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Unraveling Dyslexia: Helping Braille Readers Who Have Reading Challenges

by Carlton Anne Cook Walker

Meredith Day reads a book at the Braille Book Fair.From the Editor: Dyslexia is widely recognized as a learning disability that affects print readers. However, many parents and educators do not realize that Braille readers may be dyslexic as well. In this workshop Carlton Walker shares basic information about dyslexia and suggests resources to help struggling Braille readers.

Reading is receptive written communication, communication that you receive. Writing is expressive written communication. Both reading and writing are based on oral language. Oral language came first, and reading and writing are entirely based on oral communication.

Learning to read is extremely difficult for people who are deaf or deafblind. If you don't have a basis in oral language, it's hard to learn language in its written form. Written language is abstract, and oral language is a more concrete construct.

The Reading Phenomenon

It's important to remember that reading and writing are not easy for everyone to master. I'm dyslexic, and I have struggled with reading and writing all my life. I have pretty mild dyslexia compared to other people in my family. My child has profound dyslexia.

It was very hard for my father to understand that I struggled with reading and writing. Reading was very easy for him. When something comes easily to you, it's hard to understand that it's difficult for others. I'm like that with math. Math comes easily to me, but I have to remember that it's hard for many other people.

Reading and writing are not natural activities for human beings. They are very beneficial in modern life, but they are not essential for basic survival. Outside of structured society, reading and writing offer very limited benefit. They don't help us obtain food and shelter. They don't protect us from predators. It's important to note that most of the world's languages still do not have written codes. Only 5 to 10 percent of all languages have a written form.

Because reading and writing were not essential for survival throughout most of human experience, it's not surprising that today a high percentage of people have difficulty with these activities. According to some studies, dyslexia occurs in about 20 percent of the population.

Comparable Codes

Both print and Braille are codes used for reading and writing. Like print, Braille is used for receptive and expressive language. Both Braille and print are forms of text. One form of text uses lines and curves, and one uses dots.

Print is a code in which the shapes of letters represent sounds. It's hard for people to think of print as a code because we're so used to seeing it. It's a code in which lines and curves form letters, and combinations of letters represent words.

Think about the uppercase print letter A. A long line slants up from left to right at about a 70-degree angle. From the top of that line a long line slants down to the right at the same angle. About halfway up a horizontal line starts at the left slanted line and proceeds until it reaches the right slanted line. That description makes writing a capital A sound pretty complicated!

To create a capital A in Braille you need two cells. The first cell has Dot 6 to indicate the capitalization, and the second cell contains Dot 1 for the a.

The Prevalence of Print

Why does print seem so much easier than Braille? Print is familiar. Sighted people are far more familiar with print than they are with Braille. We're so familiar with print that we can read it in a variety of forms. We can read cursive. We can read all kinds of computer fonts. We can read individual styles of handwriting. We are immersed in print.

From birth to the age of six months most babies can only see things about ten inches in front of them, but they can see print. They see letters on baby food jars and cereal boxes. By six months they can see print from a much greater distance. They see it in board books and on screens. Print is everywhere.

When toddlers have access to print letters, they begin to understand that letters form words. Blind children seldom have access to Braille early in life. Even if they have early exposure, it is relatively limited. Without access to Braille, they do not have the chance to connect Braille with meaningful language.

Braille requires a closer interaction than print does. We can't read Braille from ten feet away. Because it has to be touched, we must be quite intentional about the interaction. 

A World of Symbols

Written communication is the marriage of sound to graphics. Symbols in print or Braille are known as graphemes. Graphemes are symbols that represent sound. Phonemes are the sounds of vowels, long and short. In English phonemes are not consistently correlated to the sounds they represent. To make things even more complicated, we have combinations of consonants such as gh, ph, and th. Even the spelling of words is inconsistent. Look at one, bone, gone, and done! And let's not even go down the road of homonyms: to, two, and too, just for starters! They're all pronounced the same, but the graphing components are different.

Troubles with Processing

It's important to note that difficulty with auditory processing can impede reading and writing. Because of my southern background, I pronounce the words pin and pen the same. I hear them the same, but other people hear and pronounce them quite differently. If you hear two words as the same, you have to work to figure out how to write them differently. Auditory processing is key to reading and writing.

Another issue involved in reading problems is short-term memory. A child with profound dyslexia may be able to handle small written segments, maybe two or three letters at a time. When the child encounters longer strings of letters, they don't have the working memory to process it all.

We can't make the auditory processing issues go away, and we probably won't be able to improve working memory. However, we can build other skills to make up for those deficits. We can teach alternative techniques to struggling readers, just as we teach alternative techniques such as orientation and mobility to blind and low-vision students.

Equal Methods

As I have said, reading and writing involve the coded representation of words. In this regard print and Braille are equal. Neither system is superior to the other. All too often reading and writing delays in blind children are blamed on Braille. I hear people say, "That child is a poor speller because of Braille. Braille readers can't learn to spell because of all those contractions." Actually, research suggests that children who learn Braille contractions early are better spellers than those who use uncontracted Braille for a long time. Findings are clear that early Braille readers have better reading fluency and comprehension than those who start later on. 

Print is taken in by the eyes, and Braille is taken in by the fingers. For a long time people assumed that dyslexia is exclusively related to print reading. This idea was reinforced because children who were dyslexic print readers sometimes excelled at math and music. Some people thought that this had to do with the fact that numbers, math symbols, and music notation are different from literary print. There was a time when Braille instruction was encouraged as a remediation for children with severe dyslexia.

Luckily science came along with the functional MRI, allowing us to see which parts of the brain are involved during particular activities. We learned that when a person reads text, either with their fingers or with their eyes, the information goes to the same place in the brain. It doesn't matter whether they read print or Braille. The route for math and music is quite different. Music and math go to different places in the brain. I've known Braille readers who struggle with text, yet have no trouble reading numbers and music notation. Some students can read Nemeth Code until they come to a word-based problem. Then they don't understand it. They can read Braille music, but not the lyrics.

This phenomenon is startling, because in print letters, numbers, and music notation look quite different from each other. In Braille they all use the same combinations of the six dots. Somehow there are signals that tell Braille readers, "This is a number," and it goes to the mathematical part of the brain. Music Braille has indicators that announce, "This is music," and it goes to the part of the brain that processes music. Literary code goes to the part of the brain that is not effective and efficient for that kind of reading.

Research shows that dyslexia is a language-based disability. Braille readers can have dyslexia just as print readers do. They show the same pattern of difficulties that print readers with dyslexia show.

Alternative Approaches

It's important to note that language disabilities do not preclude reading and writing. They can be overcome or mitigated. Even the most severely affected students can learn to read and write. Dyslexia is not an excuse for not reading, but teaching has to be done differently.

A widely used approach to reading instruction is whole language, but it does not support the needs of students with written language-based disabilities. The old phonics approach does a better job. Phonics is not a cure-all, however. There are vital skills that need to come into play before phonics is introduced. But phonics is an important tool. If a student is struggling in a whole-language environment, consider asking for a more phonics-based form of instruction.

A useful tool for some Braille readers is the I-M-Able literacy program. It focuses on whole-word contractions from the beginning, and it is very effective for functional readers. Functional readers are those with intellectual disabilities as well as blindness. They can learn to read contracted Braille. The more letters the student has to read, the more the working memory is challenged. Contractions make words shorter and easier to grasp.

Multisensory instruction is strongly recommended for students with dyslexia. It doesn't cure the issues with short-term working memory, but it can help the brain learn to overcome these difficulties.

One program that takes the multisensory approach is called the Wilson Reading System. The Wilson system directly and systematically teaches the structure of the English language. Students develop skills that enable them to decode and encode fluently. This tool is available in Braille from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) at https://www.aph.org/product/wilson-reading-system-iii-student-reader-one-braille-kit. Schools can purchase it using federal Quota Funds. Only the first three levels of the program are available from APH, and the Wilson system includes twelve levels. If you can get your school to buy the first three levels, it becomes easier to work with the higher levels later on. If the school has the print version of the system, the higher levels can be Brailled. 

Wilson is not the only system for teaching students with dyslexia, but it is a very good one. It tends to be a little bit dry, but it works. The instructions need to be followed very carefully. Wilson generally recommends forty-five-minute sessions. If schools provide thirty-minute sessions, they're not implementing the program effectively. Also, Wilson is supposed to be implemented by Wilson-certified instructors. Just picking up the curriculum and trying to implement it yourself is not recommended! Schools need to provide everything the publisher says is necessary.

Orthographics is an important part of multisensory programs. The term orthographics refers to how the hands form letters. I've had battles with some proponents of this system who reject Braille readers, claiming they can't be taught unless they're forming print letters by hand. I contend that Braille is orthographic. When we write Braille on a Perkins or with a slate and stylus, we use finger positions and hand movements. When we form letters in print we follow a set of directions. We go through an orthographic process to form a print letter, and there's also an orthographic process for letters in Braille. 

Testing for Dyslexia

To determine whether a blind student is dyslexic, we can use the same tests that are used with sighted children. A good screening tool is called Rapid Automatic Naming, or RAN. Some RAN tools may not be accessible, but many parts are quite useful. Automatic Naming can show deficits in working memory that can be red flags. RAN is a great screening tool, and it's inexpensive.

Pseudo-word decoding, or nonsense word decoding, can help show whether the child is hearing things correctly. Alphabet writing fluency is writing down letters as quickly as possible.

The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) also has an adult version. It is not normed for blindness or low vision, but Braille and large-print versions are available. Wechsler looks at early reading skills, and most of the test is oral. It's very valuable for the detection of auditory processing disabilities.

For dyslexia testing you should see a psychologist who is familiar with dyslexia and other learning issues. The psychologist might not know a thing about Braille and blindness, but if they're willing to collaborate with blindness professionals they can work effectively. The blindness professional needs to have some understanding of reading issues, they don’t have to be an expert. A few people have certifications in both areas. If you can find someone skilled in the psycho-educational aspects and someone else who understands how Braille reading and writing work, you've got the perfect combination!

Reading struggles can be demoralizing. They make you feel that you don't belong. Whether the reading method is print or Braille, effective tools exist to help people with dyslexia improve their reading fluency and gain confidence along the way.

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