Diane P. Wormsley and Frances Mary D'Andrea, Editors


Determining the Reading Medium for Students with Visual Impairments: A Diagnostic Teaching Approach*

Chapter headings

Diagnostic teaching in the decision-making process

The process of collecting information

Initial evaluation and considerations for determining the reading medium

Continued evaluation



There are perhaps few decisions made on behalf of students with visual impairments that are more crucial, yet subject to more confusion and controversy, than the decision regarding an appropriate reading medium. Making an initial determination of the appropriate reading medium is not a concern for those who have no visual impairment (i.e., they will learn to read print), nor is it a concern for those who are totally blind (i.e., they will learn to read braille). Difficulties may arise, however, in making decisions for those students who are visually impaired but not totally blind. The purpose of this article is to address these difficulties and propose guidelines for appropriate decision making.

Few published procedures have been available to teachers and parents for assistance in making decisions concerning selection of a reading medium for students with visual impairments. Perhaps the lack of attention in the literature addressing this difficult problem has led to a sense of confusion that has fueled the controversy between teaching print reading or teaching braille reading. While common guidelines for such decisions may be used by professionals throughout the country, these have not been thoroughly documented.

In the past, professionals believed that use of vision could impair sight even further (Irwin, 1920). It was common practice to blindfold, and teach braille reading to all students who were visually impaired and, therefore, "save their sight" for other tasks. The decision to teach braille reading was made without consideration of visual functioning. Today, best professional practice and federal legislation specify that educational decisions must be made by a multidisciplinary team according to the individual needs and abilities of each student. These decisions must be based on information obtained from systematic procedures. Such procedures must be used to determine the most appropriate reading medium for each child.

This article will focus on students who are entering a developmental reading program, i.e., students who are learning to read for the first time. Students with adventitious visual impairments present separate concerns that, while important, will not be considered within the scope of this paper. This article will: (a) explore the need for, and use of, a diagnostic teaching approach to help in the determination of the initial decision on the appropriate reading medium for students with visual impairments; (b) discuss four areas of importance for educators and parents to consider in making initial decisions; and (c) describe continued evaluation of the initial medium in a number of specific areas.

The early years of a student's life represent a critical period for development of skills that will provide the foundation for all future learning and living. An essential part of this critical period is the role that professionals and parents have in assuring that a solid foundation is provided for each student. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty. However, professionals and parents are called upon to make informed decisions as a team in order to assure an appropriate education for each student with a visual impairment; one essential team decision will involve the primary reading medium.

Diagnostic teaching in the decision-making process

Decisions on the appropriate reading medium cannot be made on the basis of arbitrary information, such as the legal definition of blindness, since students with visual impairments use their vision with differing degrees of efficiency. The early years of a student's education should be used as a diagnostic teaching phase during which different options for reading and writing can be explored. The period of reading readiness presents an ideal time for implementation of a diagnostic teaching approach, since readiness activities seek to stimulate all the senses in preparation for formal reading. By using a diagnostic teaching approach to early reading instruction, teachers and parents can collect information about a student's preference for gathering sensory information. Support for the need for one reading medium or another can be derived from these data. The key element is collecting information that will provide a basis for informed decision making, a process that is undeniably superior to decisions based on arbitrary or superficial information.

Characteristics of diagnostic teaching

Diagnostic teaching combines the two essential educational practices of instruction and assessment and may be characterized by the following principles:

  • instruction and assessment cannot be separated in effective teaching;
  • students learn and develop as individuals, not as a group;
  • information gathered from assessment should be used immediately to change instruction in order to make learning more efficient; and
  • systematic problem-solving techniques can be employed to explore areas in a child's development that are unknown.

The use of diagnostic teaching practices is by no means new. Although such an approach is typically associated with the diagnosis and remediation of learning problems, the case can be made that it has value for other applications in which a problem-solving approach is needed. The diagnostic teaching approach provides an excellent means of putting together pieces of a puzzle when one piece is missing or unknown.

The determination of the appropriate reading medium for young children with visual impairments who are beginning to read can be achieved through the use of these strategies.

The process of collecting information

The process of diagnostic teaching uses incidental and structured observations, indirect and direct teaching, and ongoing assessment as a basis for guiding subsequent instruction. By collecting information on visual and tactual efficiency over several months or years of careful diagnostic teaching, a student's learning style will undoubtedly begin to emerge.

At this point, educators should have acquired some preliminary indication of whether a student is primarily a visual learner or primarily a tactual learner, as well as information on the rate of learning with the preferred sensory modality. For some students, a decision on the appropriate reading medium may be made relatively early in the readiness phase, but additional information may be needed for others.

Readiness for formal reading instruction is signaled by the establishment of a number of skills, such as showing interest in books; showing interest in, and telling stories from, pictures; discriminating likenesses and differences in abstract symbols, geometric shapes, letters, and simple words; copying letters and words; identifying one's own name; and identifying letter names and simple sight words.

As these skills are being established, a wealth of information can be collected to support the decision for a specific reading medium. For students whose primary reading medium was not established earlier, scrutiny of the more "formal" readiness skills will be necessary. As students enter the stage in which they are learning prerequisite skills for reading, the educator should provide exposure to printed materials and braille materials, either concurrently or sequentially, in order to determine the level of sustained interest and the rate of learning of specific skills in each medium. For example, a student learning to recognize his/her name could be presented with both the printed version and a superimposed braille version as labels for personal items. After a period of instruction and time to eliminate any novelty effect, the student's use of either the print or braille labels could be determined through observation or direct assessment.

For a student who has not demonstrated a consistent pattern of visual or tactual learning, the data collected during this period of time will be most crucial for consideration by the multidisciplinary team in determining the reading medium. It is possible for a student with a visual impairment at this stage in reading development to show nearly equal preference for visual and tactual information, and additional consideration will need to be made by the team, such as prognosis of the visual impairment and future applicability of each medium.

It is important to allow sufficient time to collect information to support the crucial decision on the reading medium. Team members should not feel compelled to follow the common practice that a child should begin to read at a certain age, but should wait until readiness skills are established; students with visual impairments may require an extended readiness period prior to formal reading instruction. If parents or other team members are reluctant to extend the readiness period, the teacher of the visually impaired must be prepared to discuss the negative consequences of moving a child into formal reading instruction before adequate readiness is established.

Initial evaluation and considerations for determining the reading medium

The initial evaluation phase provides the multidisciplinary team with the early information needed to make a decision on a student's reading medium. This section will discuss the areas to consider in collecting pertinent information through diagnostic teaching and the process of synthesizing these data in a manner that will lead to an informed team decision. Four areas are important to consider during the diagnostic teaching phase in early reading development: 1) visual efficiency and potential, 2) tactual efficiency and potential, 3) prognosis of the visual impairment, and 4) presence of additional handicaps. While factors such as reading rate and reading comprehension are important to consider, such information is difficult to obtain at the readiness/beginning reading level and, therefore, will be discussed later as areas for continued evaluation.

Visual efficiency

A period of diagnostic teaching is ideal and essential for accurately assessing the degree of efficiency with which a student uses vision to gather information about the environment. While educators want to have a total view of visual functioning in students with visual impairments, this discussion will relate to areas that will gain information contributing to a decision on the primary reading medium. Members of the multidisciplinary team will want to systematically collect objective and qualitative information on questions such as:

  • Does the student use vision to explore the environment?
  • Does the student visually recognize the presence of significant persons in the environment prior to verbal interaction?
  • Do objects in the environment stimulate a motor response in the student (e.g., reaching toward objects, crawling toward objects)?
  • Does the student use vision to locate objects in the environment? At near distances (within 12-16 inches)? At intermediate distances (within 16-24 inches)? At far distances (beyond 24 inches)?
  • Does the student verbally label objects prior to tactual exploration, thereby using vision as a confirming sense?
  • Does the student visually identify objects? What are the sizes of objects and at what distances?
  • Does the student show interest in pictures? Can the student identify pictures? Of what size? With what level of accuracy? With what level of extraneous background information? At what distances?
  • Does the student show an interest in scribbling/writing with a pencil or Magic Marker? Painting? Cutting?
  • Does the student discriminate likenesses and differences in objects and geometric shapes? At what distances? Of what size?
  • Does the student visually discriminate and match simple words? At what distance and of what size? With what level of accuracy?
  • Does the student identify his/her name in print? Of what size? At what distance?
  • At what rate does the student success fully complete visual tasks?

There are a number of excellent observation scales and assessment instruments that provide a comprehensive functional vision evaluation, such as those developed by American Printing House for the Blind (APH) (Barraga & Morris, 1980), Florida Department of Education (1983), Smith and Cote (1982), and Roessing (1982). Over a period of time, those involved in the student's program should summarize and compare observations in order to determine whether the student is primarily using his/her visual sense or tactual sense to collect sensory information in the environment. For students who are found to be "visual learners," particular attention must be focused on visual efficiency at near point. Visual efficiency for distant tasks does not guarantee or even imply efficiency at near point and vice versa.

In addition, a student with a central field loss may be able to complete distant tasks with high efficiency, but near tasks with little or no efficiency; because of difficulties with resolution, reading with peripheral vision will be slower than reading with an intact central field. Therefore, as information is being collected, observations related to visual tasks performed within 16 inches from the eyes must be given primary consideration in determining the reading medium, although students with low vision will generally have a closer working distance at near point.

Ophthalmological or low vision findings should be examined by multidisciplinary team members. However, clinical information obtained during an examination by an eye care professional must be used as only one source of information that will contribute to the overall decision. Such information is obtained in a setting that does not, in most cases, parallel the home or school environment in which a student will be reading.

Generally, the clinical environment is ideal (e.g., no glare, good lighting), the visual task is relatively short in duration (e.g., read a few lines of letters, read a few rows of text), and extraneous factors are not present (e.g., noise from other students). Conversely, the student may be intimidated by the clinical or medical setting and results may not be typical of the true level of performance. Also, acuity measurements are often limited to distance vision, which provides little information about how a student will function on most school-related tasks. Therefore, educators must collect information that relates more to the "real" learning environment and use that in conjunction with the clinical findings before making an informed decision on the appropriate reading medium.

During the initial diagnostic teaching phase, information can be collected not only on the current level of functioning but on progress in developing visual efficiency as well. After a vision stimulation/training program has been implemented for several months or more, it is important to examine the student's rate of progress relative to his/her visual potential. This information may be used to predict, as carefully as possible, the level of visual skill that the student is expected to have acquired at the time a formal reading program will begin; such a prediction is a legitimate source of information to be considered by the multidisciplinary team in making the initial decision.

Tactual efficiency

Information related to tactual efficiency should also be collected during the initial diagnostic teaching phase. Some questions the multidisciplinary team may wish to consider include:

  • Does the student primarily use his/her tactual sense to explore the environment?
  • Does the student use vision to locate and initially identify objects, and then use touch to confirm the initial observation? What is the degree of accuracy for initial identification through use of vision?
  • What is the degree of accuracy for subsequent identification through the tactual sense?
  • Does the student use his/her vision to locate objects, but then use tactual information to identify the objects?
  • Does the student use only tactual information to locate and identify objects in the environment?
  • Does the student tactually identify objects of different sizes with accuracy? Large objects (e.g., chair, bed, coffee table)? Medium-sized objects (e.g., teddy bear, toys, shirt, ball)? Small objects (e.g., paper clip, coins, marbles, raisins, cereal)?
  • Does the student respond to effective teaching in use of fine motor skills (e.g., cutting, holding spoon, picking up small objects)?
  • Does the student tactually discriminate likenesses and differences in objects and geometric shapes?
  • Does the student show interest in books embossed in braille when being read to by a parent or teacher?
  • Does the student identify his/her name in braille much more readily than in print?

Unlike the area of visual efficiency, there are no widely recognized formal instruments or observation scales that educators can use to assist in collecting information on tactual efficiency. While the Roughness Discrimination Test may provide a measure of tactual sensitivity (Harley, Truan, & Sanford, 1987), it does not indicate how a student performs on essential skills involving discrimination and recognition of braille letters and words. A diagnostic teaching approach lends itself to the use of instructional materials for teaching as well as continual assessment, and a number of materials could be used, such as the APH Tactual Discrimination Worksheets, APH Touch and Tell Series, worksheets from the Mangold Developmental Program (Mangold, 1977), and criterion-referenced inventories from Patterns Primary Braille Reading Program (APH, 1982).

As with examining visual efficiency, it is important to consider the student's rate of learning in developing tactual skills necessary for formal reading.

Prognosis of visual impairment

Multidisciplinary team members must consider whether the child's visual condition is stable and not likely to deteriorate in the future (e.g., albinism, optic atrophy) or whether the child's visual condition may be unstable (e.g., uncontrolled glaucoma, detached retinas) or progressive (e.g., retinitis pigmentosa, macular degeneration) and loss of vision in the future is likely. The difficulty for team members at this point is one of "likelihood" of future vision loss. Therefore, it is appropriate and necessary to extend the multidisciplinary team to include eye care professionals that have examined the child and/or to consider clinical low vision/ophthalmological information from the student's file. If current information is not available, a referral should be made immediately to an appropriate eye care professional.

As mentioned previously, no one single member of the multidisciplinary team, including an eye care professional, should make educational decisions for a student. If an eye care professional makes a recommendation regarding educational programming, it must be remembered that the ultimate decision is made by a team of persons familiar with the student. Therefore, it is essential to consider clinical findings and recommendations as one source of information, but not as the sole source. This information is used by the multidisciplinary team, along with information collected from other sources during the diagnostic teaching phase, to make an informed decision about the appropriate reading medium for a student with a visual impairment.

Presence of additional handicaps

In making educational decisions in any area of skill development, the multidisciplinary team must consider the influence of additional handicaps on learning. Of primary consideration is the level of cognitive ability. A cognitive delay or disability makes learning progress more slowly in all areas of development. In the area of reading, the decision that must be considered by the multidisciplinary team is whether a student with a moderate to pro found cognitive disability will benefit from any type of reading program, regardless of whether the medium would be braille or print.

For students with a mild to moderate cognitive disability, decisions will center on the functionality of reading (e.g., use of reading for daily living skills, enjoyment, and job-related skills) and the most appropriate type of reading program to accomplish those functions. For students with any level of cognitive disability, consideration should be given to the value of a reading medium in print or in braille relative to the value of listening/aural reading as a mode of communication.

The presence of motor impairments must also be considered. Motor impairments may affect control of the eyes, although such impairments may be amenable to specific training. Motor impairments may also affect the efficient movements of the hands, which may make braille reading more difficult or, in some cases, functionally impossible. Regardless of the way in which a motor impairment manifests itself, such implications for reading must be one factor that is considered in relationship to the implications of other factors identified in this section.

Synthesizing information and making team decisions

Once information regarding visual efficiency, tactual efficiency, prognosis, and influences of additional handicaps has been collected, it is time to begin the process of synthesizing the information and determining how it will affect the decision on the initial reading medium. It is important to examine carefully the objective findings, rather than to rely on hunches, guesses, and presumptions.

Each member of the multidisciplinary team who has worked with the child during the diagnostic teaching phase, including the parents and regular classroom teachers, should discuss observations and assessment data and contribute to the group discussion of the implications. The team's discussion should focus on the characteristics of the student displayed during the readiness phase, as well as information such as prognosis and presence of other disabilities, to determine whether the student will enter a formal reading program in print or in braille. Characteristics of a student who might be a likely candidate for a print reading program may include:

  • uses vision efficiently to complete tasks at near distances;
  • shows interest in pictures and demonstrates the ability to identify pictures and/or elements within pictures;
  • identifies name in print and/or understands that print has meaning;
  • uses print to accomplish other prerequisite reading skills;
  • has a stable eye condition;
  • has an intact central visual field;
  • shows steady progress in learning to use his/her vision as necessary to assure efficient print reading;
  • is free of additional handicaps that would interfere with progress in a developmental reading program in print.

Characteristics of a student who might be a likely candidate for a braille reading program may include:

  • shows preference for exploring the environment tactually;
  • efficiently uses the tactual sense to identify small objects;
  • identifies his/her name in braille and/or understands that braille has meaning;
  • uses braille to acquire other prerequisite reading skills;
  • has an unstable eye condition or poor prognosis for retaining current level of vision in the near future;
  • has a reduced or nonfunctional central field to the extent that print reading is expected to be inefficient;
  • shows steady progress in developing tactual skills necessary for efficient braille reading;
  • is free of additional handicaps that would interfere with progress in a developmental reading program in braille.

For the small number of students who have not displayed characteristics that would support either a print reading program or a braille reading program, the multidisciplinary team may wish to consider a number of options: placing equal emphasis on each medium and reevaluating at some point in the near future (no more than one year as required by Public Law 94-142) to determine a primary reading medium; placing instructional emphasis only on print reading; placing instructional emphasis only on braille reading; placing primary instructional emphasis on print reading and developing braille reading skills as a supplementary medium; or placing primary instructional emphasis on braille reading and developing print reading as a supplementary medium. The efficacy of placing equal emphasis on both media, unless additional time will be available in the school day to teach both effectively, is questionable.

If emphasis must be placed on one medium and the student is truly as efficient in both visual and tactual learning, the multidisciplinary team may wish to give primary consideration to a print reading program, with braille reading instruction reserved as a future option depending on the changing needs of the student. Whatever initial decision is agreed upon, teams should remember that this is not necessarily a final decision and reevaluation must be ongoing.

Continued evaluation

As children grow, their needs and abilities change. The initial decision to teach reading through print or braille is critical; equally as important is a continuing evaluation of progress in the light of the initial decision and changing needs of the student. Education is a fluid process. Teachers must constantly consider new and different options for students as they become appropriate.

In a sense, we are filling a student's "toolbox" with "tools" appropriate to accomplish a variety of tasks. The need for different tools is determined by the tasks that the student must accomplish now and in the future. In some cases it may be appropriate to teach braille to supplement reading and writing tasks for a print reader, while in other cases it may be appropriate to teach print reading/writing for functional activities for braille readers. Additional means for sending and receiving information (e.g., recorded materials, computers, telecommunications) should be considered for all students regardless of their primary reading medium. Again, the emphasis should be placed on developing options for students for both immediate and future use.

There are a number of areas that should be monitored to determine the need for additional or supplemental reading/writing instruction. These include information on visual functioning, academic achievement, comprehension and rate of reading, handwriting, vocational direction, use of technology, functional reading skills for students with multiple disabilities, and use of extremely limited vision.

Additional information on visual functioning

What additional information is available from functional vision evaluations and from ophthalmological/clinical low vision evaluations that has implications for reviewing the student's primary reading medium?

The initial decision concerning a primary reading medium is partly based on the sensory functioning of a student at a young age. Throughout the educational program, a student with low vision should receive instruction designed to increase visual functioning. It is important that the multidisciplinary team continue to evaluate the student's functional vision performance to determine if changes should be made in the reading medium. If there is an increase in visual functioning, as would be expected, changes in the reading medium may include an increase in the print options available to the student (e.g., large print, regular print, regular print with the use of a low vision device).

It is also important to continually examine changing educational demands placed on a student with a visual impairment. In the early years of school, reading materials are already in large type and reading tasks are of relatively short duration. As a student progresses through school, textbooks are printed in smaller type size and the duration of reading tasks increases significantly. The multidisciplinary team should anticipate difficulties with smaller type size and increased fatigue that would indicate that the initial decision should be reconsidered by changing the primary reading medium or, more likely, by adding supplemental tools to assist in the completion of cumbersome assignments.

Team members should continually review new and updated ophthalmological and clinical low vision information and determine the implications for possible changes in, or additions to, the student's reading medium. Braille reading is an important option for students whose vision is deteriorating, and new or different low vision devices may become more appropriate for students as they mature or as their visual functioning changes. Careful attention must always be given to the student's visual prognosis.

Academic achievement

Is the student able to accomplish academic tasks with the current medium with a sufficient level of success? While academic achievement is important, teachers must also examine the amount of time that a student is spending to successfully accomplish academic tasks. A student who must spend a majority of waking hours on schoolwork needs to have options for streamlining work. Regardless of the initial decision, it is likely that a student who is visually impaired will accomplish academic tasks at a slower pace than students who are not visually impaired. It is important to remember that reading braille or reading print are not the only options for communication. There are other means for expressing and receiving information that may make the academic process more efficient for students, such as typing, word processing, readers, recorded textbooks, enlarged print via CCTV or low vision devices, and voice synthesis devices for computers. The key is to explore the range of options that are available, identify the strengths and weaknesses of each, and provide instruction in those that will be of greatest value for the student given immediate and future needs.

Reading braille and reading print for students who are visually impaired are both relatively slow and the teaching of one after the other has been learned (e.g., teaching print after braille has been learned) is time-consuming. A student who is primarily a print reader might benefit from supplemental braille instruction and a braille reader might benefit from supplemental print instruction. However, it is unlikely that a student who is having trouble in academic areas would benefit from instruction designed to teach complete proficiency in an alternate reading medium. The alternate medium should be used as a tool to supplement the primary reading medium when such a supplement can streamline a task.

Comprehension and rate of reading

Does the student read with adequate comprehension in the reading medium initially selected? A comprehension level of at least 75% accuracy is necessary on instructional material (Harley et al., 1987). If a student does not reach this level of comprehension during reading instruction, the teacher must examine closely any factors that might contribute to the problem. In addition to possible explanations that would be considered for any student, teachers of students with visual impairments must examine two factors more closely. First, specific reading skills that influence comprehension may not have been adequately developed even though the reading medium is appropriate. Second, the reading medium selected for the student may be inappropriate and therefore adversely affect comprehension. The first factor will require thorough diagnostic assessment to determine the cause of the reading problem and subsequent implementation of an appropriate remediation program.

A complete discussion of remediation of reading problems for students with visual impairments is presented by Harley et al. (1987). The second factor requires reevaluation of the initial decision on the student's reading medium through additional diagnostic teaching.

Comprehension is related to rate of reading. A reading rate of 10 words per minute is necessary for adequate comprehension (Harley et al., 1987). If the student is not reading at this rate, the multidisciplinary team should consider strategies for increasing reading rate or other options for a primary reading medium.

In some instances, difficulties will occur because of a combination of inadequate comprehension/rate of reading and inappropriate primary reading medium. Professional evaluation and diagnosis will help to determine if one or both represent the significant reason for a lack of comprehension.


Is the student able to read his/her own handwriting? It is important that a person have the ability to communicate with himself (S. Mangold, personal communication, September, 1988). Grocery lists, telephone and address lists, and checkbook registers are examples of things that adults write and must later read. If a student cannot read what he/she has written, a first step is to provide remedial handwriting instruction. If the student is still unable to read his/her own handwriting after sufficient instruction, other options should be systematically explored. Such options may include supplemental instruction in braille writing, typing, computer word processing programs, and use of a tape recorder for note writing. Again, the key element is exploring options and developing appropriate ones given the student's needs.

Vocational direction

Given the student's vocational interests and aptitude, what are the specific demands for expressive and receptive written communication? Does the student have the repertoire of reading and writing skills necessary to achieve projected vocational goals? Consideration of these factors must be ongoing, given the changing nature of developing vocational interests. The multidisciplinary team, including the parents and student, is faced with the dilemma of projecting a likely vocational goal. Considerations for reading and writing options can be safely explored during job exploration and transition activities as part of the secondary school experience. These can be developed prior to leaving the educational system.

For a number of students, the demands of a vocation or profession will be preceded by attendance at a post-secondary vocational school or college program. These students will need to acquire a repertoire of reading and writing skills that will allow them to progress successfully through their course of instruction as well as to have the skills necessary to ultimately accomplish the job tasks when they graduate. Among options to explore are computer word processing skills, use of reader services, use of recorded textbooks, note-taking skills with the slate and stylus, and use of cassette braille devices.

Availability of technology

What, if any, available technology will increase the student's options for efficiently completing reading and writing tasks? The current and future range of computer and related technology has the potential for increasing a student's level of independence by providing more immediate and efficient access to information. The multidisciplinary team must keep abreast of technological advances and have sufficient knowledge of their potential impact in order to evaluate the effectiveness for each student with a visual impairment.

As computer courses become more and more widespread throughout the educational system, it is likely that students will have exposure to them when appropriate access devices are available. However, if such is not the case, it is the responsibility of the teacher of students with visual impairments to provide this exposure, given the relative value of the technology to the student's immediate and future needs. While the options are expensive, some to consider include voice-accessible word processors; large-print word processors; cassette braille devices; portable computer systems; Optacon systems; telecommunications; and optical recognition scanners with conversion to speech, braille, or print, as well as new devices as they become available.

Functional reading skills for students with multiple disabilities

If a student has an additional disability that prevents entering a traditional developmental reading program, would he/she benefit from instruction in reading for functional purposes? Some students with additional handicaps may benefit from learning to read signs, labels, and other words in order to complete functional tasks related to daily living. For example, a student may learn to read "Men" and "Women" in order to locate the correct restroom in a public building or to read common food names to facilitate preparation of simple meals.

Other functional words may be learned to facilitate integration into a work setting. If a multidisciplinary team determines that teaching functional reading will be beneficial to the student, procedures outlined earlier should be used to determine whether reading print or reading braille is most appropriate.

Educators should guard against teaching reading just because it is possible to do so; unless it will serve a functional purpose in the life of a student with multiple disabilities, instructional time may best be used for teaching other essential life skills.

Use of extremely limited vision

Could a student who uses braille as a primary reading and writing medium but who retains any level of visual functioning benefit from a rudimentary level of print reading skill? Even limited skill in reading print, regardless of how tedious, has the potential to increase one's independence by accomplishing functional activities of daily living, such as reading the amount due on bill statements, reading the amount of a paycheck, sorting junk mail from valuable mail, reading short messages, and identifying signs in the environment.

Multidisciplinary teams must evaluate results of functional vision assessments and data collected as part of the ongoing diagnostic teaching procedure to determine the potential for developing a functional level of print reading skill. A further consideration is whether or not this would have sufficient long-term value to justify the instructional time relative to all other priority areas.


In order for a multidisciplinary team to make informed decisions on the appropriate reading medium for each student with a visual impairment, systematic procedures must be implemented over a period of time to collect needed information. The authors of this article proposed the early implementation of diagnostic teaching practices as a means of collecting the wide range of objective and qualitative data necessary to guide the decision making process.

A continuing process

It was further proposed that decisions be made in two somewhat distinct phases: 1) an initial phase in which the first decision is made on the primary reading medium, and 2) a second phase in which continued evaluation of the initial decision is considered as an ongoing process.

Phase one

During the initial phase, a period of diagnostic teaching begins at the readiness stage and continues into the early part of formal reading instruction in order to consider the following factors:

  • the student's demonstrated preference for, and efficiency with, use of the visual sense as a primary source of gathering information;
  • the student's demonstrated preference for, and efficiency with, use of the tactual sense as a primary source-gathering information;
  • the prognosis and stability of the visual condition; and
  • the possible influences of additional disabilities on learning to read.

Phase two

The second phase confirms or adjusts the initial team decision and examines a number of factors over the period of years which spans the student's educational career. Multidisciplinary team members consider the range of options necessary to meet the student's current and future needs in college, vocational school, or employment and living situation. These considerations include:

  • the availability of additional information on visual functioning from an educator of students with visual impairments and from eye care professionals;
  • the student's ability to maintain academic progress in the initially selected reading medium;
  • the efficiency of reading in the selected medium, i.e., the level of comprehension relative to the rate of reading;
  • the student's effectiveness in reading his/her own handwriting;
  • the student's vocational interests and goals and the related reading and writing requirements for receptive and expressive communication;
  • the use of available technology to increase and/or expand options for communication;
  • the usefulness of teaching functional reading skills to a student with multiple disabilities; and
  • the usefulness of teaching a rudimentary level of print reading skill to a student with extremely limited vision.

If properly implemented, this two-phase approach assures that instruction in the appropriate reading medium or combination of media is implemented for each student with a visual impairment. The value of initial diagnostic teaching and subsequent continued evaluation provides the multidisciplinary team with a comprehensive process of making an informed decision.

Figure 1

Figure 1

An example of an annotated passage from an adapted book to help parents understand the vagaries of braille code.

Narrative description


In conclusion, we wish to reiterate the essential elements and guiding principles we believe provide the foundation for making decisions on establishing the reading medium for students with visual impairments:

  • Decisions are made on the basis of identified, individual needs of students, not on arbitrary criteria such as the legal definition of blindness.
  • Decisions on establishing the reading medium reflect the input from each member of the multidisciplinary team.
  • Information on which to base decisions is collected over a period of time through systematic, diagnostic teaching.
  • Decisions take into account individual sensory abilities and capabilities of each student, as well as immediate and future needs.
  • Decisions to provide additional instruction in other reading media are remade through continuous evaluation as a student's needs change or expand, thereby filling a student's "toolbox" with the appropriate "tools."

Many significant and positive changes have been made in educating students with visual impairments since the days of "sight-saving" classes. The eventual success of students in achieving independent living and employment status to the greatest extent of their abilities must undoubtedly be attributed, at least in part, to the decisions that are made on their behalf during their school years.

Therefore, professionals and parents must jointly endeavor to make a decision as critical as establishing the appropriate reading medium in a climate of reason and professionalism guided by consistent procedures that examine the student's unique abilities as well as immediate and future needs.


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Irwin, R.B. (1920). Sight-saving classes in the public schools. Harvard Bulletins in Education, Number 7.
Mangold, S. (1977). The Mangold developmental program of tactile perception and braille letter recognition. Castro Valley, CA: Exceptional Teaching Aids.
Roessing, L.J. (1982). Functional vision: Criterion-referenced checklists. In S.S. Mangold (ed.), A teachers' guide to the special educational needs of blind and visually handicapped children. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.
Smith, A.J. & Cote, K.S. (1982). Look at me: A resource manual for the development of residual vision in multiply impaired children. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania College of Optometry Press.
State of Florida (1983). Project IVEY: Increasing visual efficiency, (Volume V–E). Tallahassee, FL: Author.

How to Make a Braille Wave *

Braille was a mystery at the elementary school I was assigned to in 1987 as a teacher of students with visual impairments, as were the students who were blind. My students were not as enthusiastic about braille as I, and avoided using it in class. One day I saw a braille book drop out of the arms of one of my students as he crossed campus, and watched in amazement as at least 20 students cautiously and carefully walked around it. When a beginning braille reader enrolled in our school that year, I saw her begin to develop some subtle, negative attitudes toward braille and decided I needed to become part of my students' classroom activities to act as a resource to inform and encourage developing social skills and positive attitudes toward braille.

I taught small groups of students in reading, social studies and science, and found the students were bright, sensitive, and curious. The second-grade children watched in fascination as I worked with my younger student using a variety of braille and tactile materials. They were spellbound by the braillewriter and begged me to teach them how to write their names. One student in second grade, Abby, took a special interest in braille and decided to learn as much about it and the student who was blind as she could. Abby learned a few braille letters every day—some from me, some from the blind student. She learned the basics of using a braillewriter and was also very interested in creating tactile designs using braille dots. The "braille wave" was one of our favorites, originally tapped out by her 4-year-old sister when she came to visit the classroom. It can be made by brailling dots 3, 2, 1, 4, 5, 6 one by one across the page, creating a curving, tactile line.

We designed an independent study class in braille, with the encouragement of her classroom teacher. The blind student blossomed over the next months with the attention she received from her classmates as they came to know her and her special materials better. She was frequently called on to give impromptu demonstrations of her special tools, and gained confidence and status.

The following school year, the blind student, Abby, and another friend asked me to start a braille class. This weekly class of three students quickly grew into two classes of 12 students, thanks to Abby's word-of-mouth publicity. The teachers and staff were extremely patient as our class struggled to get organized. Teachers invited me to their classes to speak about braille. I developed cartoon storyboards that helped tell the story of Louis Braille, explaining the various systems blind people have used before and since the development of braille. Students were fascinated by the knotted string and wooden letter alphabets, as well as the talking electronic braille keyboard my sixth-grade student used to take notes in class. They stopped me in hallways to ask me when they could take braille classes.

Classes soon turned into everyday events, with students coming in after school and during their lunch recess to learn braille. Approximately 125 students have attended braille classes over the past three years. The blind students and two of my first braille students were "student teachers" in the Braille Club, but students learned the basics from anyone who knew them. It was not uncommon to see a first grader teaching a fourth grader how to put paper in the braillewriter and braille the alphabet.

Now that the school seemed more comfortable with braille, and the blind students were more relaxed and communicative, we directed our efforts in Braille Club toward helping strengthen the sense of belonging that was developing. Cooperative learning techniques were used to develop team projects students would work on at Braille Club. Bina (1986) feels that cooperative learning techniques help students with special needs improve social skills, and allows them to develop friendships. Students learn strategies for thinking critically and working together toward common goals, to communicate their ideas effectively, and to fairly evaluate the contributions of others. After learning the basics of braille, students were asked to work in teams to develop projects that would be interesting, informative, or helpful to other people.

Flexibility was the key to helping teams develop projects. For example, when students were studying Eastern cultures in social studies, discussions of these cultures in Braille Club led to the idea of designing a project about the abacus. Teams have done research on guide dogs for the blind and made presentations to interested classes, and have designed braille alphabet cards for teachers to give students when reading about or discussing blindness. They wrote print-braille storybooks—wonderfully imaginative stories in print and braille, made by using ink stamp sets—for the teachers of primary-age children to keep in their reading centers, and have copied tactile concept books designed for preschool blind children by a volunteer group in California, donating them to our local preschool for blind children. We have developed presentations and gone to other schools and towns to talk about braille.

The students in Braille Club enjoyed competitions, so children were frequently put in teams to compete against each other in language games for slate and stylus contests. The principal has given certificates of achievement in braille at honors assemblies so that outstanding success can be acknowledged. Students who completed ten projects during the school year received a Braille Club t-shirt decorated with their name in fabric paint and a braillewriter made of silver fabric.

The third year of Braille Club saw more literary projects being completed by students. A team of younger students developed three books, in the style of the Where's Waldo books, where the reader has to locate paw prints made of fabric paint hidden on a page of tactile items. Students also worked in teams to make the campus more accessible to visitors who were blind; one team put braille labels on campus doors, while another created a large tactile map of the campus.

I'm not able to relate all the activities and outcomes of our club here. We have undertaken a wide variety of subjects and projects in Braille Club, from social etiquette to how to write a talking computer program. What I hope to relate is the uniquely positive effect Braille Club had on the integration of blind students. One day a student left a sign on my door that read "Braille is cool!" I realized then how the school's attitude toward braille had altered over the months. Students and teachers asked me questions about braille and blindness with ease, and people were talking more to the blind students, giving friendly greetings in the halls, stopping to talk.

Because we were in a relaxed, cooperative learning situation, we observed the growth of positive social interactions between blind and sighted students. When misunderstandings occurred, students felt comfortable asking for clarification of someone else's actions or words. All students learned how to work in teams to complete projects, learning respect for others' ideas and the art of compromise. We all began to understand one another better, and students developed satisfying friendships.

In Braille Club, we have increased sighted students' contact with blind students and the things they use. We have increased awareness, acceptance, and status of blindness on campus, as well as sighted students' level of comfort with blind students. Sighted students have developed empathy because of their close contact with students who are blind, but also have learned to see past the uniqueness of being blind, to view these students as unique in other ways. Blind students have gained sighted peer advocates, but, more important, are beginning to be their own advocates, taking pride in their special school materials and tools.

Teaching Specific Concepts to Visually Handicapped Students*

Chapter headings

Selecting specific concepts for instruction

Assessing conceptual understanding

Clarifying specific concepts for the teaching process

Reinforcing and generalizing conceptual understanding

Examples of teaching specific concepts

Students without detailed vision often lack basic concepts and fail to unify integral components in their environment. These concepts must be taught to visually handicapped students so that they can increase their knowledge base and participate equally with sighted peers whenever possible.

It is important to develop systematic methods for teaching concepts in order to determine which concepts to consider for instruction; how to assess these crucial concepts with individual students; what verbal and manipulative procedures best clarify specific concepts for a particular student; and how to reinforce and generalize conceptual understanding once a concept is learned in a specific instructional setting.

The purpose of this chapter is to describe one approach to the systematic teaching of specific concepts. This approach considers logical ways of thinking about concepts that provide direction for the instructional process. Flexibility is the key to the application of the instructional methods described here, since the design of actual lessons will vary with the needs of particular students, the time available for lesson preparation and instruction, and the specific situations in which a concept must be taught.

Selecting specific concepts for instruction

In order to begin the teaching of conceptual skills, it is necessary to identify crucial concepts that a visually handicapped student must understand for full participation in activities and daily life in and out of school. A list of these concepts was developed as a class project in a concept development course for teachers and orientation and mobility instructors of the visually handicapped at San Francisco State University. This list is not exhaustive of all the critical concepts that a visually handicapped student should know, but represents an initial step in the identification of crucial concepts. Additions to this list are encouraged.

List of crucial concepts *

  1. Body Awareness (concepts pertaining to the body)
    • top, bottom
    • back, front
    • left, right
    • middle
    • wholeness of body
    • names of major body parts
    • waist-high
    • relationship of body parts
    • lower part of body
    • upper part of body
    • Kinesthetic Awareness
    • turning
    • direction of motion
    • moving, still
    • gravity in relation to body
    • Proprioceptive Awareness
    • bending parts
    • head up
    • closed fingers
    • feet together
    • posture
    • Sensations
    • feelings
    • smell
    • taste
    • touch
    • hearing
    • sight
    • Facial Expressions
    • smile
    • frown
    • Gestures
    • nod yes
    • shake no
    • shrug
    • point to object
    • shake hands
  2. Environmental Awareness (crucial objects in the environment and specific relationships among elements in the environment)
    • divided highway
    • median strip
    • crosswalk
    • intersection
    • street
    • sidewalk
    • driveway
    • block
    • pedestrian
    • yard, back yard
    • stairs
    • doorbell
    • landmark
    • shoreline boundaries
    • traffic patterns
    • weather—rain, snow
    • traffic light
    • street signs
    • fire hydrant
    • lamp post
    • mail box
    • trash can
    • curb
    • gutter
    • corner
    • crib, bed
    • table, chair
    • doorway
    • stove
    • sink
    • refrigerator
    • bathtub
    • truck, car, bus, wagon
    • tricycle, bicycle
    • train
    • airplane
    • store
    • house
    • porch
    • tree, grass
    • toilet
    • hallway
    • desk
    • closet
    • dresser
  3. Awareness of Object Characteristics (general properties of objects)
    • Size
    • dry, wet
    • big, little, small, large, medium
    • fat, thin, narrow, wide
    • long, short, medium length
    • deep, shallow
    • Color
    • clear, opaque
    • dark, light
    • specific colors
    • hue, tint
    • Shape
    • square, rectangle
    • round, oval
    • triangle
    • diamond
    • straight, curved, crooked
    • shapes of specific objects
    • configuration of words
    • Sound
    • high, low pitch
    • loud, soft intensity
    • long, short duration
    • rhythm
    • Texture
    • smooth, rough, flat, hard, soft, sticky, coarse, fine, bumpy, fuzzy, etc.
    • Comparative Characteristics
    • larger, smaller
    • fatter, warmer, deeper, etc.
    • same, different
  4. Time Awareness (concepts pertaining to time)
    • begin, end
    • before, after
    • first, next, last
    • during
    • always, never
    • old, new, young
    • time-distance relationships
    • today, yesterday, tomorrow
    • morning, noon, night, afternoon, evening
    • sunrise, sunset
    • day, week, month, year
    • second, minute, hour
    • future, past, present, now
    • clock concepts
  5. Spatial Awareness (concepts related to position in space)
    • parallel
    • perpendicular
    • round
    • arc
    • plane
    • middle, center, between
    • diagonal
    • opposite
    • straight, crooked, curved
    • to, from
    • high, low
    • top, bottom
    • front, back
    • left, right
    • forward, backward
    • degrees of circle or turn
    • half turn, whole turn
    • about face
    • grid pattern
    • up, down
    • inside, outside
    • on, off
    • separated, together
    • far, rear, distant, close
    • wide, narrow
    • clockwise, counterclock-wise
    • maintaining direction
    • maintaining distance
    • next, to, beside
    • around
    • in, out
    • first, last
    • toward, away from
    • behind
    • in order
    • closed, open
    • Directions
    • north, south
    • east, west
    • northeast
    • northwest
    • southeast
    • southwest
    • veering
    • reference point
    • incline, decline
    • orientation, disorientation
    • sound localization
    • under, over
    • underneath, beneath
    • overhead
    • above, below
    • upside down, right side up
    • across, across from
    • past, beyond
    • through
    • here, there
  6. Actions (concepts pertaining to movement)
    • writing, typing
    • buttoning, zipping, snapping
    • eating, drinking
    • skip, run
    • jump, hop
    • climb, crawl
    • stand, sit
    • step
    • throw, catch
    • push, pull
    • swing
    • duck, bend
    • kick
    • slide
    • roll
    • stop, start
    • lock, unlock
    • circle
    • follow
    • on, off
    • veer
    • turn
    • imitate
    • forward, reverse backward
    • sideways
    • slow, fast
  7. Quantity (concepts associated with numbers and number combinations)
    • specific whole numbers
    • half, third, quarter
    • fractions
    • least, less (than)
    • most, more (than)
    • enough, only
    • several, few, many
    • equal
    • pair
    • zero
    • increase, decrease
    • with, without
    • place, value
    • all, some, none
    • infinity
    • Operations
    • addition
    • subtraction
    • multiplication
    • division
    • Measurement
    • inch, foot, yard, mile
    • square inch, etc.
    • cubic inches, etc.
    • pound, ounce, ton
    • cup, pint, quart, gallon
    • teaspoon, tablespoon
    • miles per hour
    • metric measurements for distance, volume, weight
  8. Symbol Awareness (crucial symbolic concepts)
    • compass directions
    • map reading
    • letters—print, cursive, braille
    • punctuation signs
    • numbers, zero
    • signs—shape and design
    • pictures
    • colors (red = stop; green = go)
    • Pronouns
    • I, me, mine
    • you, yours
    • he, she, his, hers
    • we, they, theirs, ours
    • it, its
  9. Emotional and Social Awareness (concepts associated with psychosocial adjustment)
    • distinguish I from You
    • discriminate parent from stranger
    • self-concept
    • human sexuality concepts
    • manners
    • grooming
    • body language
    • nonverbal communication
    • voice pitch and intensity
    • asking assistance, accepting help
    • initiating questioning
    • acceptance and rejection of others and by others
    • values
    • sad, happy, angry
    • scared, fear, afraid
    • worried, excited
  10. Reasoning (thought processes in which concepts are used)
    • traffic patterns
    • right of way
    • detour
    • pedestrian traffic
    • one-way street
    • lanes of traffic
    • route
    • route reversal
    • patterns in the environment
    • decision-making
    • real and make-believe
    • realistic expectations for self
    • making judgments—right, wrong, good, bad, fair, unfair
    • orientation, disorientation
    • estimation
    • time-distance relationships
    • functioning of objects and parts of objects
    • objects with similar parts
    • all, some, none
    • any, every
    • only, either, or
    • sorting
    • sequencing (patterns, numbers, sounds)
    • categorizing, classification
    • comparing, same, different
    • conservation (volume, mass, weight, quantity)
    • use of visual memory
    • common visual terminology

Assessing conceptual understanding

After determining the concepts to be examined with a particular student by examining the list of concepts, determining curricular needs, and observing the student, it is necessary to assess a student's understanding of these concepts systematically. Both verbal and performance responses should be elicited from the student in the assessment of concrete concepts whenever possible. This serves to clarify the relationship between a student's language ability and performance skills. Students with little or no language ability must be assessed through the use of their available skills, though this makes the assessment process more difficult.

The assessment of concepts requires an examination of the breadth and depth of a student's conceptual understanding. The levels at which concepts are assessed varies with the functioning of the student and the type of concept under consideration. With any concept, the teacher must use his or her judgment to determine which conceptual levels a student can be expected to master, taking into account such factors as past experience and instruction, language ability, visual functioning, and general developmental level. Examples of concept assessment shown in Tables 3.13.6 demonstrate different levels at which some basic concepts can be assessed. Since concepts are so varied, these examples cannot cover all types of concepts that must be taught. They can, however, be used as models for developing assessment protocols for other types of concepts.

Students must be able to identify concrete objects represented by concepts before they can be expected to describe functions or relationships (see Table 3.1). Thus the identification of familiar objects represented by a concept is the first level of assessment for concepts of concrete objects. This is followed by the identification of unfamiliar objects represented by a concept. Important for gaining insight into the understanding of very young or low-functioning students, the latter procedure clarifies, for example, whether a student understands the word "table" to signify only one table in a corner of the classroom or whether it signifies all objects with legs and horizontally positioned, flat tops.

A description of the function of objects represented by a concept should be the next step in the assessment of concepts of concrete objects. A table, for example, is used as a place to put things.

It is then necessary to assess the environmental contexts in which the objects represented by a concept are found. This level of assessment is important because it clarifies the conceptual relationships that a student understands. For example, tables are commonly found in homes, schools, restaurants; they are often located in kitchens or dining rooms; chairs are often associated with tables.

Methods for assessing other types of concepts have been summarized in Tables 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5, 3.6.

Clarifying specific concepts for the teaching process

Many concepts appear obvious, but this cannot be taken for granted. Take, for example, the concept "front." Imagine yourself facing a table with a chair in between your body and the table. The chair is pushed under the table. You are facing the "back" of the chair, but you are facing the "front" of the table. This is so because the chair has a front and a back which are inherent in the definition of chair. Your position in relation to the chair does not determine its front and back, which never change. On the other hand, the front or back of the table is determined by the position of an observer in relation to the table. The front or back of the table changes as the observer changes position. These distinctions could be quite confusing to a student and must be clarified in the instructional process.

To be certain that a concept is presented in a precise manner to a student, a conceptual analysis is performed. This involves two steps. First, a definition of the concept as it will be used in the teaching process is developed. This definition may be different from a dictionary definition since its purpose is to simplify or break down a concept for instruction. The definition helps formulate the conceptual goal of the lesson. For some students, "front" would be defined as part of an object directly facing the front of a person's body, when that object does not have a front or a back. This precision in the definition makes it easier to teach, and as a consequence, makes it easier for a student to learn.

The second step in the conceptual analysis process is to identify all the concepts that must be understood in order to achieve the conceptual goal of the lesson. The conceptual goal is determined by the definition of the concept adopted for instruction. Here is an example for the concept "front."

Conceptual Goal: "Front"

The student will be able to indicate (verbally or by pointing or touching) the front of objects that have no designated front or back, either when the student changes position by moving around the objects while facing them, or when the objects are turned while they are in front of the student (Figure 3.1).

Strategies should be devised that teach concepts from the bottom of the conceptual analysis, working upward in the hierarchy. It is not necessary to teach those concepts in the hierarchy that the student already understands. Thus it is important to determine the student's entry level for each conceptual analysis. A student may have more than one entry level in an analysis, depending on the complexity of the analysis. Concepts should be broken down at least one step below a student's entry level.

Reinforcing and generalizing conceptual understanding

Concepts must be carefully taught to students using both manipulative materials and verbal explanations whenever possible. In addition, it is important to devise methods that help the student transfer his or her understanding of a concept from the specific teaching situation to other situations in the course of a normal day. Cooperation is needed at this point from parents and other professionals. They can be informed of a specific concept that has just been learned by a student and can, in turn, emphasize that concept with the student as relevant situations arise. This procedure reinforces specific concepts and also makes them more meaningful to the student since he or she becomes increasingly aware that certain concepts represent different aspects of daily life.

Examples of teaching specific concepts

Two examples of conceptual analysis follow. One example deals with the deceptively simple concept "first," the other deals with the concept "neighborhood." There are other ways to teach these concepts, but the methods used here worked well for the particular students for whom they were devised.


The subject in this case was a six-year-old student whose visual impairment, due to retrolental fibroplasia, left her with minimal light perception. Upon initial observation, the child appeared to lack three important concepts—first, middle, and last. The need to locate things or persons in one's environment necessitates an understanding of order and positioning. Because of the student's age, attention span, and the complexity of each of the three concepts, it was decided to begin with one concept—"first."

Conceptual Analysis

Definition of "first": The position or order of an object or person, such that it is preceding all others in space.

Conceptual Goal

Given the directional arrangement of a set (front to back, left to right, top to bottom), the student will demonstrate an understanding of the spatial concept "first" by tactually or verbally identifying the first object or person in the set. (See Figure 3.2.)

In order to determine the entry level of this six-year-old student, the game "Simon Says" was played. The student knew the left and the top of her body, but did not know the front of her body. She did not know left, top, or front of objects. To understand the concept "first," it was necessary to clarify the concepts "left," "top," and "front" for this particular student.


In this case a 16-year-old blind student was to be taught the concept of "city block." This later grew into the concept of "neighborhood," which is essentially only one step further: it is an area of many city blocks. From observations of this student, it appeared that she was not familiar with the concept, as she came from a rural environment. This concept is extremely useful in connection with orientation and mobility, and is a challenge which this student was capable of understanding.

Conceptual Analysis

Two definitions are needed for this analysis, since "neighborhood" is closely related to "city block."

Definition of "city block": A rectangular unit immediately bounded by four streets or the length of one side of such a rectangle. Definition of "neighborhood": A district or section of a number of city blocks with people of similar condition and type of habitation living near one another.

Two definitions of "city block" based upon rectangular units were used in this analysis and taught to the student. Some city blocks are not rectangular in shape, but are irregular. This type of city block was not covered in the analysis. Ideally, it should be taught after a student has mastered the more simple (and common) definitions associated with rectangular city blocks.

The original definition of "neighborhood" did not include commercial districts, but the definition was expanded to include commercial districts during the course of the lesson because this particular student was able to make this transition easily.

Conceptual Goal

The student will demonstrate understanding of "neighborhood" in relation to the "city block" concept. (See Figure 3.3.)

From a discussion with the student, it was determined that she was not familiar with the components of a city block, so the lessons began with that point in the analysis.

Reading Comes Naturally: A Mother and Her Blind Child's Experiences*

Chapter headings

Blindness, and Bridging Concepts

Sees Special Need

A Search for Brailled Books

"Home-Made" Books

A Literate Environment


I use the word reading in exactly the same sense as when a sighted child picks up a favorite book and thumbs through retelling the story in his or her own words. The child is obviously aware of the meaning and the wholeness of that book. Although the child is not actually reading the words, there is an awareness of the fact that the story comes from these printed words on the page. This activity of retelling a story, dismissed by most as memorization, is actually a very important first step in learning to read. When a child discovers a broom for the first time and then proceeds to wreck the kitchen while "sweeping," mastery begins. But if we do not support and encourage these early approximations, the final skill will never be accomplished. In the same way, a child flips through a book and retells the story, perhaps filling in familiar words for others not yet in his or her vocabulary but retaining the original meaning of the story. The enjoyment and success of these early experiences with books will carry the child through the steps from approximations to final success in deciphering the print—what most people consider "real" reading.

Blindness, and Bridging Concepts

Jamaica was born at home within a close circle of family and friends. Shortly after her birth someone gently said, "You may find out that she is blind." It was true. She was born anophthalmic, or without eyes. Feelings flowed deeply, sadness true, but also good feelings. We were given the unique opportunity to witness the depths of love and understanding unlocked in others by her specialness. It was a time of change, a time of growth, a time of acceptance. And then it was time to get on with making Jamaica's life as full and complete as possible.

Jamaica's brother, Lucky, was only a year-and-a-half old at the time, but already we had spent many hours reading and sharing books. Those were some of our most special times together, times I didn't want to miss with Jamaica. Lucky, like most very young children, spent most of his time looking at and talking about the pictures. What could possibly replace this lure into books for Jamaica? I began to realize that tactual pictures could easily be based on visual representation but also that these would have very little meaning to Jamaica based on her own special kinds of experiences. What could a little piece of fur with four thin strips sticking out of the bottom and pasted on a page have to do with that warm, wiggling, panting mass of fur that she would know as a dog?

Putting my background in graphic design to work, I set out to make Jamaica's first book. She had a little circle puzzle that she liked, so I chose a circle theme. First of all the book had to be durable, able to withstand lots of handling. I used cardboard with fabric cover and filled it with many different textures and sizes of circles, repeating patterns. Most of all I wanted it to feel good; my only mistake was to use sandpaper as one of the textures. I'll never use it again. It sets your teeth on edge . . . not something that encourages tactual exploration. The book was a success. Jamaica and I would "read," tactually following the patterns and saying the same verses each time. On one page we would say "Ring Around the Roses" on another "Round and Round the Mulberry Bush." Then surprise! "What is that square doing in our Circle Book?" Jamaica seemed to enjoy these activities, but I saw a definite increase in her enthusiasm when with big Elmer's Glue dots I added the braille words Jamaica's Circle Book to the cover. (Lucky was equally fascinated with picking the new dots off and eating them!) So at eight months, Jamaica and I had begun the process that would eventually lead her into the exciting world of books.

As a mother of two young children, I had very little time to spend making books. So I was constantly searching for appropriate commercially produced books. Golden Books publishes a Touch and Feel Series. These books offer activities such as patting the fuzzy bunny or snapping Santa Claus' rubber band suspenders. We purchased several of these but Jamaica soon lost interest in the activities because the stories were not exciting. I also found that several publishers offer Scratch and Sniff books. These contain stories about children favorites like Bambi and Winnie the Pooh, but with the addition of fragrance labels to the pages. They provided some involvement for Jamaica, as she searched the pages to find the stickers. She even began to recognize some of the books by their general fragrance. We enjoyed the stories and Jamaica often requested these books by name.

Sees Special Need

However, I felt a need for books made especially for a child living in a tactual world. I found What's That? by Jensen and Haller. The characters in this book, Little Rough, Little Shaggy, Little Spot, Little Stripe and Little Smooth, all really feel like their names sound. They live in triangles and squares and travel along paths made tactual through a method of printing using thick ink. The book is graphically pleasing, visually as well as tactually. The story is fascinating and includes a fun surprise ending. It is excellent in every respect. Philomel Books in New York publishes this and other books designed especially for blind children. All share similar qualities. We were excited to find these books but wanted more. My search continued.

Due to the scarcity of specially designed books, we spent most of our time reading regular inkprint books. I was always trying different ways to make this reading exciting and meaningful to Jamaica. Whenever we all sat down to read together (including little sister Dixie now), Jamaica's part was to turn the pages. This helped to keep her alert and involved in the process, otherwise she had a tendency to fall asleep. I encouraged Lucky and Dixie to describe to Jamaica what was happening in the pictures, also hoping that this would expand their understanding of her blindness. While reading I would leave words off of the ends of sentences for them to fill in the blanks. I hoped this would help them all to develop the important reading skill of prediction. This was just another way to keep Jamaica actively involved. It was working. She was listening. She could answer questions about what we read. She had favorite books, and would ask for them to be read over and over again.

The bookshelf was one of Jamaica's first landmarks in the house. She would sit on the floor and pull down all of the books. She would hold one in her lap and just flip through feeling the pages. She liked the slick ones best. Books have their own particular smell, a special feel about them, qualities that I seemed to destroy if I did too much pasting and gluing. So I settled for adapting covers only, that left the pages smooth and booklike but still gave Jamaica some independence in choosing which book she wanted at the bookshelf. On the cover of Pinocchio, the puppet is holding a match to light the fire inside the whale. I glued a match on that book. There were beans on the cover of Jack and the Beanstalk. One day I found Lucky squeezing glue all over the cover of one book. "I'm fixing it so Mai-Mai will know which one it is, Mama." She did indeed learn to recognize that book by its special glue configurations.

Since Jamaica didn't like lumpy books, ones that didn't feel like real books, an alternative was to make "book bags." The book was placed in a paper sack along with as many of the objects mentioned in the story as possible. Why have a picture if you can have the real thing? In Jamaica's favorite story, Mickey 'n Donald, the doorbell rang so we had a bell on hand. Robbers stole money from a bank. So we had handcuffs from ropes and money bags with coins tied up in handkerchiefs. Larger items such as a stepladder and a laundry basket were gathered together just before reading. Then with all of our props ready, the family would act out the story as I read. We would tape record the whole performance. The book bag with its contents was returned to the shelf, ready for the next reading.

A Search for Brailled Books

But in spite of all my efforts, Jamaica was still missing some very important pre-reading experiences. First a child grasps the wholeness of the book and its meaning. But gradually the pieces begin to emerge, sentences, words, letters. Dixie would be listening to a story and interrupt to say, "There's my letter," as she pointed to a D in the text. I could see that Jamaica needed books with braille so she could find her letter too.

When I went to look, I had difficulty finding appropriate brailled books for Jamaica. Although there were a few braille "readiness" materials such as the ones prepared by the American Printing House for the Blind, very few actual books were available.

I did locate some sources of braille books. The American Brotherhood for the Blind offers, without charge, a lending library of Twin Vision books. These are selected books with print and braille text side by side. In other words, the book is unbound, brailled pages are inserted beside the printed text and then the book is re-bound. Now, with these books Jamaica could follow along as I read, or could she? I was reading the print on one side and there was a whole page of braille beside it. But I didn't even know where to put her hand. How could she possibly follow along? With much time and effort I could maybe pick out a J or was it a J? I wasn't ever sure about where one letter ended and another began. I can remember once trying to decipher a very short sentence using my A.P.H. braille alphabet card. Try as I might, I just couldn't figure what it said. I later learned about contractions and whole word signs, special braille configurations representing frequently used words and letter combinations. You won't find them on an alphabet card. I imagine that many other parents are also unaware of these special characteristics of the code. Other print-braille books are offered by the Library of Congress and Howe Press. But the same problems exist here and are often compounded by the fact that the braille is embossed on clear overlays. This makes the pictures in the book more visible, but the braille is even harder to see than ever. Jamaica and I still preferred our regular ink-print books.

Later on I would have Jamaica's teacher take home some of the books and hand copy the text into each book so we could really begin to use them. Another teacher, upon hearing this said, "I did that too." Why so much duplication of effort? Perhaps, with just a little bit more planning and thought good ready-to-use material could be produced . If quality braille books appropriate for preschool children were accessible, then parents and teachers could spend their time reading with their children.

When Jamaica was three years old, I returned to school seeking my master's degree in Visual Disabilities. As part of my course work I learned to write braille and read it, not tactually but by sight. This was when I learned why I previously had so much trouble figuring out the code. Knowing how to read braille didn't really make it much easier to use available materials. But now I at least knew that the braille word that matched the word I was reading might not even be on the same page.

Jamaica was now in a homebound vision program so we were given a braille writer to use at home. This was very exciting to me. I knew how important paper and pencil experiences were for sighted children in the process of learning to read.

Lucky had invented an ingenious way of making pictures for Jamaica. With the point of a pencil, he would punch holes in a sheet of paper laying on the carpet. The reverse side had nice "braille" dots. Whenever Lucky and Dixie drew or painted, Jamaica did too. Sometimes we used a screen board or raised line drawing kit, so she could feel her marks. But more often than not, Jamaica preferred plain paper and pencil. This is probably because these materials were much more accessible. Also, I was not as likely to try to direct or teach her as she worked. She was allowed more freedom. She would tell me about what she was making. Then, hand-over-hand, we would always sign her name on her work.

She continued to love these activities. But now with the braillewriter, she could also begin to make marks in the medium she would eventually use. Jamaica would "clunk" away on the brailler and dictate letters or stories which I could write down and then read back to her. This activity was similar to a sighted child's scribbling. Gradually lines take on familiar shapes and forms and are refined into letters and words. Jamaica could become familiar with the braillewriter. She pushed the levers and then felt the paper, getting immediate feedback from her actions. "Look Jamaica. You made an A!"

"Home-Made" Books

Now with knowledge of the braille code and access to a braillewriter I could begin to braille materials myself, titles to books and tapes, favorite passages in books. On special occasions I would always try to make a new book for Jamaica. These books would have braille text with the corresponding hand-printed word directly above the braille, the perfect format. As Jamaica's hands moved across the page, I followed reading each word as she touched. We were together at last.

I brailled make-believe stories about Jamaica and her best friend. I wrote about familiar things that she talked about often, our two cats and the dog next door. The picture of the dog, instead of a complicated confusing outline, was simply two bumps for eyes and two floppy pieces of fur for ears. Now our experiences like Making Banana Bread became stories and Jamaica had her own braille copy. " 'Jamaica put white flour in her mouth.' 'She looks like a clown.' 'Dixie poured eggs but missed.' 'Lucky, please put the bananas in.' 'Yuk!' " These were very special stories and the children loved to read them over and over again.

Here also we began a "journal" for Jamaica. In a special notebook we would record her experiences, brailling the most important parts of each story in her exact words. Her journal also included letters, newspaper articles, and pictures. One of Jamaica's most prized possessions was her photo album. Like all children she wanted to know all about when she was a tiny baby. In addition, our collection of personal tapes, recordings of places we had visited and people we had met, served as an "auditory experience album." These tapes became Jamaica's favorite bedtime stories. Although she was unable to actually read the braille titles, she would find a tape with no label, "Mama, this one needs braille." Yes, for everything I brailled, there were 20 other things waiting to be brailled.

In efforts to increase the number of books available to Jamaica, I contacted the state center providing instructional materials for the visually impaired. I asked if they would be willing to braille some of Jamaica's favorite books. They found a volunteer who was more than willing. She returned the completed books with a note saying she would be glad to do more whenever we wanted. Suddenly I had 10 or 12 new braille books piled on my desk, pages and pages of braille and no inkprint. Yes, I could read braille but very slowly and painfully. I struggled with each word, sounding like a first grader just beginning to read. So before we could really use our new books I had to hand copy the text into each one. Of course I used the previously described format where the print word was directly above the braille word. It was a slow process. Six months later I had finished only a couple. Then another volunteer offered to do this transcribing for me. Finally Jamaica's library began to grow.

We had already explored the materials available which were developed to promote braille reading readiness. The Tactual Road to Reading has books with yarn and stick designs for practicing tracking skills. But Jamaica had to be coaxed to use them. One difficult afternoon I put them away and pulled out one of our new braille books instead. I told Jamaica that I would read while she tracked lines. If her hands stopped, I stopped reading. The next day she came home from school and said, "Mama, don't you think we should practice tracking those words in that book again?" She had never asked to practice on readiness materials. The motivation is intrinsic in the words that tell a story, a whole book.

We learned so much as each new batch of books was made. The first books were brailled horizontally onto whole sheets of braille paper and then bound. The format was wrong. The books were just too big to handle comfortably. The next books we made were smaller. These were much better for Jamaica's little hands and lap. We learned to hand copy in indelible ink so wet fingers wouldn't smear all the words. I found that I was really missing the pictures and the other children showed little excitement over reading in a pictureless book. One of the original books that we had copied was coming unbound, so I cut it up and pasted the pictures into our new braille book. It worked very nicely. Books thrown away by libraries became an incredible resource for producing braille materials with illustrations. Our braillist had another good idea. She xeroxed the pictures from original books and had her own children color and paste them into the new braille books before sending them to us. They were beautiful. Now Jamaica and I had braille inkprint in a format which allowed us to read together and the other children had pictures too. The books were coming together at last.

A Literate Environment

What of all the time and effort that had gone into developing a pre-reading literary environment for Jamaica? How important is this to reading skills? And could my experiences with Jamaica benefit more than one blind child?

Reading and writing are natural extensions of the literacy learning which begins with the acquisition of language. Holdaway (1979) suggests that for a better understanding of the developmental processes involved we should look closely at the ways in which children learn to read (as opposed to the ways in which we teach them). Some children have been observed to learn completely on their own, without any formal instruction.

The common element in the lives of these early readers is described as a "literate environment." Kenneth Goodman (1976) explains this is a place "where kids are constantly exposed to print, made aware of its functions, how it works, its subtle differences and similarities" (p. 2). According to Goodman, children learn to read in much the same way as they learn to talk and to listen: "That is, they become aware first of wholes and their relationship to specific messages. And then with teachers' help they begin to develop a sense of the structure and of the relationship of part to whole" (p. 4).

If we take reading and break it up into letters and words separate from the context of the story, we offer the child the most complex element first. And we expect children to be able to make sense of these abstractions. Conversely, if we offer them a whole book and then proceed to the parts, we are going from the simple to the complex, a logical approach.

If a blind child's experiences have led to adequate and meaningful language development, this will form a sound basis for learning to read and write. However, the literate environment so important in encouraging development of these new skills will not occur naturally for the blind child. Sighted children enter school with five years of experiences with print and books behind them. By the time school starts many children are ready to learn to read, if they haven't done so already. On the other hand, the blind child might come with very few similar braille reading experiences. Is it fair to send these children to school with a five-year deficit and expect them to learn something twice as hard?

There are many readily available and untapped resources that lend themselves to our print above the braille format, the format which allows the parent to read with the child. For example, children's Easy-to-Read books can be adapted by inserting braille copy produced on sticky contact paper directly beneath existing text. These books contain only one or two lines of large print text per page. Thus, the one or two lines of braille will be easier to track than a page full of print lines, but still give the child practice in moving left to right, turning pages, recognizing the top and bottom of the page . . . conventions of print which are prerequisites to reading. More importantly, this offers the blind child a chance to tactually discover the patterns of words and sentences in the context of a whole story as the parent reads aloud. With so many good children's books being published, there are probably many which could be inexpensively and easily adapted.

In addition to adapting books, perhaps a method can be devised to make it easier for sighted parents to easily recognize letter configurations in braille. Here there is the possibility of brailling books on specifically prepared pages of printed squares where each braille configuration falls into its own square. This gives a relationship of the raised dots to the whole braille cell and delineates each character. If parents could begin to recognize certain letters they could point these out to their child as they read. In addition notes and helpful hints to parents about braille code could be printed in the margins or between lines.


Jamaica is now five years old. She is in a regular kindergarten class with itinerant vision services. She is learning braille letters and tactual print letters both. It's not easy. I know it'll probably take longer for her to learn to read than it will for many of her sighted peers. But I'm not worried. She walks around the house and finds the bookshelf, still one of her favorite spots. She pulls down a few books (many of them slick inkprint only). She opens one and says "What is this?" I answer, "Wolfie. Do you know what Wolfie is?" "Oh yes, he's a spider." And I know she knows what a spider is because I've let one crawl on her leg. She might even talk about Wolfie or make up a story of her own as she flips through the book. She's got the basics . . . the meaning of the story, that the story comes from the book and that braille forms the words in the book. She loves books. She's on her way.


Goodman, K. (1976). Reading: A conversation with Kenneth Goodman coauthor of Reading Unlimited. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Company.
Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundations of literacy. Sydney, Australia: Ashton Scholastic.
Jensen & Haller (1978). What's That? New York: Philomel Books.

Using an Integrated Literacy Curriculum with Beginning Braille Readers*

Chapter headings

Innovations in teaching language

Environmental differences for blind readers

Appropriate adaptations

Daily continuity

Essential read/write relationship

Beginning writing

Group support

Integrating braille into daily activities

Blind children learning to read and write face a far more challenging task than their sighted peers. Developing the experiential background necessary for comprehension and mastering the intricacies of the braille code often require much one-on-one instruction. Although the teaching of braille will always necessitate individual attention, recent trends in teaching literacy skills to young sighted children appear to have significant implications for beginning braille readers.

It is now recognized that most sighted children begin school already possessing many literary behaviors, such as left-to-right sequencing, the ability to recognize some letters and produce letterlike forms, and an understanding of the purpose of reading (Wiseman, 1984). Some researchers dismiss the traditional concept of reading readiness, using the term "emergent literacy" to describe reading and writing behaviors seen in young children (Teale, 1985). This new perspective is having a significant impact on kindergarten curricula around the country. In many classrooms, "integrated curriculums" are being tried, stressing the close interconnections of oral language, reading, and writing skills. Kindergarteners no longer "get ready" to read and write—they are reading and writing every day, in a wide variety of situations.

The connection between what is spoken, written, and read becomes even more apparent to children when they are active participants in a print-rich environment where oral language, writing, and reading are important daily activities (Sprunk et al., 1986).

Innovations in teaching language

These children use "big books," collaborative stories, journal writing, story conferencing, and many other activities as a regular part of their instruction. This multifaceted approach produces five-year-olds who are excited about reading and confident in their abilities as writers—results not usually attainable through the sole use of basal readiness materials.

Blind kindergarteners, whether mainstreamed or self-contained, can benefit from much of the integrated-curriculum approach, even if the "Patterns" readiness books continue to be used as a part of the instructional program. However, several special considerations are important in expanding the blind child's early literacy experiences. Blind children certainly do not come to school with the same repertoire of literary behaviors as sighted children. Their lack of exposure to the wealth of written language that surrounds every sighted child, and the relative scarcity of preschool braille materials, may mean that they do not even have the basic concept that spoken language can be written down.

Environmental differences for blind readers

Much can be done to develop this concept during the preschool years by creating a "literature environment" in the home— reading aloud, making simple braille books based on the child's experiences, familiarizing the young blind child with the braillewriter and its purpose, and encouraging approximations of reading and writing behaviors (Miller, 1985).

Equally important for every young child is an understanding of "the functional aspect of literacy" (Teale, 1985). Young blind children often miss out on the purposes of reading and writing because they do not observe other family members reading the newspaper, making shopping lists, jotting down telephone numbers, or consulting a recipe card. Even though print is an abstract concept for blind children, they can be made aware of its many uses of having parents describe in simple terms what they are reading or writing. Later on, when blind children begin to read braille and write on the braillewriter, their basic understanding of why people read and write will give them many reasons to practice and enjoy their new skills.

Once blind children begin kindergarten, much can be done to encourage their participation in an integrated-literacy program. Teachers of visually impaired children tend to spend a great deal of time on the mechanics of reading and writing braille, including manipulative activities to develop finger strength and coordination, tracking drills, and braille character discrimination exercises. While these are important, they do not give a real purpose for reading and writing, nor do they necessarily spark enthusiasm for literary pursuits. They also tend to isolate blind children from the academic activities of their sighted classmates, which are often very social at this level.

Appropriate adaptations

The vision teacher's first task is to select the most meaningful aspects of the "print rich" kindergarten environment to transcribe into braille. These may include the daily message, one or more "big books," collaborative stories, samples of other children's writing, and print books representing the best in children's literature at this level. Preparation of these materials is time-consuming, and often each braille selection must be explored on a one-to-one basis before being used in a classroom group activity. However, the use of such varied written materials adds an important dimension to the blind child's early reading experience, and lays the foundation for future progress and enjoyment.

Daily continuity

In the integrated-language-arts approach used with sighted children, writing is closely tied to oral language and reading. Children discuss their plans for writing at the beginning of a lesson, and later read what they have written in a group "conference," with comments from listeners encouraged. Fluent, uninhibited writing is fostered by making writing a daily activity, allowing children to select their own topics, and emphasizing the importance of the message rather than the mechanics.

Many children keep picture journals where they write a word or sentence about each illustration. All children are encouraged to use "invented spelling," a nonconventional but logical system of sounding out words (Teale, 1985).

Sound/symbol relationships are acquired in real writing situations through sharing, observation, and practice—often making formal instruction in beginning consonant sounds unnecessary. Some of the children's writing is revised and recopied using conventional "book spelling," then bound into attractive books of all shapes and sizes to be enjoyed by the entire class. The direct link between reading and writing is clearly established through the bookmaking process, and the children gain confidence in their abilities as writers and readers.

Essential read/write relationship

Making the reading-writing connection can be equally valuable and exciting for young blind children. Before students are able to use the braillewriter independently, braille language-experience stories dictated to the vision teacher develop the concept that spoken words can be written down. As soon as the children have mastered some basic mechanical skills—finger isolation, knowledge of the dot number associated with each of the six keys, and the ability to write a few words and letters—they can begin composing their own stories with guidance from the vision teacher.

Beginning writing

In the beginning, it is important for the vision teacher to model sounding-out behaviors, teaching the children to listen for consonant sounds in each word and providing the dot numbers for unfamiliar letters when necessary. This should not be a lengthy or a painful process—with the invented-spelling technique, how much of a word is written depends entirely on the child's level. Also, the braille code with its short-form words and special characters for common consonant digraphs actually facilitates the inventive spelling approach, and many young blind children are able to write as fluently as their sighted classmates.

Early writing attempts may consist only of the child's name and the beginning letter of a key word. Later on, whole sentences may be written, made up of one or more consonant letters from each word (e.g., I md a bg—meaning, I made a bridge). Like the early writing of sighted children, these braille stories should be recognized as approximations of mature writing. By providing acceptance, encouragement, and daily opportunities for practice, adults motivate children toward greater independence and skill in literary activities.

Group support

The importance of the message in writing is reinforced by providing children with frequent opportunities to share their writing with others. Blind children can participate easily in small group-writing conferences where each author reads his or her writing to the other children. Basic tracking and phonics skills are practiced during the reading, and critical thinking is developed through a discussion of what was heard. Opportunities to produce other types of meaningful written material—shopping lists for mobility lessons, thank-you letters, labels for cassette tapes—reinforce the many purposes of writing.

Like their sighted classmates, blind children gain further confidence and skills by participating in the bookmaking process. Subjects may be taken from the children's own journal or story writing, with the final copy brailled by the teacher, using conventional spelling and punctuation. Even very young children enjoy numbering the pages and assembling the different parts of their books in order, including the front and back covers, title page, text, and "About the Author" page. At this level, tactual illustrations are often a joint effort by the student and the teacher, providing additional reinforcement of oral language, fine motor skills, spatial awareness, and creative thinking. Books are made to be shared; the children's own braille books should become a temporary part of the classroom or school library, and should be read aloud often before being taken home.

Integrating braille into daily activities

Beginning braille readers who participate in an integrated-language-arts curriculum will continue to require more structure and individual guidance in acquiring literacy skills than their sighted classmates. Becoming a proficient braille reader necessitates practice in tracking, character discrimination, and application of complex rules. However, mastery of these skills should never be regarded as an end in itself. Those blind children whose daily work includes at least some aspects of an integrated curriculum benefit from the global picture of literacy it provides. Oral language, reading, and writing are seen as interrelated, purposeful activities.


Miller, D. (1985). Reading comes naturally: A mother and her blind child's experiences. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 79, 1–4.
Strunk, R. (1986). Integrated language arts guide for kindergarten. Fairfax, VA: Department of Instructional Service, Fairfax County Public Schools.
Teale, W. (1985). The beginnings of literacy. Dimensions, 13, 5–8.
Wiseman, D. (1984). Helping children take early steps toward reading and writing. The Reading Teacher, 37, 340–344.

A Process Approach to Teaching Braille Writing at the Primary Level*

Chapter headings

Writing: A process approach

Process approach to braille writing

Writing in kindergarten

The developing writer

Diversity in writing




Braille literacy is being reaffirmed by many in the field as an educational priority for children with severely limited vision (Schroeder, 1989; Stephens, 1989). The ability to read and write braille maximizes students' chances of educational and vocational success and lays the foundation that they need to benefit from many new technological advances (Stephens, 1989). Those who advocate braille literacy, however, should be aware that traditional approaches to teaching literary skills in regular education are being abandoned as a result of extensive research into the way sighted children achieve literacy. Key components of the new approach to teaching language arts include immersing students in print, giving students greater responsibility for learning, and integrating literary skills with all areas of the curriculum (County School Board of Fairfax County, 1987).

Classes following this approach are sometimes referred to as "reading-writing classrooms" (Butler & Turbill, 1987). Many of the ideas and strategies that characterize instruction in these classrooms may be applied to teaching braille writing at the primary level.

Writing: A process approach

Teaching writing is approached differently in a reading-writing classroom than it is in traditional writing instruction. Rote skill-development exercises from reading, spelling, grammar, and handwriting workbooks are replaced by the students' extensive daily writing on topics they select. This change reflects the belief that children learn to write only by actually writing, not by filling in blanks or copying exercises (Hansen, 1987).

Teachers are less concerned with the final product than with the students' involvement in the process of writing—a process that includes the phases of drafting, revising, proofreading, and publishing that are familiar to adult writers. Writing can be thought of as a craft, "a long, painstaking, patient process . . . to learn how to shape material to a level where it is satisfying to the person doing the crafting" (Graves, 1983, p. 6). When writing drafts, students learn to use invented spelling, a nonconventional but logical system of sounding out words (Teale, 1985), that enables them to compose freely using any words in their expressive vocabulary. One or more revisions of selected pieces are undertaken as the writers receive constructive feedback from their audience of peers and teachers. The message, not the mechanics, is the focus for discussion and revision until the work is prepared for publication by its student-author.

Process approach to braille writing

Young children who read braille can also benefit from this approach when the writing process is modified. Because the text should be immediately accessible to both the teacher and the child throughout the drafting and revision stages (Ely, 1989), a teacher who knows braille must assume the major role in teaching writing to a primary-grade child who is blind. When the child has a good understanding of the writing process and is able to transfer writing skills to a talking computer, regular education teachers may become more involved in writing instruction.

The writing samples included in this article are taken from the work of primary grade students who are enrolled in a combination self-contained-resource room for children with severe visual impairments. For part of each day, the children are mainstreamed into regular classes, in which a literature-based, process approach to teaching language arts is used. The vision teacher works closely with the regular education teachers to design a language arts program for each child that includes both mainstream experiences and individual instruction in the resource room. The work samples are exact transcriptions of the invented spelling written by the children on their first drafts. Parentheses indicate a child's use of Grade 2 braille contractions.

The writing program continues to evolve as it is adapted to meet specific students' needs and is expanded to include strategies used in the regular education classrooms. However, a number of key components form the basis for instruction:

1. Because reading and writing influence each other in positive ways (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1984), the children are exposed to a wide variety of excellent children's literature, both fiction and nonfiction. They are read to frequently and have access to an expanding classroom library of easy braille books that are suitable for independent reading in the primary grades.

The goal is to develop a feel for the rhythm and pattern of language that the children will transfer to their writing. Most traditional basal reading series do not provide the rich linguistic experiences necessary for developing writers because of their controlled vocabulary and emphasis on rote skills. In the reading-writing classroom, these series have been replaced by a whole language, literature-based language arts program that fully integrates braille reading and writing experiences.

2. Just as students who are sighted are immersed in print in a reading-writing classroom, students who are blind are surrounded by braille to the greatest extent possible. The children are given many functional opportunities to practice their braille reading and writing skills every day—through messages, assignment lists, mainstream schedules, job lists, and letters to read and homework lists, reading logs, journals, thank-you letters, birthday cards, and cassette-tape labels to write. Teachers often leave braille messages for students, and the children quickly imitate this form of communication:

De(ar) Miss Sw(en)son, I ne(ed) (some)

(more) (braille) pap(er) (and) (some) big

(one)s (and) (some) skene <skinny>

(one)s . . . .

De(ar) miss weil, I am (so) soreey (th)et I (for) got to wride (you) a bir(th)(day) c(ar)d

ye(st)(er)(day) . . . .

3. Reading and writing strategies are modeled before the children are expected to attempt them on their own. The teacher talks through her thinking process as she demonstrates such skills as selecting a topic, using invented spelling, crossing out and inserting words on a draft, note taking, sequencing ideas, and expanding sentences. The children participate actively, contributing suggestions as the teacher struggles to make choices and examining the braille draft as it takes shape. It is important that the children view the teacher as a fellow writer who requires feedback from the audience to clarify her message (Graves, 1983).

4. Materials for writing are readily available to the children. They include braille paper in various sizes (such as half sheets for short messages and long skinny sheets for lists), braillewriters, a stapler, envelopes, three-ring notebooks for journal entries, and pocket writing folders for each child's current writing project.

5. The writer's message always takes precedence over mechanical considerations during the drafting phase of the process. The braille code, with its special characters for consonant digraphs and common words, is well suited to the invented spelling process. In the following journal entry, invented spelling enabled the kindergarten student to relate an entire experience and then read it back to his teacher using phonetic and contextual clues:

my mommy took me to (the) dr

(and) (the)n I w(en)t to (the) dnst

I (had) a kvey (in) my t(th)

my dr gv me a (sh)t

My dr (was) ns dr

hz nm (was) dr frk

I (was) a bzey (ch)d

[My mommy took me to the doctor and then I went to the dentist. I had a cavity in my tooth. My doctor gave me a shot. My doctor was a nice doctor. His name was Dr. Frank. I was a busy child.]

6. Conferences of individual children with the vision teacher are the most common means of revising and proofreading braille drafts. However, opportunities are also provided for the children to share their writing with both sighted and blind peers.

7. Grade 2 braille is used from the beginning of reading and writing instruction. Children are motivated to learn to read and spell words that are of interest to them, regardless of the difficulty of the contractions they may contain.

Writing in kindergarten

Kindergarteners who are blind need to develop the physical skills necessary to operate the braillewriter, the cognitive skills required for independent creative writing, and an awareness of the many purposes of reading and writing braille. If they have been introduced to braille books and the braillewriter as preschoolers, they may already have the concept that spoken language can be written in the form of braille and read back with the fingers. This concept is expanded as they observe their classmates and teachers using braille in a variety of functional ways.

Developing the muscular strength and coordination required to use a braillewriter may take several years. Initially, short daily practice sessions are supplemented with many opportunities to improve fine motor skills through finger plays, art projects, and free play with assembly toys (such as Legos and Tinker Toys). Correct posture should be encouraged, with back support and a footstool provided, if necessary. Children who are unable to press the braillewriter keys without rocking their whole bodies back and forth may benefit from standing and writing at a counter of appropriate height to give them increased leverage. Mechanical skills that they need before they begin to write creatively on the braillewriter include the ability to insert and remove the paper, write a line of full cells using even pressure and correct finger position, isolate the fingers and press each key separately with the correct fingers, and press a combination of keys when the dot numbers for a particular letter or contraction are given.

The cognitive aspects of the writing process should be introduced at the same time as are the drills for the braillewriter, so the children understand that the mastery of mechanical skills is not an end in itself, but a necessary foundation for independent writing. Journal writing is an ideal activity to introduce young children to the pleasure of written expression. The following sequence of learning skills and concepts has been successful in developing independent writing abilities by the end of the kindergarten year.

Dictated writing/"talking writing"

During this first stage, the student dictates one or more sentences about a personal experience to the teacher, who writes the entry in braille. The teacher uses conventional spelling and Grade 2 braille, but models the process of invented spelling by verbally accenting the dominant consonant sounds in words and stating the name of the letter to be written for each sound. Gradually, the student is able to recognize the sounds made by the different consonant letters and to tell the teacher which letters to write. When the entry is complete, the student and teacher may make a simple tactile picture together, and the student reads the sentence with help from the teacher. The teacher points out easy-to-recognize consonant letters, braille contractions, and punctuation marks, and the student searches for other examples.

In the second part of the lesson, the child is encouraged to write freely on the braillewriter. Invariably, children will speak their message as they write, imitating the behavior modeled by their teacher. The result is often a line of seemingly random dots that are equivalent to the scribbles and marks made by sighted children of the same age. It is important to recognize that this "talking writing" represents a valid literary behavior, just as sighted children's first efforts with crayons and paper are crucial steps in the development of literacy (Teale, 1985). Young children who are blind should be permitted to use the braillewriter as much as they like during free time, as long as they treat it with care.

As the children read their teacher's writing and their own "talking writing," they become aware of differences between the two. The teacher explains that "talking writing" is an acceptable form of writing, but it can be read only by the writer. The writing done by the teacher is referred to as "book writing" and can be read by anyone who knows braille. At this point, the children are eager to be shown how to make some of the letters they see in the teacher's "book writing," and these letters begin to appear in their own "talking writing." The teacher conducts frequent informal assessments to determine how many letters the children are able to recognize and write. The children help to choose the next letters to be learned, often by the association of these letters with favorite words or names.

Guided writing

During this stage, the children begin to write words and phrases using invented spelling and conventional braille characters, but still benefit from the teacher's assistance with the formation of characters on the braillewriter. Children who read braille become increasingly aware that characters with special shapes—contractions—may hide the sounds they hear in words or have sounds of their own. For example, the letter "r" does not appear in the word "her" where the "er" contraction is used, and the contraction "sh" makes a new sound altogether. As the children encounter common contractions in their reading, they begin to use them naturally in their writing.

Independent writing

Sighted children can begin to compose independently when they know about six consonants (Graves, 1983). Children who are learning braille often achieve independence in writing on the braillewriter at about the same time as do their sighted peers. The following sequence of journal entries shows one child's movement toward independence during his kindergarten year:

November: I (know) h(ow) to (do) buttons. [Sentence dictated to the teacher followed by a line of "talking writing" and a glued on button]

March: I tk n (the) mkfn

["I talked on the microphone." Sentence written by the child using consonant letters; some help was given with spacing and the contraction "the"]



("Dear Dad, I hope you have a very nice Father's Day. Love,—." [Sentence written independently by the child during free time; some contractions and vowels were used, but no spaces between words.])

The invented spelling technique allows young children complete freedom in choosing topics to write about and gives them early confidence in their abilities as independent writers.

The developing writer

As the children move into first grade, they become familiar with the basic steps in the writing process and begin to use the words draft, revise, proofread, and publish to describe where they are in their work on a particular piece. Children who are blind often write drafts as fluently as do their sighted classmates, using invented spelling to express their ideas. However, during the revision stage, when the students confer with their teachers or classmates and work to improve the clarity of their writing, young children who are blind require additional assistance from a teacher who knows braille. The goal is to maintain the children's lead in revising text while making the concrete part of the process (substituting words, moving text) as easy as possible. For primary-grade children who are blind, this goal can be achieved at several levels of difficulty:

1. The teacher writes in braille while the student revises the piece orally. The student and teacher then read the completed revision (the second draft) together and summarize the reasons for the changes.

2. The teacher and student revise the piece together and make changes directly on the draft. Sentences can be eliminated or rewritten by sticking a long piece of masking tape over the words and writing on top of it if a new version is needed. The sequence of events can also be changed by cutting the draft into separate sentences, placing the sentences in order, and stapling them to a new paper. A similar technique may be used to create space for additional information. Students enjoy helping the teacher manipulate the parts of the text to produce a satisfactory revision.

3. If the piece requires major revisions, the student and teacher may work together, with the student doing the writing. Several drafts may be necessary.

4. Depending on the difficulty and length of the piece and the maturity of the writer, the piece may be revised independently by the student after conferring with the teacher.

Like revision, proofreading can be accomplished most effectively during an individual conference between the student and the teacher. Often the student is asked to mark capitalization, punctuation, and spelling errors on the draft with a crayon before meeting with the teacher. The teacher then helps the student to make corrections using the braillewriter or tactile editing marks. Suggested editing symbols include the following:

  • Capital letter: A small piece of Formaline Charting and Graphic Art Tape.
  • Period: A small self-adhesive dot label.
  • New paragraph: A star.
  • Corrected spelling: Brailled on a rectangular file-folder label and stuck over the misspelled word.
  • Space needed: A long, thin piece of Formaline tape.

Once the written piece has been revised and proofread, a final copy is prepared for publication. Whether the children copy from a teacher-made draft (as in Level 1) or a draft containing editing marks, they are expected to use correct capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and Grade 2 braille. The children have invested a great deal of effort in their writing by the time it reaches this stage and are so familiar with the text that they can focus carefully on small details. The completed copy is often published as a book, with a title page, dedication, biographical sketch of the author, and tactile pictures, and becomes part of the classroom library for the remainder of the year.

Young children in reading-writing classrooms write daily, but publish only about a fifth of their drafts—one every 10 days to two weeks (Graves, 1983). The learning involved in the revision and proofreading stages is supplemented by minilessons related to their writing style or mechanical skills. During each lesson, the teacher focuses on a specific skill or aspect of writing, often using the student's work to illustrate the problem and possible solutions. The first-grade author of the following draft was asked to think critically about his work by finding the three sentences that said the same thing, choosing the best one, and justifying his decision.

(the) guiea pig is my fbrt

I (like) (the) guiea pig (so) (much)

(the) guiea pig my fvrt anml

I w(sh)t I (had) a guiea pig

I (would) tk kv (of) a gu(in)ea pig

Other examples of minilessons that are taught to visually impaired writers at the primary level include grouping like ideas; choosing interesting words; composing a main-idea sentence, followed by support statements; providing more specific information; using quotation marks in dialogue; differentiating between the questions and telling sentences; maintaining the agreement of the subject and the verb in a sentence; and using the contracted form of the word to.

The process approach to writing does not ignore the importance of teaching children to spell or use Grade 2 braille correctly. Children understand that conventional "book spelling," not invented spelling, must be used in published pieces. Keeping a running list of words a child misspells during daily writing provides the teacher with a source of weekly spelling lists that are composed of words the student actually uses.

In making up a spelling list, the vision teacher can group words to maximize the practice of specific contractions or to introduce new ones. Children enjoy helping to choose the words for their lists and demonstrate significant improvement in spelling on their written drafts. Correct spelling can also be encouraged by teaching students to use small three-ring notebook "word banks" to record the spelling of words they use frequently or need for a specific topic. The word bank contains one page for each letter and three tabs—"F," "M," and "T"—to help the children locate words quickly.

Diversity in writing

The wide variety of children's literature that developing writers hear and read in a reading-writing classroom leads naturally to diversity in their writing. A favorite literary form is the imitation of rhythms and patterns found in traditional chants like "The More We Get Together," a selection from an early first-grade reading lesson:

The more we get together, together, together,

The more we get together, the happier we'll be.

  Braille variation using the student's favorite food:

(The) (more) we eat (the) pizza, (the) pizza, (the) pizza,

(The) (more) we eat (the) pizza, (the) fatt(er) we'll be!

Primary-grade students can also be introduced to nonfiction, or "information writing," and the techniques of interviewing, developing categories, taking notes, and constructing sentences from notes. A resource-room class project entitled Frogs: A Search for Information contained two major parts: "How We Found and Organized Our Information" and "What We Learned about Frogs." The first part was composed in a group as the children recalled the procedures used in researching and writing about frogs:

When Miss Swenson was reading, we helped her make notes about important information. She used one paper for each kind of information: one paper for body, one for home, one for babies, one for enemies, one for noises, and one for food. We each chose one kind of information to write about. We made the notes into sentences. Then we revised and proofread our writing.

In the second part, each child wrote one chapter. The entire project was published in braille and used for reading instruction before each child took a copy home.


The vision teacher should be responsible for the continuous assessment of a young student's progress in braille reading and writing (Rex, 1989). A file of all written drafts for the school year should be maintained, along with records of the minilessons taught, spelling tests administered, revision conferences held, and books published. It is helpful to summarize the information from these records periodically by listing the writing skills a child has mastered (citing specific writing pieces as evidence) and those that are being worked on. This list can be shared with the child and used in parent-teacher conferences along with writing samples. Regular education teachers can also provide useful informal assessment tools that are specifically designed to measure progress in the writing process.

Three times a year—in September, January, and June—a more structured evaluation is suggested. Students can be asked to summarize in writing the content of a short paragraph they have read silently; to write a letter from dictation, paying special attention to the mechanics; to write selected Grade 2 braille contractions that are checked off on a summary sheet; and to write selected Dolch words (220 high-frequency words that make a basic sight vocabulary) that are also checked off on a list. A comparison of data from the three structured assessments provides further information that can be used to plan a child's writing program.


Children who learn to write braille using a process approach develop positive attitudes toward writing. Their attitudes are apparent in the quantity and quality of writing they produce, both at school and at home. They consider the writing not as a type of work assigned a few times each week, but as a useful tool to be employed for many functions throughout the day. The children feel in control of their learning because they are allowed to make important decisions—what topics to write about, which words to learn to spell, what revisions to make, and which pieces to publish. Because they are not constrained by the need to produce a perfect paper during the drafting stage, they are more willing to take risks in choosing topics, vocabulary, and ideas to express. They accept revision as a natural part of the writing process and begin to think critically about their writing as they interact with their text in a variety of ways. Writing samples and periodic structured assessments confirm that the conventions of written expression—spelling, capitalization, and punctuation—are mastered when the process approach to writing is used.

Children who write frequently and publish their work learn to make connections between reading and writing. A first grader, writing about a book he read, explained:

(It) made me (th)ik (of) (some) (of) my books (that) I wrote to (because) I (know) I am a au(th)or to (and) I (know) I wrote lot (of) books (with) pictures (in)side (the)m (and) (ou)tside (the)m.

Authorship sparks children's interest in the adult authors of the books they read and hear read to them. The children develop preferences for the work of particular authors and enjoy discussing the books they read in the same way that they discuss their own writing (Hansen, 1987).


The process approach is a highly effective way of teaching writing to children who are blind. Although it demands additional time from a teacher who knows braille, this method provides young children with a means of creating and thinking about writing that is both pleasurable and challenging. The writing process used in the primary grades establishes a foundation for the development of future literacy skills, including the use of a talking word processor. Its immediate success, however, is reflected in the enthusiasm and confidence with which young children approach the complex task of braille writing.


Anderson, R.C., Hiebert, E.H., Scott, J A., & Wilkinson, I.A.G. (1984). Becoming a nation of readers: The report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.
Butler, A. & Turbill, J. (1987). Towards a reading-writing classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.
County School Board of Fairfax County, Virginia (1987). Elementary program of studies language arts. Fairfax County, VA: Author.
Ely, R. (1989). Writing, computers, and visual impairment. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 248–252.
Graves, D.H. (1983). Writing: Teachers & children at work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.
Hansen, J. (1987). When writers read. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books .
Rex, E. J. (1989). Issues related to literacy of legally blind learners. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 306–313.
Schroeder, F. (1989). Literacy: The key to opportunity. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 290–293.
Stephens, O. (1989). Braille—Implications for living. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 288–289.
Teale, W. (1985). The beginnings of literacy. Dimensions, 13, 5–8.

Teaching Braille Reading to Students with Low Vision*

Chapter headings


Motivational reading material

Sleep shades

Instructional approaches

Integrating braille into the curriculum

It is critical that the present and future reading needs of students with visual impairments are identified and addressed throughout their school years. Koenig and Holbrook (1989) referred to this as "filling a student's 'toolbox' with 'tools' appropriate to accomplish a variety of tasks" (p. 300).

The process of determining the appropriate reading medium for students with visual impairments may be divided into two phases (Koenig & Holbrook, 1989, 1991). In Phase I, an initial decision is made about the primary reading medium for a student who has not received formal reading instruction. When a student's vision is limited, the decision may be difficult and the multidisciplinary team may go through many steps in the process to make the initial decision. Eventually, the team may decide that the student will use either print or braille as his or her only reading medium or that the student will learn to read in both media with equal emphasis. Ongoing evaluations must be made to determine if a student who is being instructed in one medium will receive supplemental instruction in an alternative medium. In Phase II, the team reviews the appropriateness of the initial decision and the need to supplement the initial reading medium with a second medium on the basis of diagnostic information collected in this phase. The reading medium may be changed because the initial decision was incorrect or new information indicates that a change is warranted, or it may be decided that the student should continue to receive instruction in the initial medium with supplemental instruction in a second medium.

This article focuses on teaching braille reading to students with low vision who have the following characteristics:

  • Students in Phase I who will learn braille and print reading at the same time with equal intensity.
  • Students in Phase II who have a background of formal instruction in print reading but for whom the multidisciplinary team has decided that continued emphasis on print is inappropriate. These students will learn braille reading as a secondary medium that may eventually become the primary reading medium.
  • Students in Phase II who will use print as the primary medium and simultaneously learn braille reading as a supplementary tool because braille is needed for particular tasks or print reading may not be effective as the exclusive medium in the long term.

Students in Phase I with some degree of vision may be able to accomplish some distance tasks visually, but cannot complete tasks visually at near point. Braille reading instruction for these students will be similar to that for students who are totally blind and will not be addressed in this article, since these students are considered functionally blind, not students with low vision.

This article explores some aspects of teaching braille reading to students with low vision. First, it discusses the motivation of students to learn braille reading and parents' acceptance of braille and involvement in the process. It then covers instructional approaches and factors to be considered in choosing a program and the phasing in of braille reading throughout the curriculum.


Some students with low vision present a dilemma for educators and parents. Although they must be encouraged to develop and use vision as much as possible, they must also be taught to rely on their other senses, including the tactual sense for reading. Several factors may influence both parents' and children's acceptance of braille reading instruction.

Acceptance of visual impairment

It is essential for the parents and child to understand the clinical and functional aspects of the child's visual impairment, so appropriate educational decisions can be made and supported. Parents' understanding and acceptance may be increased by the following:

  • Teachers' explanations of the educational implications of their child's eye condition.
  • Parents' inclusion in the assessment of their child's functional vision to help them understand how their child uses visual information.
  • Parents' participation in controlled, appropriate exercises with simulators representing their child's visual impairment and the provision of accurate information during these experiences.
  • Parents' and student's ongoing contact with successful adults with a similar type of visual impairment.

Understanding braille

Most people do not know or understand braille as a code for reading and writing and may consider braille a symbol of total blindness. Therefore, parents of a child with low vision may be reluctant to accept braille as a learning medium, since their child has useful vision. These suggestions may help parents to understand and accept braille:

  • The most effective route to understanding and acceptance is for parents to learn to read and write in braille through such instructional programs as Just Enough to Know Better (Curran, 1988) and New Programmed Instruction in Braille (Ashcroft, Henderson, Sanford, & Koenig, 1991). Teachers can provide feedback, reinforcement, and direct instruction.
  • Educators can inform parents of the variety of ways that braille can be used by efficient braille users, including note taking, using braille notes in public speaking, and reading braille menus.
  • Parents can be encouraged to talk with other parents or to attend parental meetings on the subject.

Parent involvement

The involvement of parents and other family members not only decreases the child's isolation in learning something that most people do not know, but provides an opportunity for increased communication between parents and their child. In addition to learning the braille code, parents can do the following:

  • Help the child with his or her homework in braille.
  • Show their pride in their child's work by displaying braille homework papers on the refrigerator or placing selected papers in a scrapbook.
  • Become involved with their child in public library reading programs. Teachers of students with visual impairments and librarians can facilitate this involvement by establishing a link between the public library and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
  • Along with educators, advocate for the provision of braille materials in public and private places (such as church bulletins and menus) where the child may need them.

Motivational reading material

Learning braille reading may become tedious if students rely on vision for other activities. It is not enough to use standard, commercially produced reading instructional materials. Students must also be given the opportunity to read material in braille that they want to read for enjoyment or for gaining information on topics they are learning in school or that pertain to their special interests and hobbies. For example, important school materials, such as schedules and menus, can be transcribed and posted beside the print versions, and items, such as records and tapes, can be labeled in braille at home. In addition, children and parents can be encouraged to read twin-version books and educational materials together, and the child can communicate with a pen pal who also reads and writes in braille.

Sleep shades

Some students with low vision will try to use their vision to read braille, rather than learn to decode braille tactually. Decoding braille visually is slow and laborious, since there is little or no contrast between the braille dots and the surrounding paper. If a student consistently reads braille visually over a long period (past the introductory stage) and is reluctant or even refuses to attempt to read braille tactually, the student is demonstrating a high level of visual ability, which may indicate that braille should not be the primary reading medium.

Students who have used their vision for exploration may feel more comfortable using their vision for confirmation during the beginning stages of braille reading instruction. Some educators discourage this use of vision by blindfolding the student during instruction. However, the use of sleep shades should be avoided. Instead, tactual exploration of braille can be encouraged by providing situations, such as these, in which visual examination is not possible:

  • The teacher could teach young children to use a "Super Spy Box" (J. Snider, personal communication, January 1991)—a box cut so the student can slip his or her hands into it to find a "clue"—while the teacher watches for the proper techniques and supplies clues through a hole on the opposite side of the box.
  • The teacher should place a screen or ledge so it blocks the student's hands from his or her eyes, but is arranged so the teacher can see hand-finger positioning.
  • The teacher should encourage proper body positioning (sitting with the back straight and arms parallel to the floor at right angles from the body), so the student cannot view the braille dots.

Instructional approaches

The choice of an instructional approach in teaching braille reading to a student with low vision depends largely on two factors. First, the educator must consider the point at which skill in one reading medium is being developed relative to skill in the other medium. A student in Phase I who is beginning to read in both print and braille will learn readiness skills, word-identification strategies, comprehension skills, and so forth in both media at the same time—an approach we call parallel instruction. Parallel instruction implies the equal concentration on reading skills in both print and braille, the only difference being the code used to teach these skills.

Students in Phase II have already acquired basic reading skills in print, so they will be able to apply those skills in braille. We call this approach nonparallel instruction, since the student is not acquiring similar skills in both media. The student will continue to develop basic reading skills in print, while instruction in braille will focus on "cracking" a new code. Eventually, the level of braille reading skills will match the level of print reading skills.

Second, the educator must consider the approach with which he or she feels most comfortable and that is consistent with his or her philosophy of teaching reading. Some approaches are more structured and provide specific guidelines for teaching reading, while others are less structured and require the educator to construct a reading program to meet the specific needs of a student. An educator may choose from a variety of approaches, including 1) a basal reading series, 2) language experience, 3) whole language, 4) Patterns, and 5) Read Again.

Basal reader approach

In the basal reader approach, the educator makes use of a commercial basal reading series (usually the series adopted by the school district) that is designed for teaching reading in print. In most cases, this approach is most appropriate for parallel instruction. It could also be used in nonparallel instruction if it is followed by introductory lessons in essential braille prereading skills and letter-contraction recognition, but a protracted series of introductory lessons may not provide the motivation necessary to sustain interest in reading in braille. (The language experience approach may be used as an alternative or to provide the introductory experiences before using the basal reader approach.)

The primary advantage of the basal reader approach in parallel instruction is that instructional time is used efficiently. Since the child will complete the lessons in print anyway, applying the same skills in braille will extend instructional time only minimally (about 25%) because there are more shared similarities than differences in reading in print and in braille. Another general advantage is that this approach is comprehensive; all essential reading skills are included in carefully sequenced lessons. The teacher of students with visual impairments needs only to supplement it with materials, either teacher made or commercially available, to teach skills that are specific to reading in braille.

Some educators believe that the primary disadvantage of this approach is the lack of control over the introduction of braille contractions, which makes the level of difficulty for vocabulary in braille different from that of print. However, we believe this concern is exaggerated. With adequate readiness, appropriate introductory lessons, and sequential instruction, a student can learn to read efficiently in braille using this approach, as did the generations of students who learned to read in braille before Patterns was introduced. Another commonly stated disadvantage of this approach is that stories are often dependent on pictures for meaning. However, for a student with low vision, this disadvantage is greatly minimized or eliminated, since the student can use pictures as part of the process, perhaps learning the crucial visual skill of scanning in conjunction with reading.

In parallel instruction, the teacher of students with visual impairments will introduce new words in both print and braille before reading the story or selection. New contractions in braille should be introduced in meaningful contexts (as they appear in words), since there is little value drilling lists of contractions before they are actually used in reading. The extensive drilling of contractions may cause a student to think that reading in braille is an exercise in calling out isolated bits and pieces of words, rather than in gaining meaning from connected discourse. After appropriate introduction, the student may read the story in print and then in braille or read part of the story in one medium and the rest in the other medium. In reading-strategy lessons following the story, the same options can be applied. Since the student is developing the same reading skills (such as phonics, using context clues, and identifying the main idea) in both print and braille, it makes little difference which reading medium is selected. The essential factor is to maintain a balance, so equal skills are developed in both media.

The basal reader approach offers the educator a great deal of flexibility. If the student is integrated in a reading program, the regular classroom teacher could teach print reading and the teacher of students with visual impairments could teach braille reading using the same materials. Another alternative would be to teach one unit in braille and the next in print. Also, reading in other subjects or for enjoyment could be balanced between print and braille.

If the educator chooses to use a basal reading approach in nonparallel instruction, the sequential presentation of stories in increasing difficulty will be the basis for instruction. It may be desirable to choose a previous grade level from the series (even one the student has already completed) because the student can focus on developing and applying skills in a new code, rather than concentrate on both code skills and reading skills. The teaching of reading-readiness skills in braille before the introduction of stories from a basal reading series will require careful balancing to sustain the child's interest in braille reading while preparing him or her to read in connected discourse in this new medium.

Language-experience approach

The language-experience approach uses the student's actual experiences as the basis for instruction. The student dictates a story about an experience to the teacher, who writes it down while the student observes. The story is then used to develop reading skills (as is done with a basal reading series). Such an approach could be used effectively in either parallel or nonparallel instruction.

There are many advantages to using this approach. First, since the student's actual experiences are used as the basis for reading instruction, the educator is assured that the child has the background needed for comprehending the story. Second, it is a highly motivating approach for a student, since the student dictates the story, knows the content, and can reread the story in a meaningful manner. Because of the high motivational value, teachers may choose to use this approach as a supplement to others. Third, it is a flexible approach that can be used in conjunction with other instructional approaches and in parallel or nonparallel instruction to teach reading-comprehension skills in print, braille, or both.

There are few, if any, disadvantages to this approach. Since the stories are dictated by the student, there can be no control over the presence of difficult words or words with contractions. (In reality, this is a strength of this approach—if the student can say a word, he or she can also read it.) This lack of control is not a significant concern if adequate, and sequential instruction is provided in the introduction of words. Second, this approach is unstructured. Because there is no prescribed sequence of reading skills, the educator may choose to use this approach in conjunction with a basal reader approach to ensure that all essential reading skills are taught.

The basic instructional procedures are straightforward. First, an experience must take place—one that is either arranged specifically for this purpose (such as a trip to the local firehouse) or that occurs naturally (for example, what happened during recess today). However, educators should keep in mind that students with visual impairments often lack basic experiences, so arranged ones are important. Second, as soon as the experience has occurred, the student dictates a story about it and the teacher writes exactly what the student says using a braillewriter or slate and stylus. Third, the student and teacher read the story together immediately afterward. Fourth, the student and teacher continue to reread the story for a few days. It will be more crucial as this process continues for the teacher to say words only as the student tracks over them, since this is the process by which the student associates certain configurations with the words they represent. Fifth, the teacher can arrange any number of reading strategy lessons using the story as the basis for developing targeted skills. For example, contextual clues can be fostered through the cloze procedure, in which every fifth word is replaced by a blank and the student fills in a word that makes sense as the story is read, or phonics skills can be developed from words present in the story. Hall (1981) is an excellent source of suggestions for reading-strategy lessons to be used with this approach.

Whole-language approach

The whole-language approach is a comprehensive program that integrates reading and writing into the entire curriculum of a classroom, including such activities as choral reading, language experience, journal writing, and uninterrupted sustained silent reading. This approach lends itself to situations in which the classroom teacher works closely with the teacher of students with visual impairments to ensure that the students are fully involved in all aspects of instruction. A residential school classroom in which the teacher knows braille and modifies his or her own materials would be an ideal setting for this approach. In a mainstream classroom, students with low vision are most likely to participate in this approach if the entire curriculum is set up in this type of program. This decision is made by the regular classroom teacher or a school official; the teacher of students with visual impairments will not decide to use this approach, but will respond to the curriculum needs of the mainstream classroom.

There are several advantages to this approach for students who have low vision. First, it uses motivating reading materials and activities. Second, since students participate with their sighted peers in both reading and writing activities, appropriate materials must be provided for all activities. Third, because of the wide variety of activities involving reading and writing, this approach provides opportunities for students with low vision to choose the most effective tool for a particular task.

The disadvantages of this approach are that many materials may need to be adapted or transcribed into braille. The production and adaptation of materials for whole-language classrooms must be ongoing, and options must be available to fulfill the immediate need for spontaneous activities. Finally, the approach is difficult to use in an itinerant teaching model, since constant communication between the classroom teacher and the itinerant teacher is essential for success.

In both parallel and nonparallel instruction, students receive individual instruction in braille reading or the braille code, respectively. In parallel instruction, as much material as possible must be provided in both braille and print and a balance must be maintained between the two media. In nonparallel instruction, the braille code is taught separately from whole-language class, and students continue to use their vision for a majority of tasks until their reading skills in braille are adequate for daily classroom assignments. The whole-language approach to teaching reading is a new system in the United States and requires extensive exploration to determine the most effective way to include students who are learning to read braille.


Patterns: The Primary Braille Reading Program is a specially designed basal reading program for young students who are blind. It is intended to introduce basic reading skills through the third-grade level and, by the end of the program, to have introduced all the contractions and short form words in the Grade II braille code. After the third grade, the student is prepared to enter a standard basal reading program or some other approach used by sighted students. This series has recently added the Patterns Prebraille Program, which introduces the early concepts and language skills necessary for reading.

One of the primary advantages of Patterns is that it is a comprehensive program containing readers, work sheets, a teacher's guide, and criterion tests and is specifically designed to meet the early reading needs of students who are blind. The introduction of new vocabulary and contractions is carefully controlled according to factors known to influence the difficulty of reading in braille. Stories were written to reflect the experiences of young students who are blind and are not dependent on pictures for understanding the content. Finally, beginning teachers may find Patterns appealing because it is a structured approach with a complete teacher's guide.

For students with low vision who are learning to read braille, the major disadvantage of using Patterns—its incompatibility with other approaches—largely overshadows its advantages. Since Patterns was intended to be used as a stand-alone program for young students who are learning to read in braille, it is difficult to combine it with other approaches in a systematic and meaningful manner. Also, its use will prevent integrated reading instruction with sighted peers and will further prevent the use of supplementary and recreational reading materials in braille outside the Patterns Library Series.

In parallel instruction, the teacher of students with visual impairments delivers a separate reading program in braille apart from the instructional program in print reading. Therefore, if this approach is used, it will double the amount of instructional time, and multidisciplinary teams must guarantee that this time is set aside for the student.

In nonparallel instruction, the teacher may use Patterns only to introduce the unique aspects of reading in braille and eliminate some or all the skills lessons that accompany the series, except for the vocabulary and comprehension skills specific to each story. This strategy assumes that essential reading skills are being taught and acquired in the print reading program. In nonparallel instruction, the amount of instructional time depends on the amount of time devoted to teaching reading skills that are not unique to the braille code.

Read Again

Read Again (Caton, Pester, & Bradley, 1990) is a series of instructional materials that are designed to teach the braille code to individuals with adventitious blindness. It does not purport to teach reading skills per se because it was developed specifically for individuals with established basic reading skills in print who are being introduced to reading in braille. Therefore, it is appropriate only for nonparallel instruction.

An advantage of Read Again is that it was designed specifically to teach the braille code to individuals with adventitious blindness who are learning to read in another medium. Therefore, it would meet the similar need for instruction in an alternative reading medium for students with low vision in nonparallel instruction. Also, it is a comprehensive set of materials with practice materials, criterion tests, and a teacher's manual.

A disadvantage of Read Again is that since the program was targeted to the vocabulary of teenagers and young adults, it is not appropriate for many younger students. In addition, the contrived reading materials may not sustain the interest of older students.

In nonparallel instruction with older students, the educator will use Read Again as a stand-alone program, supplementing the practice exercises with reading materials of importance to the student. These materials may include such items as their class schedule for the upcoming semester and telephone numbers and addresses of friends. It is essential to show the student how braille reading can be useful in completing essential tasks, rather than isolating these skills from day-to-day activities.

Supplementary materials

With all the approaches just discussed and with either parallel or nonparallel instruction, some supplementary materials will be necessary to teach students the unique aspects of reading in braille, including hand movements, tactual discrimination, and braille character recognition. One of the most valuable programs is the Mangold Program of Tactile Perception and Braille Letter Recognition (Mangold, 1977)—a carefully sequenced set of materials that teaches efficient and independent hand-movement skills, combined with the quick discrimination and recognition of braille letters.

The Mangold program is a valuable tool for teaching reading in braille to students with low vision when it is used for its intended purpose. It is not a reading program per se (and was never intended to be), since it does not teach a student to gain meaning from connected text. It teaches some basic, essential skills that are needed for reading in braille, but does not teach higher-level reading skills, such as vocabulary, word recognition, and comprehension.

Other supplementary materials that may be used as part of a total reading program include the APH Tactual Discrimination Worksheets, Touch and Tell, and the Patterns Prebraille Program. Also, teacher-made materials that pinpoint specific skills are valuable. Harley, Truan, and Sanford (1987) offer some excellent ideas for teacher-made materials and activities for teaching reading in braille.

Integrating braille into the curriculum

The purpose of reading instruction is not just to teach reading for the sake of reading, but to teach students to use reading to accomplish a variety of daily tasks. The same is true for learning to use braille for reading and writing. If students are to become truly efficient braille users, they must have intensive and extensive experience with braille in all areas of schoolwork.

In parallel instruction, the student must maintain a balance in the use of both print and braille to become effective in both media. Braille reading will not be mastered if braille is used only during reading instruction. Rather, the practice of reading in braille throughout the day and evening is critical to its development. Since the premise of parallel instruction is that both print and braille will be taught at the same time with equal intensity, opportunities must be provided for applied and sustained practice. Print and braille should be integrated into the curriculum with equal frequency, and the student should be encouraged in the early stages to help decide which medium to use for a particular task.

In nonparallel instruction, the focus is on maintaining academic achievement in print reading while developing braille reading skills. It is unreasonable to expect that a child will be able to use braille immediately to achieve academic goals, since in the beginning, braille reading will be slower and less efficient than will print reading. Braille should be phased into the curriculum at various points, while always keeping in mind the time it takes for students to complete the task efficiently in print or in braille. Print reading will continue to be an important tool for students as long as they have sufficient functional vision.


Ashcroft, S.C., Henderson, F, Sanford, L., & Koenig, A. (1991). New programmed instruction in braille. Nashville, TN: SCALARS Publishing.
Caton, H., Pester, E., & Bradley, E.J. (1990). Read again. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.
Curran, E.P (1988). Just enough to know better. Boston: National Braille Press.
Hall, M.A. (1981). Teaching reading as a language experience (3rd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing Co.
Harley, R.K., Truan, M.B., & Sanford, L.D. (1987). Communication skills for visually impaired learners. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
Koenig, A.J. & Holbrook, M.C. (1989). Determining the reading medium for students with visual impairments: A diagnostic teaching approach. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 296–302.
Koenig, A.J. & Holbrook, M.C. (1991). Determining the reading medium for visually impaired students via diagnostic teaching. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 85, 61–68.
Mangold, S. (1977). The Mangold developmental program of tactile perception and braille letter recognition. Castro Valley, CA: Exceptional Teaching Aids.
Table 3.1
Concepts of Concrete Objects
Familiar Object Exemplifying Concept Unfamiliar Object Exemplifying Concept
1. Identification:
  Indicate an object named by teacher _____________ _____________
  Name an object indicated by teacher _____________ _____________
2. Describe function of named/indicated object
3. Describe relationship of named/indicated object to other objects ______________ ______________

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Table 3.2
Concepts of Body Parts that can be Touched
Self Other Person
1. Identification
  Indicate part named by teacher ________________ ________________
  Name part indicated by teacher ________________ ________________
2. Describe function of named/indicated part ________________ ________________
3. Describe relationship of named/indicated part to other body parts ________________ ________________

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Table 3.3
Concepts of Object Characteristics
Clear-Cut Examples Finer Discrimination
1. Identification
  Indicate characteristic of an object or indicate object with a specific characteristic named by teacher ________________________________
  Name an object characteristic indicated by teacher ________________________________

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Table 3.4
Concepts of Actions
Self Other Person or Object
1. Identification
  Imitate movement performed by teacher ________________________________
  Perform movement named by teacher ________________________________
  Name an indicated movement ________________________________
2. Describe function of an action, if appropriate ________________________________

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Table 3.5
Concepts of Positions
Own Body Parts Only Other Person or Object and Own Body Parts Other Persons or Objects Only
1. Identification _______________________________________________________
Move to position named by teacher _______________________________________________________
Name a position indicated by teacher ________________________________________________________

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Table 3.6
Abstract Concepts
1. Describe function ________________________________
2. Name class category, if appropriate ________________________________
3. Describe similarity or analogy to other known concepts ________________________________

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Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1

Conceptual Goal: "Front"

Narrative description

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Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2

Conceptual Goal: "First."

Narrative description

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Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3

Conceptual Goal: "Neighborhood."

*"Parallel," "perpendicular," and "opposite" are mentioned only once in the analysis to reduce duplication of concepts, although they are prerequisite to the understanding of several other concepts in the analysis.

Narrative description

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*Reprinted from Alan J. Koenig & M. Cay Holbrook, "Determining the Reading Medium for Students with Visual Impairments: A Diagnostic Teaching Approach," Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83(6) (June 1989), pp. 296–302. Copyright © 1989, American Foundation for the Blind.

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*Adapted with permission from Bonnie Simons, "How to Make a Braille Wave," paper presented at a meeting of the Association of Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Dallas, Texas, 1992.

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*Reprinted from Amanda Hall, "Teaching Specific Concepts to Visually Handicapped Students," in Sally S. Mangold, Ed., A Teacher's Guide to the Special Educational Needs of Blind and Visually Handicapped Children (New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1982), pp. 10–19. Copyright © 1989, American Foundation for the Blind.

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*This list was prepared by class members enrolled in Special Education 757 at San Francisco State University, Spring 1978: Rosemary Appel, Pat Davis, Carolyn Brien-Eddins, Jennifer Fitzgerald, Joanne Fong, Scott Johnson, Debbie Kooyer, Joanne Lowe, Sandy Rosen, Debi Ruth, Charles Ryon, Jim Schaer, Margo Simmons, Peggy Williams, Joan Winter. Instructor: Amanda Hall.

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*Prepared by Toni Provost.

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*Prepared by Kathryn Weldenfeld-Smith.

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*Reprinted from Diane D. Miller, "Reading Comes Naturally: A Mother and Her Blind Child's Experiences," Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 79(1) (January 1985), pp. 1–4. Copyright © 1985, American Foundation for the Blind.

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*Reprinted from Anna M. Swenson, "Using an Integrated Literacy Curriculum with Beginning Braille Readers," Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 82(8) (October 1988), pp. 336–338. Copyright © 1988, American Foundation for the Blind.

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*Reprinted from Anna Swenson, "A Process Approach to Teaching Braille Writing at the Primary Level," Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 85(5) (May 1991), pp. 217–221. Copyright © 1991, American Foundation for the Blind.

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*Reprinted from M. C. Holbrook & A. J. Koenig, "Teaching Braille Reading to Students with Low Vision," Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 86(1) (January 1992), pp. 44–48. Copyright © 1992, American Foundation for the Blind.

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