by Christian Coudert
From the Editor: Christian Coudert is the editor in chief of the Louis Braille magazine (Paris, France). He has done some interesting research about the reading of Braille from paper and from refreshable Braille displays. Some of the findings from his study are surprising and may provide helpful guidance for those considering whether to purchase a refreshable display or a Braille notetaker and how many cells it should have. We have removed parts of the article that describe how to simulate the tests done in reaching these results and have tried to smooth a few rough edges that resulted from translation of this article from French to English. Here is what he says:
Let me recount how I came up with the idea of writing this article: since I have had a Braille notetaker, I have gradually given up reading on paper, preferring electronic Braille. However, without taking the trouble to check it, I have always been convinced that reading on paper must unquestionably be much more effective. Indeed, whereas both hands can be used for reading on paper (the left hand reading the next line while the right hand ends the current line), this method cannot be applied to paperless Braille because you have to press a navigation button on the device to display the text below once you have finished reading the content of the Braille display. Another preconception has always led me to think that the more Braille cells we have (up to a point), the faster our reading speed will be.
In order to check the validity of these assumptions, I decided to perform an experiment with a panel of volunteer readers. This study does not claim to be scientific. To have true scientific validity, it would have been necessary to select a group of readers and have each of them read the same texts during several timed sessions, assign everyone the same electronic equipment, and refine the results, taking into account each reader’s age and length of Braille experience. However, the number of readers involved and the number of reading sessions undertaken enable us to draw what we believe to be objective conclusions that would likely be confirmed by other studies.
Before getting into the details of the study, let me make it clear that I do not write with the purpose of promoting one reading mode over another. All reading systems are complementary; each person chooses the system that suits him or her, based on factors such as fixed location or travelling, the availability of various formats for a given title, budgetary constraints, and so on. It is also true that a large majority of sighted readers who use digital tablets do not use them exclusively, seeing no need to give up paper and generally seeing no need to decide which method is better—they let the content and other factors determine how they will read.
There is no doubt that a Braille reader must first master reading on paper to understand fully the concepts of pages and paragraphs and enjoy the benefits of the various layouts used in this medium (title centering, line breaks, paragraphs, lists, and poetry layout). On a Braille display, where text blocks of eighteen, twenty, or thirty-two cells follow each other, most of these markers disappear. Hence, learning Braille, like learning to write, is best done with a solid background in paper Braille.
For our tests we chose to use Braille notetakers rather than standalone Braille displays because the notetakers are designed for reading text, whereas standalone Braille displays are designed for displaying the contents of computer screens and contain more Braille cells. Readers used their own equipment, and, when they wished, equipment was lent to them.
When we crunched the numbers after each reader went through several sessions reading from paper, an eighteen-cell display, and a thirty-two-cell display, we were a little surprised by what the numbers revealed. Half of the readers had a slightly faster reading speed on paper than on a Braille display, but the difference was very small, almost to the point of insignificance. The difference in reading speed for each individual reader between his or her fastest and slowest speed was rather low, with the exception of one reader, who had a difference of thirty-four words per minute between his fastest and slowest speeds. This indicates that the reading pace is not fundamentally altered by using a device instead of paper Braille.
One achieves a high reading speed and comprehension when reading with both hands because of the ability to begin reading the next line. Blank lines can be easily skipped, and knowing the boundaries of a page is easy. The spatial representation of the page communicates the layout and the importance of empty lines, indented lists, and other formatting is easily understood.
With paper Braille, fragility (dots get deleted over time) can become a barrier to rapid reading. The bulkiness of paper requires significant space for storage. Size can also make finding a large enough reading space difficult, especially while traveling.
Braille in a digital format means the reader has a large number of works available, whether through books prepared for digital Braille or books with letter-for-letter presentation which are translated by the notetaker. The notetaker provides a text-search facility, which partially offsets the difficulty in skipping multiple pages or finding a page by its number. Of course one also has the advantage of being able to search for a wanted word or phrase. The compact size of the notetaker means it can be used where space is limited, and, since books are stored digitally, the unit can hold many titles. Our readers made the point that these devices allow one to read anywhere, including standing in the tube [the mass transit trains in France].
One can waste time reading if the text is not properly formatted for Braille or converted by the translation and formatting programs inside the display. Reading can be hampered when lines are formatted specifically for print, contain hyphens to indicate the end of print lines where no such hyphenation is required on the Braille display, and by the presence of print page numbers that serve little purpose. Some of the information conveyed in the printed or the paper Braille is lost when using a Braille display and can interfere with both reading speed and comprehension. The Braille display can eliminate information essential in the reading of tables and Braille music, but for literature these formatting considerations are less critical.
This study shows that the average reading speed on paper is equivalent to that obtained on eighteen-cell notetakers (120 words/minute). It is slightly higher than that on thirty-two-cell devices (4 percent). The perception we have of our reading speed is distorted by a set of factors we were not aware of but which were disclosed by this experiment: the dot quality on piezoelectric displays largely offsets the disadvantages of a reading process of real two-handed reading on paper. In addition, electronic Braille frees the reader from the need to turn paper pages, the problem that arises when Braille is close to the fold of a magazine or soft-bound book, and the problem that results when having so little reading space means one has no place for the opposing page.
In order for reading with a Braille display to be comfortable and efficient, it is important to be sitting comfortably and find the position that lessens or eliminates wrist, upper limb, and back fatigue. Placing the device flat on a table is not always the best solution. It is also important to set one's Braille notetaker to maximize its ability to display given types of information. If knowing about blank lines is not important, turn on the function which suppresses them. If multiple spaces between words are not required for understanding the document, turn on the feature to compress the information and make the most of the cells on the display. We observe that devices with front panel buttons provide the best ergonomic experience since scrolling the text with the thumbs is more natural than pressing a button at the end of a display.
Our study shows that using a display with a larger number of cells does not necessarily increase the reading speed: fatigue is usually greater on thirty-two-cell equipment than on those with eighteen or twenty cells because of the greater movement of the hands which is required.
We have not yet mentioned the observations made by those attempting to use automatic reading. This function, available on all notetakers, automatically scrolls the display at a speed determined by the user. We found that the use of this feature significantly decreases reading speed because scrolling of the display is based on time rather than on the number of characters displayed. In cases where the display contains a small amount of text, perhaps as little as one or two words, much time is wasted waiting for the next forward movement through the text. Manufacturers should consider improving this function by seeing that each line contains as much text as it can accommodate and by speeding up the pace of the forward movement when fewer characters are displayed.
I would like to thank all the readers who agreed to take part in this experiment. The results speak for themselves and should encourage Braille producers to offer more digital books in Braille. Braille readers who currently use paper should consider adopting refreshable Braille displays because they offer so much access to the written word, ease of transport, instant access (no delay waiting for parcels to be delivered), easy navigation when searching a digitized document, the ability to add markers for bookmarks on places where one needs to return, and archiving books and magazines without any deterioration over time and without the significant amount of space required by their bulk. We sincerely hope the price of equipment will fall significantly so that more readers around the world can benefit from them.
I extend my warm thanks to Alain and Brian, who made the translation from French.