by Emily Wharton and Ryan Strunk
From the Editor: Emily Wharton and Ryan Strunk are both employed by BLIND, Incorporated, the NFB training center located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Emily is the Braille instructor, Ryan the technology instructor. Both are dedicated to helping blind people graduate as literate adults.
For a long time complaints about materials for teaching Braille to adults have been a topic of discussion between blind adults and their instructors. Emily has tried to address this by creating a new system for teaching Braille. The system includes a textbook, but it is far more than just another book on teaching Braille. Because using new technology is a part of this system, Ryan's role has been critical.
For the benefit of those who are not familiar with Braille, here are some pointers and definitions. Words in Braille can be written letter by letter, as they are in print, or can be represented by contractions and short forms. Some commonly used words are represented by dot combinations that are not already used for numbers, letters, or punctuation. Words such as with, of, for, were, and was are represented in this way and are called contractions. A short form is a letter standing by itself that represents a word. The letter b standing by itself is the word but, the letter c the word can, and the letter d the word do. Every letter represents a word. If a letter standing by itself is not intended to be a word, it is preceded by a special symbol called a letter sign. This makes it possible to represent a list in which a is the first item, b the second, and z the twenty-sixth.
A peg slate is used to introduce students to Braille. Pegs are inserted into the holes of a board to make the shapes of the Braille symbols.
Here is the written version of the remarks presented by Ryan and Emily at the Braille Symposium on September 28, 2012:
When I began teaching Braille in the adult comprehensive program at BLIND, Incorporated, in March 2009, our students had a generally negative attitude about Braille and were performing below expectation in Braille reading and writing proficiency. They complained that Braille was hard and not useful for them in their daily lives. These adults complained of feeling like a first grader and acted as if using a slate and stylus was a punishment. They were also taking five months or more to learn the Braille code and budgeting very little time to work on building speed and fluency before they completed the program. In short, we had a bad Braillitude going on, and we needed to turn it around.
Reflecting on my own experiences as an adult Braille learner and consulting with other Braille enthusiasts who learned Braille as a teenager or adult, I [Emily] began work on a new method for teaching Braille to adults. In order to address the problems I was seeing, I needed for this method to incorporate the following elements: decrease stress and increase enjoyment, make studying outside class easy, show how useful Braille is, teach to the student's learning style, focus on "sight words" and context to increase fluency, leverage the power and promise of technology, foster mastery motivation, and customize material to the student's interests.
I was teaching Braille using this method by the fall of 2009. I completed the first version of the Code Master textbook around this time, and we have been using it as our primary teaching text since then. In January of 2010 we combined Braille and technology into a single class called Communications, and I instructed my colleague Ryan Strunk on implementing this method. Ryan and I have been using it since with all Braille learners in the general adult comprehensive program.
The Code Master Adult Learning System consists of five components: 1) the Code Master Adult Learning System manual, 2) a three-ring binder for customized notes, 3) an audio CD or MP3 files for textbook tutorial, 4) instructions for customizing the curriculum for students, and 5) methods for incorporating technology into Braille instruction. The following sections explain these components more completely.
When students begin the program knowing no Braille, they start by learning the dot configurations. They work on this orally and using a peg slate. On day one they learn the first ten letters. Students are given textbooks, peg slates, and audio materials. They receive instruction in reading technique and are encouraged to work on reading the textbook and touch pages outside class, but the method and overall class structure are discussed so that students understand the process and know that reading technique will not become a focus of lessons until later in the course. Generally, within the first two weeks students know the alphabet, numbers, basic punctuation, and alphabet signs. They have also learned to write using a Braillewriter and Braille notetaker. They then move immediately to learning contracted Braille. This is done orally and by writing words and sentences. The class time is divided between writing words and sentences and drilling signs. The proportion of time spent on each depends on the student's learning style. Students learn to use the slate and stylus in the third or fourth week and begin turning in out-of-class slate assignments.
After students have assimilated the concepts of contractions and short forms, they begin working on reading Braille on a refreshable Braille display. Reading from the display is generally easier for students because they learn to distinguish the shapes made by the dots and also build confidence. The students then begin reading double-spaced Braille in the textbook and worksheets. Timing for these transitions depends on the individual student's performance and initiative. The method and materials are designed to teach the entire code in six weeks; however, this can be achieved sooner by more motivated students. Generally students with below average or low motivation levels tend to finish within eight to ten weeks.
After learning the code, the students begin reading articles and books of their choosing outside class. They read self-selected and instructor-selected material in class. Students can choose any book in the library, request an article on a particular topic, or request a book from BARD or Bookshare to be embossed or read on a refreshable Braille display. The goal is to get students started reading actual material that is interesting to them and from which they can use context to increase their reading speed and fluency as soon as possible. Braille reading speed is increased by reading, so we want to get them reading at the earliest possible moment. Braille embossing, Braille displays, and the Internet have made nearly infinite quantities of Braille available, and the sooner people can dive in, the better.
This method breaks down the process of learning to read and write Braille into its two basic parts. When an adult student approaches a page of Braille, she is asking herself two questions: "What dots am I feeling?" and "What do those dot configurations mean?" These questions can be addressed separately, and, by so doing, we can spread the stress over a larger period of time and substantially decrease the student's frustration. This creates more positive feeling, which in turn leads to more time spent studying outside class. Introducing the Braillewriter first and then working on using the slate and stylus after learning the alphabet also redistributes frustration and creates a more positive view of the slate. Students can see more advanced students using slates and can look forward to receiving theirs as a mark of progress.
Out-of-class study is an essential component of the Braille learning process. However, it is often difficult for instructors to get students to spend their out-of-class time studying. When I asked students why they weren't working more in the evenings, I was told, "I don't have time," "My book is too big to carry around," "I tried, but I got stuck on this word," and "I'm just brain-dead at the end of the day." I wanted to take away these rationales and give students so many ways to work on learning Braille and make it so convenient that they would have no excuses for failing to study outside class.
The Code Master Adult Learning System textbook was designed to group the signs in a way that would make them easier to memorize. Short forms, which are typically easier for adults to remember, are introduced immediately after the alphabet. The contractions are introduced in an order that highlights the basic logic of the code. The use and repetition of sight words is both in line with whole-word reading pedagogy and extremely useful for cementing signs into a student's memory. The book also contains mnemonic sentences like "Brice has a boundless passion for country dance." and "Science movements require usefulness, clarity, and strong direction." These sentences contain all of the dot four-six and dot five-six signs respectively.
The book was created for a thirty-cell Braille line so that it would fit in a standard three-ring binder. It is important that students be able to take their books with them in a backpack or briefcase or remove pages to study while on the bus or in a doctor's waiting room. The binder is divided into three sections, with dividers to make things easier for a new Braille reader to find. The first page is a grid of the print and Braille alphabet and digits. I first made these sheets for our seniors program but realized they would be a useful reference for both Braille learners who learned to read print and native Braille readers who needed to learn the shapes of print letters and numbers. After this page is the textbook itself. In the second section are touch pages. These are lines of Braille characters that students can use to practice tracking lines and developing their sense of touch. We point out that this is a less mentally taxing way to get more practice in at the end of a long day. The third section contains references and charts listing the various contractions and punctuation. I remembered being terribly frustrated as a Braille student trying to find a particular sign in my textbook when I couldn't remember how it was made or used. I wanted to give students reference materials they could use while reading and writing, as well as raised-line charts, which are useful for people with a visual or other special learning style.
An essential component of the textbook is the audio materials. The binder also contains two CDs. One CD is a recording of all of the dot configurations as they appear in the textbook. Students use this for memorizing signs as well as for looking up signs they may not remember. They can use this CD to study while they are doing dishes or folding laundry. A sighted agency staff trainee told me that she listened to this CD as she drove to work.
The other CD, in MP3 format, contains a recording of the entire textbook. Students can use it to get themselves unstuck when they are reading at home. They can also read along with the CD to build speed. A common problem for new Braille readers is running across a sign that they do not recognize and lacking the context to deduce the meaning. This CD allows students to overcome this problem independently. It is also very useful for people wishing to brush up on rusty Braille skills on their own. A couple of our alumni who wanted to strengthen their knowledge of the Braille code have used the book and CD combination without wasting time and expense hiring an instructor.
These audio files are also available as MP3 files, so students can transfer them to their iPods or other audio devices. We are currently working on converting them into DAISY files that can be played on the NLS players for greater access and easier navigation. The added markup will allow navigation by page and by line. It will also be easier to change playback speed to make it simpler for students at all levels to follow along with the recording. Another idea for future consideration is an iOS app that would play the audio files as well as provide quizzes on each lesson.
Students with an auditory learning style excel at memorizing the dot configurations and learn well from the drills and CDs. Students with a kinesthetic learning style retain the signs by typing words and sentences on a Braille notetaker. Students with a visual learning style respond well to the peg slate and reading from Braille displays and books. We make a point of talking about both the dot numbers and shapes of the signs until we figure out which makes the most sense to the student. We then tailor the classwork accordingly. Everyone has to learn to read and write, but focusing on the best method to increase retention makes the learning process faster and more efficient.
The textbook contains the thousand most common words in the English language, broken into individual lessons dealing with the signs they contain. These words only appear correctly contracted so that students get used to seeing them correctly. Most lessons contain numbered sentences to increase recognition of numbers and show the rules in action. The sentences are generally simple and contain as many sight words as possible to increase exposure to these essential words and make the textbook useable by anyone with at least a high school reading level, possibly lower.
Some people say that technology is making Braille obsolete; however, it is actually the opposite. Technology is making Braille abundant and providing new possibilities for Braille teaching. Typing on a Braille notetaker with a Braille keyboard gives students instant audio feedback on what they are writing, as well as the ability to read what they have written on the Braille display. Having a student read from a Braille display while the instructor types the lesson on the computer allows an amazing and immediate level of customization. The instructor can drill on a particular sign that is giving the student trouble or can write out song or movie titles to sustain the student's interest. We have found that Braille on a Braille display is generally easier for new readers to read and is an effective way of easing students into standard-sized Braille. By the time students are reading on the display, they have learned enough signs to build many common words that allow them to create engaging lessons. These techniques have also served to show students that technology and Braille are actually complementary rather than an either/or choice. It encourages them to want to use a Braille display with a computer or mobile phone instead of relying solely on speech.
Mastery motivation is the intrinsic confidence and desire to learn Braille that stem from the rapid mastery in learning the code much more quickly than using previous instructional methods. Because mastery of the code is gained much faster than in traditional methods, the student's confidence is increased, and the motivation to continue mastering Braille is increased as well.
Telling students that they will learn the Braille code in six weeks has helped them realize that learning Braille really isn't as hard or complicated as some people suggest. When they hear that it has been done and see others doing it, they generally rise to the occasion. Many people, especially book lovers, are thrilled to be reading again quickly. We make it very clear that they won't be reading fast at this point and that building speed will take time, effort, and mileage under the fingers, but they will be reading, and they will be reading real books and articles instead of just lessons in a textbook.
The only way to become a better reader is to read, and the best way to get people to read is to give them something that they want to read. This is the whole point behind getting people through the code quickly. While students are given specific pieces to read in class to build particular skills, they take home material they choose and select projects that are interesting and useful to them. This builds intrinsic motivation and creates a situation in which instructors need to provide less external motivation, which is generally less effective in the long run. Not every student enjoys reading books. A good number of our students have never read for pleasure and have no desire to do so. Our goal is to make it possible for them to read books if that is what they need or want, but at a minimum we want them to obtain the functional literacy that is critical to success in school and the workplace. We emboss many short articles on topics such as sports, history, or gardening for students who request them. We show students that they can read newspapers and magazines on a Braille display using the NEWSLINE app and that they have this material on the same day those articles are released.
While access to Braille embossers and displays makes this easier, the techniques can be used by resourceful instructors who do not have access to these tools to obtain or create customized material. A greater degree of planning and resourcefulness is required to get materials from different sources. The new talking Braille writer developed by the American Printing House for the Blind accomplishes the same audio feedback during writing as writing on a Braille notetaker, but at a fraction of the cost. Getting donations of older Braille notetakers is often possible. The relative lack of bells and whistles they have makes the older models perfect for use in these exercises, and people who upgrade often appreciate the tax credit they can get for donating them.
Students are required to complete three small projects and one large project as part of their communications responsibilities. These projects can be chosen from a list of suggestions or proposed by the student and approved by the instructor. The small projects often include things like Brailling a deck of cards, creating a Braille address book or password list, keeping a journal in Braille, finishing a book or a certain number of pages within a given time, and other practical projects. Final projects are more complicated. These show how useful and relevant Braille is to daily life. Providing Braille reference sheets of computer commands helps reinforce the convenience of having a hard copy available for quick reference, as well as increasing retention of the computer commands.
While we were not equipped to keep statistics or produce hard data, after three years of implementing this teaching method, we have been able to observe the following:
This is evidenced by the following:
More students purchase additional slates and styluses, especially full-page slates and card slates.
Students volunteer to read aloud more often in seminar.
Students do not complain about reading Braille recipes in home management or writing measurements with a slate and stylus in industrial arts.
Students show as much pride in their Braille projects as they do in other accomplishments, such as their preparation of large meals or their independent mobility drop-offs.
Students encourage each other to do homework and teach newer students how to use the slate and stylus.
Very often people say that they don't need Braille because they have technology. The integration of Braille displays and notetakers has demonstrated that Braille and speech are not mutually exclusive. The fact that they are taught in the same room by the same instructor shows that they are complementary rather than oppositional. The same is true of high-tech versus low-tech Braille. They are both shown to be useful in different situations. While many students still prefer to use a computer rather than a slate and stylus, they know that they can use both, and they aren't bound by the battery life of the high-tech devices.
Breaking the learning process down in the way that we have makes it much easier to know if a student is having difficulty with retention or touch. It is very easy to tell if the student is unable to remember the sign or unable to feel the dots correctly. If the issue is retention, we can see it right away. We can shift the emphasis from writing to drills or from drills to writing. If the trouble is with touch, we will know it with greater certainty and can proceed from this point. This has been extremely useful with students who have educational deficits, memory loss, and neuropathy. Figuring out the exact nature of a student's difficulties makes dealing with them much easier for both the instructor and the student. Knowing what the specific problem is and having specific exercises to address the problem makes working through challenges less frustrating for adult students.
While we have not been able to keep statistics, we have observed generally faster reading speeds and improved fluency among those students with high motivation and strong work ethic compared with the levels we were seeing before we began using this method. These students tend to reach a reading level where they can fully process what they are reading and follow the story of a text (generally around twenty to thirty words per minute) sooner than such students did using the traditional method. Students with average or below-average motivation and work ethic seem to show a small improvement over previous levels. Braille reading mileage is the biggest factor in Braille reading success, and those who don't put in as much effort outside class will always be at a substantial disadvantage. However, the more positive outlook and reduced stress do seem to make these students more likely to put in time reading outside class. This method also appears to make a more noticeable difference with students who have higher levels of educational achievement. The logic behind the method seems to appeal to students with better analytical skills. The lack of difficult or obscure vocabulary in the textbook makes it much easier for students with educational deficits to study than the book we previously used.
Over the past three and a half years we have seen a remarkable improvement in our students' Braillitude. They are excited about Braille and about how it can improve their lives. They are also more positive and efficient in their learning of the Braille code. We hope to be able to produce and sell our system within the next year so that others can implement it. We also hope this will enable us to gather data and continue to improve and refine the system to make it as effective as possible.