Sighted children develop and gain knowledge and experience through incidental learning. During their first few years of life they have exposure to a vast range of visual symbols that convey meaning. They observe children and adults looking at print and gaining meaning from the words they read.
Symbols are all around us in the environment and children experience them in many forms every day of their lives. Using signs, symbols and sounds to convey meaning and record knowledge is the basis for developing literacy skills. At four or five years old when the sighted child starts the formal process of literacy, they have already learnt a great deal incidentally about the world around them to support their understanding of concepts. They start by understanding what objects are and move onto what they are called. They then learn about how they are represented on paper – the written word
Object – spoken word – picture – written word
This access to the literate environment doesn’t occur naturally for the child with visual impairment. They need the same exposure to the written word as print readers, so that they can make the same connections and develop a concept of written language. Building a solid foundation of readiness skills and fun experiences from infancy is a critical part of the child’s reading readiness as well as fostering a love of books. Our ultimate goal is to expose the child systematically and as early as possible and often as possible to a rich variety of concrete experiences, involving many objects, people, places, activities, which will support and build a foundation and enthusiasm for Braille reading. Once the child has experiences and language sufficient to read, a more structured reading programme can be introduced.
Introducing Braille to tactile learners is important long before they start to learn literacy in a school setting. The child who requires Braille as their medium of learning will need to develop more specialised skills. The following areas of development are of particular importance to reading readiness.
- Auditory and language development – listening, attention and expression
- Concept building
- Fine motor skills
- Tactile discrimination skills
- Reading awareness – book and story skills
The basis of literacy is an understanding of spoken language and the concepts it represents. A child who echoes what they hear without genuinely linking words to meaning may enjoy early literacy experiences but will struggle to make sense of them. Learning to associate words with objects is an important step in the sequence of learning to listen and to comprehend spoken language. One of the starting points for this and a highly significant factor is skill in auditory discrimination developed from an early age. For the young baby or child, learning to identify objects according to their sound is one of the first steps in auditory discrimination. For example: Learning to identify mother by voice, or first rattle by its sound.
- Sound – object/person + opportunity to explore object associated with the sound – (always reinforced with the spoken word)
We need to continue to develop the child’s listening skills throughout the early years with sound making toys and toys where actions result in a sound response. E.g.
- Opportunities to create sound with a range of objects, pan lids, wooden spoons, musical instruments
- Action songs and rhymes, used with tactile representations of objects from the song or rhyme
- Introducing books with links to familiar songs, extending opportunities for using tactile representations
Development of fine motor skills
Motor skills need to be developed from the very beginning. The first important stage is the encouragement of gross motor movements, leading to the later development of fine motor skills. The skills needed in this area can be analysed as follows:
- Wrist flexibility/finger dexterity
- Grasping skills
- Two handed co-ordination
- Hand and finger strength
- Finger position, finger isolation
- Light touch, tracking
(See handout on ‘Motor activities checklist to encourage the development of Pre-Braille skills’)
Developmental approach to tactual learning
Integration of a sequence of touch sensations which are given by an object when an individual explores it with his/her hands is often called the haptic sense. The child needs to develop this touch sensitivity, which can be described as the ability to distinguish objects which are alike, from those which are different.
The most important principal in developing tactual readiness is to move from tactual discrimination of very gross patterns to tactual discrimination of very fine patterns (Braille dots) through a series of small progressive sequential steps. The tactual discrimination of a Braille cell requires a very special preliminary readiness programme:
- Discrimination of smaller and smaller 2D representations of shapes using a variety of materials and textures
- Small objects and shapes positioned in rows on a page to represent Braille lines. The child learns to track along lines of string, ribbon, straws, recognising the odd one out
- Discriminate and recognise Braille characters, identifying the odd one out, tracking along lines of Braille patterns
(See handout on motor activities to encourage the development of pre-Braille skills)
Reading awareness – book and story skills
In order to develop positive attitudes towards reading the child requires tactual readiness materials just as seeing children need visual reading readiness materials. They need additional experiences in handling and exploring books, with lots of opportunities to use tactile books as toys, with textures and sounds, real objects or representational objects to motivate them to explore and enjoy the story whilst being read to.
As the child becomes more involved with understanding and listening to stories, simple tactile books can be used to encourage the link and understanding between use of real objects and 2D tactile representation, continuing to develop language to describe the objects, textures, shapes used in the books. This can be encouraged by asking them to find something different on each page of the tactile book, e.g. to match the shape or texture in the book with the 3D/real object, helping to support and develop their concept of what the tactile representation is and give meaning to the story.
It is a good idea to make tactile books with the child, by actively involving them to find textures to represent each element or object, ensuring the tactile representation is meaningful to them.
It is important to help them to develop a desire to read by reading aloud to them from print books, having small amounts of Braille on the book for the child to locate and feel the as they are listening to the story and being encouraged to develop orientation skills, e.g.
- Identify parts of the book, cover, pages, margins
- Hold and turn pages from left to right
- Understand simple reading directions given by the teacher e.g. top, bottom, left, right
- Find specific shapes located at different points on each page, as the child progresses through the book, each page becoming a little more complex with the addition of other shapes and textures
Building a desire to read may require a considerable period of time for some children. Forcing the child to read before fostering a desire to read may cause a negative and damaging attitude which could lead to reading progress being adversely affected. Leading the child into reading by developing a classroom environment which makes the child feel secure and which stimulates the child’s desire to read is more likely to secure a successful beginning.
Braille Reading and Writing Mechanics:
- Reading surface should be of sufficient size to support the whole book and should be no higher than the elbow level of the reader. (A reading surface above elbow level causes the child to hunch their shoulders or to spread elbows apart, thus pulling hands into a poor reading position)
- Both feet on floor, child’s back against back of chair
- Use both hands together on the Braille line with the thumbs gently touching and the upper joints of the index fingers in light contact with each other
- Wrists should neither be sagged nor be humped
- Coordinated use of both hands is characteristic of efficient Braille reading. While the right hand completes one line the left hand moves to the beginning of the next line to continue reading. The two hands then meet at some point approaching the middle of the new line, separating towards the end of the line to perform their separate functions. Two hands that function together efficiently create the most efficient readers. Quick smooth left –right hand movements are characteristic of efficient Braille readers. For the sighted reader visual perception occurs as the eye pauses, for the Braille reader tactual perception is achieved through movement across the symbols.
- Braille is perceived through the pressure points within the surface of the finger pads. Hands are positioned to make the most efficient use of the finger pads on the reading surface, to allow the pads to focus most of the attention on the upper part of the cell, where the majority of dots appear, but also to span the entire three dot depth of the cell. The tips of eight fingers or at least the first three on each hand should curve naturally and rest lightly on one line (the reading line) enabling them to slide quickly and easily from left to right. The child should lift fingers to return to the beginning of the line.
- A very light finger pressure is conducive to good perception. A heavier finger pressure spreads the perception points and blurs the image. The teacher may demonstrate light pressure by placing hands in the reading position and sliding along child’s arm. The teacher may ask the child to do the same along his/her arm to judge the child’s pressure. Perspiring and/or whitening fingers are indicative of too much pressure.
- As many fingers as possible should be utilised. Most children use the index finger or the index finger and middle finger on one or both hands as the primary reading fingers. Other fingers serve to maintain orientation on the Braille line, to pick up the missed cues and correct faulty impressions, or to move ahead perceiving punctuation or checking to make sure the line is completed.
- When re-locating and moving to new reading line, the child should not be allowed to retrace the Braille line from right to left. The re-tracing of the Braille in reverse may lead to reversal problems.