Improving Braille Reading Fluency: The Bridge to Comprehension

By Kathleen Stanfa and Nicole Johnson

Kathleen Stanfa is Associate Professor in the Special Education Department at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

Nicole Johnson is Assistant Professor in the Special Education Department at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania


Literacy skills enhance our opportunities in life. This is no less true for individuals who are blind and fluent in braille. Those who attain proficiency in braille enjoy greater independence, success, and personal well-being. Unfortunately, braille readers are at increased risk of reading failure and its devastating consequences due to struggles with developing reading fluency—the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression. When readers are fluent, they can concentrate less on decoding individual words and focus more on comprehending the text.

This article explores the importance of reading fluency and its relationship to comprehension for braille readers. We describe how evidenced-based strategies shown to enhance fluency for print readers can be adapted to improve braille reading fluency. In addition, the value of early and consistent braille instruction provided by a Teacher of the Visually Impaired is discussed and recommendations for families are offered. 


Repeated readings; braille; fluency Keywords


For individuals who are blind or visually impaired, the value of literacy skills is as significant as it is for those without visual impairments. It has been suggested that children with visual impairments who learn braille have an advantage compared to those who rely solely on print. Ryles (1996) found that children with visual impairments who learned braille were more likely to be employed and obtain a college degree than those who did not learn braille. Moreover, the braille readers in Ryles’ study exhibited stronger reading habits, including spending more hours per week reading, reading more books, and subscribing to more magazines. This phenomenon mirrors the positive effects of literacy skills demonstrated for sighted readers. Higher levels of literacy are associated with better employment outcomes for both braille and print readers (Koenig & Holbrook, 2000; Kutner et al., 2007; Ryles, 1996; Wolffe & Kelly, 2011). In addition, reading proficiency contributes to the emotional well-being of students with visual impairments (Ferrell, Mason, Young, & Cooney, 2006). Braille literacy is associated with higher levels of independence, confidence, and self-esteem (National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, 2009; Schroeder, 1996; Wells-Jensen, 2003).

Children with significant vision loss and blindness are at an increased risk of literacy problems relating to reading speed and accuracy (Coppins & Barlow-Brown, 2006; Steinman, LeJeune, & Kimbrough, 2006). Many of these students read below grade level, with delays similar to those of struggling readers who are sighted (Dodd & Conn, 2000; Gillon & Young, 2002). Further, significant delays in text comprehension parallel the slower rate of reading development exhibited by braille readers (Edmonds & Pring, 2006; Wall Emerson, Holbrook, & D’Andrea, 2009). The poor reading achievement of students with visual impairments and the life-long consequences of low literacy make it imperative that Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs) use braille teaching practices that have a demonstrated record of success.  

New technologies are changing the way individuals with visual impairments access and share information, but braille remains a fundamental tool for independence in the 21st Century. Audio devices are useful sources of information; however, for individuals with profound or total loss of sight, braille alone offers complete command of written language. Given the relationship between low literacy, school failure, and poor adult outcomes, identifying the most effective methods of braille reading instruction is critical. 

Many braille readers can read words accurately but do so at very slow rates (Trent & Truan, 1997; Wetzel & Knowlton, 2000). These students have not yet developed fluency, which is a strong predictor of comprehension for sighted readers (Fuchs, Fuchs, Hosp, & Jenkins, 2001; Jenkins, Fuchs, van den Broek, Espin, & Deno, 2003; Klauda & Guthrie, 2008; Wolf & Katzir-Cohen, 2001). The National Reading Panel defines fluency as reading text with “speed, accuracy and proper expression” (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000, p. 3). Students are observed to read fluently when their oral reading sounds like conversational speech (Hudson, Lane, & Pullen, 2005). Although there are a variety of reasons braille readers may have difficulty achieving reading comprehension commensurate with their sighted peers, print-based reading research has consistently linked dysfluency with poor reading outcomes (Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002; Fuchs et al., 2001). When readers are not able to decode words fluently, they may not be able to process the meaning of the text adequately. Recent research offers emerging evidence that practices shown to increase fluency for print readers may offer benefits for users of braille, improving their reading achievement and, ultimately, their long-term academic success (Munro & Munro, 2013; Pattillo, Heller, & Smith, 2004; Savaiano & Hatton, 2013).

Why Fluency Matters

Over 30 years ago, Allington (1983) referred to reading fluency as the “neglected” goal of reading; this has changed dramatically in the last three decades. Fluency is now considered a critical component of skilled reading and was recognized by the highly influential National Reading Panel Report as one of the five “big ideas” of early reading instruction (NICHD, 2000). Today, most literacy educators believe fluency is essential to successful reading development (e.g., Rasinski, Blachowicz, & Lems, 2006; Samuels, 2006). Furthermore, significant correlations between reading fluency and a host of other positive reading outcomes have also been shown. For example, Oakley (2005) found that fluent readers tend to enjoy reading more, have more positive attitudes toward reading and a more positive concept of themselves as readers than do less fluent readers.

The correlation between fluency and reading comprehension is robust and well documented (Allington, 1983; Fuchs et al., 2001; Levy, Abello, & Lysynchuk, 1997; Pikulski & Chard, 2005). However, the precise nature of the relationship between fluency and comprehension is far from understood (Meyer & Felton, 1999; Pikulski & Chard, 2005). As Stecker, Roser, and Martinez (1998) argue, “The issue of whether fluency is an outgrowth [of] or a contributor to comprehension is unresolved. There is empirical evidence to support both positions” (p. 300). Ultimately, Stecker et al. state that, “fluency has been shown to have a ‘reciprocal relationship’ with comprehension, with each fostering the other” (p. 306). Teachers can think of fluency as a bridge between the two major components of reading: decoding of individual words and comprehension of text meaning. It has been argued that fluency may be related to comprehension for braille readers in similar ways (Harley, Truan, & Sanford, 1987; Koenig & Holbrook, 1989).

The Role of Fluency in Braille Reading

Our definition of fluency is based on that proposed by the National Reading Panel for print readers and combines accuracy, rate, and oral reading prosody, which taken together facilitate a reader’s comprehension of text. Characterized by quick and effortless reading, fluency is complex and multifaceted, requiring accurate reading of connected text at a conversational rate with appropriate expression, or prosody. Fluency is believed to follow a developmental trajectory: as students increase their automatic word recognition skills in the elementary grades, they no longer struggle to identify words and can devote more mental resources to understanding the text (Chall, 1979; LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). As such, oral reading fluency performance is frequently used as a proxy for overall reading competence in print readers, promoted as the “single best indicator of reading proficiency” (Daly, Chafouleas, & Skinner, 2005, p. 10). Oral reading fluency has been conceptualized in a similar way for braille readers. An easily observable measure of reading ability, oral reading speed and accuracy are frequently reported outcome measures in braille reading intervention studies (e.g., Bickford & Falco, 2012; Day, McDonnell, & O’Neill, 2008; Pattillo et al., 2004).

Fluency is a goal for all beginning readers, whether they read print or braille. Several variables can influence a student’s fluent reading of a given text: the proportion of words read correctly, the speed at which words are decoded, as well as the student’s comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. The braille code adds an extra layer of complexity to the reading process. As such, some braille readers may take longer to achieve fluency than readers of print. However, research suggests that this gap is temporary and, given appropriate instruction, children who read braille can become fluent (Wall Emerson, Holbrook, & D’Andrea, 2009). It is essential that teachers maintain high expectations for their braille students. 

What is an appropriate reading rate in braille? This question is difficult to answer. The earliest measures of braille reading rates were conducted in the latter half of the 20th century. Foulke, in his 1979 review of research on braille reading, concluded that the serial nature of braille reading, necessitated by the limitations of tactile perception, prevent braille readers from achieving rates equal to their sighted peers. It is generally accepted that a good braille reader reads at approximately 1/3–1/2 the speed of a print reader of the same age (Pring, 1994). For adults who read braille, averages of 70-100 words per minute are often reported compared to print readers’ 200-300 words per minute. But braille reading speed is a controversial topic. Knowlton and Wetzel (1996) measured speeds of experienced braille readers and found a mean of 136 words per minute and a range of 65 to 185 words per minute. Others have reported much higher rates (cf. Legge, Madison, & Mansfield, 1999). Indeed, efforts to determine optimal reading rates and to identify the most efficient hand movements required to improve reading speed dominated braille research for much of the 20th century. While it is likely that the reading rates of young braille readers are indeed slower than print reading rates in same-age peers, at least one study of experienced adult braille readers found that less than one third of braille readers read slower than print readers (Wetzel & Knowlton, 2000). Teachers can review average oral reading rates for sighted readers and estimate minimum benchmarks for braille readers at specific grade levels. However, these are only guides, as each student is unique.

Factors that Facilitate Effective Fluency Instruction

Identifying the most effective instructional factors and intervention strategies for enhancing braille reading fluency is important for several reasons. Many children with visual impairments demonstrate poor fluency with correspondingly low levels of comprehension skill (Corn, et al., 2002; Trent & Truan, 1997; Wormsley, 1996). Without appropriate interventions, young struggling braille readers may develop chronic problems with reading fluency which, in turn, may discourage these children from reading because it is laborious, resulting in reduced reading practice and a cycle of ongoing underachievement (Barlow-Brown & Connelly, 2002; Forster, 2009). Given the relationship between reading difficulties and fluency, TVIs need effective practices that will support the braille user’s development of reading fluency. Several factors identified in the literature appear to benefit braille readers as they develop fluency. Among these are: the use of evidence-based practices adapted from print literacy instruction (Pattillo et al, 2004; Savaiano & Hatton, 2013); the importance of early intervention and daily instruction in braille reading (Koenig & Holbrook, 2000; Wall Emerson, Holbrook, & D’Andrea, 2009; Wormsley, 2004); and the critical need for trained TVIs to deliver literacy instruction (Bickford & Falco, 2012; Day et al, 2008).

Evidence-based fluency interventions

Fluency interventions are purposeful instructional activities that facilitate fluency development. Since the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis found strong support for explicit fluency instruction (NICHD, 2000), a large body of experimental evidence has accumulated that explores fluency interventions for struggling print readers. The instructional strategies with the strongest empirical base include guided oral reading with feedback and multiple re-readings of appropriate-leveled text (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003; NICHD, 2000).

The National Reading Panel concluded that guided oral reading procedures that incorporated feedback from teachers, peers, or parents had a significant and positive impact on fluency and comprehension (NICHD, 2000). There are a number of effective procedures that can be used in providing guided oral reading. For example, teacher-led guided oral reading can be provided as part of individualized or small group instruction. This would begin with the teacher modeling fluent reading of an appropriately leveled text, followed by a period of assisted practice where the student re-reads the text with teacher support, and finally concludes as responsibility is shifted to the student to read the text independently until a desired level of fluency is achieved (Osborn, Lehr, & Hiebert, 2003). Other methods might include partner reading of a text—with a more fluent reader paired with a less fluent reader (Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, & Simmons, 1997); or, tape-assisted reading, where a student first listens to a recording of a fluent reader and then practices reading along (Carbo, 1981; Shany & Biemiller, 1995). 

Day and colleagues (2008) examined the effects of using a research-based print reading program modified to accommodate five beginning braille readers. The Early Steps Alphabet Braille Reading Program contains several features of guided oral reading to enhance fluency. Each intervention session began with a segment where students re-read texts from earlier lessons. A guided oral reading of a new book based on the child’s instructional level concluded the intervention session. Because the participants in this study were young children, shared reading of text and a language experience approach are also integrated into fluency-building activities. Children author sentences in braille and re-read their sentences multiple times as part of the intervention program. Similarly, children engage in multiple readings of target words. Word identification fluency, a component skill of and pre-requisite to reading fluency, was a central outcome measured in this study and improved for all five beginning braille readers.

Re-reading of text is a key feature of fluency intervention for struggling readers of traditional print. One of the most widely supported methods of increasing print reading fluency is the repeated reading process first proposed by Samuels (1979). The repeated reading method consists of having a student re-read a short text several times until a satisfactory level of fluency is achieved. When a student meets the fluency criterion set, a new passage is introduced and the process repeats. Since this method was introduced in 1979, researchers have investigated numerous variations, including the effects of modeling fluent reading, text difficulty, and student participation in goal setting and contingent rewards for meeting the criterion (see Hasbrouck, Ihnot, & Rogers, 1999, for a review of this research). 

Recent research offers promising support for the use of repeated reading methods with braille readers. Pattillo et al. (2004) found gains in fluency after a repeated reading intervention with five students with visual impairments, one of who used braille as the primary learning medium. These results replicate the findings of Layton and Koenig (1998) who studied the effects of repeated readings on fluency with four students with low vision. Pattillo and colleagues (2004) used a modified repeated reading strategy in conjunction with computer-assisted voice-reading software. All participants in this study demonstrated improvements in oral reading fluency.

Early Intervention

Early instruction in braille plays a crucial role for children who are blind to be able to fully participate with their peers (Bickford & Falco, 2012; Mangold, 2003; Wormsley, 2004). Olson (1981) recommends encouraging efficiency in braille skills during the early years because early literacy skills have a direct impact on a child’s later literacy development. Young children with visual impairments not only have to learn the braille code, but must also develop mechanical skills in order to be efficient and fluent braille readers. These mechanical skills include finger dexterity/wrist flexibility, hand movement skills/finger positions, light finger touch, and tactile perception/discrimination skills (Olson, 1981). These skills should be introduced early and refined throughout the elementary years so that children, as they grow, can focus on accurate and fluent braille reading.

This early braille instruction should be delivered by a qualified teacher of students with visual impairments. However, schools in the United States face a chronic shortage of teachers qualified to teach braille. Spungin (2003) reported that there were only about 6,700 fulltime TVIs serving approximately 93,600 students. Some students with visual impairments may not have access to a TVI on a regular basis. Districts often find it difficult to provide a TVI in rural areas, where an itinerant TVI can be expected to teach sixteen or more students on a caseload spread over large geographic areas (Caton, 1991). When students do not have access to a TVI all areas of education are affected, but particularly literacy acquisition. It is imperative that schools ensure children with visual impairments are provided a quality education that includes instruction from a qualified TVI.

Implications for Practitioners and Families

We know that for sighted readers, students who do not develop reading fluency are much more likely to remain poor readers throughout their lives (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Whether the same is true for readers of braille is not as clear, though preliminary indications and anecdotal evidence would suggest the consequences for dysfluent braille readers are similar (Coppins & Barlow-Brown, 2006). We know that for most readers of print, fluency develops gradually over time and through extensive reading practice (NICHD, 2000).

What can be done to help braille readers become fluent readers? The simple answer would seem to be to give them more practice. What types of practice are most effective? Repeated oral reading has been widely researched and demonstrated to improve reading fluency for print readers (see Kuhn & Stahl, 2003 for a review). Preliminary support suggests these methods are also effective for braille readers as well (Pattillo et al., 2004). Integrated fluency instruction as described by Day et al. (2008) and Wall Emerson, Holbrook, and D’Andrea (2009) that includes teacher-led guided reading, repeated oral readings, and wide independent reading also appears to be beneficial.

TVIs should, whenever possible, select evidence-based interventions for their braille readers who exhibit fluency deficits. To effectively support fluency development for struggling braille readers, the TVI will likely require the assistance of the school’s literacy specialists in order to successfully implement new instructional strategies into the daily braille instruction. Literacy coaches, reading specialists, and general special educators are often their building’s best resources on the use of evidence-based literacy instruction.

Firstly, teachers should encourage students to re-read books until they achieve fluency. As children re-read familiar texts, they can devote more effort to efficient hand and finger movements, further enhancing reading speed. Secondly, variations of repeated reading methods can include taped readings, paired readings, and the self-charting of fluency gains by the student. Each of these methods, though not validated for use with users of braille, has been demonstrated to build fluency in print readers (see Kuhn & Stahl, 2003, for a review of the literature supporting these instructional strategies). Teachers should monitor their student’s fluency development, and, when a child’s reading progress stalls, teachers may need to alter the intervention, increase the instructional intensity, or both.

Parents and caregivers can also support children’s fluency development. Several easy strategies for guiding the braille reader toward fluency can be used. For example, an adult or older sibling can read aloud to the child and provide an example of how fluent reading sounds. Or, books on tape can be used and the child asked to follow along in the text. Having the child practice reading the same list of words, sentences, or short passages several times also builds fluency. Another activity that can be used at home is echo reading. Here, the adult reads a phrase, sentence, or paragraph aloud. The child reads the same phrase, sentence, or paragraph afterwards, like an echo. It is important to set aside time for reading practice every day; even a few minutes a day can help develop fluency (Elish-Piper, 2010). Finally, keep books around that the child enjoys for re-reading. He or she can practice reading a simple book to share with a younger sibling or another young child.

Our understanding of fluency for braille readers is only beginning to take shape. The need for well-designed, rigorous research in this area is urgent. Only then can those who provide braille instruction be assured access to a body of best practices, giving students with visual impairments the opportunity to reach their potential as readers.


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