Future Reflections         Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille

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Reading Pals Sparks Love for Braille

by Julie Durando, PhD, University of Northern Colorado
Barbara Cheadle, Director of Parent Outreach, NFB Jernigan Institute
Judith Chwalow, DrPH, Director of Research, NFB Jernigan Institute

Julie DurandoFor the last four years, parents of blind children from all over the country started their November by snuggling up with their child, a brand new Braille book, and their child’s new Braille Reading Pal (a stuffed animal Beanie Baby) as they kicked off the first day in a program to read with their children each day. All of these parents may have started the Braille Reading Pals Program (BRPP) with a shared goal of spending a pleasant fifteen minutes a day reading with their children, but results from surveys answered by parents who participated in the 2007 BRPP revealed that each journey was as unique as each child. Parents reported that the experiences were overwhelmingly positive; however, there were some who faced challenges along the way. Especially in the beginning of the program, just finding fifteen minutes in the day was a challenge for many families. One parent shared this:

“It was hard for me to discipline myself to read every night … I had been doing books on tape and I had recorded stories and things before, but I had never just made myself sit down with the Braille books and go over [read] with them…so it started a year long, well even longer now, habit that every day we read Braille.”

As it turned out, not every child naturally snuggled up with mom or dad with hands eager to explore the Braille as they read. Prior to starting the program one parent reported that the challenge in reading was, “trying to get [her child] to sit still or having something to do with her hands.” But, after the program, she reported that her child participated actively in reading for over twenty minutes at a time. Some of the most touching stories in our study were shared by the parents who experienced challenges. Some of these children had additional disabilities and had once been deemed by professionals as incapable of learning to read. Fortunately, their parents ignored the suggestion and introduced their children to reading Braille at home. We are excited to share that the results of the study found that the BRPP was enjoyable for many, and life changing for some.

Materials in the Reading Pals kit include a Beanie Baby stuffed animal, a print-Braille storybook, a journal, and lots of good tips about how to encourage an early love of reading Braille.Reading storybooks to young child may not be a new idea, but one study on the home literacy environments of children who are blind found that the children in this study who did not have sufficient vision to read print had fewer literacy experiences in their homes when compared to the children in his study who were functionally blind but had enough vision to read print (Craig 1996). This is especially alarming for children who have additional disabilities since they have been found to require an even greater number of literacy experiences due to the additive effect of multiple disabilities on development (Hatton, Bailey, Burchinal, and Ferrell 1997; McCall and McLinden 2007). Reading storybooks to infants as young as eight months old has been found to have a significant effect on development (Karrass and Braungart-Rieker 2005). It is important to note that the child’s actual involvement in the reading activities determines how much the activity will benefit his or her reading development (Justice 2002; Levy, Gong, Hessels, Evans, and Jared 2006).

The Braille Reading Pals Program (BRPP) is a free program sponsored by The National Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute in collaboration with the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children to promote Braille storybook reading. BRPP targets young children who are not yet reading and includes children who have additional disabilities. The program lasts for two months and participants receive literature with tips about how to engage the child while reading Braille books together, a resource list for print-Braille books, a reading journal, a print-Braille picture storybook, and a reading pal (the Beanie Baby).

The successes and challenges shared by parents during the first two years of BRPP inspired us to conduct a formal evaluation by surveying participants before and after the program. This evaluation focused on the benefits of the program, suggestions for improving the program, and the overall home literacy environments of the children. Finally, the study also aimed to assess if parents of children with additional disabilities needed any extra materials to those already provided with the BRPP, and if there were any differences between the reading experiences of their children and those without additional disabilities.

Teacher and Braille reader Annee Hartzel suggested that the use of a Braille Reading Pal would help make the activity fun and social. The Beanie Baby stuffed animals sent to each child in the program, thanks to Ty Incorporated’s generous donation, turned out to contribute much more to the experience. The BRPP suggested that reading pals should sit with the child only when reading Braille. Therefore, in addition to making reading more fun, it also cued the child that it was time to read Braille. As one parent explains,

“I think [the Braille Reading Pals Program] helped a little in that it introduced a reading buddy animal…so every time we brought that out he knew we were going to read. And sometimes it sparked a ‘no, I don’t want to’ or it would be like, ‘oh okay, I am ready for that, ‘cause his sister could use it or I could use it. It is the one thing that anyone could pull out; he knew it [reading Braille] was coming.”

Three of the parents interviewed were surprised that their children responded so well to the Pal because the child didn’t typically like any toys that were plush, stuffed, or didn’t play music. For some children, the reading pal became an important part of the reading activity. One mother shared the routine that followed her announcement that it was time to read, “[Name of her child] would automatically ask me, ‘Mommy where’s [name of her reading pal]?’ And we’d pick him up and sit in the chair and read together.”

Just as important as the reading pal is the Braille book each child is given with the program materials. Although lending libraries are an invaluable resource, research has found a positive relationship between a child’s ownership of books and reading performance level (Leffert and Jackson 1998). This point was illustrated by a child who had participated in the BRPP for two years. Her mother explained that her daughter’s pre-school did not expect her to learn to read because of her additional disabilities. Believing her daughter deserved the opportunity, she participated in the BRPP and utilized a lending library to provide a literacy-rich home environment. Three years later the child spends most of her school day in the general education classroom and eagerly awaits new arrivals from the lending library, but the books she cherishes the most are the ones she received when participating in the BRPP. Her mother explains that she keeps these books under her pillow, “So at night she gets bored, she gets up, and sits in there in the dark and reads her Pal Braille books, those two. The others [from the lending library] stay on the shelf.”

Responses to an open-ended question asking parents to describe any changes they noticed in their child since beginning BRPP revealed that many children’s interest in reading increased by the end of the program. Some parents noted that their children had shown little or no interest in reading prior to the program. For example, one parent proclaimed, “From the first time he was introduced to the program, he has blossomed and truly enjoys reading and writing.”

The love of reading did not strike every child this quickly. One parent reported that throughout the entire program her child showed no interest in the books she was reading. But, once the program was over and she stopped reading to him, he began asking her to read a book.

Interest in reading was not the only improvement noted. One mother reported her child began to understand the concept of Braille during the program. She explained what he now does when he encounters a book, “First thing he checks is if there is any Braille; like where are the words? So he does notice when something is [Braille]. He doesn’t understand print, but he understands Braille and no Braille.”

Two parents mentioned that their children became more willing to explore the Braille on the page. For children who initially resist exploring books or their environment in general, this is a huge first step in learning to read. Nine parents reported improvement in their child’s reading skills, literacy concepts, and attention span during storybook reading. One parent shared, “He became much more familiar with books and the process of turning pages.”

Overall, 61 percent of the thirty-five parents responding to the question indicated that by the end of the program, they observed an improvement in at least one of the following: reading enjoyment, interest in reading, literacy concepts, or literacy skills. One parent summed up her experience, “Our experience with the program was great… it really clicked with my son and I am so grateful for that!”

The results from this study are being used to improve the BRPP even more. For instance, in response to the suggestion of several participants, BRPP is now a biannual event. So, it won’t be long before the next two-month program starts up again! If you would like more information about the program and some tips on reading Braille with your child, please visit the BRPP <www.nfb.org/nfb/Braille_Reading_Pals_-_Early_Literacy_Program.asp>.

Finally, we would like to thank all of the parents who shared their time and experiences with us during the surveys and interviews; it has been wonderful to be a part of your child’s journey to Braille literacy.

Craig, C. J. 1996. Family support of the emergent literacy of children with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness 90, no 3: 194-200.

Hatton, D. D., D. B. Bailey, M. R. Burchinal, and K. A Ferrell 1997. Developmental growth curves of preschool children and visual impairments. Child Development 68 (October 1997), no. 5: 788-806.

Justice, L. M. 2002. What does the literature say about emergent literacy and children with disabilities? Teaching Exceptional Children 34, no. 4: 9.

Karrass, J., and J. M. Braungart-Rieker 2005. Effects of shared parent-infant book reading on early language acquisition. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 26, no. 2: 133-148.

Leffert, S. W., and R. M. Jackson 1998. The effect of the home environment on the reading achievement of children with low vision. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness 92, no. 5: 293-301.

Levy, B. A., Z. Gong, S. Hessels, M. A. Evans, and D. Jared 2006. Understanding print: Early reading development and the contributions of home literacy experiences. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 93, no. 1: 63-93.

McCall, S., and M. McLinden 2007. Teachers’ perspectives on the use of the Moon Code to develop literacy in children with visual impairments and additional disabilities. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness 101, no. 10: 601-612.

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