Issues in teaching and learning braille

Teach Your Child To Read

Teaching Your Child to Read

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Given the large number of contracted forms in braille, teachers - whether of congenitally blind children or adventitiously blinded adults - are confronted with the problem of which signs to teach first. Millar (1997) has referred to the advantage, perceptually, of starting the teaching of braille with children by using "letters that differed maximally from each other in dot density" (ibid., p. 257). The problem of the priority to be given to the order in which braille signs are taught has been addressed from a different vantage point by Tobin (1972) who carried out a survey of the vocabulary of young blind schoolchildren. By sampling the spoken and written language of children aged five to eight years, one of Tobin's aims was to present teachers with information about the words appearing most frequently in the everyday language of young learners embarking upon the task of learning to read and write braille. These familiar words were then analyzed in terms of the braille contractions that they would contain. On the basis of this frequency count, Tobin (ibid.) recommended that the new teaching schemes being then devised by teachers should start with contracted forms occurring in the words that were most familiar to the children, an approach that is similar in some respects to that advocated in the United States by Mangold (1982) with her notion of introducing braille symbols by means of a carefully controlled vocabulary, rather than merely via lists of braille contractions that were to be learned in isolation. These recommendations still have an intuitive persuasiveness, but they need to be modified in the light of Millar's suggestion that the introductory signs be as perceptually different from one another as possible. A potential danger in implementing these technical recommendations is that teachers and other writers of texts for very young children may be unduly constrained in the range and originality of the themes and stories that would engage the attention, and the imagination, of these young learners. Striking a balance between these sometimes competing approaches is part of the teacher's professional expertise.

Of course, teaching reading through the medium of braille to the congeni-tally blind five-year-old is not the same as teaching braille to a newly-blinded 15-year-old. The former is learning to read; the latter has already learned how to read, and is now confronted with the challenge of learning how to do so through a different sensory modality. The adolescent or adult brings to the task a general knowledge base and an understanding of what literacy is that are altogether different from those of the young blind learner. On the other hand, the latter doesn't have any of the psychological, rehabilitational, and readjustment problems of the older learner.

In the case of the young learner, the notion of 'reading readiness' is an important factor for the teacher to take into consideration. As with sighted children, an understanding has to be established of what a book is; for example, that it has pages, that it is arranged in an orderly sequence, that it contains information in the form of symbols related to the child's spoken language, etc. Again, as is true for the sighted child, learning to read braille pre-supposes certain levels of cognitive, language, psychomotor, and auditory development. In addition, the young blind learner must be given the opportunity to acquire the ability to make the kinds of precise tactual discriminations that underpin the reading of braille. Harley, Truan, and Sanford (1987) discuss these prerequisite skills and processes, and there are now many practical instructional guides available for teachers and parents.

Where there is still much work to be done is in improving the reading skills ofbraillists who have mastered more than the basics ofthe code and who can be justifiably described as competent readers. Unfortunately, as will be discussed later, the reading speeds attainable by touch readers are massively inferior to those recorded for readers of print. One of the major educationally and vocationally handicapping effects of blindness is reduced speed of information processing. All too often, braillists are given little or no formal, structured teaching to become more proficient in picking up information by listening and reading. The assumption seems to be that improvements in these skills will come about as a result of ordinary development and of motivation within the learner. However, investigations reported by McBride (1974), Crandell and Wallace (1974),

Olson, Harlow, and Williams (1975), and Olson (1976) have all shown that significant improvements in speed of tactual reading are possible. McBride has gone so far as to assert "I do not believe we teach real reading in school. I believe, rather, that we teach slow reading in school. Real reading is faster reading and more in keeping with the way the brain operates. This is true whether the student is blind or sighted." (ibid., p. 12).

As part of the wide-ranging investigation into the structure of braille that has already been referred to (Lorimer, J. et al. 1982), Lorimer reports the results of a programmes of rapid-reading exercises devised by him and used in two schools in the UK. The main aims of the programmes were to lower recognition thresholds for braille signs, and to train readers: To make more effective use of hands and fingers; to make return sweeps to the next line without loss of time; to skim by using context cues; and to eliminate habits that impede efficiency (e.g. regressive and rotatory finger movements, 'mouthing' or vocalizing).

In the first school, using 18 blind boys of superior intelligence (IQ's above 120), the experimental group made a mean 'reading efficiency gain' of 15% as compared with the control group's 3.5% gain. Reading efficiency was defined as follows:

R.E. = Reading speed (words per minute) x Comprehension Score (expressed as a percentage)

Example: R.E. = 120 w.p.m. x 60% comprehension R.E. = 72 w.p.m

Lorimer also reports that during the course of their training, the experimental group subjects were given informal tests of silent reading speed, and mean gains were of the order of 44%.

In the second school, Lorimer used 22 pupils, with a mean age of 12.1 years and a mean IQ of 97 in the experimental group, and a mean of 13.2 years and a mean IQ of 96 in the control group. The experimental group showed a mean rise from 43 to 79 w.p.m., a gain of some 84%, and reading efficiency rose by 63%. No pre-test had been administered to the control group, but its mean efficiency rate was no higher than 43 w.p.m. Although there are some charges of methodological weaknesses that can be leveled against the Lorimer investigations, it can nevertheless be inferred that the continuation of formal teaching in reading skills is justifiable. Certainly, if adolescents are to be able to cope with the ever-increasing demands of the secondary school curricula, then teachers must recognize the importance of equipping these young people with the reading and other information processing competence to compete on equal terms with their fully-sighted age-peers.

Some measure of the advantage possessed by those who start the learning of braille at an early age is observable in the results of work carried out by Hill, Hill and Tobin (1999). In this investigation, the silent and oral reading speeds of early and later starters were compared. Among the other variables recorded were hand dominance, hand and finger usage, age, age of onset of blindness, and sex. As predicted, mean reading speeds were higher in the silent condition, and substantially higher for those who started to learn braille at an early age. One inference that has been drawn is that there is now a very strong case for continuing with the teaching of higher order reading skills on a systematic basis throughout the whole of the secondary school phase of education.

The teaching of braille to the newly-blinded older learners who were printreaders before the onset of their visual impairment is usually carried out as part of the wider rehabilitation process. For some people, the acquisition of specific new skills, such as braille, and the re-gaining of some degree of independent mobility, can contribute significantly to their overall rehabilitation. One of the problems for teachers is that the teaching of braille cannot be done on a whole class or group basis. Unlike print symbols, braille symbols cannot be put on the equivalent of a blackboard or overhead projector transparency so that their shapes and meanings can be explained to 10 or 20 learners simultaneously. Braille has to be taught on a one-to-one basis, which is costly and time-consuming. Attempts to circumvent this problem are illustrated by Tobin's Beginning Braille (Tobin 1988, revised), a 'programmed instruction' system using tape-recordings and braille booklets. These self-instruction materials comprised a linear programme through which the learner progressed in a series of small steps consisting of instruction-activity-confirmation. Learning was under the total control of the individual learner. Each new item in the teaching programme could be studied whenever and wherever the learner decided, and it could be repeated as often as desired.

The research (Tobin 1971) that led to the final version of the programme involved experimental trials of different kinds of content and an examination and measurement of learner variables. The content variables were selected as a result of a survey of the teaching methods used by experienced teachers who specialized in working with newly-blinded adolescents and adults. The survey had revealed two major sets of independent variables. One set was to do with the size of the braille cell (the standard size and an expanded, large-cell version). The advocates of the large cell argued that the tactual perceptual demands of the expanded cell were less severe than those of the smaller, standard cell in the initial stages of learning. Those teachers who opposed use of a nonstandard braille cell were of the opinion that different perceptual skills were

Uncontracted

MOTHER

_ _ •

• _

• _ • _

-

_ • _

_ _ • _

FATHER

- - •

• _

• - • -

• •

• •

_ • • •

Contracted

MOTHER

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

FATHER

-

-

-

Figure 14.3. Word length in uncontracted and contracted English braille.

Figure 14.3. Word length in uncontracted and contracted English braille.

involved, and that the practice of using the large cell entailed a subsequent 'unlearning' when the readers changed to the standard format. The other independent teaching variable centered upon the question of starting with uncontracted braille (each letter in a word being represented by a single braille cell) or with the standard set of contractions. The advocates of uncontracted braille claimed that the learning load, but this time the cognitive learning load, was less severe, and enabled beginning readers to make more rapid progress. Again, the opposition argument was to the effect that the use of uncontracted braille would eventually entail 'unlearning' when the readers switched to the standard literary code with its many contracted forms. As Figure 14.3 shows, the words MOTHER and FATHER in uncontracted braille consist of six characters, while in fully contracted English literary braille they require only two.

To take account of the possible combinations of teaching variables (standard size cell, uncontracted; standard size cell, contracted; large size cell, un-contracted; large cell, contracted), two experiments were conducted. In one, 55 blindfolded adolescents were the subjects; in the other, 44 newly- registered blind adults, aged 20 to 80 years, participated. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of the four teaching treatment conditions. A battery of pretests was administered to measure pre-braille tactual discrimination ability, short-term memory capacity, and 16 personality traits. On completion of the training, braille reading tests were administered in standard size braille and scores were also obtained on subjects' attitude to braille and their experience of learning braille.

For the blind participants, there was a significant interaction between cell size and grade of braille, with the large cell treatment being significantly more beneficial only when combined with the contracted braille; in fact, the mean score for the uncontracted, large cell group appeared also to be larger than that of its small cell counterpart but this was not statistically significant. The higher performance of the large cell group may be explicable in terms of perceptual task difficulty. More favorable attitudes to their experience of learning braille were expressed by those who had started their learning with large cell braille. Further support for using the perceptually easier, large-cell format, has come from later work, e.g. Newman and his team (Newman et al. 1982, 1984) and Harleyet al. (1985).

The high scoring learners had on average obtained higher scores on the pre-braille test of tactual discrimination and on the crystallized intelligence factor of the personality test. The lower scorers on the post-test of braille were also characterized as being lower on the self-sufficiency factor of the personality test. The more introspective, serious-minded learners also performed better, but this is perhaps explicable in relation to the somewhat isolated context of this specific learning situation where there was no opportunity to interact with other learners. The inability to do without such social interaction may be disadvantageous in these learning circumstances for the more extraverted subjects. This necessarily condensed account of the outcome of the experiments suggests, nevertheless, that teachers would do well to try to take into account, and reflect upon, their methods of teaching braille and the personality characteristics of their clients. An unchanging methodology may be easy for the teacher to apply, and in a large-group teaching, lecturing situation it may not be possible to deviate from it. When working with blind people on an individual, one-to-one basis, a more sensitively differentiated approach would be desirable and feasible.

Other factors that may affect the legibility of braille for new learners and experienced braillists are inter-cell spacing, the effects of providing headings, and the actual substrates (papers, plastics) upon which the braille is embossed. In a development of the earlier work, Tobin, Burton, Davies, and Guggenheim (1986) used 18 blindfolded, sighted subjects in an experiment in which the task required the subjects to feel a target braille cell, embossed at the top of a sheet, and then 'read' through the rest of the page "on which a randomized list of braille cells had been embossed ... (and on which) the target appeared four times" (p. 134). Three cell sizes and two spacing conditions were explored, with errors and times being logged. The no-spacing condition "presented formidable difficulties when associated with small and standard size cells", and only the large-cell, no-spacing condition, enabled subjects to attain high levels of accuracy. In the spacing condition, high percentages of accuracy were recorded, with over 60% of targets identified for each size of braille cell. Adequate spacing seems to prevent masking from adjacent cells, while in the no-spacing conditions the shape and textural uniqueness cannot be maintained. The need for teachers and braille-text designers to optimize physical, spatial dimensions is especially important for adult learners in the early stages of mastering this new medium.

Hartley, Tobin, and Trueman (1987) tried to assess the significance of providing headings in braille text since earlier investigations by Hartley (e.g. Hartley & Jonassen 1985; Hartley & Trueman 1985) had shown that headings in printed text for sighted readers aid search and retrieval, but do not so clearly aid recall of the text. In print, headings are often printed in different print sizes and fonts; they lend 'shape' to the page and since they are immediately apprehended by the eye they facilitate search and retrieval. For the touch reader, immediate apprehension is not possible. The whole page has to be scanned by left to right or up and down movements of the hand and fingers to permit location of section headings and other tactile markers. The Hartley et al.'s (1987) experiment comparing headings with no headings and using 24 blind people (median age 59 years, and age-range 17 to 80 years), revealed that while the obtained recall scores were not in fact significantly superior in the headings condition, a majority of the subjects expressed a preference for braille text with headings, making highly positive remarks about their usefulness.

Braille can now be produced in many different forms. When embossed in the traditional, whole-page lay-out, the usual materials are manilla paper (for books and other conventional documents), 'white rag' paper (most often used for printing ephemeral documents such as a braille newspaper), and plastics such as Brailon and Flovic. For some purposes, non-page lay-outs, such as continuous rolls of paper or plastic tape, are available. There are also paperless or 'refreshable' braille outputs, in which metal or plastic pins are activated by electronic or computer-controlled devices. The preference among most brail-lists seems to be for whole-page, permanent, paper-based systems. Even within this tradition, readers often express strong aversions to some of the standard materials.

To explore this, Cooper, Davies, Lawson-Williams, and Tobin (1985) presented 18 blind adults with short, 200 word prose passages embossed on different kinds of material. Objective measures were provided by manufacturers of such factors as weight, thickness, bulk, strain, burst strength, porosity, and smoothness. After reading the passages, the subjects were asked to indicate their overall subjective preferences among the materials. These evaluations focused upon such phenomena as experience of friction, of stickiness, of static electrical properties, and of readability of the dots. On average, it was found that the heavyweight manilla was most preferred, followed by the lightweight manilla, the white rag, and the Brailon. Two new synthetic materials, Synteape and Tyvek, were not generally very highly regarded, although some subjects did slightly prefer them to Brailon.

Some of the objective measures are directly related to the long-term storage qualities of the materials, their general strength, and serviceability. There is not, by any means, a perfect correlation between these physical properties and the braillists' subjective evaluations. Brailon, for example, was high on thickness, bulk, and burst strength, and was therefore highly durable, and gave acceptable dot definition. Its low porosity gave rise, it is believed, to the readers' adverse criticisms of its stickiness. Perspiration from the fingers would not be so easily absorbed by Brailon. Of course, familiarity and the innate conservatism of readers may be factors influencing their preferences, but the investigators' conclusions were that "it is desirable that engineers should now take account of these subjective factors and try to present braille of higher quality" (ibid., p. 327).

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Helping Your Child Learn To Read

Helping Your Child Learn To Read

When parents help their children learn to read, they help open the door to a new world. As a parent, you can begin an endless learning chain: You read to your children, they develop a love of stories and poems, they want to read on their own, they practice reading, and finally they read for their own information or pleasure. They become readers, and their world is forever expanded and enriched.

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