American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2016       READING

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Slow Reading Speed: A Reading Problem, Not a Braille Problem

by Sheena Manuel

Allonah smiles for the cameraReprinted and updated from the blog of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, <>.

From the Editor: When a student who uses Braille encounters reading problems, teachers often assume that Braille is the source of the trouble. Such assumptions may cause teachers to overlook issues common among beginning readers regardless of the reading medium. In this article, Sheena Manuel describes her work with a blind student who struggled with slow reading speed. Sheena Manuel works as the outreach specialist for the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, teaching Braille and cane travel as a contractor for several school systems in northern Louisiana.

My student, Allonah, learned the Braille code in one year. By the time she entered second grade she loved to share Braille with her classmates. However, her reading fluency did not match that of her sighted peers. She would try to guess at words after looking at the first couple of letters, and she didn't enjoy reading. My co-teacher Leesa Wallace and I knew she had the cognitive ability to be at the same reading level as her sighted peers, but she wasn't getting there. Her reading speed and fluency just stayed at the same place.

We gave Allonah easy books to read and presented her with opportunities to read outside of school. She read in her free time at the library, and her mom even sent videos of her reading Braille at home. But her reading wasn't picking up as we expected, even though she practiced and used the two-handed reading technique. She was reading and reading and reading. What else was there for us to look at?

We discovered something profoundly simple. This was not a Braille problem; it was a reading problem.

I went to the 2015 Council for Exceptional Children Super Conference in Lafayette, Louisiana, looking for ideas for my student. Sandra Strong, an educational consultant and retired teacher, presented on the Read Naturally Strategy (<>). This program was originally intended to improve the reading fluency of sighted children through the combination of teacher modeling, repeated reading, and progress monitoring. However, I saw that it easily could be adapted for blind children. I happened to win the door prize and had the opportunity to get the full Read Naturally program for any grade level. Winning this door prize and knowing that this new strategy was what we needed made it even more exciting!

The kit came with all the books and materials, CDs, and a guide for determining the student's correct instructional level. After determining Allonah's placement in the program, we transcribed the materials into Braille for her to read. The CDs also had audio files of key words and reading passages, which are accessible for blind children and children with low vision. Allonah used the CDs to study the passages and key words independently as she read along in Braille. The repetition of reading the passages along with a teacher, followed by her reading alone, improved her reading comprehension and speed. However, she still needed more work with spelling and phonics.

Dr. Libby Manning's literacy course at Louisiana Tech University uses the Words Their Way Series (<>). This program determines the student's spelling level and includes many games and activities to address the identified problem areas. I realized that my student was missing basic literacy skills, such as knowing short and long vowel sounds. After the teacher uses the Words Their Way Series evaluation to determine her spelling stage, the student sorts words that are similar to one another by sound or pattern. The student then reflects on what is similar about the words, allowing her to discover the spelling pattern or rule herself. This method reminds me of the structured discovery strategies that I use with my students when I teach cane travel. My students discover the characteristics and similarities of an environment on their own, without me having to explain it to them.

The Words Their Way Series contains lots of activities and games to reinforce skills. My student might search in her Braille book for words with the same vowel sound or pattern, write sentences using certain words, and even create her own games. She completed a daily "word study contract" to earn points; normally she earned forty points per reading session (four days a week), and she needed three hundred points to win a prize. Prizes have been a big motivator for Allonah, as they are for any child. You can give her a whistle, a pair of princess wings, or even a dollar, and she is on top of the world!

Once we began using the Words Their Way Series and the Read Naturally Strategy, Allonah's overall reading skills noticeably improved! After using the Read Naturally Strategy for four weeks and working on phonics with the Words Their Way Series for about three weeks, she began to love reading as never before. Her regular education teachers saw a difference in how hard she worked to read accurately and to participate in class.

I didn't come up with all of these solutions myself. I had the insights and expertise of my co-teacher and other colleagues to help identify my student's struggles and to reinforce her literacy skills. I wish that we had caught the problem earlier, but I am very glad we didn't go another year wondering what the problem was. We are pretty certain that we found the solution to this student's slow reading speed. It was not a Braille problem, but a reading problem.

During Allonah's third grade year, we continued to use these strategies. In addition, we brought in the response-to-intervention specialist (RTI). This additional support provided my student with a variety of interventions five days a week, for at least thirty minutes per session. The RTI specialist used fluency strips and passages to help increase Allonah's fluency and stamina. With these programs in place, she was able to read books such as Because of Winn-Dixie and The Stories Julian Tells side-by-side with her peers.

After learning about some of the strategies that exist for children with reading problems, I decided to further my learning and add "become a reading specialist" to my professional growth plan. During the past few quarters, I have learned that reading is a complex set of skills. During the reading process, children sample either by letter, word chunks, or phrases. Next they predict what the word may be. Then they use a cueing system to check their prediction, and finally they confirm what the word is by using a different cueing system. We use cueing systems even as adults. As we read, we think, did that make sense? Did it sound right? Did it look right? It's important that we teach children to use all cueing systems while they read. Most importantly, we should MODEL, MODEL, MODEL what good readers do and what good readers sound like. Dr. Carrice Cummins, a professor of education at Louisiana Tech, has us recite in each course why read alouds are important. "Read alouds are the most influential way to help a student become a proficient reader."

During the spring and summer quarters, I added read alouds to my lesson plans. Allonah enjoys sitting on the floor or standing around listening to me read to her. I get to see her excitement while she listens, and she's interested in what will happen next once I stop reading. This strategy helps her hear how good reading sounds, motivates her to read, enhances her vocabulary, and just lets her relax and enjoy. Read alouds can be more than just listening and reading; reading aloud can be interactive.

After taking Dr. Cummins' reading courses at Louisiana Tech, I have learned that we, as teachers of blind/visually impaired students, must become knowledgeable in reading techniques and strategies on a deeper level. We must understand that fluency is more than just getting a child to read at a faster rate. Fluency is about reading accurately, rapidly, with expression, and for deep understanding. Some strategies teachers can use are:

For more information on reading strategies check out my WIX READ 536 tab at <>.

Allonah continues to work hard to improve her reading, but sometimes she has mixed feelings about using Braille when her peers raise questions. Some of her peers don't understand that she has some vision--why does she need to use a cane and read Braille, even though she can see them? As teachers, we continue to encourage her and work to educate her family, peers, and classroom teachers on the importance of using nonvisual techniques.

Recently we held a Carnaval de Jeux (Carnival of Games), geared toward sighted peers and hosted by blind role models. The games highlighted the fun we have in Braille class, building Allonah's motivation to use Braille and nonvisual techniques beside her peers. We tried to answer the questions her peers may have about how blind people live and work. We have high hopes that when Allonah begins the new school year, her peers will still have the carnival fresh in their minds and will look forward to our next one.

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