by Jerry Whittle
From the Editor: During this year-long Braille Readers are Leaders campaign we will from time to time ask Braille teachers to share Braille tips and reflections arising from their teaching experience. We also hope to reprint some reflections from students who are learning the code. We hope that together these offerings may inspire our readers to take up Braille or practice it more consistently. We invite anyone with a contribution to make to this ongoing conversation to send an essay to <email@example.com>.
Jerry Whittle is the Braille instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Since he is the senior NFB center Braille instructor, it is fitting that he should be the first teacher to offer his Braille wisdom. This is what he says:
The two-handed technique of reading Braille is far superior to any other method. After twenty-three years of teaching Braille, I am convinced that the two-handed method—starting the line with the left hand and completing it with the right while the left hand tracks down to the line below—is the way to approach Braille literacy.
Over the years I have timed well over sixty Braille readers who could read three hundred words a minute or more; all of them used this two-handed method. All of them used more than one finger on each hand—some a total of five fingers, some with eight fingers. Therefore it pays to put the flesh on the Braille line.
Here is another interesting fact: in 70 percent of the Braille readers, the left hand is more sensitive; thus people who learn to read with only the right hand while the left hand only finds each succeeding line never discover that the left hand probably reads better. Many of my students have doubled or tripled their speed over a six-to-nine-month training period by working on the two-handed method and strengthening the left hand. This takes work and dedication and hundreds of pages, but those sedulous students who have maintained rigid daily page goals have reaped the benefits of enhanced Braille literacy.
Only once in twenty-three years of teaching has a student exceeded two hundred and fifty words per minute using only the right hand. She read with the index, middle, and ring fingers on her right hand, and she increased her speed to this level by reading well over three thousand pages; but she could never attain the three-hundred-word plateau. She came to the center reading about one hundred eighty words a minute. She had CP and could use only her right hand. She had been reading Braille from the first grade like the two-handed readers who surpassed three hundred words a minute. By the way, about ten of these read over four hundred words a minute, and three surpassed five hundred words.
If you want to increase your speed, use the two-handed method. Read ten hours or more a week, and use the best hand, probably the left, to read most of the line. Finally, let as many fingers as possible glide with the index fingers. If you want to improve the left hand, find a high interest, low vocabulary book and read with only the left hand for as many pages as needed to discover just how well it can distinguish Braille patterns; then begin incorporating it with the right hand. If you maintain your daily reading goals, you will probably increase your reading rate by about ten words a minute every two weeks. Read books that stimulate your interest and keep you motivated, and try to read when you are fresh and alert. I am a morning person, and I go a little groggy around nine p.m., so I read early in the morning and in the afternoon on weekends, but others like the wee hours of the morning. If it works for you, it is right.
Amy Weaver’s Diary
Editor’s Note: Amy Weaver did not know Braille before enrolling in the Louisiana Center for the Blind in late January of 2009. Although diabetic with possible sensitivity loss in her hands, she has approached her Braille class with a positive and dedicated enthusiasm. Hailing from Mobile, Alabama, and having earned a degree from a local university, this hard-working young woman wants Braille literacy enough to pay the price of many hours of dedicated effort. Here is the first entry in her weekly diary:
January 31, 2009: Here I am at thirty-five years of age, and I’m singing the alphabet song again. With the help of my instructor and some caring students in the apartments, I have already learned to write my alphabet on the slate—with occasional errors. I also completed a to g in the manual. I hope my mind can retain the code. I am also hoping that I can someday reach the level of some of my classmates. It seems so far away, but I like the class a lot. I know this will be a challenge. I am learning to read with both hands, and it is hard because I want to use my left hand most of the time, but my instructor scolds me and reassures me that I can read with both hands. Fingers, don’t fail me now.