Future Reflections        Winter 2012

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Emerging Victorious: How the NFB Braille Reading Pals Club Is Promoting a More Literate Generation of Blind Children

Kevin Harris and his daughter KaylaKevin Harris prepares to read a Dr. Seuss print/Braille storybook to daughter, Kayla, and her Beanie Baby® reading pal.

by Anna Cheadle Hughes and Emily Gibbs

Reprinted with updates from Future Reflections, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter/Spring 2005

From the Editor: Literacy--the ability to read and write effectively--is essential for success in today's world. For blind children, literacy in Braille is the foundation for success. In this article, Anna Hughes and Emily Gibbs examine some of the literature on emergent literacy and show how the NFB is encouraging parents to expose their blind children to Braille at an early age.

What do Woody, Fred, Colossal, Snowball, Fluffy, and Emily have in common? These stuffed animals are helping blind children ages birth to seven develop reading skills that will enable them to be self-sufficient, independent, and successful throughout life. Okay, so the kids' parents might be helping, too, by setting aside time each day to read with their child, but furry reading pals certainly play their part. For one thing, they provide an incentive that makes reading time fun and social. They also allow the child to practice the pronunciation, intonation, and pacing they hear during story time by reading to the reading pal as if it were another child.

A growing body of literature and research regarding early experiences with written material referred to as "emergent literacy" finds, time and time again, that successful readers develop literacy skills long before they actually read. Using the example above, children can learn pronunciation, intonation, and pacing without being able to read words on a page. Most importantly, the research finds, children who learn to associate reading with fun and to associate symbols with spoken language at a young age (two or three) are most successful when they learn to read. Such skills are just what the NFB Reading Pals Club is trying to encourage.

My son really enjoyed participating in this program. He liked the idea that we were also reading to his reading pal, who he named Fred. Thank you. --Gloria; (Liam is six.)

The program for blind infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and reading-delayed older students calls on parents to read aloud to or with their children for fifteen minutes a day with a Braille reading pal and reading pack. The NFB Braille Reading Pals Club allows blind children to connect reading with fun and to associate raised bumps with language, skills that the body of research in emergent literacy deems essential for reading success.

Braille for Life

Ellie reads Braille a lot--her favorite thing. --Jan; (Ellie is six.)

The figures speak for themselves. Braille readers truly are leaders. According to one study by Ruby Ryles, PhD:
30 percent (13 of 43) Braille-reading subjects obtained graduate degrees, compared to 13 percent (4 of 31) legally blind print-reading subjects.
25 percent of Braille-reading subjects were in the highest income bracket ($25,000-$70,000) vs. 7 percent of legally blind print-reading subjects.
47 percent of Braille-reading subjects were in the lowest income bracket ($7,000 or less), but 62 percent of legally blind, print-reading subjects were. (Print and Braille readers were equally represented in middle-income bracket.)
81 percent (35 of 43) Braille-reading subjects answered "yes" when asked if they could read as fast and as fluently as their classmates in high school; only 29 percent (9 of 31) legally blind, print-reading subjects answered "yes."
(Excerpts from Ryles' study are printed in the February 1998 issue of the Braille Monitor.)

The importance of Braille is expressed, not only in measurable terms as in Ryles' study, but also in self-esteem, confidence, and independence. In addition, in more technical terms, Braille aids in self-actualization, since it enables the uninterrupted pursuit of interests and passions. Braille has all sorts of vital uses in the adult world, such as keeping notes and records and allowing the user to label food packages, DVDs, and medications.

Success in learning to read is greatly improved by earlier literacy experiences. "Experiences with print (through reading and writing) give preschool children an understanding of the conventions, purpose, and function of print--understandings that have been shown to play an integral part in learning to read," write Gunn, et al, in a synthesis of emergent literacy research. Debra Johnson cites no fewer than six studies when she claims, "According to current research, children's literacy development begins long before children start formal instruction in elementary school (Allington and Cunningham 1996; Burns, Griffin, and Snow, 1999; Clay, 1991; Hall and Moats, 1999; Holdaway, 1979; Teale and Sulzby, 1986). The mounting research finds that experience and interaction with written material before kindergarten lay the groundwork for future literacy skills."

Emergent Literacy

Though this concept might seem obvious to some, it has been a long time coming. Emergent literacy refutes the "reading readiness" view, which holds that children must reach a certain level of physical and neurological maturation before they are ready for reading and writing. Often in the past, and still sometimes today, reading to children is considered irrelevant, useless, or even harmful (Johnson). Emergent literacy holds that reading and writing skills develop concurrently in response to environmental stimuli, rather than in a linear fashion after a certain amount of cognitive development--i.e., after a child learns to read, he/she is ready to learn to write (Johnson). Emergent literacy, then, "is characterized by the early development of understanding that abstract symbols have meaning and that people use these symbols for the communication of ideas" (Koenig, cited in Stratton). In short, the concept of emergent literacy describes how children can become attuned to spoken and written communication almost from birth. The more attuned they are, the better readers they become.

Observable stages in development mark this process as it occurs. Specifically, Johnson notes that, at two or three years old, children begin "to produce understandable speech in response to books and the written marks they create." At three or four years children begin to read by themselves, actually reenacting from pictures and experimenting with written scribbles. Studies have found these "written scribbles" to be distinct from drawings in children as young as three, as J. M. Stratton remarks. "Harste and Woodward (1989) reported that when three-year-olds were asked to make a picture, the marks they made were distinctly different from those they made when asked to write their names.” Gibson (1989) and Neuman and Roskos (1993) reported similar findings. This "written scribbling" clearly requires knowledge that symbols represent speech and are different from other visual representations. If children already have this knowledge at age three, it only further confirms that literacy skills begin to develop even earlier, in the first year of a child's life.

There is no reason that the stages of development should be any different for blind children, and no excuses can legitimately be made for denying them the rich environment in which pre-literacy skills emerge. Not surrounded by and immersed in Braille as sighted children are in print, blind children may lack the opportunity to associate symbol with spoken language at an early age. Even worse, some parents of blind children intentionally forgo reading to them--"since the children could not see the pictures, the parents thought they might be confused by the visual concepts" (Crespo, 1990, cited by Stratton). Surely the result of such an approach would be a more confused child, one from whom information about the visual world is intentionally withheld for no apparent reason. In fact, storytelling is an ideal platform for instructing blind children about the visual world. From the comfort of their own bedroom, children can learn about tiger stripes, unicorn horns, sign shapes, textures, car and truck shapes, and more. They can take that information with them into the world as they learn to socialize with other children who avail themselves of such information through sight. Storytelling is an opportunity that should be capitalized on rather than avoided.

Likewise, parents should use preschool as a time to introduce their blind son or daughter to the "bumps" of Braille. If parents wait a few years to introduce the concept of reading, the pre-literacy "window" may have passed. If anything, the research shows that the three-year-old brain is ripe for discovery of the symbolic world. Either children can conclude that they have access to written language themselves through "bumps," or that they can access written language only through another person. Though it is never too late to introduce Braille, the research is clear--it is never too early, either.

"Books = Love + Fun"

The girls (blind/visually impaired triplets) love reading time and their reading pals. We used reading time as a reward after doing Braille lessons and cane (O&M) lessons each evening. It was our time together to explore new worlds, meet new friends, have wonderful adventures, and most of all be together. They had so much fun! We would love to participate again. --Darlene; (the triplets, Caitlin, Courtney, and Cassidy, are five.)

I read to my daughter every night--usually three or four small books--several times--she loves story time! --Dawn; (Kimberly is three.)

During the first two years of life, the most important thing one can do to foster reading is to fill a child with "warm interactions around books that teach them the equation: books = love + fun," says Grover Whitehurst, a renowned reading specialist and chairman of the psychology department at the State University of New York/Stonybrook (Gabriel). The same theme appears when Stratton discusses literacy outcomes that are common to all emergent literacy research. They include the discovery that books are fun, awareness that symbols represent meaning, understanding that the story comes from print, awareness of the structure of stories, hearing "book language" as different from conversational language, and fostering a desire to read (Anderson et al, 1985; Clay, 1991; Gibson, 1989; Neuman and Roskos, 1993; Teale and Sulzby, 1989). Among the suggested indicators of preacademic skills for three-year-olds in this area, compiled by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (Ysseldyke, Thurlow, and Gilman, 1993) is that the child demonstrates an interest in books and in listening to stories.

Indeed, making reading into a fun time is so crucial that the authors of the book What Parents Need to Know about Reading and Writing offer a list of tips to achieve this result. Though not designed with blind children in mind, any of the tips can be adapted for use with a blind child. Compiled by the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh and the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), these tips include reading with your child every day, listening to your child read to you, reading street signs with your child, making shopping lists together, finding books to match your child's interests, and encouraging your children to act out stories with brothers or sisters [or reading pals] (Gabriel).

Bumps = Language

[Kimberly] has now started to identify the bumps on the pages as Braille. --Dawn; (Kimberly is three.)

I now can read to my son while he reads with his fingers. I love the books. --Brenda; (Aso is five.)

The girls loved picking out a book, and Courtney would learn to trace the Braille. They had so much fun! We would love to participate again! --Darlene; (the triplets, Caitlin, Courtney, and Cassidy, are five.)

We read to Harmony several times a day, and she is starting to feel the Braille much more. --Lindsey; (Harmony is three.)

It would be unconscionable for parents of a sighted child to keep their child from seeing any print until the age of five, six, or seven. However, it is fairly routine for blind children never to experience Braille until early school age or older. Considering that "developing the concept that a symbol is functional and represents meaning is essential to emergent literacy" (Clay, 1991; Gibson, 1989; Stratton), such an omission could, and does, have serious consequences for blind children. As MacCuspie states, "The value and lifelong benefit of early intervention with children who are blind or visually impaired is well documented" (Ferrell, 2000). As noted by one professional, "If we don't prepare children for formal literacy instruction before they enter school, then we are already way behind the starting point of their peers who are sighted." At the appropriate age, their peers can be expected to "understand that pictures represent real items in the world, pick out one book from another by its cover, become aware that words are different from pictures, and [maybe] pretend to read." At the same age, blind children should be expected to understand that pictures represent real items in the world (tactile pictures would be useful in this context); pick out one book from another by its weight, shape, and texture; become aware that Braille bumps are different from tactile pictures; and maybe pretend to read. The appropriate age, referred to in the quote above by Butler, is the age of three.

The NFB Reading Pals Club has just these goals in mind--in addition to the love + fun part, of course--and makes them truly achievable. By encouraging parents to spend fifteen minutes per day (a lofty goal, but high expectations are part of reading success), the program encourages the "literate environment" in which "reading, writing, and oral language develop concurrently and interrelatedly" (Sulzby and Teale, 1991, cited in Gunn, et al) and which is so crucial to literacy acquisition (McGee and Lomax, 1990, cited in Gunn, et al). It fosters specific skills such as an awareness of print (in this case, Braille) and knowledge of the relationship between speech and print (or Braille) that "substantially affect the ease with which children learn to read, write, and spell (Hiebert, 1988; van Kleeck, 1990; Weir, 1989)" (Gunn, et al). Something as simple as letting your child feel bumps on the page while you tell a story can impact his/her ability as a reader and writer in school.

If you are commited to reading and playing in an open, "literate" environment (say with Braille blocks, a slate and stylus--under supervision--or a stylus-shaped object, or other toys), your expectation for your child to become literate will work its own influence. Stratton describes a study that compared a group of visually impaired children who were expected to be print readers to a group expected to be Braille readers. Not surprisingly, 72.2 percent of the group of children expected to be print readers "engaged in scribbling activities (using pencils, markers, and paintbrushes), compared to 27.6 percent of expected Braille readers (using Braillewriters or slate and stylus) (Craig, 1996)." Of course, these results were based entirely on the environments produced by such expectations. Blind children introduced to Braille "bumps" at a young age might also exhibit "scribbling" by poking holes in paper or otherwise mimicking the code (they can use Braille writing tools, or, if those are unavailable, they can use pencils, markers, and paintbrushes). The research results do not imply that children expected to be Braille readers develop more slowly, but rather that the proper environment must be created in which they are exposed to Braille play in order to develop literacy awareness.

The Parent's Role

Thank you for sponsoring this program. It was motivating to me as a parent and enjoyable to Maura, who knew every day she would get books read to her. --Jean; (Maura is three.)

We love to read. By doing this program, Sonny is learning to read, too. Thanks.  --Jeanie; (Sonny is four.)

Thank you so much for this. The Braille reading pal was a great incentive. --Ann Marie; (Kaitlyn is three.)

First and foremost, when it comes to story time, the parent is a provider. Gunn reports that in a study of fifty-nine parents of preschool children, Hildebrand and Bader (1992) found a commonality among children who performed well on three emergent literacy measures (i.e., writing letters of the alphabet): their parents were more likely to provide them with alphabet books, blocks, and shapes. But parents also provide the time and commitment to make story time a fun and dependable part of the daily routine. Much of the research cited in this article is also replete with findings that storybook reading or reading aloud to children repeatedly emerges as a key component in facilitating early literacy acquisition. Time spent reading and interest in reading are two of the strongest indicators of later reading success. The more open and creative a parent is willing to be to spark such interest and sustain it through regular reading, the more the child reaps the benefit.

For one parent in the NFB Braille Reading Pals Club, it was not books, blocks, or shapes that she needed to provide, but an alternative reading method. When her son showed little interest in books, she found that singing the stories kept his attention. One child's blocks are another child's songs, and it's the parent's job to identify and provide what works. Because this parent provides a regular, customized story time, her son will be better prepared to read and write later on.

Another crucial role of the parent is that of model reader. Research draws strong correlations between "reading to children and subsequent success on reading readiness tasks." Such studies, too numerous to cite specifically here, were conducted by Hiebert, 1988; Mason and Allen, 1986; Morrow et al, 1990; Teale and Sulzby, 1987; Burrough, 1972; Chomsky, 1972; Durkin, 1974-75; Fodor, 1966; Irwin, 1960; Moon and Wells, 1979; Smith, 1989; and Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, and Wilkinson, 1985. Some of this research indicates that the child will model his/her reading behavior after that of the parent. "The child discovers many things about the functions of symbols and writing by observing others who are engaged in such activities and by actively experimenting" (Gibson, 1989; Teale and Sulzby, 1989) observes Stratton. Gunn, et al, echo the sentiments. Johnson also describes this phenomenon, and details how children come to imitate their literacy models, "Gradually, these readings [play reading exhibited by toddlers] demonstrate the intonation patterns of the adult reader and language used in the book." Just as children play house by imitating parents and relegating their own role to a doll, children can "play read" by imitating story time. The Braille reading pal provides an excellent "child" for play reading, but the parent must be the original reading model. A child who understands that symbols are related to language and intonation patterns is already well on the way to literacy.

For parents looking for fresh and new Braille books for their child, there are resources available. A position paper on literacy found on the webpage of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind declares, "Parents must be provided with both the materials and the skills and ideas so they can implement simple emergent literacy programs in their homes. These kinds of programs must be made accessible to parents without undue hardship or cost, for parents are the primary teachers of all children in this age group [two to five years old.]" The NFB Braille Reading Pals Club is one way parents can set up their own "emergent literacy programs," though we still prefer to call it "love + fun time." Parents and teachers aware of techniques to encourage emergent literacy ensure that a child need not be competitive to be victorious.

How to Get Involved in Additional Resources

I enjoyed the extra readings for myself. I did like having the opportunity to have the "twin" books. --Anonymous Parent

Be sure to provide plenty of tactile stimulation to your child while you read. This may include touching or holding the book (don't worry if it is "the right way round"), handling toys or objects like those in the story, or acting out the story with the reading pal. When your child is ready, you might also have him/her retell favorite stories by touching objects in sequence, much as a sighted child would retell a story by looking at pictures. Always remember, as one parent noted, "the actual time spent with the parent is what is most important to [the child.]"

NFB Braille Reading Pals Club

Add an adorable reading pal to your family or classroom. When you join this program for the first time, your packet includes:

A welcome letter
One age-appropriate print/Braille children's book
One reading pal stuffed toy
Resource information about where to buy or borrow print/Braille books
One application for a free white cane
A What Is the NFB? brochure
A National Organization of Parents of Blind Children brochure
A Braille and Visually Impaired Students: What Does the Law Require? brochure
A Braille alphabet card (a favorite among sighted siblings)
Future Reflections Special Issue: The Early Years

After joining the program, throughout the year you receive:

A monthly electronic newsletter full of information and literacy tips
A quarterly Braille activity sheet
A Braille birthday card the month of your child's birthday

The program for 2012 begins January 1! To join this club, contact Abby Bispo at (410) 659-9314, Extension 2312, or email [email protected].


Butler, S. (2003). Helping Young Listeners Become Successful Readers: Babies & Toddlers.

Gabriel, J. (2001). Creating a Reader: Books = Love + Fun.
[Note: Access requires payment.]

Gunn, B., et al. (1995). Emergent Literacy: Synthesis of the Research. National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators. Technical Report No. 19. <http://www.childcareresearch.org/childcare/resources/2776/pdf>

Johnson, D. (1999). Critical Issue: Addressing the Literacy Needs of Emergent and Early Readers. <http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/reading/li100.htm>

Ryles, R. The Impact of Braille Reading Skills on Employment, Income, Education, and Reading Habits. (1996). Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, May/June 1996. <http://www.braille.org/papers/jvib0696/vb960311.htm>

Stratton, J. M. (1996). Emergent Literacy: A New Perspective. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. May/June, 1996. <http://www.braille.org/papers/jvib0696/vb960305.htm>

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