Future Reflections Summer/Fall 1999, Vol. 18 No. 2

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New Research Study: Early Braille education vital in establishing lifelong literacy

By Ruby Ryles, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: The following research study, as reported in the Spring, 1998, edition of HumanWare’s publication, Star Student, was conducted by an individual well-known to Future Reflections readers. Her articles, "Is Your Child Age-Appropriate" and "The Blind Child in the Regular Preschool Program" are circulated and read by thousands of parents and teachers. Some readers, however, may remember her best as a fellow parent of a blind child (Dan, now a law student in New Mexico); or as an award-winning Braille teacher; or as a national leader in the NOPBC. As you can see, Dr. Ryle’s latest research contribution, as described below, is the natural continuation of a lifetime dedicated to promoting quality education for blind children. Here is the report:

An exhaustive study has cast aside some erroneous stereotypes while underscoring the importance of Braille education at an early age. The study has revealed that literacy rates of blind high school students who began their Braille education at an early age are consistent with those of their sighted peers. The study further disclosed that legally blind children who received infrequent or no Braille training, or who began their Braille education later in life, exhibit noticeably lower literacy rates.

The study was conducted by Ruby Ryles, Ph.D., who coordinates the master’s program in Orientation and Mobility at Louisiana Tech University in conjunction with the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Ryles performed the study for her University of Washington doctoral dissertation in special education, titled "Relationship of Reading Medium to Literacy Skills of High School Students Who Are Visually Impaired." Results from that and a preliminary study suggest that partially sighted children may be at greater risk of literacy deficiencies than children who are totally blind.

The study was intended to establish correlations between present literacy rates and the early reading education of high school students from 45 cities, towns, and rural communities in 11 eastern and southern states. Of 60 students in the study, 45 were legally blind from birth, had no other disabilities, spoke English as a first language, were of average intelligence, and attended public rather than residential schools. The study also included a comparative group of 15 sighted students attending the same schools as the legally blind subjects.

The 45 legally blind students were divided into three groups of 15 students each, corresponding with the initiation and consistency of their Braille instruction:

Early Braille—students who received Braille instruction four to five days per week while in the first, second, and third grades.

Infrequent Braille—students who received Braille instruction fewer than four days per week during the first three grades;

Non-Braille—legally blind students who received no instruction in reading Braille, instead using print material and optical aids.

Ryles administered comprehension, vocabulary, and other subtests of the Stanford Achievement Test and the Woodcock Johnson R (revised) assessment tests.

In comprehension tests, there was no significant difference between the mean scores of the sighted students and the group of blind students who received early frequent instruction in Braille. Nor was there a significant difference between the mean scores of the infrequent Braille group and the non-Braille group on the two comprehension tests. However, the students who received instruction in Braille fewer than four days a week during the first three grades of school (infrequent Braille group) and the non-Braille group posted mean scores on both tests significantly lower than those of the sighted and early Braille groups.

In vocabulary, early Braille readers outperformed sighted students by a 5 percent margin on the Stanford test and nearly matched their sighted classmates on the Woodcock Johnson R test. The infrequent Braille learners, producing a mean score of 45 percent, registered significantly below the early Braille and sighted groups on the Stanford test. Legally blind students who received no Braille instruction posted a mean score 6 percentage points lower than the infrequent Braille group on the same test. The infrequent and non-Braille groups also scored significantly lower than the early Braille and sighted groups on the Woodcock Johnson R vocabulary test.

Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization scores shattered stereotypes. In the capitalization and punctuation portion of the Woodcock Johnson R test, early Braille readers produced a mean score that was 7 percentage points higher than their sighted peers, 25 percentage points higher than the infrequent Braille group, and 42 percentage points higher than their legally blind peers in the non-Braille group.

In the spelling portion of the Woodcock Johnson R test, early Braille learners averaged 1 percent point higher than fully sighted readers, 32 percentage points higher than infrequent Braille learning, and 38 percentage points highter than the non-Braille group.

Before beginning work on the project, Ryles conducted a preliminary study in the state of Washington evaluating the correlation between adult literacy skills and employment. There, she studied 74 adults who were born legally blind and were patrons of the Library for the Blind. Ryles discovered that 44 percent of the study participants who had learned to read in Braille were unemployed, while those who had learned to read using print had a 77 percent unemployment rate. Those results prompted her to conduct an in-depth study exploring the childhood reading education of legally blind high school kids.

The two studies led Ryles to an inescapable conclusion: "Low-vision kids need to be taught Braille," she asserts. "Early Braille education is crucial to literacy, and literacy is crucial to employment."

For more information about the study, contact Ruby Ryles at <rylesr@lcb-ruston.com>.

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