Future Reflections Summer 1996, Vol. 15 No. 3


Reading Readiness And The Blind Child
A Lesson For The 90's From The 50's

From the Editor:The following article came into my possession many years ago. It had been stuck away in the files of a colleague of mine who had worked most of his life as a rehabilitation counselor with blind adults and children. His widow came across it when she was cleaning out his papers and, thinking I might have a use for it, she passed it on to me.

Regretfully, I filed it away, too. "Too old to publish," I thought. "The resources are outdated, and, as sound as the philosophy is, someone will surely take me to task for printing something this old."

But I never forgot about it. I would even dig it out once in a while and re-read it. Although dated forty years ago, its approach to blindness and Braille always felt like a breath of fresh air from the past; and we desperately need fresh air in today's stale atmosphere of low expectations and anti-Braille sentiments. So, the last time I pulled it out I decided to share it with our readers. Here it isÀÀoutdated resources and all. My hope is that teachers will have the humility, and parents the courage, to apply this lesson from the fifties to the education of blind children in the nineties.

by Dorothea P. Forbush

Reprinted from The Massachusetts Teacher, January, 1957, Massachusetts Division of the Blind.

Sarah attends a regular public kindergarten and is like many of her friends in her desire to learn to read. Unlike them, she must learn to read with her fingers because she is blind. Her teacher recognizes the child's ability and interest. She voices her concern: What should I do to help her? Are the skills involved in learning to read Braille very different from those required to learn to read print? What should I look for in evaluating her readiness to read and how can I give her what she needs when I have so many other children in my class who need my help in other ways?

To answer these and other questions of teachers who have accepted visually handicapped children in their classes, it is necessary to consider what reading readiness involves for seeing children and how it may be adjusted to the special needs of the visually handicapped child.

Readiness Is Fundamental
Readiness is an important aspect of any learning. It depends on all previous experience. Readiness to read begins in infancy. Children come to school in many stages of development. Some children are ready and eager to read long before the school program offers this instruction; others need a long period of readiness work before they can cope with beginning reading.

Some kindergartens use the latter part of the year for specific reading preparation. Others have no pre-reading program as such, but consider the entire kindergarten year a period of personal and social growth toward more formal instruction. In either case, the first year of school experience develops the young child's desire to learn to read.

Reading readiness has received much attention in the field of education, in formal research, in teacher opinion, and in parent concern. Educators generally agree on what concepts are involved, but differ in their emphasis. This discussion will concern four such concepts: mental readiness, physical readiness, personal and emotional readiness, and educational readiness.

Mental Readiness
Mental readiness refers to general mental maturity. It has been accepted in many school systems that a child should have a mental age of six years and six months before formal reading is begun. Research shows that while standardized mental maturity tests can give us the mental age of the child, these results do not give us the whole picture of reading readiness. Betts says that "Since reading is largely a `thinking' process, it follows that mental maturity is a primary factor in reading ability." He further states that while "Mental maturity is essential in dealing with reading..(it) does not insure success." (Emmett A. Betts, Foundation of Reading Instruction, New York, American Book, 1946, p. 124.)

Physical Readiness
The child's physical readiness concerns the teacher. Does he hear and see well? Does he have speech or health defects? A realistic adjustment must be made by the child and the teacher. A severe visual loss requires that the child make full use of his other senses and that the teacher place educational emphasis on his tactile ability rather than his visual acuity. He literally "sees" with his fingers, and he comes to school already adjusted to this manner of exploring, investigating, and observing.

Another aspect of physical readiness concerns hearing. A child must be able to hear differences in sounds before he can read them. For the child who cannot see, hearing becomes a vital avenue of learning. Auditory discrimination starts early for him. He learns to recognize people by their voices and footsteps. He knows where he is by the sounds around him. He knows by the sounds what his mother and other members of the family are doing. He recognizes musical instruments and songs.

The blind child, then, comes to school with auditory discrimination and memory his greatest strengths. He is usually superior to seeing children in these abilities. He will have no difficulty in learning to recognize words that rhyme or which word begins with a different letter.

Personal And Emotional Readiness
The emotional and social adjustment of the young child figures significantly in determining his readiness to read. The level of this adjustment varies greatly with individual children, depending on attitudes and relationships in the family unit and experiences with other children during the pre-school period. All children have the same basic psychological needs; to be loved, to belong to a group, to achieve success, to gain approval, to express feelings of frustration.

The blind child has the same fundamental needs, but because of his severe handicap, he often must develop under the added handicap of distorted relationships. Many parents, when they discover that they have a blind baby, find it extremely difficult to react toward him or her as they would toward a physically perfect child. They may actively reject him and search for an institution to care for him, or they may vigorously over-protect him; denying him or her the stimulation he/she needs in order to grow and develop as a whole person. As Cutsforth says, "The blind child first accepts the discriminating attention most homes offer, then expects it, and finally demands it." (Thomas D. Cutsforth, The Blind in School and Society, New York, American Foundation for the Blind, 1951, p. 17.)

Educational counselors, from state or private agencies serving the blind, can be very helpful during this difficult period. Their role is to guide parents in interpreting child behavior and development and to give specific suggestions for meeting the needs of the individual blind child. It is felt that participation in a good nursery school group with seeing children is valuable in developing social awareness and emotional stability.

First Year Important
The kindergarten year is significant in that it offers the child many opportunities for satisfaction in personal-social relationships. Learning to share ideas and toys, learning to wait and take turns, experiencing the pleasure of learning new things, all contribute to the emotional maturity necessary for the task of learning to read. If a child has known enough success, he can meet a new learning experience with eagerness and confidence.

The teacher must encourage the child to solve his own problems whenever possible, so that meeting difficulties will not frighten him. The greatest handicap of all to the blind child is the unfortunate attitude of other people toward his blindness. In order to accept himself, he must be accepted with his handicap, not because of it or in spite of it.

There are many factors that contribute to reading success. All these factors figure significantly in planning a pre-reading program. Educators vary in their emphasis, but are generally agreed as to skills involved. Standardized reading-readiness tests help the teacher to evaluate the child's maturity in these areas and to adjust the program to individual differences.

In planning for the visually handicapped child, the teacher will be able to evaluate his readiness in verbal, perceptual, and manual competence in much the same way as she does for the sighted child. Observation and appraisal of performance, plus the verbal administration of all but the visual portions of reading-readiness tests, will determine areas where further instruction is necessary.

Important Experiences
For all children a rich background of firsthand experiences is especially important. The beginning reader must be familiar with his environment, with home, community, and the world of nature around him. The teacher of young children will provide opportunities for many kinds of experiences. For the blind child there will be many experiences, such as those involving light and color, which he will not be able to perceive directly.

He is learning, however, that light and color exist by observing how other people react to them. It should never be assumed that he cannot or will not learn from any experience of the group. What he learns and how he learns may be different from what the teacher expects of the other children. Everyday sharing of real-life happenings helps him find his place in the world.

If he should become anxious in the school situation about not understanding some of the things he cannot sense by touch, the teacher may help him by reminding him of his successes and pointing out his strengths. Because there is so much in the world that no young child can understand, neither the blind child nor the other children in the group will find his severe handicap too difficult to accept if the teacher maintains a genuinely cheerful, matter-of-fact attitude toward it.

Verbal skills depend on the ability to understand and speak language. This begins at home as the child learns to identify people and objects by name, as he learns to use words to make his needs known and later to express ideas and retell experiences. Verbal abilities vary in any group.

For the blind child it is important that the concepts he learns be accurate. The teacher needs to remember that this child sees with his fingers and to make it possible for him to "see" whenever it is necessary. Because he needs more verbal description and interpretation of objects, actions, and ideas, he usually comes to school with verbal skills superior to his other abilities.

Perceptual maturity is involved in recognizing relationships, in noting details and seeing their relationship, comparing, classifying, and generalizing. It is necessary in recognizing main ideas, making inferences from a series of details, recognizing or recalling sequence, and recalling directions. Much of the training in this area is handled through picture study and discussion. The visually handicapped child in the group cannot experience this directly, but likes to be included and frequently contributes to discussions. There are other ways of developing this maturity.

Perceptual skills are needed in carrying out science projects, as well as in many daily real-life situations. The blind person depends a great deal on his ability to observe and remember details and on his ability to make correct inferences from his observations.

Children need to be able to sit still, to pay attention, to listen carefully, and to follow directions before they are ready for any formal school instruction. The visually handicapped child learns these skills along with other children and with no special consideration.

Manual Competence
It is important that all children learn to handle the simple equipment used in kindergartens. They need to know how to manipulate scissors to cut on a line, handle crayons to color inside lines, and otherwise develop small-muscle competence and coordination of hands and eyes. This is considered an important part of reading readiness.

For the child whose reading will be in minute raised dots, manual competence is even more essential. This area, which causes the greatest concern among teachers who have blind children in their groups, demands the greatest adjustment of the program. The key to the problem appears to be in motivation. The child must want to use his hands to manipulate material, to explore and discover. Activities should have real meaning for him and not become mere "busy work."

The teacher needs to know the individual child in order to know the kind of activity that will interest him, and she must be willing to try various techniques to appeal to his desire to learn. For example, Jimmy, five and a half, was in a kindergarten for sighted children. His day-to-day classroom performance indicated that he was lacking completely the competence in handwork necessary to learn Braille. It was tentatively decided that he should repeat kindergarten.

On a subsequent visit to his home to discuss his problem with his parents, the teacher observed that in the complicated real-life situations that were of interest to him, Jimmy was extremely competent. He fastened a small hook on the gate that kept the baby going upstairs. He could tell time from a clock that had an open face and raised dots on the numbers. He manipulated small nuts on a toy that he took apart and put together. In many other ways he demonstrated competence in small-muscle coordination. He was busy solving real problems and found the peg board and other contrived problems of school dull and uninteresting.

Since this was the only area where he had not appeared ready, he was promoted to the first grade and later proved that he was able to handle Braille materials adequately. Nothing could demonstrate more dramatically the need of all children for more child-centered motivation in school programs or the importance of really knowing the individual child.

The desire to read is a most vital factor in readiness. Parents should begin early to read to their children, and the children should have their own books to handle. For the child who cannot see the gay colors and pictures, scrapbooks of materials such as fabrics, paper, rubber, sponge, plastic, fur, leather make fascinating books. Children who can see like these books, too. During the kindergarden year, the teacher will stimulate the desire to learn to read in many ways.

In Conclusion
Reading readiness depends on mental, physical, emotional, and educational readiness. It is in the factors involved in the latter that the teacher is most able to help the child in the school program. The blind child is more like his seeing classmates than he is different, and in many areas of the readiness program he will need no special consideration. His strengths will be in auditory discrimination, memory, and verbal skills.

The greatest adjustment in the program will be in providing him with materials that will help him develop tactual rather than visual skills. Some materials are available. A limited number of kits have been prepared by the Massachusetts Division of the Blind for teachers who have accepted blind children in their groups. These kits of teaching aids contain lists of books, toys, records, resources, materials for developing tactual discrimination, and a reading-readiness workbook, to be used as a supplement to standard workbooks.

The purpose of the workbook Touch and See (Dorothea P. Forbush and Jean M. Ellis, Massachusetts Division of the Blind, Boston, 1955) is to give the child a book of his own to use whenever the group is using readiness books in the area of visual skills. It begins with raised solid geometric shapes of varied sizes and progresses to actual Braille dots. It may be used for drill or diagnostic purposes. For others the teacher must depend on her own ingenuity and resourcefulness, taking her cues from the child. She will help him most by accepting him as he is, recognizing and praising his successes, encouraging and reassuring him as he meets and solves problems of daily living.