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Teaching Reading and Writing to Students with Visual Impairments: Who Is Responsible?

M. Cay Holbrook

Print edition page number(s) 203-206

"Teaching reading and writing to students with visual impairments--Whose job is it?" is a very complex question. I am tempted to change the question a bit. Instead, I would like to ask, "Who is responsible?" in which case, I could discuss the responsibilities of school administrators (at the school and district level), state departments and provincial ministries of education, and the federal government and the responsibilities they have to recognize and appropriately fund services for students who are visually impaired. I could talk about the responsibility of teachers to put into place appropriate instructional plans and set up effective educational teams, as well as the responsibility of parents for advocating and supporting their child's literacy development during early childhood and throughout school.

When considering the central question of this Perspectives column, we need to examine what is meant by "reading instruction." In this context, instruction and teaching are interchangeable terms, so the question can be answered based on what I believe about who should "teach" reading to students who are visually impaired. The answer might be different for students who are visually impaired and read print than for those who are visually impaired and read braille. There are several techniques that can be categorized as "teaching methods," and direct instruction is one of them. Also included in the list of teaching methods are discussions, simulations, experiments, field trips, practice, and role-play activities. Some, or all, of these methods could be used in the course of reading instruction, but the central question of this column is: Who provides direct instruction in reading to students with visual impairments?

Can we separate the braille code from the teaching of reading for children who are learning beginning reading in braille? We cannot and should not make such a separation. Yet, even in schools for blind students, there are distinctions between the teacher who teaches reading and the teacher who teaches braille. Are these distinctions made because most educators learned braille as a code after knowing how to read in print? Is it because we overemphasize the braille code because it is different and unique? The squiggly lines, straight lines, and circles that make up print letters also constitute a code for representing spoken language, but sighted educators are so familiar with that code that it seems ridiculous to refer to it as a code. Although much work is done in the early years by children who are sighted in letter identification and production, it would be very strange to put these children in a "print" class that was separate from a reading and writing class.

Does it take a village?

I am also tempted to take the easy road (and, frankly, the correct road) and say that reading instruction is not just the job of one person, that the development of reading (and writing) skills takes a team. First and foremost, the parents of a child with visual impairment play an early and ongoing role in teaching their child about books, and reading, and loving reading. Second, the child's classroom teacher is a key participant in teaching a child to read and write. Third, the child's teacher of students with visual impairments has an important role to play. But, answering the question, "Whose job is it?" from the perspective of the "it takes a village" model makes me feel quite uncomfortable, because this answer begs other questions, such as "Who takes primary responsibility for making sure that the team works effectively together?" Or "Who is accountable?" or "Who is in charge of the village?" These are legitimate questions that speak to the very crux of the matter of "Whose job is it?"

My answer is that reading instruction for students with visual impairments is the job of a person who possesses all of the following characteristics:

  • Creativity, flexibility, and other personal characteristics of a good teacher.
  • Ability to teach. The person teaching reading should have experience, at least at the level of student teaching or field experience, and have received feedback about his or her teaching from a qualified person. This person should have a proven track record of success in formal, organized, teaching. He or she should be skilled in examining student performance and planning, adjusting, or realigning instruction to meet student needs.
  • Understanding and knowledge about the development of language and literacy in young children.
  • Competence in the code or codes or media that are used by the child. By competence, I mean a deep comfort with the code, not mere familiarity.
  • Understanding and knowledge about the impact of visual impairment on the acquisition of literacy. This includes concept development, tactile skills, hand movement requirements, use of tactile graphics and diagrams, and other related skills.

Who is the person who has these characteristics? My hope is that this person is a teacher of students with visual impairments. My fear is that, in most situations, there is no person who possesses all of these characteristics. If a single person does not exist with these characteristics, what happens? Should we look for a combination of people, each of whom fill part of the requirements for teaching reading instruction, or should we make sure, through training, that a single person does exist with these characteristics? This would require a fundamental change in our preparation of teachers and would require us to implement personnel preparation at the pre-service or in-service level that would round out a teacher's characteristics. In other words, we would need to ensure that teachers of visually impaired students, who have competence in the braille code and possess an understanding of visual impairment, develop an understanding of the development of language and literacy in young children. Or we would need to ensure that classroom teachers, who have competence and experience in teaching reading, learn braille, as well as how to teach students with visual impairments.

Does the consultant model work?

I believe that the person who plans the reading and writing program for students with visual impairments should be the person who carries it out. I am not a fan of the consultant model in which a teacher of visually impaired students develops lesson plans for someone else to implement. I am concerned about this model, because the person who implements the instructional program is the only witness to the student's performance. Planning instruction should not happen in isolation from a response to a student's demonstration of skill.

Consider, for example, a student in first grade who is reading a story in a basal reader. The teacher of visually impaired students may have gone through the story and planned for pre-teaching of contractions, and the person implementing the program may have information about braille. But the student, who is presumably engaged in the story, will likely have questions, the appropriate response to which would require a knowledge of concepts that relate to the complexity of learning for students with visual impairments. For example, the student may have questions relating to braille contractions or the rules for the use of contractions and the relationship of contractions to one another. In addition, throughout the reading lesson, the student will be demonstrating posture, finger position, and tactile exploration, not to mention interactions with the text related to comprehension and fluency. These teachable moments happen frequently, and if the person planning lessons is not present and engaged during instruction then there is a danger of creating fragmented learning experiences that will likely not encourage smooth, comfortable, connections that encourage a love of and confidence in reading.

This model I have described is dangerously close to nonaccountability. As long as everything goes well, there may not be a problem, but when a child has difficulty, in the model I have described, there is no one to take responsibility for instructional failures. The person who plans the program (the teacher of students with visual impairments) could legitimately say, "I planned a good program, it wasn't implemented well"; and the person who implements the program could legitimately say, "I was following the program the best I could, but I'm not qualified to provide this instruction." The only person who suffers is the child, who often is blamed for instructional and institutional failures. Accountability matters. Whose job is it?

Is the expanded core curriculum our only accountability?

I love the expanded core curriculum. I believe that its definition of the unique skills needed by students with visual impairments is one of the most important achievements that has happened in our field in a very long time. I am concerned, however, that some professionals have narrowly defined the role of the teacher of students with visual impairments as solely working in areas of the expanded core curriculum, and I very much disagree with that characterization. Just like the students with whom we work, teachers of students with visual impairments must also address all areas of the core curriculum. I have heard discussions about whether reading instruction "fits" in the expanded core curriculum in the area of compensatory skills. In my view, reading and writing is clearly a part of the core curriculum for all students, and I think that separating "communication modes" from reading and writing is part of what has led to the practice of seeing braille instruction as somehow separate from reading instruction. I believe that teachers of students with visual impairments should be closely and directly involved in all areas of the core curriculum and the expanded core curriculum, and that these teachers should be directly responsible for certain curriculum regardless of whether or not if fits in the expanded core curriculum. Considering braille as a "communication mode" that fits in the category of compensatory skills might work for students who have print reading skills and are learning braille as a "compensation" for vision loss, but it does not fit into this catchall category for young children who are learning to read and write for the first time in braille. I think it is time for us to revisit the expanded core curriculum and make sure that the line between the core curriculum and the expanded core curriculum is a little less well defined.

What is the role of administrators?

I alluded to responsibility of administrators in the opening paragraph of this essay. I cannot feel comfortable closing this perspective without pointing out that regardless of the qualifications of teachers (both teachers of students with visual impairments and classroom teachers), we will not be able to effectively teach reading to students with visual impairments if we do not have the appropriate administrative support. Universities could do a beautiful job of incorporating teaching reading in their preparation programs and graduate hundreds of qualified teachers of students with visual impairments each year, but if case loads continue to be too high and geographically inaccessible so that teachers cannot provide ongoing, consistent, direct instruction, the "job" of teaching reading to these students will continue to present enormous challenges.

M. Cay Holbrook, Ph.D., associate professor, University of British Columbia, Faculty of Education, 2125 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4, Canada; e-mail: <>.

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