Future Reflections        Winter 2013

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Contracted or Uncontracted Braille:
Which Should Blind Children Learn First?

by Heather Field

Heather FieldFrom the Editor: For decades, educators have debated the merits and drawbacks of teaching contracted Braille to beginning Braille readers. Recently the question prompted a series of exchanges on the Blind Homeschoolers listserv, a forum for parents who are homeschooling blind children. Heather Field posted the following response, based upon her experience as a Braille reader and a teacher of blind children.

From: Heather Field
Sent: November 29, 2012, 8:38 PM
To: [email protected]
Subject: Contracted Braille

I recommend teaching contracted Braille from the start. As a blind person who remembers learning to read Braille, I believe I have a pretty good grasp of the situation. Here is my rationale.

1. The amount a child can read is limited to the number of actual dots he/she can get under the fingertips at a given time. Unlike the eyes, the fingers can't be taught to take in a whole line at a glance. Since we can't make the intake conduit handle larger clumps of information, let's put that information into smaller packages. If the child can run her fingers over the letter c and read the word "can," or the letter l and read the word "like," she can, in a sense, absorb information at a tactile glance. Reading a whole-word contraction is quicker than having to read "c-a-n" or "l-i-k-e." From the beginning, I teach that a letter stands for such-and-such a word only when it has a space on each side of it. In this way we don't run into problems when I start teaching simple words such as "bag."

2. Why do children try learning to read? They try to learn because they want to read. Which will get them reading more quickly--being able to read a whole sentence by recognizing three letters, or having to learn the whole alphabet and then read each letter to spell out a word? In reading letter by letter, the child must try to remember the letters he has already read while figuring out the one he is currently touching. Then, he must try to remember what the combination of letters spells. I submit that it is much easier and more motivating for a child to read one letter and know the word that he has read. For instance, if I write in Braille the letters "p c g," putting a space between each letter, I have written a sentence--"People can go." Changing p to y gives me the option to write, "You can go." As soon as the child has learned the letter d, I can write, "Do you go? Do people go? You do go. People do go." I can ask questions to make the sentences meaningful, such as, "Tell me about swimming." Then the child can read, "Do you go?" This method teaches comprehension from the start and engages the child's mind in reading, not just in discriminating between letters.

Teaching the letters x, n, w, and u gives you the words "it," "not," "will," and "us." The whole six-dot cell stands for the word "for." Children quickly learn to recognize this symbol. I usually use the child's name in our lessons. As it is the only large word in the story, the child identifies it, even if he doesn't know all of the letters yet.

With only these few letters, I can present the child with fun sentences. Very early in the reading journey, these sentences can actually be combined to make entertaining stories. Usually I tell my part of the story and the child reads her part. A reading session might go like this:

Heather: "Mother needed some milk from the store. She asked her oldest girl, Penny ..."

Child: "Can you go for it? I can not go for it."

Heather: "So, Mother said to her second girl, Erin ..."

Child: "Can you go for it for us?" "I can not go for it. I will not go. I will not."

Heather: "So, Mother asked her littlest girl, Anna ..."

Child: "Will you go for us? Can you go for it? Can you? Will you? Anna, do go for it. Do go, Anna. Will you go? Will you not go for it, Anna? Anna will go. Anna can go for it for us. Go Anna, go. Go for us."

3. Natural motivation arises from reading meaningful sentences, and the need to comprehend what is being read ensures mental engagement. Motivation and engagement build early success, confidence, and enthusiasm.

Children who love reading learn to spell and to write creatively. Spelling only becomes an issue when teachers don't teach Braille readers to spell when the time comes. I had a reading age of nine years six months when I was six years and eight months old. I couldn't spell like a typical nine-year-old, but I didn't need to. I just needed to read what I wanted to read. I learned age-appropriate spelling as I matured as a learner.

I believe that contracted Braille can be especially useful for children with developmental delays. When they learn to recognize words, they don't need to bother with decoding and spelling. Start with reading and see where the child can go.

This is a rather protracted explanation of my rationale for teaching contracted Braille. I hope I have explained it well enough. Just my thoughts, of course.


PS. I'm still trying to figure out why Penny and Erin wouldn't go to the store! (smile)

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