Examining Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies for Braille Readers: A Preliminary Study

By Nicole Johnson and Kathy Stanfa

Nicole Johnson is associate professor in the Special Education Department at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

Kathleen Stanfa is associate professor in the Special Education Department at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

Abstract

This preliminary study examined the effects of a modified peer-assisted learning strategies (PALS) intervention with two braille readers. The investigation paired braille readers with print reading partners within their general education classroom to explore whether PALS had an effect on braille reading fluency and comprehension. Preliminary results from the study indicate that braille readers benefit from PALS partner reading with retell intervention by increasing reading fluency and comprehension scores. The results further suggest that PALS interventions have the potential to increase socialization opportunities.

Keywords

Visual impairment, PALS, braille readers

Introduction

Today, the majority of students with visual impairments are educated in public schools alongside their nondisabled peers (AFB, 2019). Inclusive models of education offer students who are visually impaired access to the general education curriculum and opportunities to develop relationships with their typical peers. However, research confirms that simply placing students with disabilities in general education settings is not enough to derive these benefits (Celeste, 2006). Instruction in general education classrooms typically relies on visual learning and students who are visually impaired often require accommodations and modifications to be successful. There are numerous instructional strategies, best practices, methods, and materials to support children with visual impairments to be successful within the general education classroom (Kelly, 2016). They can include instructional and curricular adaptations, appropriate materials, assistive technology, and other academic supports. Instruction in general education classrooms is also highly social. The fact that there can be more than 30 students in a typical classroom ensures that students will interact with each other in a myriad of ways. Students with visual impairments often have difficulty acquiring social skills through observation and imitation the way sighted students do (Sacks & Page, 2017). Due to the lack of social development, students who are visually impaired often demonstrate delays in social development and are vulnerable to social isolation (Zebehazy & Smith, 2011).

For students who are identified as having braille as their primary learning medium, the need for supports is even greater. Inclusive education places additional demands on braille readers (Ferrell, Mason, Young, & Cooney, 2006) and students with visual impairments who have no additional disabilities should be held to the same academic and social standards as students who are sighted (Holbrook & Rosenblum, 2017). Beginning braille readers not only have to learn letters and the rules of basic English grammar as their sighted peers do, but have the added task of learning braille contractions and rules about their use (Emerson, Holbrook, & D’Andrea, 2009). Further, research has shown that braille readers tend to read at a slower rate and experience greater comprehension deficits than print readers do (Radojichikj, 2015; Trent & Truan, 1997; Wormsley, 1996). Given these challenges, researchers and practitioners are eager to identify evidence-based approaches that address the unique needs of braille readers in inclusive classrooms to support developing reading fluency and comprehension while promoting socialization within the classroom. One approach that has been shown to be effective with print readers is the implementation of peer-assisted learning strategies (PALS).

Developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University, PALS is a structured, class-wide, peer-mediated instructional intervention designed to address the literacy needs of students with and without disabilities (Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, & Simmons, 1997).  PALS incorporates multiple literacy components using partner reading activities.  Typically, PALS involves paired oral reading with three different comprehension strategies:  paragraph shrinking, prediction relay, and retelling (Fuchs et al., 1997). PALS enables students to engage in repeated oral reading practice and receive immediate feedback. PALS has been demonstrated to be effective for enhancing reading fluency and comprehension with a wide range of students, including English language learners (Colon, 2019; Saenz, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2005), students with learning disabilities (Calhoon et al., 2005), and students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Regelski, 2016).  PALS has been shown to have positive effects on both academic learning and social development (Carter & Kennedy, 2007).

Peer-mediated instructional interventions, like the PALS program, have been widely researched in both general and special education settings (Carter & Hughes, 2007; Maheady, Harper, & Mallette, 2001; McMaster, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2006; Colon, 2019). Peer-mediated interventions can pair students with disabilities with non-disabled peers to complete learning tasks (Carter, Sisco, Chung, & Stanton-Chapman, 2010).  Components of PALS can be implemented in classrooms without the need for formal training on the commercial PALS program. Partner reading with retell can easily be used without using the commercial PALS program (Archer, Gleason, & Vachon, 2003).  Peer-mediated instructional arrangements offer a promising approach for supporting students with visual impairments and may provide increased opportunities for learning and socialization in inclusive settings.

PALS not only helps with academic skill acquisition but can also enhance students’ social skills development (Laushey & Heflin, 2000; Hughes et al., 2013; Maheady, Harper, & Mallette, 2001). Children who are sighted acquire social skills naturally by observing people in their environment. Many social skills are learned through imitation and modeling, which is done through the visual sense. Students with visual impairments are not able to acquire essential social skills and behaviors through the visual sense as their sighted peers (Sacks & Wolffe, 2006).  Due to this, socialization is a key component of the expanded core curriculum (ECC) for students who are blind and visually impaired. PALS encourages peer interaction and has the ability to provide opportunities for students with visual impairments to learn and acquire social skills and develop friendships.

Although PALS is a well-documented practice for students without visual impairments, there have been, to date, no empirical studies that examine the potential benefits of PALS interventions for the braille reader. When a student is struggling to read braille fluently there are limited evidence-based practices to help teachers determine what to do as compared to struggling print readers where there is access to an extensive body of empirically validated best practices to guide their instructional interventions (Stanfa & Johnson, 2015). Based on their survey of 192 teachers of young children with visual impairments, Murphy, Hatton, and Erickson (2008) cited teachers’ lack of access to evidence-based practices as a significant barrier to providing effective and comprehensive literacy interventions.

Methods

The purpose of this preliminary research study is to understand if a modified implementation of PALS is an acceptable and useful intervention when braille and print readers are paired.  The Institutional Review Board of Kutztown University approved this research, and informed consent was obtained from parents and students before data were collected. The present study examines braille reading fluency and comprehension during a PALS intervention.

Participant Selection

In selecting participants, the following criteria were used: participants who had a documented visual impairment by an ophthalmologist and braille indicated as the primary reading medium on the student’s individual education plan (IEP). Two students were selected for the study. Before beginning this intervention, permission from the school district was granted to allow the qualified teacher of students with visual impairments (TSVI) to collect data on the PALS intervention for the purpose of this study, and parental consent was obtained. The researcher met with the TSVI to review PALS procedures and how to collect baseline and intervention data.

The names of the participants are pseudonyms. Both participants used braille as their primary reading medium, with auditory as secondary, as documented in their IEP. Participant 1 (Emma) was in third grade at the time of the study and was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity. She was reading contracted braille at the time of the study. The TSVI reported that she had difficulty with initiating interaction with her peers throughout the day. Participant 2 (Anna) was in sixth grade at the time of the study and had severe glaucoma in both eyes with light perception only. She was reading contracted braille and the TSVI reported that she struggled socially with her peers.

Data Collection

Oral reading was used to assess braille reading fluency and reading comprehension was measured by the number of correct responses to a set of text-based comprehension questions. These text-based questions were developed by the researchers and administered orally by the teacher of students with visual impairments after the passage was partner-read. Grade-level reading passages were obtained from the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) Oral Reading Fluency assessment (ORF; Good & Kaminski, 2002) to measure reading fluency. Individually administered, ORF is a norm-referenced test of basic reading skills that measures the accuracy and rate of reading connected text. The ORF passages and procedures are based on research on Curriculum-Based Measurement of reading (Deno, 1985). For the ORF measure, students are given an unfamiliar, grade-level passage and asked to read aloud for one minute. Students receive one point for each word read correctly in one minute. This assessment is available in both uncontracted and contracted braille, although norms are only available for the print version.  The administered passages were obtained in print format, brailled by the researchers, split in half, and read across multiple days.  Recent research suggests that the technical adequacy of curriculum-based measures of oral reading fluency is very similar to that obtained when probes are administered to sighted readers (Morash & McKeracher, 2017). Scores for a student being tested with DIBELS in braille can be used to measure individual growth for that student and can be compared to other students who are also being tested with braille DIBELS materials, but should not be reported as scores that are directly comparable to the print version of DIBELS (Morash & McKeracher, 2017; Morgan & Bradley-Johnson, 1995). However, while comparison to sighted norms must be interpreted cautiously, the use of oral reading fluency measures can provide valuable insights into a child’s braille reading skill (Dial & Dial, 2010).

The intervention used throughout the study was a peer-mediated reading intervention adapted from Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies Reading Methods for Grades 2-6 (PALS), created by Fuchs, Fuchs, Simmons, and Mathes (1997). PALS uses peer-mediated instruction, placing students into pairs to provide support in reading fluency and comprehension. In this study, dyads were trained in one component of PALS, partner reading and retell, modified for use with a braille reader paired with a print reader. During partner reading, the braille reader reads through the passage orally. The print reader monitors by following along. If the first reader makes an error, the second reader offers corrective feedback. After the first reader finishes, the second reader reads the same passage orally while the first reader monitors and corrects errors. After both readers have read, the braille reader does a retell of the text that the pair read during partner reading. The print reader prompts and corrects the braille reader as needed. Implementing this modified version of PALS using curriculum-based reading passages may support reading fluency and comprehension for braille readers who struggle with reading. It simultaneously encourages student engagement and offers opportunities for students with visual impairments to connect with their sighted peers.

Baseline data was collected on the two braille readers. Baseline comprehension data collection involved administering three instructional-level reading passages with comprehension questions for a total of three data points. Additionally, oral reading rate and accuracy were measured at baseline and post-intervention. Oral reading rates at baseline were calculated using the mean words read correctly per minute of three instructional-level passages. Oral reading rates post-intervention were determined using the same procedures. All passages used to determine reading rate were “cold” reads, meaning the participants were presented with novel passages.

Procedures

Before implementation of the study, the teacher of students with visual impairments was provided with explicit training on the intervention procedures. Each individual student was placed in a dyad, with one student identified as having a visual impairment and using braille as the primary learning medium. The other peer in each dyad was a typically developing print reader chosen by the classroom teacher. Peer-mediated instruction was conducted during the braille reader’s regular instruction with the TSVI. The TSVI explained the specific procedures to both the print and braille readers, providing instruction in the processes of actively following along with the reader, offering corrective feedback, and retelling. This included modeling and guided practice opportunities with the TSVI prior to the beginning of the intervention. The intervention period took place twice a week for five weeks for a total of 10 sessions with each dyad. Pairs read passages appropriate for the braille reader’s level. Reading comprehension tasks were collected after each session using researcher-created, text-based comprehension questions. Oral reading fluency probes were administered during the baseline phase and at the end of the intervention period to obtain pre-intervention and post-intervention fluency scores. Oral reading fluency scores were obtained by administering three instructional-level reading passages from the ORF and calculating the mean score. This procedure was followed for both baseline and post-intervention fluency scores.

Results

This study investigated the effects of a modified PALS component, partner reading with retell, on reading comprehension and reading fluency for braille readers. Further, the effects of the PALS intervention on the social interactions between the braille and print reader pairs was also explored.

Figure 1 displays the comprehension scores for Emma and Anna. Data points represent the number of correct responses to a series of text-based comprehension questions. The level in baseline indicates the number correct answers to comprehension questions prior to the start of the intervention.

Figure 1

Anna - Comprehension

Figure 1 shows during the three baseline session Anna was only able to answer one comprehension question. The intervention phase shows an overall increase of questions answered correctly. Data point one: 1 questions, data point two: 0 questions, Data points 3 to 5: 2 questions, Data point 6: 3 questions, Data Points 7 & 8: two questions, Data points 9 & 10: 3 questions

Emma – Comprehension

Figure 2 shows during the three baseline sessions Anna was only able to answer one comprehension question. The intervention phase shows an overall increase of questions answered correctly. Data Points one and two: 2 questions, data point 3: 1 question, data points 4-10: 2 questions

The comprehension scores changed for both participants after entering intervention. Figure 1 shows Anna experienced an initial drop in comprehension score after the intervention phase began. However, by the third intervention session, Anna’s comprehension score exceeded the baseline and continued above baseline for the duration of the intervention phase. Emma’s scores similarly dropped early in the intervention phase but rebounded and stayed above baseline levels for the duration of the intervention phase. Both Anna and Emma showed improvement with higher numbers of correct responses to comprehension questions during the intervention phases when compared to baseline levels.

Table 1 displays mean oral reading fluency scores for Anna and Emma that were collected during baseline and post-intervention. Reading fluency, as measured by words read correctly per minute on instructional-level ORF reading passages, increased for both participants from baseline to post-intervention.

Table 1

Mean Words Read Correctly Per Minute

Participant

Baseline

Post-Intervention

Difference

Anna

17.3

22

+4.7

Emma

14.3

31

+16.7

Mean Errors

Participant

Baseline

Post-Intervention

Difference

Anna

3.6

1.3

-2.3

Emma

2.3

.7

-1.6

Anna’s mean oral reading fluency score at baseline was 17.3 words read correctly per minute (range=16-18). The mean number of reading errors was 3.6 words (range=2-4). At the conclusion of the intervention phase, Anna’s mean oral reading fluency scores was 22 words read correctly per minute (range=21-24). Anna’s mean number of reading errors post-intervention was 1.3 words (range=1-2). Emma’s mean oral reading fluency score at baseline was 14.3 words read correctly per minute (range=12-17). Emma’s mean number of reading errors during baseline was 2.3 words (range=2-3). At the conclusion of the intervention, Emma’s mean oral reading fluency score increased to 31 words read correctly with a mean of .7 errors (range=0-2).

Comparing the initial reading rate, measured by the correct words read per minute during baseline, with the reading rate measured post-intervention, both participants increased their braille reading speed. In addition, both participants improved their reading accuracy with the number of reading errors decreasing from baseline to post-intervention. Because average rates of growth in braille reading rate have never been empirically validated, it is difficult to analyze whether this increase in fluency represents typical or atypical improvement. While expected rates of growth for print reading rates at each grade level have been identified by prior research (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 2017), research is limited to compare to braille readers.

When partner reading with retell was implemented with two braille readers, in grades three and six, both students increased reading fluency and improved their comprehension. The TSVIs reported that students talked to their reading partner more outside of academic time and the TSVI, as well as the general classroom teacher, noticed relationships develop. The student reading braille enjoyed reading with a friend and also reported they liked being able to be the “helper” at times (i.e., helping their friends when they struggled with some words).

Implications for Future Research and Limitations

The results in this study suggest that PALS interventions may be effective in helping braille readers increase reading rates, enhance comprehension, and have the potential to develop stronger social skills. This preliminary work also points to important questions to be addressed in future research. A critical need going forward would be for further replication of PALS interventions among elementary braille readers. Systematic replication can provide data on the effectiveness of the intervention for similar populations.  Based on the early positive results shown here, a more rigorous design with appropriate controls is warranted among a greater number of braille readers.

One question to address in future research is whether PALS interventions are effective across other subjects. Another question to address is at what ages is PALS most effective in developing social skills? Interviews with the TVSI suggested that socialization increased more in the younger braille reader compared to the sixth grade student. It is important to determine effective interventions that can build skill acquisition while encouraging social interactions among braille readers throughout the elementary years.

Several limitations of the study must be considered when interpreting the results.  First, only two braille readers participated in this study, and replication of the study is required to strengthen the external validity and generality of the results (Kazdin,1982) due to the small number of cases.  Another limitation of the study was the research design.  We did not control for extraneous variables that might have influenced the findings.  Use of a multiple-baseline design in which the PALS intervention is introduced at a different time for each participant would enhance internal validity.  More robust measures of reading comprehension are also desirable. Finally, given the promising results seen here with regard to increasing social interaction among braille and print readers in inclusive classrooms, it would be worthwhile to focus research on the potential social benefits for PALS.

Conclusions

The goal of this exploratory study was to investigate whether a peer-mediated intervention like PALS would be effective in increasing braille reading fluency and comprehension. The premise for this intervention involved systematically training students and facilitators in PALS partner reading and retell and providing opportunities to utilize PALS throughout reading activities over five weeks. According to the results, both students increased their braille reading fluency and comprehension, which was verified by their classroom teachers and through inter-observer agreement. The TSVI did not observe an increase of socialization outside of PALS intervention for the older braille reader (sixth grade), but did note an improvement in socialization outside of interventions with the younger (third grade) braille reader. The TSVI reported that the student initiated conversations more frequently with her peers in the classroom that were part of the intervention and seemed more comfortable asking peers for assistance than she did prior to the study. Both of the braille readers reported to enjoy PALS interventions and wanted to continue after the study was completed.

Although PALS is a well-documented intervention in education, it is important that this empirically validated practice be supported by intervention research among braille readers to determine its effectiveness with this unique population. Significantly, the TSVI and classroom teachers continued to utilize components of the PALS program to build braille reading fluency skills, comprehension, and provide opportunities for socialization once the study ended. Using partner reading with retell requires little training and is easy to implement throughout the school day. This strategy has the potential to increase braille reading fluency and comprehension among braille readers. Peer-assisted learning strategies can support students with visual impairments within the general education classroom and gives them authentic, structured opportunities to interact with their typical peers.

Implementation and Practice

Meaningful planning is an essential component of implementing peer-assisted learning. Peer-mediated strategies should be designed to meet the individual needs of the student within the classroom in which he or she is receiving support. The planning should involve aligning to the student’s IEP goals, selecting peers to participate, preparing the students to work together, and establishing routines for monitoring and providing feedback to participants. To increase effectiveness, it is important to proactively select peers based on the individual needing the peer supports, encourage peers to remain on-task through modeling and encouragement, teach peers to self-monitor progress and support work completion, and be aware of the potential for students to become overly dependent. PALS has the potential to enhance braille reading and comprehension skills as well as help develop friendships and increase social skills within the inclusive classroom. PALS can also give the student learning braille an option to be the “helper,” or stronger reader, to help build their reading confidence.

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