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Reading to Learn the Code: The Natural Order of Contractions

by Casey West Robertson

Casey West RobertsonIntroduction by Melissa Riccobono: Casey West Robertson is a teacher and a parent. She works at Louisiana Tech. Her passion for teaching Braille is incredibly strong, and I'm so excited that she is here to share her knowledge and her talent with us. Casey, welcome!

Braille is my passion. I love teaching kids, and I love teaching Braille. More important than teaching Braille per se is teaching the reading process to the Braille reader. We're going to talk about the natural order of contractions. This may be a new concept to you as parents of children who are learning to read the Braille code.

Some teachers may have heard of the natural order of contractions, or "teaching it as it comes." It is not a method that is typically taught in university programs. When you become a teacher of the visually impaired or teacher of blind students, you're not typically taught the reading process. You're taught the Braille code. You have to use your previous knowledge as a teacher to know how to teach the reading process.

At Louisiana Tech we started to teach students in an outreach program, and I was also teaching my own students as an itinerant teacher. We built on the philosophy that Dr. Ruby Ryles developed when she was teaching blind students.

The Natural Order of Contractions

The natural order of contractions follows the natural order of reading. You teach the Braille contractions as they come, in the context of the child's reading material. This method focuses on the general classroom curriculum. It moves through the Braille code quickly, so the child can master reading on grade level.

As parents and teachers, many of you may be concerned that your Braille reader is not at the same reading level as their sighted peers. There's a myth that Braille is slow, and that it's supposed to be taught more slowly than print. We accept the idea that our students are likely to be behind. Through this presentation I hope that you will learn that these ideas are myths.

If blindness is their only disability, your child should be on the same reading level as their sighted peers. Blindness is not a cognitive disability. Cognitive disorders sometimes go hand-in-hand with certain conditions that cause blindness, but if we are looking at blindness on its own, we should teach the Braille code in a way similar to the way sighted kids are taught to read print.

A Better Way

At the Professional Development Research Institute on Blindness (PDRIB) at Louisiana Tech University, we investigated more effective ways to provide Braille instruction. We discovered that traditional Braille instruction is conducted in a way that draws out the learning time for several years beyond the time it takes sighted children to learn to read print. As a result, many of our Braille readers fall behind academically before they have mastered the code. We set our Braille readers up for failure from the start, because we move through the code so slowly. By the time their sighted peers are focusing on comprehension and fluency, we're still teaching the Braille code to our blind students.

At PDRIB we wanted to find a better way. We now have published several peer-reviewed articles showing that the natural order of contractions is a better method of teaching blind students the Braille code.

In the pre-K classroom, print readers learn the alphabet. They learn sight words and high frequency words. In kindergarten and first grade they move to comprehension and fluency.

The experience is quite different for our blind children. First of all, we go through the process of deciding whether they should read Braille or print or become dual media readers. We lose a lot of time during that assessment process. When we finally start Braille instruction, we teach dot location, and then we teach the alphabet. Then we teach the alphabet words (words such as but, can, and do that are represented by a single letter of the alphabet). Next we teach the short-form words such as and, for, of, the, and with. Next come the contractions for groups of letters such as ar, ou, ch, and sh. Students spend many months on each piece of this Braille curriculum, and they study it in isolation. The child has to know all the alphabet words before moving on to short-form words. The child has to learn all the short-form words before moving on to the contractions. Meanwhile the blind student is falling farther and farther behind their sighted peers.

Because it's being taught in isolation, the Braille code has no meaning to the blind student. There is no correlation between learning Braille and meaningful reading and writing. We're teaching children the Braille code the way adults in college courses are taught, adults who already know how to read. This teaching method creates the myth that Braille is slow and difficult, and that it takes many years to learn the code.

When I teach college courses I warn my students never to tell children that Braille is hard to learn! Even if it was difficult for the future teacher to learn Braille in a college class, we should never convey that idea to the child. If the teacher says, "I know this is going to be hard, but I think you can do it!" the child is set up to think, This is going to be hard. I don't think I can do it. I've even seen teachers use the college textbook they learned Braille from when they try to teach Braille to a blind child!

Keys to Literacy

Literacy involves teaching children to decode in all disciplines. This approach has been used with sighted students for many years. Sighted students use reading in math, in history, in science—in every part of the curriculum. We know this is a good, research-based way to teach reading. Yet when it comes to our Braille readers, we teach them Braille in isolation. We need to shift the focus. The reader needs to engage in the reading process and become a critical thinker. Research shows that when blind students see a purpose in learning to read, they're ready to crack the code.

We know that relevance plays a huge part in motivating children to read. The National Reading Association did a national study in 2000 and produced a hundred-page report on building the best reading programs. Students were most motivated in reading programs that had relevance, programs where students knew there was a reason to learn. This report showed that motivation is more important in the reading process than many other things we had put in place. Even students who previously were unsuccessful at reading can become motivated if you use high-interest reading materials with low-readability words.

The teacher of the blind must create meaningful, authentic activities across the curriculum, motivating the student to interact with the curriculum while learning Braille. Relevance and motivation are the keys to helping students become successful.

Traditionally Braille teachers use flashcards to drill students on the alphabet words. We go through the alphabet words over and over and over. We put little balls in muffin tins to make the alphabet words. There's not a lot of motivation or relevance, because students see this activity in isolation. They don't know how they're going to use any of it for their literacy purposes.

Starting the Natural Order of Contractions

The natural order of contractions is a process. If you have a blind child, you want your TVI or TBS to use a program called Mangold. The Mangold program is a basic continuum of instruction for beginning Braille readers. It goes through letter recognition and the alphabet words. It also works on tracking. Those are the basics of Mangold for literary Braille. There is also a Mangold program for Nemeth instruction, and I highly recommend that as well. I recommend using it alongside Mangold for Literary Braille.

Mangold is very valuable, but I need to point out that there is a problem. It's not a problem with Mangold per se. It's a problem with how teachers are using Mangold.

I have seen teachers spread Mangold out for an entire year. For a year's curriculum, all the student will master is Mangold. That's not how Mangold was meant to work! It was meant to work very quickly, in six or eight weeks. If your child is getting an hour to ninety minutes of instruction in Braille every day five days a week, your child should master the alphabet and the alphabet words and have a good sense of tracking within six to eight weeks' time. At that point your child can start using the alphabet words in sentences. The child can start to understand that Braille will serve their literacy needs.

As a teacher, you should spend two to three weeks on alphabet words after introducing them in the Mangold program. When the child learns the letter b in Mangold, explain that pretty soon they'll be using that b to read the word but. Don't make a big issue of it. Just explain and move on.

After you've taught the alphabet words, teach the strong contraction words: and, for, of, the, and with. Don't tell the child, "That's the and sign," or "That's the for sign." Teach them that it's the a n d sign or the f o r sign. Name the letters within it. This will help the child with spelling. When they come to the word sand they'll say s a n d.

Then we move to high-frequency words. There is a difference between sight words and high-frequency words. Sight words are words that children learn by sight. They can repeat these words rapidly when they see them. High-frequency words are words on a list of words most commonly used. One study found that these words make up 50 percent of the words in children's textbooks. Another study found that the two hundred most high-frequency words, known as the Dolch list or the Fry list, make up 80 percent of all written material in children's books and 50 percent of the material in books for adults. Children see these words over and over in grade-level print, and this is why teachers of print readers teach high-frequency words.

In kindergarten children get little packets of high-frequency words, and they master those two hundred words right off the bat. It's important to teach those high-frequency words to our blind students.

Going by this method we've taught our blind students the alphabet, the alphabet words, and the strong contractions. Now if we teach the two hundred most frequently used words, we will have taught them enough words to create 80 percent of children's written language. This gives children a huge head start. You can make all kinds of sentences and little storybooks using these words. Reading becomes important and enjoyable. Children find that it's relevant to their literacy needs.

We need high-interest, low-readability passages. We're going to use the same materials with our Braille readers that sighted children are using. If you buy boxed programs such as Building on Patterns or Braille Fundamentals, they move at a much slower pace. They are a totally separate curriculum from the curriculum the child's sighted peers get in the classroom. Your blind child will be isolated in reading and language arts instruction if they're being taught through one of those programs.

We pick materials that are of interest to the student, and we teach the contractions as they appear in the text. We teach the Dolch words that the sighted students are learning. We use the classroom curriculum. We use the same incentives that other kids are given in pre-K through first grade, the incentives that teachers use to reinforce learning. We put Braille on objects in learning areas of the classroom and let the students have access to those learning centers.

One of my favorite resources is a website called learningatoz.com. You can get a home subscription for $99 a year. The first A to Z reading book I pulled up is called We Are. Students might use this book when they're learning high-frequency words. It covers the words am, are, and an. Students review a, at, I, me, and we, and there also will be some story words, which are usually nouns.

When I use these books with Braille readers, I work on multiple contractions with each book. Our goal is to have our Braille readers read the same book side by side with their sighted classmates.

If I'm teaching the ar sign, I write it repeatedly across the top of the page. I might create it with ping-pong balls in a muffin tin. Then I pick words from the story that have ar in them. We read them together: park, are, dark, far.

On the next line I take those four words and mix up the order: dark, park, are, far. On the third line I write far, are, park, dark. By the second or third line, most children start to feel very confident. Generally by the fourth line they realize they can read these words on their own.

Then I go to a fresh page and introduce the st sign. I explain that when it stands by itself it means still, but when it's inside a word it means the letters st. Again we learn the sign, then learn words with st in them: store, star, fast, cast, and st by itself, still.

I go through the same process with the sh sign. Our end goal is for the child to be able to read the story We Are. It begins, "I am at the lake. We are in a wagon. I am at the park. We are in a car. I am at the store. We are at the fair. I am in a spaceship." The students know all the contractions they need to read that passage except for the in sign. If I tell them what it is in Sentence 2 and Sentence 4, nearly every child can identify it in Sentence 7.

This is how we set up the natural order of contractions. We teach children the contractions they need to achieve a goal. Now they can sit next to their classmates and read the same textbook the rest of the class is reading. The sighted student will read it in print, and the blind student will read it in Braille.

We can use the natural order of contractions in the same way with older readers who are just starting to learn Braille. Again we use high-interest stories with low reading level. I choose stories that will interest the child.

You can find our research at https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir21/jbir110104.html.

If you'd like to get in touch with me, feel free to email me at [email protected] or [email protected]. You also can call me at my office, 318-257-4554, or reach my cell at 662-871-8834.

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