Natural Order of Braille Contractions

By Casey Robertson and Sheena Manuel

Casey Robertson is a teacher of blind and visually impaired students at the Faculty Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University.

Sheena Manuel is an assistant professor in the college of education at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, MA.

Abstract

The traditional method of braille instruction for children consists of introducing braille contractions in a systematic, linear fashion similar to how adults are taught the code. The problem when teaching children, however, is that this often takes several years, resulting in many students falling behind grade reading levels before they have mastered the literary code.  Based on anecdotal research and observations, it is believed that the code can be taught more quickly when instruction is based on teaching braille contractions as they appear naturally in the student’s grade-level reading materials–the natural order of contractions method. This method is more appropriate to the young learner and is consistent with best practices for literacy instruction as presented in the public education sector.

Keywords

Natural order of contractions, braille, braille reading, braille teaching strategies, braille curriculum, Unified English Braille

What We Know About Reading

“Evolution did not equip us to read and write in the same way that it equipped us to listen and speak” (Treiman, 2018 p. 1). Many children have challenges in understanding that the marks on a page represent their language and that makes learning to read hard (Treiman, 2018). The National Reading Panel (2000) and the National Research Council (2000) found phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary as being the important areas for mastery for a successful reader. Both reports are based on high-quality, research-based reading instruction and are the academic guidelines of all reading instruction in the United States. Each report focused on an additional component of the reading process: the importance of the teacher’s understanding of the reading process. The teacher and her understanding of the reading process is the vital part in unlocking the keys to successful reading for the student. The teacher must understand the reading process and motivate the student to learn throughout the reading process.

Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade (Foorman et al., 2016) was published by What Works Clearinghouse as a practical guide for teachers in the classroom as to how to correctly to teach reading. This report looked at all literature published since the seminal 2000 National Reading Panel. It found phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary were the most important components to learning to read.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (2019) states in their article, How Does Reading Work, that reading is built on several skills starting at birth and moving forward. Students start the reading process with oral language skills. Learning that words we say are made up of pieces of sounds called phonemes is the first step. For example, knowing /C/, /A/, /T/ is made of three phonemes or sounds /C/,/A/,/T/. This step in the reading process is called phonemic awareness and begins before the student ever reaches kindergarten. The next step is a process known as phonological awareness and the student now knows that /C/,/A/,/T/ can rhyme with /R/,/A/,/T/. Phonological awareness is more than just recognizing rhyming words. Students begin to break apart sounds and parts of words and manipulate them. They begin to learn alliteration of sounds. Phonological awareness allows students to move to decoding of words. Understanding phonemes and phonological awareness begins as the child starts to hear and understand spoken words. Children then learn that by changing just one sound in the word they can manipulate that word to a new meaning: /C/, /A/, /T/ becomes /R/,/A/,/T/  with the change of the /C/ or /M/,/A/,/T/ with the change to an /M/. At this point, reading is entirely oral language. The child is now ready to move onto letters and alphabet awareness. They now learn that the letters in the alphabet can stand for phonemes and other sound patterns. This process in reading is called the alphabetic principle. Students are now able to build on their knowledge of the alphabet principle and know that letters stand for sounds or phonemes, which is also critical for writing (Treiman, 2018). This is the process of phonics. Phonics is the process of connecting letter sounds to letter symbols. Phonics solely relies on a student’s phonemic awareness. Phonics connects the sounds or phonemes with written letters. Students have been learning vocabulary since birth and will now incorporate that into the reading process. Students take the words they have learned and spoken and will start to learn them in print. As students get better with their phonics and vocabulary their fluency levels will increase as well. Fluency is the ability to read quickly and accurately and make sentences sound right as students read them aloud. Students’ fluency increases as they read materials they are interested in such as leveled books such as the popular Accelerated Reader system by Renaissance Learning or library books of their choosing. Rereading passages is also a way to increase reading fluency. This is known as the Matthew Effect, a well-known phenomenon where readers read more and become better readers while those that read less do not improve, further expanding the gap between poor readers and successful readers. The last step in the reading process is building comprehension so the student understands what he or she is reading. This developmental process of reading follows the research presented through out What Works Clearinghouse (2016) found to be evident in successful readers.

By the time students reach formal education in Pre-K, students are first taught to read by learning the alphabet and then quickly moving into recognition of "sight words," which are frequently occurring, high-interest words that are often not phonetic (Miles et al., 2017).  It is estimated that approximately 200 words represent about 80% of all written material in children’s books and 50% of adult books; consequently, educators have discovered that teaching youth to recognize these words on sight, rather than trying to sound them out, increases reading comprehension, fluency, and literacy (Mulvahill, 2018).

Additional research-based literacy strategies that create opportunities for students are explicit and systematic instruction, disciplinary literacy, and using literacy that piques the student’s personal interest. According to Miles (2015), when teaching literacy, teachers may choose to use a more direct, teacher-led approach called explicit and systematic instruction. Treiman (2018) understood that direct (explicit) instruction, along with guidance and feedback, must be provided by educators in all disciplines. Miles (2015) stated that “at a certain age this is exactly what some children need to crack the code, that is, to learn how letters represent sounds and how to use this knowledge to read and spell words” (p. 1). Miles also suggested that effective literacy instruction for beginners is teacher-centered because the teacher needs to facilitate and scaffold learning, and this form of instruction can be done in small groups or one-on-one. Highly skilled teachers will systematically expose children to early literacy concepts by manipulating the environment and scaffolding activities and materials because they know what it takes to develop and acquire literacy skills (Miles, 2015).

Disciplinary literacy involves teaching the student to decode and understand literacy in all disciplines, including math, history, and science (Johnston et al., 2016). According to Johnston et al., “disciplinary literacy shifts the focus to the way that readers need to critically think, understand, or engage in the reading of a specific text to construct and convey meaning in an academic subject” (p. 1). They suggest that teachers facilitate the learning of summarizing (history), conceptual understanding (math), and making predictions (science) to name a few. According to Johnston et al., “teaching literacy with a disciplinary literacy approach requires students to be immersed in the language and thinking processes of that discipline, learn the content in each discipline, and understand how and why reading and writing are used in each discipline” (p. 1).

What We Know About Teaching Blind Children to Read

Students that need braille are often identified after the time of learning beginning literacy skills, and some may even have literacy skills as print readers (Hatton et al., 2010). The time when students are discovered can pose a challenge in piquing their interest in reading. Ivey and Johnston (2013) found that low-scoring, previously inexperienced eighth-grade readers, when given access to compelling young adult literature dealing with issues that mattered to them, not only read enthusiastically but also demonstrated many of the strategic reading behaviors we try to teach students explicitly. Ivey (2015) suggests that teachers examine a student’s social and motivational reality and give the student a sense of autonomy and a sense of relevance during reading. Treiman (2018) suggested that reading to children not only piques their interest but may motivate them to read. Ivey and Johnston (2013) concluded that when students are engaged in what they read and the process of reading, they are more likely to use strategic practices.

In the field of education for youth with visual impairments, emphasis has traditionally been on teaching youth the braille code in a sequential, linear fashion based on dot patterns, which results in slower learning time. Students are taught tracking and the alphabet and may spend a year or more before moving onto uncontracted words, then to contracted words while time is passing and their reading level is falling behind their sighted peers. In this method, students must read materials that have a combination of contracted and uncontracted words, based on which contractions they have been taught at the time. This can become confusing, because many words will be changed when the student learns the appropriate contractions.  Loomis (1948) reported that 717 out of 1811 simple words are changed when contracted. This current method of teaching youth with visual impairments directly goes against the best practices outlined by the National Reading Panel (2000); the National Research Council (2000); and Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade (Foorman et al., 2016).

Many braille readers read at a slower rate than their sighted counterparts, and this tendency only increases as the students move through the academic grades (Corn et al., 2002; Emerson et al., 2009). Braille readers often lack automaticity, and this can affect their reading rates. Repeated reading of the same braille symbols and words helps build automaticity and comprehension (Savaiano and Hatton, 2013). Students who are taught contractions at a slower pace or taught using only uncontracted braille perform at lower levels in vocabulary, spelling, and decoding skills (Emerson et al., 2009).

Current Braille Instruction

The traditional approach to teaching braille is to teach tracking and pre-literacy (or pre-braille) skills, then move to the alphabet, alphabet words, short-form words, contractions, and then final-letter contractions. This method is very time consuming before the student can successfully read grade-level materials. This method goes against the adaptability needed for a diverse population of readers presented in a multi-case study of reading (Vaughn, 2019). If you are working with a middle school or high school learner that already knows how to read, the process of reading simple sentences is very mundane and burdensome These students need instructional materials that are relevant to them. Relevance provides the motivation to want to learn to read even when students have previously been unsuccessful (Wormsley, 2011). If you are working with a beginning reader, the traditional process moves slower than their classroom peers, and they are set up for their reading to be behind multiple grade levels from the beginning. In a traditional school setting it can take years to advance their reading ability to a rate competitive with their sighted peers. Braille readers lack the incidental learning print readers receive daily through environmental print. Teachers of the blind must orchestrate opportunities for the braille reader to experience these learning moments throughout the curriculum. Many of the current programs for teaching young braille readers isolate them into a separate curriculum where they are not experiencing the same learning environment as their sighted peers. These programs not only isolate the student from their sighted peers, they are often not motivating and contain unauthentic learning activities for the student. Gambrell and Marinak (2009) recognized all highly effective reading programs had certain characteristics that distinguished the program as highly effective and motivating was one of those characteristics. 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 provides the motivation to want to learn to read even when students have previously been unsuccessful. (Wormsley, 2011)

Natural Order of Contractions

Natural Order of Contractions (NOC) was termed by Dr. Ruby Ryles in the Professional Development Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. NOC is an approach to teaching braille based on the natural order of occurrence of contractions. NOC is an approach used by the teacher of blind to introduce the braille code in the same systematic approach that early readers learn to read. By introducing contractions in their natural occurrence, students can read grade-level material at a faster rate than traditional braille boxed curriculums. This allows for the student to access meaningful instructional materials at any age. A teacher using the NOC method will also use explicit and systematic instruction to teach children the braille code. The NOC method facilitates instruction in each discipline. After the student learns the basic literacy skills, the teacher can maintain those skills using materials and activities from other disciplines. Based on our anecdotal research and observations, it is believed that braille instruction (basic literacy for blind children or low-vision students) can be greatly improved by providing instruction based on the natural order of occurrence, very similarly to how general education, mainstream instruction is provided to sighted children. The NOC method allows teachers to give students a sense of autonomy and a sense of relevance during literacy instruction. Providing instruction based on teaching braille contractions as they appear naturally in the student’s grade-level reading materials, the NOC method, is analogous to learning "sight words" in print.  Students learn the most common words first, in contracted form, which will keep them on track and reading the same materials as their sighted peers. As children differ in many areas of academics, research continues to aid educators in developing better instructional practices to raise the level of success in all disciplines (Treiman, 2018).

How NOC Works

Natural Order of Contractions moves the learning of braille from an isolated curriculum into the mainstream curriculum while providing relevant and meaningful activities for the student. Natural Order of Contractions can work for beginning braille students who have been nonreaders as well as the student learning braille having previously been a print reader. The teacher uses explicit and systematic instruction and materials and activities that motivates the student to learn the code.

Just as in general education, students begin with the alphabet; the braille student should also begin with the alphabet. Using a curriculum for teaching tracking and the alphabet, Mangold, the student learns the alphabet and the alphabet words. The teacher moves quickly through the Mangold program so as to not spend the entire year on the alphabet. Typically, students learn the alphabet in six to eight weeks of daily braille lessons lasting one hour in length. Then the teacher moves to the alphabet words with the braille student. Once the student has mastered the alphabet words, the teacher moves to the “sight words” that a typical general education sighted peer would be learning. Those sight words are the most frequently used words. One might use the Dolch List, the Fry List, or the school’ s designated sight-word list. When teaching these sight words, contractions should be taught as they come. For example, the word red should be taught with the “ed” sign. As the teacher works through the sight-word list, the student will be able to read short sentences such as, “the ball is red” or “the car is green.” Many of the sight–word-list words are also short-form words.

This makes reading more meaningful to the student. After the sight-word list is mastered, the braille student is ready to move onto contractions as they come in grade-level text.

The teacher canuse books that interest the student from the classroom curriculum or resources such as Readingatoz.com or Reading Naturally to obtain grade-level text for the student to read. For example, the class may be reading a passage from the Readingatoz.com site titled “After School:”

I like to study after school.
I like to play after school.
I like to dance after school.
I like to act after school.
I like to read after school.
I like to sing after school.
I like to bike after school.
We like to have fun after school.

The student would have learned the contraction for “after” and “ea” in learning the sight-word list. They would have also learned the contraction for “like” in the alphabet-word list. The teacher can then move to the contraction “ch” in school and “ing” in sing. The teacher can choose to cover the contraction for “ance” or simply tell the student what that contraction is when they reach it. That would give the student one incidental learning experience with the contraction “ance.” The teacher now focuses on “ch” and “ing” contractions for her lesson. The teacher will make four rows with four words in each row using the contractions to be taught.

chip                 cheese             chop                school
cheese             chop                school             chip
chop                school             chip                 cheese
school             chip                 cheese             chop

The teacher alternates the words in each row as to allow for the student to read the words without memorizing them. The teacher goes over the words in the first row with the student and then allows the student to read the words in the next rows aloud. Using the same word allows the student the repetition that other students are taught throughout the early readers while building confidence in the reader with each row that is read. Then the teacher moves to sentences with these words:

I like chips.
I like cheese.
I like school.
I like to chop wood.

This gives the students practice reading sentences with words that they have just mastered and gives them practice reading words in sentences and not just isolations. The left-to-right pattern also allows for the practice of tracking and reading in context. The teacher now moves to the second contraction of the day.

sing                 ring                 king                 wing
ring                  king                 wing                sing
king                 wing                sing                 ring
wing                sing                 ring                 king

The teacher repeats the same pattern of helping the student with the first line and then moves to the other lines independently. Once the words have been read then the student moves to simple sentences.

I like to sing.
I have a ring.
I like the king.
The bird has a wing.

Once all contractions and sentences have been covered for the lesson, the student is now ready to read the beginner reader that the sighted peers are reading. All words have been taught and the student is confident in reading a small book. It is encouraging if the braille is placed in the book like the book the sighted peers are using. The only contraction that was not taught thus far was the “ance,” and you can give that to the student while reading. That would be the second incidental learning of the contraction.

I like to study after school.
I like to play after school.
I like to dance after school.
I like to act after school.
I like to read after school.
I like to sing after school.
I like to bike after school.
We like to have fun after school.

The method of NOC allows for the braille reader to be taught in the same text and curriculum as the sighted peer. This method allows for the braille student to have the same spelling words, language arts curriculum, centers, and activities that their sighted peers have, potentially decreasing the isolation of the student during language arts time.

This method is equally important with older students who know how to read but are being transitioned to braille. These students know the mechanics of reading but lack the braille code. They can become bored and even insulted with reading low-level reading materials. These students are often harder to motivate when they lack interest in what they are reading. With these students the teacher takes a paragraph or two from a topic that is interesting to the student. Say the student loves basketball. The teacher may use this excerpt from the story “Basketball:”

Basketball is a game of excitement. Things change quickly during games. A few seconds left on the clock can be enough to turn a loss into a win. There is nothing more exciting than watching a player take a last-second shot far from the basket. In that moment, all eyes are on the ball.

Many of the words in this passage would have been covered in the sight-word list. The teacher then pulls out the contractions that need to be taught to make reading these passages successful. For example, the contractions for “ment,” “ing,” “there,” and “ar.” Just like above, the teacher would make four rows of four to five words for the student to read with each contraction, followed by a sentence with each word.

excitement                  arrangement                experiment                  document
arrangement                experiment                  document                    excitement
experiment                  document                    excitement                  arrangement
document                    excitement                  arrangement                experiment
Basketball is a game of excitement.
I like excitement.
Do an experiment.
Read the document.
The arrangement is for July.

NOC allows for the student to read text that is grade appropriate, interesting, and not intimidating, while combining the use of new contractions while reading a meaningful text. Remember this text is for a reader that knows how to read and is beginning to transition to braille.

Conclusion

The traditional method of braille instruction is conducted by introducing braille contractions in a systematic, linear fashion over several years, resulting in many youths falling behind grade reading level before they have mastered the literary code. Based on anecdotal research and observations, it is believed that the code can be taught more quickly when instruction is based on teaching braille contractions as they appear naturally in the student’s grade-level reading materials–the Natural Order of Contractions method. Natural Order of Contractions allows for students to be taught the braille code more quickly than the traditional method of teaching while giving them meaningful and relevant material to read. Natural Order of Contractions supports motivation and confidence while learning the braille code. Students are more engaged in the curriculum of their sighted peers–curriculum that should be taught to the braille student as well as their sighted peers. Natural Order of Contractions supports all areas deemed important in reading by the National Reading Council: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, and teacher knowledge (The National Reading Panel, 2000).

Implications for the Field

Start with Mangold for tracking and the alphabet then move to the Dolch for sight words. Do not present words in uncontracted form that are naturally contracted. Teach the contractions as they appear naturally in text by giving specific drills on them. Read aloud and give the contractions to the reader so they begin to associate the pattern as sighted peers receive incidental learning. Utilize mainstream reading texts, which are rich with high-frequency words. Implement the Natural Order of Contractions method in professional practices to promote literacy with all learners. Utilize materials, resources, and tools from general educators to promote literacy within all disciplines. Promote the use of phonics and mastery of sight words during the braille instruction. Create braille-rich environments in natural settings for students.

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