Braille Monitor                                                February 2013

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Beginning with Braille: Challenges and Choices

by Anna M. Swenson

From the Editor: Anna Swenson is a Braille literacy consultant in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Public Schools. She delivered the following paper at the 2012 Braille Symposium sponsored by the NFB Jernigan Institute. For a list of references used in the original paper, contact <>. This is what she said:

Five-year-old Ally sits with her teacher of the visually impaired, Kelly James, at a table just outside her kindergarten classroom. Much of the time she's learning with her classmates, but this is her daily individual lesson time. She's excited to have me as a visitor and eager to show off a new book that she's writing about sandwiches. Each page, shaped like a slice of bread, features a Braille description of the ingredients written phonetically by Ally on her Mountbatten Brailler.

"Pickles and butterflies," reads Ally, as her thumbs glide across the words.

"Ketchup and dragonflies." She smiles broadly.

"Cheese and ladybugs." A burst of giggles.

On the next page she hesitates momentarily, considering the "p" at the beginning of the word. "Peanut butter and mosquitoes?" she asks.

"Yes," answers Ms. James.

And, turning to me with an enticing grin, Ally says, "Do you want to eat it?"

Listening to Ally's joyful rendition of her silly sandwich book reminds me of several important aspects of teaching Braille to young children. The first is the highly individualized nature of our work. Ally, for example, has only two fingers on each hand, so she is learning to read Braille with her thumbs. Today we are teaching Braille to dual media learners, beginning English speakers, children with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities, and many others. Each child deserves a specially crafted, individualized plan to meet his or her potential as a reader and writer. The second aspect of teaching that Ally’s lesson brings to mind is the power of motivation. If instruction is meaningful to students, if there is a connection with their lives, they will engage with us and persevere when the going gets tough. How do we foster motivation in children? The secret is knowing our students well and integrating their interests into our instructional plan.

Quite apart from the issues of caseloads and service time, teaching Braille to young children involves instructional challenges. How do we build a solid foundation in literacy skills at the preschool level? How do we meet the literacy needs of non-traditional learners? How do we balance the benefits of the inclusive setting with students’ need for specialized instruction? There is no single curriculum or right way to teach Braille literacy skills, but we do know that meaningful instruction and motivation contribute significantly to children’s success in learning to read (Gambrell and Marinak, 2009). And, as in Ally’s case, it is apparent that teaching Braille to a young child involves countless thoughtful instructional choices by the Braille teacher in collaboration with classroom teachers, specialists, and families.

The ABC Braille Study

Findings from the Alphabetic Braille and Contracted Braille Study (the ABC Braille Study) have added new urgency to the challenge of teaching young Braille readers. This was the first longitudinal research to follow children’s acquisition of beginning reading skills in Braille (Emerson, Holbrook, and D’Andrea, 2009). The study took place from 2002 to 2007 and included a total of thirty-eight participating students, none of whom had a disability other than blindness. Its original purpose was to compare the literacy outcomes of students who started formal literacy instruction with fully contracted Braille and those who started with uncontracted Braille. Results indicated that most of the participants learned the Braille code with relative ease; those who learned more contractions earlier scored higher in the areas of vocabulary, decoding, and comprehension, regardless of whether they initially began with contracted or uncontracted Braille. However, a more critical finding was that Braille readers started out on level with their sighted peers in basic reading skills like phonemic awareness and phonics, but fell farther and farther behind in reading as the years progressed. By the end of the study over half the students were reading below grade level, with vocabulary and comprehension the major areas of deficit.

The ABC Braille Study findings have significant implications for teachers in the field. To begin with, they reinforce the importance of teaching the Braille code to young children within the context of reading instruction. Teachers of beginning Braille readers are also teachers of reading, and it is essential that they incorporate basic literacy processes into their Braille lessons. These include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and written language, all of which can be taught simultaneously from the very beginning. Braille teachers also need to understand where their students are performing in each area of literacy by analyzing results from a broad range of assessments. These consist of Braille-specific measures, e.g., the number of contractions a child has mastered, and those tracking progress in general literacy skills, which are often administered in conjunction with a classroom teacher. Finally, the poor performance of many study participants in the areas of reading vocabulary and comprehension point to the importance of concept development and listening skills long before children begin formal reading instruction.

Early Emergent Literacy

Literacy growth is now viewed as a lifelong process that begins early in life and continues throughout adulthood (Dooley, 2010). Children benefit from building a strong foundation of literacy skills during their preschool years, a goal that is often more challenging for young Braille readers who lack access to the incidental learning readily absorbed by typically sighted children.

Young children who are learning to read in Braille need to develop two types of concepts: those based on a general knowledge of the world around them and those specifically related to literacy. Families, classroom teachers, and specialists sometimes need guidance in knowing when and how to take advantage of real world learning opportunities. The article, “Dad, Where’s the Plunger?” (Holloway, 2011), written by the father of a young Braille reader, offers numerous suggestions for hands-on learning, including trips to Home Depot; it can serve as an excellent resource for members of the IEP team and is available at < 3/fr300302.htm>. Linking real-world knowledge to literacy by creating books with young children provides a motivating way of reinforcing literary concepts, such as identifying the parts of a book, turning pages, and relating Braille words to objects or tactile pictures. For example, a Home Depot book might feature a zipper bag on each page with an object inside, such as a light switch or a small piece of carpet, with a Braille word or simple sentence underneath (Smith, 2011). Real world and literacy concepts are also developed through interactive read-alouds, another area in which families may need modeling and guidance to ensure that their child participates in the activity. Reading aloud to children in an interactive way helps them acquire vocabulary and concepts, develop higher-level thinking skills, and become familiar with the book language they will encounter later on when they read by themselves.

Young children require maximum meaningful hands-on Braille time. Modeling Braille reading and writing behaviors and allowing children to imitate them are critical to building a strong literacy foundation. All members of the IEP team can ensure that this happens by becoming familiar with the basics of Braille, although of course the very best role models are those who are proficient Braille readers. Adults can model Braille reading by tracking the text in teacher-made or commercial books with the child’s hands on top of theirs. They can model writing lists, birthday cards, letters, labels, journals, and stories. Parents and teachers can encourage the child to scribble on the Braillewriter or pretend to read a familiar book with tactile pictures. These approximations of reading and writing behavior are an important part of a child’s literacy foundation.

For many children, beginning formal literacy instruction in Braille should not wait until kindergarten. Literacy expectations for kindergartners have been increasing and will continue to do so with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Hatton, Erickson, and Lee (2010) report that most sighted children already know fifteen letters of the alphabet when they enter kindergarten. In contrast, they found that most children who are blind know none in Braille, placing them at a disadvantage at the beginning of formal schooling. Introducing children to key words of interest to them is a motivating way to begin reading instruction at the preschool level. One three year old who was fascinated by insects learned “ant” and “spider” as her first Braille words, long before she knew any letters of the alphabet. These two words were easy to tell apart, and, with the addition of some common alphabet letter contractions, she was soon reading short, meaningful phrases like “go go spider.” After she had mastered a foundation of tactile sight words, the student began learning letters, starting with those in her key words--and by the time she entered kindergarten, she could identify nearly all the letters of the Braille alphabet and read simple sentences and teacher-made stories. Children with additional disabilities may not learn Braille as early or as quickly as typical learners, but they too can benefit from starting with key words of interest to them. The Individualized Meaning-centered Approach to Braille Literacy Education, or I-M-ABLE (Wormsley, 2011), offers a structured, highly motivating process for teaching Braille to nontraditional learners.

Literacy Learning in Kindergarten and the Early Primary Grades: Incorporating Braille Instruction into the Standard Curriculum

Braille teachers who work with students in inclusive settings often feel challenged by the need to balance time in the general education classroom with individual instruction in specialized skills. They recognize that the social nature of language arts instruction in the early grades is extremely important. Children learn from each other as they talk about books, share writing, participate in reading groups, and work on group projects. On the other hand, individual instructional time is needed to reinforce aspects of the Braille code (within the context of reading), preview classroom assignments, and address the goals and objectives of the Expanded Core Curriculum. The eventual goal for each child in an inclusive setting should be meaningful group participation, whether in a general education class or in a specialized setting, if the student has additional disabilities. Sometimes, however, it takes more individual instruction at the beginning to ensure that the student masters the skills needed to participate independently in a group setting later on. Ongoing, broad-based assessments in each area of literacy, careful documentation of progress, and regular consultation with the classroom teacher(s) and other members of the IEP team all help to determine the appropriate balance between inclusion and individual instruction at any given time.

Facilitating Inclusion: Tips for the Braille Teacher

  1. Prioritize positive collaboration with the classroom teacher(s): Establishing a positive relationship with the classroom teacher(s) provides the Braille student with maximum benefits in the areas of academics, socialization, and self-determination. In the inclusive setting, step back whenever possible to allow the classroom teacher to take ownership of the student--and explain why you are doing this. At the same time offer to contribute to the learning of other children in the class through Braille-awareness lessons, games, and general assistance, such as helping another child with writing while your student is working independently. Assess and evaluate Braille students’ progress with classroom teachers, and listen carefully to their concerns.
  2. Provide teachers and classmates with access to students’ work: Teach keyboarding early and use the visual display function available on most note takers to allow teachers and classmates to see the Braille user’s written work on a monitor. This removes the Braille teacher as an intermediary and allows direct, real-time communication between the student and classroom teacher.
  3. Take advantage of instructional materials that facilitate inclusion: High-quality materials such as the Word PlayHouse and the Early Braille Trade Books, available from the American Printing House for the Blind, include both print and Braille and are ideal for blind and sighted students to use together.
  4. Promote independent work habits: Avoiding learned helplessness is one of the greatest challenges the Braille teacher faces. Provide opportunities for even the very youngest students to work independently during individual lessons, and transfer these expectations to the regular classroom.
  5. Advocate for technology: Many of our beginning Braille readers are stuck in a technological Stone Age with only the traditional Perkins Brailler available for writing. While young students definitely benefit from hardcopy Braille when learning to read and write, they also need hands-on time with devices such as note takers with refreshable Braille that allow them to master beginning technology skills--just as their sighted classmates are doing.

In Closing

Like the “peanut butter and mosquitoes” in Ally’s sandwich at the beginning of this article, good teaching is a combination of common sense and creativity. Of course young beginning Braille readers require thorough assessments, careful lesson planning, and close collaboration among members of their IEP teams. However, they also thrive on instructional choices that reflect their own interests and spark their imaginations. Whether the child is a preschooler eagerly exploring the pages of her Home Depot book or first grader writing a story about his favorite superheroes, motivation is the key to their future success as readers and writers.

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