Those of us who are braille readers are keenly aware of what a treasure this skill is. Braille enables us to quickly access information, see how words are spelled, enjoy the structure of a poem, and even read a musical score or a complex scientific formula.
Some beginning or struggling braille readers have not quite gotten to the point where reading a braille document is effortless and enjoyable. Many might like to be faster, more efficient braille readers, but experienced instructors are scarce, and, for many, the way forward is not entirely clear.
If you are such a braille reader, don't despair. With a little effort, braille can become the valued treasure that you hear so much about. It sometimes happens that the process of recognizing characters can take so much of your attention that you have no idea what you just read—that can be frustrating! But developing good finger and hand movement techniques and getting some much-needed reading practice under your belt can go a long way to improving your braille reading experience. There are many strategies that can be used to read faster and more efficiently.
There are several good reasons why a braille reader may want to improve and become a faster, more efficient reader of braille. Apart from the personal pleasure of a very self-contained, private reading experience, studies have shown that employment rates for people who are blind and who read braille are significantly higher than for those who do not read braille.
The process of learning to read braille is similar to learning to read print, with a few major differences, especially for children. Sighted children engage in a great deal of casual, non-structured learning when it comes to learning to read. Print is everywhere—street signs, cereal boxes, kitchen appliances, and even in the books that parents read aloud. But blind children have little access to similar opportunities for incidental learning. Parents of blind children are advised to place braille labels all over the house and I certainly hope that many do this, but even that can't come close to the amount of print that a sighted child sees in the course of a typical day.
As with print, braille can be read on paper or from a screen. For braille, the screen is a refreshable braille display. Reading on paper gives the reader more flexibility in finger positioning and hand movement, but refreshable braille displays can offer electronic means to help increase reading speed and efficiency
Reading Braille on Paper
The mechanics of reading braille on paper are very important. Finger placement, hand movement, and even just how you touch the paper can all contribute greatly to successful braille reading. Research shows that the fastest braille readers use both hands, move across lines with a smooth, fluid motion, and use a light touch.
Finger Positioning and Hand Movement
Learning to read braille involves learning good use of your fingers and hands. It's important to use the right part of the fingers. Braille is not read with the very end of the finger but rather with the more sensitive part just behind the tip of the finger. If you lay your hand flat on a page of braille with all the fingers pointing straight ahead, the part of the finger near the tip that is not touching the paper will be the sensitive pad that is best for braille reading.
Over the years, there have been many different ways of teaching optimal finger position and hand movements for reading braille. Some have been taught to use a single finger, some have been taught to read with two index fingers, keeping their hands together all the way across the line. The two index fingers read the same line together, make the return trip together, and together they find the beginning of the next line. Others have been taught to use multiple fingers.
There has been a great deal of research on best practices for finger placement and hand movement, and the results of these studies are fairly consistent. Generally, braille is read with two fingers, the index fingers. But studies have shown that other fingers are capable of recognizing braille characters. Many braille readers believe that using three or four fingers is helpful.
A technique used by many fast braille readers is called the scissors method. In this way of reading braille, you use both hands to read. The left hand reads the first half or so of the line, then the right hand takes over and reads the remainder of the line while the left hand goes back and locates the beginning of the next line, and begins to read it as soon as the previous line is finished. With this method, you don't lose time locating the next line of text.
Slower braille readers often go back and reread characters and sometimes move their fingers up and down over the same characters, a behavior that educators call "scrubbing." It's critical to develop a fluid motion, moving fingers smoothly across the line of braille. You should be very mindful of any movement of the fingers that is not forward and work to eliminate any scrubbing.
Some teachers also encourage braille readers to read braille with their dominant hand. Many good braille readers actually read braille with their non-dominant hand (a right-handed person using the left hand to read braille, for example). But research has not shown hand dominance to be a significant factor when predicting braille reading speed.
Lightness of Touch
It's understandable to think that when you are having trouble doing something if you just do it harder, it will work better. If you're having trouble recognizing braille characters, you might press harder on the paper, hoping that will help you feel the dots.
Although it may not seem intuitive, it's easier to recognize braille characters when you touch the paper very lightly. Braille reading requires only enough pressure to successfully track straight across a line. To demonstrate this, try running your index finger across something that has some texture, such as a piece of clothing made of corduroy, or a dinner plate with a pattern on it. If you press your fingers down firmly and move them across the texture, it is difficult to feel the shape of the pattern. If you move your fingers very lightly, the pattern of the texture becomes much easier to discern.
A Seemingly Good Idea that Doesn't Actually Work
Let's take a moment and talk about something that many people think would improve braille reading speed and efficiency but, in fact, research has not shown it to be effective: jumbo and large cell braille. Jumbo braille uses larger dots in an oversized cell and large cell braille uses standard-sized dots in an oversized cell. There are braille slates, braille writers, and even braille embossers that are capable of producing these types of braille.
These forms of braille have proven to be useful for people with tactile deficits who use them to read very small amounts of braille, but larger dots and oversized cells have not been found to help those with a typical sense of touch, because the most sensitive part of the finger is not big enough to read the full character. Oversized cells encourage scrubbing, which is a deterrent to good reading habits and makes the reading process take much longer.
Reading Braille on a Braille Display
As computers became widely available in the 1980s and 1990s, it was suggested by many that this would reduce the availability and use of braille. But, as the cost of braille displays has dropped dramatically and braille displays have become more widely available, this has not proven to be the case.
More and more braille is being read on an electronic braille display. In many situations, a braille display can offer some unique opportunities for increasing braille reading speed and efficiency.
Those who use a braille display with a computer or smartphone can use a feature called auto-scroll or auto-advance, where braille characters are advanced automatically at a rate that is controlled by the user. This feature is available in JAWS and NVDA for Windows and also in VoiceOver running on iPhones, iPads, and Mac computers.
Let's have a look at the auto-advance feature in iOS. By default, there is no shortcut key to turn on auto-advance. In iOS, it's possible to define braille commands for Enable Auto Advance, Increase Auto Advance Speed, and Decrease Auto Advance Speed. You can do this once you have paired your braille display. Go to the braille display under Braille in VoiceOver settings, swipe down with one finger, double tap on More Info, double tap on Braille Commands, and then double tap on Braille. Here you will find many commands. Some of these will already have gestures assigned and some will be available for you to set a gesture for their use. After you assign a gesture to enable auto advance, you can turn it on any time you are reading text.
The default auto-advance duration is 5 seconds, which will keep the same line of braille on the display for 5 seconds before advancing to the next line. This may be long for many people. If you are a reasonably experienced braille reader, you might start by setting this to 2 seconds for a 40-cell display and 1 second for a 20-cell display. After reading at an auto-advance speed you are comfortable with, you can begin to decrease it slowly to get yourself more used to reading faster.
This same feature is available in the BARD Mobile app both for iOS and Android. In BARD Mobile, it is called auto-scroll. You can enable it by going into the app's settings and selecting Braille and Display Settings, where you can change Braille Auto-scroll from off to on. Once turned on, you can set the time per line (the default is 1,500 milliseconds) and Time per Character (the default is 50 milliseconds). The time for the total number of characters on the line is added to the time per line amount.
Increasing Your Reading Speed
In the world of print reading, speed-reading courses are a multi-million dollar industry. The infamous Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course became popular in the 1960s and, since then, hundreds of similar courses have exploded onto the scene. Mark Seidenberg, a leading cognitive scientist who has spent his career researching reading, discusses the claims of speed reading courses in his excellent book, Language at the Speed of Sight. Even though he is talking about print reading, there are similarities to braille reading in his discussion. He concludes that although most people are able to modestly increase their reading speed, they did so because they focused their attention on reading, set aside time for it, and eliminated distractions. These are all good things to do when trying to improve reading skills.
While he concludes that the claims that such courses can teach people to read thousands of words per minute are bogus at best, he does say that a primary technique taught in these courses, skimming, can be a very useful strategy to cover certain types of material where you don't necessarily need to understand every single thing but just need to get the gist of what is being said.
In the 1970s, Dr. Vearle McBride, a braille teacher at the Utah School for the Blind, developed a curriculum for teaching braille speed reading. He conducted ten-day workshops at several schools around the country and his claims at the time were fairly impressive.
The basics of his approach were to have participants begin by moving their hands very rapidly over braille pages. They could move in any direction without regard for recognizing words. Then they refined this to scanning lines but were instructed to do this very rapidly without regard for recognition. Then they began recognizing words, only a few words at first, just to get the overall idea of the content of the document. Then they were instructed to recognize more and more words, while continuing to move their hands rapidly across the text.
Through all of this, they were encouraged not to verbalize the words they were reading, a practice called subvocalization. This is the practice of saying the words to yourself as you read. Seidenberg's research also debunked the idea that subvocalization slows reading speed. He concludes that this practice is common among highly skilled readers. It does not slow a reader down when reading because the words are not actually spoken out loud.
Later studies of McBride's methods found that the results were questionable, primarily because of his atypical methods of measuring reading speed. Other studies during that same era simply measured the reading rates of braille readers who were told to read as fast as they could. These studies found that as reading speed went up, comprehension went down.
Even though astronomical reading speeds may not be possible in print or in braille, efficient readers can increase their reading speed with practice. If you feel confident that your braille reading technique is working well, you use two hands to read, and you move your hands smoothly across each line of braille without pressing down on the dots, there are several things you can do to become a faster reader.
Certainly, one of the best ways to become a better braille reader is to read. While this may sound completely obvious, there are many ways to do this. You can choose one or all of these, but the most important thing is that you choose a method that is appealing to you, and one that you will do as often as you can.
Keep braille nearby: Make the act of braille reading something that is easy and convenient to do. Keep a braille book near your favorite chair; keep a braille magazine near your bed at night. Carry some braille with you on a long car or bus ride. If its nearby and easy to pick up and read, you are much more likely to do it.
Start with shorter items: Reading short material can be very motivating. Find a magazine that interests you or you can read song lyrics, recipes, or poems.
Repeated reading: It can be helpful to read a short document over and over. The content will become more familiar with repeating readings and you can focus more on the mechanics.
Read with a friend: Reading with another person can be very enjoyable. You can both appreciate the content of what is being read and thereby increase your reading confidence.
Read with an audio book: If you don't have a friend to read with, you can get the same book in both braille and audio form and read the braille book while playing the audio. A few good examples of braille and audio books that you can get from your local library for the blind include: Laughter, the Best Medicine: a laugh-out-loud collection of our funniest jokes, quotes, stories & cartoons from the Reader's Digest. BR 17852, DB 67219; Laughter, the Best Medicine, II. BR 17915, DB 67445; Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. BR 13834, DB 50587; Because of Winn-Dixie. by Kate DiCamillo. BR 12917, DB 50679; Breakfast at Tiffany's, a short novel and three short stories by Truman Capote. BR 1589, DB58223
Record yourself: You can record yourself reading and then listen to the recording. In this way, you will become more aware of where your braille reading might be improved. Are you having trouble with particular contractions? Are you having difficulty finding the next line?
The most important thing you can do to increase your braille reading speed and efficiency is to read. Read as frequently as you can, and read as many different kinds of things as you can. Find reading material that is of interest to you and ways to read that will give you some feedback on your reading progress. The benefits will be enormous and you won't regret it.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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