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Reading Instruction for Students with Visual Impairments: Whose Job Is It?

Print edition page number(s) 197-200

Editor's note: In its narrow form, the central question of this Perspectives column can be interpreted to mean, "Can braille instruction be separated from reading instruction?" But, as the responses from these commentators demonstrate, the question has much broader implications not only for teachers of students with visual impairments and classroom teachers, but also for personnel preparation programs, school administrators, researchers, and ultimately the students themselves. The viewpoints expressed in this Perspectives column on the subject of reading instruction and its relationship to braille are offered by individuals from various sectors within the field of visual impairment, both in the United States and Canada. Presented, in alphabetic order, are the reactions to the central question, "Reading Instruction for Students with Visual Impairments: Whose Job Is It?" from Karen Blankenship, co-chair of the National Agenda; Carol Farrenkopf, coordinator of the vision program for the largest school district in Canada; M. Cay Holbrook, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia; and Anna Swenson, a teacher of students who are visually impaired in Virginia.

Reading Is Rocket Science

Karen Blankenship

Unlike other areas of education, reading instruction is supported by considerable research on its content and instructional methodology that is rigorous, systematic, and meets the experimental or quasi-experimental standard required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and IDEA, 2004 (Smartt & Reschly, 2007). (Experimental and quasi-experimental research involves data collection from a large number of participants who were randomly assigned to either an experimental or control group, which provides for the greatest confidence in the results.) A review of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data for the fourth-grade reading sample indicated that only 35% of the national sample of students without disabilities and 13% of students with identified disabilities were at or above the proficient level (Lee, Grigg, & Donahue, 2007). (Over 50% of the sample with disabilities took the reading test with accommodations.) Scores for both groups of students have risen slightly since 1998. The improvements in these scores may be interpreted to indicate that the recent emphasis on research-based literacy is effective.

Highly effective reading teachers

Over the past 20 years, research has emerged that shows a correlation between the quality of the teacher and the outcomes of students. There is a substantial body of literature on the attributes of a highly effective teacher (Blankenship, 2004; Darling-Hammond, 2000; Fullan, 1982; Gibson & Dembo, 1984; Moore & Esselman, 1992; Murnane, 1981; Rosenholtz, 1989; Ross, 1992; Turner & Camilli, 1988). The literature indicates that a highly effective teacher must have both pedagogy--the teaching skills to adjust to a variety of learning styles and abilities and the ability to engage students in learning--and content knowledge, a high degree of competence within a single content area such as reading.

In the area of reading instruction, content knowledge is defined as an understanding of the five core components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Scientifically based reading instruction includes a number of instructional components that have been found to be effective with struggling at-risk readers, such as explicit instruction with modeling and systematic instruction with scaffolding (Smartt & Reschly, 2007).

Smartt and Reschly (2007) also found that many general education pre-service programs do not provide instruction in the five core components of reading instruction, nor do they teach future teachers how to provide scientifically based instruction in reading. The prospects for teachers who choose to work with students with identified disabilities are even more tenuous. Smartt and Reschly (2007) and Goe and Coggshall (2007) report that some university programs have made progress in providing the necessary background in reading instruction for special education teachers by requiring that these teachers have dual certification in both general education and special education. However, the premise that special educators with dual certification have a greater likelihood of having received instruction in both the core components and the instructional methodology of reading have not been confirmed.

Implications for the field of visual disabilities

There is little or no opportunity for future teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired who are enrolled in personnel preparation programs for teaching students with visual disabilities to receive the needed course work in reading instruction if they are not in a dual certification program or don't already have certification in reading. Although instruction in braille and communication modes are noted as content areas under compensatory skills, one of the nine instructional areas of the expanded core curriculum that Hatlen (1996; 2003) recommends be taught or facilitated by teachers of students with visual impairments as part of their educational program, some teachers report that they learned the braille code but not how to teach braille or how to infuse it into literacy instruction.

University programs for future teachers of students who are visually impaired need to prepare their students to conduct valid and reliable assessments to determine how their students can gain access to general education; to interpret eye health information to make informed decisions about programming and accommodations; and how to provide research- and evidence-based instruction in the nine areas of the expanded core curriculum, including evaluation of instruction and programming. This is a lofty curriculum goal for programs to impart through two years of coursework at the master's degree level, some of which may be provided through distance education. Indeed, recent surveys found that the number of teachers of students with visual impairments who responded did not feel that their university programs had prepared them adequately to feel confident in teaching the content areas of the expanded core curriculum (Hatlen, Lohmeier, Sapp, & Willis, 2008).

Professional roles in the implementation of reading instruction

For a student who is blind or visually impaired to receive a high-quality education in literacy, a number of professionals need to collaborate in meeting this goal. A literacy instructor at the school building level is typically a general education teacher who is held accountable for the reading levels of students in his or her class. These teachers provide literacy opportunities throughout the school day in addition to direct instruction. The "highly qualified" requirements as set out by NCLB do not ensure that these instructors have the skills needed to teach reading, just the certification for reading instruction. In response to the recent research in reading, numerous school districts have hired specific reading specialists to work as consultants with faculty members to implement research-based instruction. There is currently no data to estimate how many school districts have positions for such specialists or if the specialists are improving student outcomes in reading.

Teachers of students with visual impairments are collaborative instructional partners in the education of students who are blind or visually impaired. Their content knowledge should be in the nine content areas of the expanded core curriculum, and their pedagogy, like that of other teachers, should include an understanding of how to engage students in learning, conduct valid and reliable assessments, and provide research-based or evidence-based instruction in the content areas of the expanded core curriculum. Collaboration between teachers of students who are visually impaired and literacy instructors is critical as students are learning the braille code. Most teachers of students who are visually impaired provide instruction within an itinerant service delivery model, which may entail more time spent in driving than in instruction.

A braillist produces quality braille, but does not teach braille reading or writing. Most states allow a paraeducator or braillist to reinforce instruction provided by a certified teacher, but not to provide direct instruction. It is essential for students to have access to quality braille as they begin to read and write, so the braillist is a necessary part of the literary instruction team.

Implications for the future

A presentation on the ABC Braille Study given at the annual conference of the American Printing House for the Blind indicated that, in accordance with the data on other students with disabilities, a large number of students who are braille readers are not proficient in the area of reading (Wormsley, Holbrook, Erin, & Sacks, 2007). If teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired are to become the primary literacy instructor to all students in their charge, then a number of items will have to be addressed. First, all teachers of students who are visually impaired should obtain dual certification in both general education, with an emphasis in research-based literacy instruction, and the education of children and youth who are blind or visually impaired. Second, the field will need to reexamine the itinerant model as its predominant service delivery system and determine whether such a model provides enough instructional time and intensity to provide research-based instruction in literacy, especially if teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired are to be held accountable for literacy instruction. Finally, the field needs to conduct research in the five core components of reading instruction and methodology in reading instruction for students who are blind or visually impaired to adequately evaluate the impact of a loss of visual input on students' abilities to learn to read. Until these recommendations are enacted, very little will change in the area of literacy for students who are blind or visually impaired. Apparently, reading instruction is, indeed, rocket science, since it requires a great deal of complex and rigorous research. I, a teacher of students with visual impairments for 31 years, am no rocket scientist.


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Karen Blankenship, Ph.D., co-chair, National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities; mailing address: 1026 Northeast 9th Street, Ankeny, IA 50021; e-mail: <>.

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