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TSBVI at sunset

(Originally published in Spring 2005 SEE/HEAR Newsletter)

By Holly L. Cooper, Ph.D., Assistive Technology Consultant, TSBVI Outreach

Abstract: Suggestions for literacy activities that can be done at home. Included are Braille books, large print books, DAISY format CD’s, audio books, and electronic files. Accelerated Reader booklists are discussed as a source of children’s literature. Discussion of literacy related activities available in the community. Sources for books and other media are included.

Keywords: Programming, Braille, literacy, reading, enrichment


Summer vacation is a time that all students look forward to with great anticipation. Days of fun and leisure can add up to boredom, however. Summers can mean long periods of inactivity and isolation for our students with visual impairments, especially those with additional disabilities. Parents, families, and friends can make summer more fun by finding and planning opportunities for kids to read and enjoy books and other literacy activities during the summer. And literacy is not just for students in a standard academic curriculum. Students who may not become independent readers can still benefit from the exposure to print or braille, the spoken vocabulary and the increased exposure to ideas and people that literacy activities provide. Parents don’t have to be good readers themselves, nor do they even have to be good English speakers to help their children improve their reading skills. They just have to believe reading is an important part of a good education, and help their children find access to the books and literacy experiences that are all around them in the community.

Most classroom teachers will tell you they can see a difference between their students who read at home in their leisure time and those who don’t. Kids who read at home usually are better readers, better writers and have a better vocabulary than their peers who do not enjoy reading as a leisure time activity. Often they also learn more about specific content areas in which they have particular interests, such as science or history. One of the best ways to get your kids interested in reading is to be a good role model: read yourself. Read newspapers and magazines, and read books. Use the local library, buy books at used book stores, look at thrift stores, help start a lending library at your church or place of business, and go to bookstores. When kids see their parents, grandparents, and other adults in their lives reading, they understand that reading is an enjoyable way to spend time. When your children ask questions about your book, talk to them about what you are reading at a level they can understand. Ask them about their books when they read as well.

Braille books and magazines for leisure reading are available from many sources. One of the primary sources for schools is American Printing House for the Blind (APH). APH works with a combination of funding sources that allows them to provide materials free to educational institutions through a quota point system that is tallied for each legally blind student in Texas (and other states). Private individuals can purchase books and materials from APH, but a more practical method is to give a book list to your vision teacher and ask her to request them and loan them to your child for the summer. Materials from APH obtained with quota funds are always considered loans, and books are returned and recycled for other users. Our APH quota funds in Texas are almost never used up at the end of the school year, we are strongly encouraged to use them more! Another source of books is the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). NLS is a part of the Library of Congress and maintains a loan program of Braille and audio books and magazines. The Texas State Library maintains a Talking Books Program which also includes Braille magazines. Braille books can be purchased from Seedlings, National Braille Press, BookShare, Braille Books Dot Com, and even Amazon. You can find links to all of these sources at the end of this article.

What books should you get? One good place to start choosing books for your child is the Accelerated Reader book list. Accelerated Reader (AR) is a commercially produced product that uses popular children’s books as a source of content, and provides a test for each book on the list. Points are assigned to each book based on level of difficulty, and many schools encourage their students to read books on the list and accumulate points for reading at home. You can search the Accelerated Reader list by author, title, subject, and reading grade level. Many school districts have Accelerated Reader book lists on their websites, you can print the list and take it along when choosing books. Often these lists contain only the books that particular school has in it’s library, so be aware that using the AR website will give you more comprehensive lists. AR does not sell Braille books, so you must make use of other sources to obtain these.

One activity that we often omit from our lives is reading aloud. There are so many choices of ways to spend our leisure time. Often parents do not read aloud to their children. In school, teachers are under so much pressure to improve standardized test scores that enrichment activities such as reading aloud to the class are crowded out of the schedule. Reading aloud is important for many reasons. Children are less skilled readers, and benefit from the role model of an adult reading aloud to them. Instead of listening to other children read, which often happens at school, listening to adults read shows young people how more skilled reading should sound, and smooth fluent reading is easier to listen to and easier to comprehend than the broken up passages read at school by peers. Some research now indicates that children better comprehend the meaning of text they listen to when it is read by a voice familiar to them than when it is read by someone unfamiliar. Another benefit of reading aloud that we often overlook is that reading is a form of story telling and as such is a social activity. Children and many older adolescents and adults enjoy hearing a good story well told, and enjoy hearing it with others. Libraries and bookstores often have read aloud sessions for children, find out what their schedule is and mark them on your calendar. Sign up for their email newsletter to keep track of events. Some communities have story telling societies and guilds. These people meet together to tell stories, have competitions and do story telling at community events. Some storytelling societies celebrate particular ethnic traditions, such as African American or Latino culture or local folklore. Keep in mind the current popularity of book groups. Adult book groups do not typically read their books aloud, but they do read and discuss passages, talk about how the story or characters may be similar to their own lives or lives of people they know, and think about the book in different ways as a result of discussing the book with others. Consider starting a children’s book club at your school or library or with a group of friends that includes your child. Parents can be included in the book group discussion or not according to the wished of the group.

To make the most of read aloud time at home, establish a regular routine with your children, usually reading before bedtime is the easiest routine to stick to. Make it a pleasant activity, sit on the sofa as a group, and tell the older kids that part of why you are doing this is to help you all to become better readers. Establish a deadline for each session, but don’t be afraid to be somewhat flexible. Don’t get hooked into finishing a long book if it’s not realistic to do this. Part of the fun is the anticipation of returning to the book each night. Read and talk about the story. Try not to ask your child too many teacher-type questions, ask open-ended questions such as what their favorite part of the story was, who they liked best, or recall when a similar event happened to them. You can read books that are above the reading level of your children, this will encourage them to learn to follow a more lengthy story by starting chapter books that are not finished in one setting. Ask them before you read each day to recall what has happened so far.

Listening to books on tape or on CD are also literacy activities. While we generally believe that listening to a book or story is not as cognitively demanding as reading itself, students can learn skills about story comprehension, plot, setting, characters and, of course, the subject matter of the book, through listening. Many of our students with visual impairments, whether they are print readers or Braille readers, will use recorded reading materials as they get older and the demands of reading for learning increase. At the college and university level, most books are not available in Braille, so students rely on books recorded for them. Getting the book produced in Braille is usually simply too expensive and too slow to be practical. Children will benefit greatly from learning to be active listeners of recorded content, not just passive listeners of noise. Vision teachers, and sometimes others such as speech pathologists and classroom teachers may work on teaching students to listen for content. This is typically done in a manner similar to teaching reading, the student listens to a passage and answers questions or discusses the content. When more advanced students use recorded material for their school work, they may review the questions that will be asked first before reading the content, they may review an outline provided, or make an outline or summary themselves as they go along. Most parents are familiar with “books on tape.” Our recorded books in school settings are obtained primarily from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) which is a resource individuals can access as well, but there are additional sources listed at the end of this article. With the development of technology, many audio books from RFB&D are available on compact disc. Recordings are now made according to specific standards called DAISY format. With a book on CD in DAISY format, you need a special CD player and you can scan for specific words to search for information. A listener can enter the page number and jump directly to a specific page, or paragraph or chapter. The players also allow users to speed up the speech without distorting the pitch, since a skilled listener can comprehend content at a rate much faster than ordinary speech.

Of course, listening to recorded books is becoming more popular among many who love literature but have limited time. Most major publishers now have audio recordings of their most popular books produced simultaneously with or soon after the print version. You can buy books on CD on-line, or at bookstores. You can also find them at used book stores, and at your local library. Several companies now have downloadable books that you can purchase on-line and load into an MP3 player (like an iPod). Audible.com is one such company, with a monthly cost of $14.95 you get one book a month, plus a subscription to a magazine or newspaper from their list.

Audio books and Braille books are also available in electronic formats. Downloadable books like those from Audible.com are one type of accessible electronic format. Special exceptions to copyright laws exist in the United States which make it legal for us to put a book in an “alternative format” for people with print reading disabilities. Originally this meant paper Braille, or “talking books”. Now we also use optical scanners to scan pages and convert information to electronic text. This electronic text is simply a computer file of words. With electronic text, and special software we can convert the text to Braille and output it on paper or in refreshable Braille. We can also “read” it with voice output software such as JAWS, or with enlarging software such as ZoomText. Kurzweil reading software allows users to scan text directly into voice files. We can also download electronic files into portable notetaking devices such as BrailleNotes and PAC Mates. In addition, they can be downloaded into the BookPort from American Printing House for the Blind, and users can listen to an electronic-voice output version. Admittedly, you do not have all of this technology available at home, especially in the summer when school is not in session. But you can download a demo version of JAWS which will run for 40 minutes, this will make your computer read aloud. Also, inquire with you vision teacher about what equipment might be available for you to use with your child at home during summer break. Your district may be willing to loan less expensive devices such as the BookPort and the DAISY CD readers.

In addition to simply reading books, there are other literacy activities you can do at home. Many games are good for teaching and reinforcing literacy skills, such as Scrabble, Bingo, and Monopoly. You can purchase Braille versions of these games at the websites listed at the end of this article. Some games can also reinforce math skills, and Braille and large print versions of standard playing cards, Uno, and dominoes are all available. Tactile dice are also made. Consider the arithmetic involved in playing Yahtzee and dominoes according to traditional scoring rules. It’s fun and a challenge. Another way to enjoy reading is sending and receiving letters in the mail. Ask your vision teacher if there are other Braille reading students who will become Braille “pen pals” with your child. If your child has attended a special program at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a local Education Service Center, summer camp, or other setting and has met other children who use the same reading medium, try to keep them in touch through the mail. Check with the other child’s parent to see if they are willing to encourage and help with the correspondence process. This summer, don’t let the time become a vast wasteland, plan for opportunities for reading, listening to books, discussing books with friends and playing games that practice reading and number skills.

Resources

Games

Magazines and Newspapers, Book Loans

  • The Library of Congress - National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS): Through a national network of cooperating libraries, NLS administers a free library program of braille and audio materials circulated to eligible borrowers in the United States by postage-free mail. http://www.loc.gov/nls/
  • Texas State Library and Archives Collection - Talking Books Program: Braille magazines and books are available through their loan program https://www.tsl.texas.gov/tbp/gstarted.html

Books

Story Tellers

Renaissance Learning: Accelerated Reader