Future Reflections                                                                                      Summer/Fall, 2002

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The Braille Beginner – A Constructive Learner

by Kerstin Fellenius, Ph.D.
Stockholm Institute of Education, SWEDEN

Reprinted from The Educator, a publication of the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment, volume X111, number 1, Autumn 2001.

From the Editor: The NFB, through this publication and others, has consistently urged parents of young blind children to create a Braille-rich environment in their homes.

“Get print-Braille storybooks and read to your children,” we’ve said.  “Put Braille labels on everyday objects throughout your home, learn Braille yourself, and get involved in Braille activities with other families (i.e. Braille Storybook Hours). Join your affiliate of the NFB and find blind Braille mentors and role models for your children. Take your children to functions where they can see and hear blind people using Braille to make speeches, take notes, read minutes of meetings, read recipes, read map directions, write down names and telephone numbers.”

In the following scholarly article, Dr. Fellenius demonstrates that this practical advice has sound educational and research-based underpinnings. Learning Braille is a lot more than memorizing dot-patterns. Environment does matter. In industrialized nations, home is where the foundation of literacy is built. With a little thought and effort, parents of blind children can provide this foundation, too. Here is what Dr. Fellenuis has to say about “The Braille Beginner—A Constructive Learner.”

Literacy means more than just being able to read and write. It means being able to communicate on different levels—with an author through the text of a book; by correspondence with other people, famous, obscure, personally known or not; and with society as a whole. Literacy is obviously a necessary skill for anyone who lives in a society where reading and writing are used daily. But it will become ever more necessary in a future society dependent on information and advanced communication technology. Reading, of course, serves so many fundamental social needs that individuals are highly motivated to learn to read—not only for their own pleasure and satisfaction, but also because today’s society makes demands on reading skills. School and society impose necessary reading tasks which differ in nature from reading for pleasure.

To meet these required everyday reading situations an individual must adapt his or her reading strategy to the reading task. A reader who can do this exhibits what we may call “reading competence.” Reading competence in this sense implies an interaction between an individual and his/her surroundings. A person with reading competence reads and understands, adapts reading strategy to the reading task, and uses his/her reading ability to meet the reading demands expected from people in his/her surroundings.

How then do reading ability and reading competence develop? From my point of view the acquisition of literacy is a social construction that develops in interactions with the environment. The question thus arises: what does this approach offer to the Braille beginner and to his/her educator?

The theoretical framework for the development of the individual states that every child actively searches for knowledge by interacting with his/her surroundings. The child is simply a constructive learner (Piaget, 1954; Vygotsky, 1978). Research has taught us that the sighted and the blind child differ in the way they explore and acquire concepts and language (Warren, 1994). We do not yet fully understand, however, how the blind child’s surroundings affect his/her efforts to construct the world (Webster & Roe, 1998). That is, how the Braille beginner constructs the concepts of reading and writing in interaction with the family, school, and society. And how does the teacher’s knowledge of and experience with the way blind children explore the surroundings affect an individual child’s chance to be a constructive learner? These are matters frequently discussed nowadays when most blind children are integrated in mainstream school systems.

As a former special teacher in a special school for visually impaired and someone who today trains other teachers, I have had reason to reflect on how a teacher’s experience affects blind learners of different ages and learning situations. Two of my pupils especially come to mind—both girls, and both in my classes in the special school. And both constructive learners.

The first, Tiina, came to the special school when she was seven-years-old in grade one. Tiina was the most curious pupil I had ever met with an incredible hunger for learning to read. She was always asking questions about the dots she felt everywhere in the surroundings of the special school, and of course there were always people around to answer. I am sure she would have been a reader by seven if she had been a sighted child. Once she was fa­miliar with the positions of the dots in the Braille cell, she asked what the names of the letters were. In those days, we as­signed each dot a position number in the cell, and this methodology gave Tiina a lan­guage to describe what she wanted to know. “What letter is number one, three, four, and five?” she would ask when she found a letter she didn’t recog­nize. Very early on she began to single out letters from a whole written word and would describe them in the same way as a sighted child does who points to a letter and says its name. Tiina had never had the opportunity to learn about letters before she came to the special school. She had the “appetite” but no food!

By the end of her first school year Tiina was a fluent reader, she also was able to write with slate and stylus. Today she is in her thirties—the mother of three children and a lawyer. She got her law degree before computer reading and writing in Braille.

The second constructive learner, Katarina, had a hearing impair­ment besides her visual impair­ment. She had been fitted with a hearing device just before school started and she did have some re­sidual vision. I was told before we met that she was a slow learner, and might perhaps have slight mental retardation. She was a very silent girl, and it was not easy for me to get close to her so she would share her thoughts.

I noticed almost at once though, that something happened to her when she was introduced to let­ters in Braille. She learned them very easily, and was obviously pleased to be using her fingers and sense of touch. Then on par­ents visiting day about two months later, when Katarina had to show her anxious mother her Braille reading trials, she was brilliant! Katarina had been given a medium that allowed her to express her hidden talents. It was obvious that previous judge­ments about her mental retarda­tion and slow learning were wrong. During her preschool years she’d been misunderstood because she had no opportunity to be a constructive learner. Her two impairments were not merely added, they were multi­plied in the ignorant environ­ment she lived in—environ­ment, that was her biggest handicap. Once she got the key to lit­eracy, she devoured books and journeyed away to a world of poetic imagination.

Today Katarina, totally blind and severely hearing impaired, has published a book of poems, Cau­tious Hands, and works for the deaf-blind association. Reading and writing have helped her sur­vive, but who knows what more she might have accomplished had she lived in a competent en­vironment during her preschool years. Several other pupils also became more relaxed when they were able to use touch instead of bad vision. One girl with CVI and normal intellectual development had severe visual percep­tual problems; she told me she was much more comfortable when she was reading Braille instead of print (Fellenius, Ek & Jacobson, in press).

What happens to blind children like Tiina and Katarina today? Has anything changed in the last twenty-five years?

Does a [blind] child have an opportunity to be curious about the [Braille] dots before going to school?

Does a child have an opportunity to be curious about the dots before going to school? And if a child is curi­ous, do the people around him or her, have the knowledge, the im­agination, or the appropriate tools to satisfy the curiosity? Do children have more access to in­formation, more opportunity now for learning and teaching before school starts?

The methodology for teaching Braille has long focused on the single Braille letter and the question of how a child learns to rec­ognize the patterns of the dots. We have evolved efficient read­ing techniques and rapid reading, we understand the use of con­tractions as a way to overcome a slow reading rate and to develop exercises for going from dots to letters, and from letters to read­ing words and sentences. But can these methods be combined with the philosophy of a con­structive learner?

 Piaget has said that each time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. This is the es­sence from the perspective of a constructive learner. To give a blind child the chance to invent letters, words, and sentences would put enormous demands on his/her learning environment—that is, teachers and tools. One reason Tiina and Katarina learned Braille so quickly, was, of course the access they had to let­ters and texts in Braille in the special school. You cannot be curious and ask about something you don’t know exists. Secondly, other pupils around them were also striving to understand the meaning and the use of reading and writing in Braille. Once you understand what being able to read means, you are more moti­vated to learn. Thirdly, they were made aware of what they were learning and why; and awareness is always important for progress. And lastly, they had knowledge­able people around them to an­swer their questions, stimulate their curiosity, and make them eager to grow.

Learning is an interactive process. Learning never exists in a vacuum.

Learning is an interactive proc­ess. Learning never exists in a vacuum. Vygotsky emphasized the importance of socio-cultural interaction if a child is to be able to move ahead from his/her actual development level. He talks about “the zone of proximal development” (ZPD) where the child has the opportu­nity of developing inherent re­sources during particular circum­stances e.g., in cooperation with or in interaction with more capa­ble people. He defines the near­est development zone as follows:

It is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers...

The zone of proximal development defines those func­tions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are cur­rently in an embryonic state. (P. 86)

From this perspective, the educational process becomes important for, and determines, the child’s learning. Education must be based on those processes which are under development in every child/pupil if it is to stimu­late further development of higher cognitive processes. Reading is such a process.

Therefore, the learning environ­ment of pupils with visual im­pairments must be considered important if the child is to de­velop reading ability and reading competence. This point of view presumes access to people who know about, and have experi­ence with, the consequences of visual impairment for reading development, which is, to use Vygotsky’s words, scaffolding.

The adult must support the child in his problem-solving in such a way that later on he/she will be able to manage alone. From this perspective the educator will function more as an observer and supporter rather than as a traditional instructor. Such an educa­tor observes and based on his/her own knowledge, interprets what is seen and supports the child to facilitate his/her own problem ­solving. It is a delicate task that requires a teaching competence involving both timing’ and coaching. As a teacher it is my duty to promote learning and to create a room for active learning in which learning also has mean­ing for the pupil.

The access to “room for active learning” is relatively easy for a sighted child. It is much more difficult for the Braille beginner to find an environment enriched with opportunities for incidental learning. Sighted and visually impaired pupils report very dif­ferent kinds of interaction within their families when they describe their home reading environment. Many pupils with visual impair­ments report that people at home never or almost never talk to them about what they read (Fellenius, 1999). This lack of interaction is an alarm signal and a pedagogical challenge. As edu­cators with our knowledge of blind children’s needs and learning processes, it is our responsibility to describe and participate in creating opportunities for active learning in the child’s total environment, and to do so in collaboration with the family, the school, and the society.

References

Fellenius, K. (1999). Reading Environment at Home and at School of Swedish Students with Visual Impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 93; (4), 211-224.

Fellenius, K. Ek, U. & Jacobson, L. (2001). Reading strategies in children with cerebral visual impairment due to periventricular leucomalasia. A pilot study of four cases. Unpublished manuscript.

Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of the reality in the child. New York: Basic.

Piaget, J. (1971). The Structuralism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Vygotsky, S. L. (1978.) Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Warren, H.D. (1994). Blindness and Children. An Individual Differences Approach. Cambridge University Press.

Webster, A. & Roe, J. (1998). Children with visual impairments. Social interaction, language and learning. London: Routledge.

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