Louis Braille Celebration
Where's the Library? Teaching Braille Reading with a Meaning-oriented Focus
Print edition page number(s) 453-456
The author thanks Kelli Braff, teacher of visually impaired students, Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia, for sharing the student-made book Jill and Dora Go Shopping. The guest editor of the JVIB Louis Braille Bicentennial Celebration is Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D., consultant and retired vice president for International Programs and Special Projects, American Foundation for the Blind.
It was my first week as a teacher in the new resource room for young braille readers. I had spent all summer gathering materials and setting up my classroom. Proudly I showed the principal around the room, pointing out the stacks of basal readers in braille, the shelf of fine motor manipulatives, the acorns and brightly colored fall leaves on the "feely board," and the slightly tattered play kitchen acquired from a departing teacher. The principal paused and scanned the room thoughtfully. "But, Ms. Swenson," the principal said, "where is your classroom library of books for the children to read?" I was stunned, both by my glaring oversight and the implications of her question. What was the point in teaching children braille, if there was nothing for them to read?
After five years as an itinerant teacher working primarily with middle school students, I was highly unqualified to teach beginning readers. Building a classroom library was the first of an ever-expanding array of new challenges that awaited me. Yet, it is the one that has remained with me the longest. Throughout my 30 years as a teacher of students who are visually impaired, I have taken great pleasure in creating motivating reading materials and selecting braille books that my students want to read. It is my belief that providing children with enticing, well-written books builds the foundation for a lifetime of reading enjoyment.
The early 1980s, when I started as a resource room teacher, was still the era of phonics workbooks, basal readers, and scripted lessons. Soon, however, the whole-language movement began to challenge traditional methods with its meaning-based orientation to reading and writing. Emergent reading behaviors, such as turning pages, reciting text from memory, or scribbling a "message" with a crayon, were encouraged as approximations of mature reading. Authentic children's literature that used colorful words and interesting plots replaced the stilted, controlled vocabulary of stories that were common in basal readers, and young writers were encouraged to express their thoughts using "temporary spelling," a process by which children write letters that match the sounds they hear in words. The advent of the whole-language approach was a turning point in my teaching career. Watching my students' progress and their enthusiasm for the new methods and materials convinced me that a focus on meaning was central to literacy instruction.
Meaning-oriented instruction does not negate the need for discrete skill-based learning in areas such as braille character recognition and phonics. In my view, beginning readers need a balance of skill-oriented and meaning-oriented instruction. Skills taught in isolation, however, should be integrated into meaningful reading and writing contexts as soon as possible. The ultimate goal for readers of any age is to derive meaning from text.
Making braille instruction meaningful for preschoolers
How can we make very early braille instruction meaningful for young children? A love of books begins with story time. As families and teachers read print-braille books aloud in a comfortable setting, children discover that the bumps on the page convey spoken words. Even more important, they learn to expect wonderful things from books: rhymes and rhythms that dance in their ears, experiences as familiar as taking a bath or as exotic as a flight to the moon, and questions that deepen their thinking about the world around them. After they have memorized their favorite story, preschoolers run their fingers over the braille and "read" it themselves.
Creating simple braille books with tactile illustrations broadens and individualizes the emergent literacy experiences of young children. Student-made books may focus on basic concepts, such as textures, shapes, or numbers. Or they may draw their inspiration from a child's own experiences--perhaps a day at the beach illustrated with shells and a small bag of sand or a birthday celebration featuring a plastic fork, candles, and ribbons. The process of bookmaking is as important as the product. When pages of a book are created with a child, a few at a time, there are opportunities for discussion (What do you remember about our day at the beach?), decision-making (How do you want to make a picture of the number five?), and modeling (What do you want me to write in braille? Would you like to write too?). As the pages are assembled, children learn about a book's organization. With publication, children gain not only a new book for their personal libraries, but also an awareness of what it means to be an author.
Introducing braille through illustrations
Braille illustrations (Lamb, 1996) help young readers make the transition from preschool reading behaviors, in which children run their fingers across braille lines and recite the text from memory, to true reading, where they focus on individual letters and words to decode the author's message. In Figure 1, a school bus (six unspaced full braille cells) has stopped on a road (line of dots 3 and 6) to pick up a child at the beginning of the day. Below the bus, a parent (a full cell) is waiting with the child (dots 1, 2, and 3). In Figure 2, some children and the bus driver are playing a game of hide and seek. Each row includes one bus driver (a full braille cell) and three children (dots 1, 2, and 3) in different positions. Readers track the lines to find the bus driver in each row. Braille illustrations encourage children to slow down and examine braille shapes within a meaningful context. In the same way, children can move from scribbling random dots on the brailler to purposefully pressing keys to create "roads" of varying lengths or full cells and characters with dots 1, 2, and 3 to represent the adults and children in their family.
It is not necessary for children to recognize all the letters of the alphabet before they can begin to read meaningful text. Introducing tactile sight words before or in conjunction with the letters of the alphabet allows teachers and children to compose meaningful sentences and stories right from the beginning of formal braille instruction. Tactile sight words include common alphabet letter contractions (go, can, do, like, for example), frequently used words (such as and, of, the), names of family members and friends, and individually motivating words, such as "dog" or "jump."
"Jill," a four-year-old girl with strong emergent literacy skills, had learned to read her name and the tactile sight word "go" in braille. She adored the television show Dora the Explorer, so her teacher introduced "Dora" as her third word. Although Jill did not know the letters "J" or "D," she used the anchor letters "ll" in Jill and "a" in Dora to discriminate the two words in flashcard and matching activities. Then Jill and her teacher wrote a book together entitled Jill and Dora Go Shopping. On the first page, Jill choose several candy hearts as a picture. Her teacher brailled "Jill and Dora buy candy hearts," then passed the brailler to Jill, who scribbled her own version of the sentence. They continued the same sentence pattern on subsequent pages, choosing a new item or sticker for each picture. Once the book was published, Jill was able to find her name and Dora's on every page and read the sentences using the picture clues. Her delight in reading reflected the special meaning this book held for her.
One of the greatest contributions the whole-language movement made to the teaching of reading was the idea that a strictly controlled vocabulary is not necessary in beginning reading materials. Instead, teaching children strategies for decoding unfamiliar words enables them to access a much wider range of books. For example, children who study the word "bake" as part of a controlled vocabulary list only learn that word. However, children who are taught the strategy of looking for a part they know in an unfamiliar word will use their prior experience with the "ake" phongram in "bake" to decode words like "flake" and "rake."
The whole-language movement inspired the publication of thousands of books for beginning readers, which teachers use for guided reading in many general education classrooms. These books contain well-written stories or nonfiction topics that strongly appeal to children. Although the vocabulary is not controlled in the traditional sense, the books are organized in levels, so the text increases in length and complexity from one level to the next. Students who read braille are ready to transition to these books for beginning readers when they recognize most letters of the alphabet and some common contractions, read teacher-made stories fluently, and demonstrate beginning decoding skills.
Choosing the right book
Selecting a book to transcribe for a particular student is like shopping for the perfect gift in a well-stocked store. Teachers of visually impaired students can browse through titles at an appropriate reading level to find a book that will appeal to a particular child. They evaluate the role of illustrations in comprehension of a particular text. Teachers also compare the contractions in the book to those their student already knows. Teaching contractions as they appear in students' books can be highly effective because of the emotional connection between the contraction and the story. "Kathryn," a second grader who loved horses, had great difficulty distinguishing the "ea" contraction from the letter "a" until she read Keeker and the Sneaky Pony (Higginson, 2006). So enthralled was she by the antics of Plum, the pony, that she began identifying the "sneaky contraction" in other words with considerable success.
Recognizing the lack of early reading materials in braille, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), initiated the Early Braille Trade Books Project. Scheduled for release this fall, sets of 12 to 14 print books will be packaged together with braille labels in contracted and uncontracted braille. Teachers who purchase sets of books for their beginning braille readers will have access to a web site providing information about each book, including a summary, the reading level, connections to the core and expanded core curriculums, level of teacher support required, frequency of specific contractions, and suggested prereading and follow-up activities. In addition, teachers will be able to maintain an online list of the contractions individual students have mastered and search for books that match a student's contraction knowledge. As the number of early braille trade books increases, beginning braille readers will have greater access to the stimulating and informative books enjoyed by their sighted classmates.
With mastery of contractions and the development of greater reading fluency, children eagerly move on to chapter books, a milestone in reading progress. Students at this level take more initiative in choosing what they want to read, and their wish lists are strongly influenced by the books other children are reading and discussing. Because braille libraries are rare, teachers of visually impaired students play a critical role in providing access to books by consulting with general education teachers and librarians about age-appropriate books, discussing book choices with students, and searching (and teaching their students to search) for desired titles in braille. The goal is to maintain the reading momentum of students, so they continue to value books as a source of enjoyment and learning.
We have come so far since Louis Braille and his schoolmates read by laboriously tracing embossed letters on the pages of massive tomes. It is a reflection of Louis Braille's genius that his simple, versatile braille alphabet is used in our technological era, remaining virtually unchanged. Thanks to Louis Braille's invention, I was able to fill my first classroom library with books transcribed manually by volunteers. Thirty years later, I provide the students on my itinerant caseload with computer-generated hard copy and refreshable braille books from a wide variety of sources. Much as we value the increasing number of resources, however, the art of teaching reading still lies in the ability to engage learners with text. Our challenge as teachers of visually impaired students is to connect children with braille in meaningful ways, fostering a lasting love of reading and books.
As the celebration of Louis Braille's 200th birthday continues, readers can find all the JVIB Louis Braille Bicentennial Celebration essays online at <www.afb.org/jvib/louisbraille>. Discover more interesting information on the life and impact of Louis Braille at: <www.afb.org/louisbraille>.
Higginson, H. (2006). Keeker and the sneaky pony. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Lamb, G. (1996). Beginning braille: A whole language-based strategy. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 90, 184-189.
Anna M. Swenson, M.Ed., teacher of students who are visually impaired, Fairfax County Public Schools, 2334 Gallows Road, Dunn Loring, VA 22027; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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