgraduate work, I rarely asked readers to tape record anything for me and drop it off. I did this for several reasons. First of all, when one allows a reader to work on his or her own recognizance, he or she is less likely to be efficient than when reading directly to the employer. Tapes often come back with innumerable yawns or recorded by a voice that sounds as though the reader were an inmate of a concentration camp. This happens because readers often get around to recording the material only when their own studies are finished and they are ready for bed.
Second, tapes can break, twist into frightful knots, or become garbled. Third, no two tape recorders are alike, so the reader may well use a K-Mart special to produce tapes that will be irritating or incomprehensible on your top-of-the-line tape recorder. Fourth, human nature being what it is, readers often do not get study materials recorded until the very last minute. Often anxiously awaited tapes don't appear at all because the reader has not been under the blind employer's direct supervision. In short, reader laziness and irresponsibility can be a terrible problem, and they are more likely to occur when one sends a reader home with material to record rather than doing it live and under direct supervision.
Many blind students also make some rather tragic mistakes when using a reader under direct supervision. For example, for some reason many blind students believe that they are studying effectively if they simply sit and listen to someone read a chapter. Unfortunately, this method is almost useless. Statistics have shown that a person retains only about 15 percent of what he or she simply hears when studying in this manner. One does not remember much without writing it down. It is vitally important that a blind student take careful notes from the material being read aloud. Use a slate and stylus and sit at a desk or table when studying. Point out to your reader the important passages that you wish to have underlined or highlighted; then, after you have listened to your reader and have written down the important points with a slate, ask him or her to record the important material he or she has marked in the chapter. Listen to this condensed material and take notes while listening to it.
I would like to reiterate how important one's working environment is. I once visited the apartment of a student who was not doing well in class but who was using a reader consistently and studying at least two hours a day for a single course. This student was sitting on a couch with her reader. She had no writing instruments within reach, and she was listening to music on the radio at the same time. She heard the chapter read, but she had no notes to refer to, so she probably retained only 10 percent of what she had almost heard through the music. In summary, it is wise to sit at a table or desk, take notes, ask one's reader to underline important material, and tape record this underlined material for future review. This method has proven to be successful for many blind students.
Many people make another tragic mistake in the classroom. These students decide to tape record their class lectures, but they do not take notes while the tape recorder is going. However, sighted students are taking notes with a pen or pencil while listening to the lecture. By the close of the class, the sighted students have heard the lecture and also have hard-copy print notes to review further. In contrast a blind student who depends only on the tape recorder retains hardly any of the lecture; he or she has no hard-copy notes; in fact, the blind student has almost nothing until he or she returns home and begins to study by listening to the entire lecture again and again. It is extremely important that one take notes while listening to a lecture. Writing helps the mind focus on what is being said instead of wandering. Additionally, this is an excellent way to begin developing faster and more useful notetaking speed.
This raises another problem. Many blind students lack confidence in taking notes, so a sighted notetaker is often assigned to help. A sighted notetaker is at best an unsatisfactory way to handle one's college studies. Such notes may well not be dependable and are unlikely to include all the things and only the things that the blind student would have written down. Taking notes is a highly individualized exercise since everyone comes to the lecture with his or her own approach to and previous knowledge of the subject. Moreover, a blind student who uses a notetaker in class has already planted in the professor's mind the concept that he or she cannot do the work independently. Finally, the blind student has wasted valuable class time by not focusing on the lecture as attentively as his or her note-taking classmates do.
In order to compete on an equal basis, blind students must use their readers effectively and find ways to keep them working hard in a team effort. Cultivating and keeping good readers is important during a college career. You must establish good working habits with readers. Stressing how important your studies are to you can be an effective way of getting a reader to go the extra mile. "I am taking sixteen hours this semester, and I really depend on my readers to enable me to make good grades," is not a bad thing to say to a reader from the outset of the working relationship.
It is also important for the reader to recognize that the blind student is in charge of study time. The reader is an employee, and the blind student expects him or her to be on time and to read and work steadily for one- to two-hour periods. During my college career I found it difficult to keep a reader on task for more than two hours. Even my best readers grew weary of reading continually for that period, and some of them were ready to call it a day after one hour. For that reason I scheduled my readers to come in every two hours. Since I was a day person, I usually scheduled my classes as early in the morning as possible and kept my afternoons free to use readers, having them come in every two hours. I saved my evenings for further review or to listen to textbooks on tape or to socialize when time permitted. I would suggest that students schedule readers during the hours of their peak concentration.
Additionally, it is important that the blind employer not be afraid to phase out poor or irresponsible readers as quickly as possible. During my undergraduate studies alone, I hired well over twenty-five readers, but I used only about seven for any length of time. I never allowed them to take control of my study time; I made sure that I was prepared to begin work as soon as they arrived. Many students make the mistake of waiting until the reader arrives to get out the work for the day, and fifteen to twenty minutes of precious time is then wasted preparing to study. It would be much more efficient to have the necessary materials organized and ready to read as soon as the reader arrives. This preparedness minimizes the temptation to converse too much. I would begin to answer chatty comments in monosyllables and comport myself in such a way that it was clear I wanted to study. A wise and disciplined blind student will communicate the idea that general conversation is appropriate only after studying is finished.
In some circumstances it may be appropriate to give an occasional small gift to a particularly good and dependable reader. This gesture may keep him or her working hard. For example, in college I had a very good reader who was not paid expeditiously after I had turned in her hours. She was growing impatient to be paid by the Commission for the Blind, and I could sense her consternation. I bought her a small gift and attached this note to it: "I couldn't make the grade without you." She was touched and kept reading diligently until she was finally paid. Don't take a good reader for granted-cultivate and thank him or her.
On another occasion this same reader grew weary of reading for me after three or four weeks of concentrated work, probably because I did not relent in my desire to do well with my studies. She said to me one day, "Couldn't we just talk some time? Wouldn't it be nice to have some bread and cheese and wine and just talk instead of studying all the time?" So the next time we were scheduled to read, I put a bottle of wine, two wine glasses, a small loaf of bread, and some packaged cheese in my briefcase. When she met me that evening in an empty classroom of the history building, I opened the briefcase and took out the contents, and we had a wonderful conversation for two hours. After that she felt relieved not to be under pressure all the time; and she read sedulously and without complaint for the rest of the semester.
Remember that good readers are extremely important to a blind student's success, but more important is the way readers are used. Other important aspects of a successful college career are the kind of working relationship one establishes and how effectively a blind student keeps a reader working. Most important, remember to write information down. Listening alone is not a satisfactory method.