(Originally published in Summer 2001 SEE/HEAR Newsletter)
By Cyral Miller, TSBVI, Director of Outreach and Ann Rash, Teacher Trainer, TSBVI, VI Outreach
Instruction in the use of alphabetic braille has become a hot topic across the state and nation. Also known as uncontracted or Grade 1 Braille, the term refers to a braille code made up of the letters of the alphabet, punctuation symbols and the number sign. It has 180 rules. In contrast, contracted or Grade 2 Braille consists of the alphabet plus 189 one cell and two cell contractions representing various combinations of letters. Contracted braille, with 450 rules, is a more complex system of letters plus whole word and part word contractions. Grade 2 Braille is regarded as the standard form of literacy for blind individuals. It is endorsed for its space-saving properties and for increased reading speeds achieved by accomplished readers. Since the 1950s most published materials from the American Printing House for the Blind and other braille producing organizations have been produced in Grade 2 Braille, and most instruction provided to braille reading students in both local and specialized schools has been in the contracted form.
The VI Outreach Team at the TSBVI became interested in alphabetic braille as a way to increase literacy options for students with visual impairments. There is a national search for strategies to help more blind and visually impaired students develop competence in reading and a sense that many students who could and should be readers are not mastering braille. During on-site visits to schools and in conversations with teachers of students with visual impairments (TVI's), we have encountered students who struggle for reading competency despite adequate levels of specialized services. Other students are not offered braille instruction because additional disabilities are thought to limit their ability to read braille contractions. We became familiar with One is Fun: Guidelines for Better Braille Literacy, by Marjorie Troughton, written in 1992. In that Canadian publication, Ms. Troughton reviewed research on approaches to teaching braille literacy, comparing instruction in contracted and uncontracted braille. She put forth compelling arguments to reconsider the current practice of introducing braille with Grade 2 contractions. We invited Dr. Linda Mamer from British Columbia, Canada to present One is Fun materials at the Texas Focus conference in El Paso. She reinforced the idea that introducing braille with uncontracted systems may offer greater literacy opportunities for many of our students.
To further explore this issue, we surveyed selected professionals with expertise in braille literacy and looked for written documents. There were four questions on our survey:
- Have you had experience teaching or observing the instruction of uncontracted braille?
- What students, in your opinion, might be good candidates for short-term instruction in uncontracted braille (to be followed by instruction in contracted braille)? Why? Let us know how you define short-term.
- What students, in your opinion, would be good candidates for long-term instruction in uncontracted braille (and won't switch over)? Why?
- Please share with us your knowledge of research relevant to practitioners making decisions on which type of braille instruction is appropriate for specific students.
We received responses from 16 individuals, including Tanni Anthony, Dr. Anne Corn, Francis Mary D'Andrea, Dr. Cay Holbrook, Dr. Alan Koenig, Dr. Linda Mamer, Dr. Sally Mangold, Dr. Dixie Mercer, Debra Sewell, Anna Swenson, Nancy Toelle, and 5 TVIs from California and Colorado. All 16 respondents had experience teaching or observing instruction in uncontracted braille, thus confirming widespread use of this technique. We have included many of their survey comments below along with what we have learned from reading and discussions. In a presentation on this issue at the 2001 Texas AER conference, many participants acknowledged using this method with students. We were interested to find that several admitted to feeling guilty at trying alphabetic braille, because they had been taught that real braille is Grade 2 (contracted) Braille.
There are a variety of students for whom the short-term teaching of alphabetic braille should be considered. Most survey respondents suggested that beginning readers and adventitiously blinded students in particular would benefit from learning braille introduced in uncontracted form.
Beginning readers in early elementary classrooms typically are taught with phonics-based instruction. In Texas, the Texas Reading Initiative, a research-based program developed in 1997 and implemented statewide, relies heavily on phonics for early instruction. Jennifer Dorwin, a home counselor with The Blind Babies Foundation in California noted, "Many young sighted readers use the method of phonics to decipher words and learn how to read. I think it is only fair that we do not deprive our braille readers of the same processes." Other survey responses also highlighted the correspondence between alphabetic braille and regular print. For example, Debra Sewell said, "Students in a general education classroom using a skills-based phonetic approach to reading" would be good candidates for beginning with alphabetic braille. Alphabetic braille is a direct parallel to print, with letter-by-letter reading and writing, so phonetic rules are the same for both. In Grade 2 Braille, contractions frequently combine syllables and groups of letters into one sign.
Nancy Toelle shared an experience of teaching Grade 1 Braille to a kindergarten student, who learned to read and write at the same rate and using the same methods as her peers. In addition to direct instruction by her TVI, all other classroom activities throughout the day incorporating the language arts were performed alongside her classmates using the same materials in Grade 1Braille.
Students who lost their vision in later years and needed to switch from print to braille were also seen as good candidates for learning alphabetic braille, at least initially. "Most adults who have read print need to experience successful reading in braille as quickly as possible in order to maintain the motivation to learn. Uncontracted braille allows them to read adult literature soon after learning the alphabet," wrote Sally Mangold in her response to our survey. As Harley noted, "A most important factor in the braille reading program for the late newly blinded is the provision for success in reading since newly blinded persons are generally insecure and are very sensitive to failure." (Harley et al, 1987)
Many survey responses also indicated that alphabetic braille is a good choice for a population of students who were described variously as having additional disabilities, learning disabilities, lower cognitive abilities, or as learning at a functional academic level. Carson Nolan concluded in 1974 that comprehension and reading speeds with contracted words were more difficult for students noted as "slow learners." (Lowenfeld, 1969) Based on studies conducted with contracted braille, "the evidence of the study strongly suggests that for students whose IQ is below 85, braille is an extremely inefficient medium of communication and the necessity of mastering it may constitute an additional education handicap." (Nolan & Kederis, 1969) The assumption seems to have been that because the complexity of contractions makes Grade 2 Braille hard to read, instruction in braille for students with additional disabilities should be limited. In One is Fun, Ms. Troughton stated that by removing most contractions and simplifying the necessary rules, these populations became more adept at reading and more successful in braille literacy.
Frances Mary D'Andrea described a student who had a brain tumor removed. "Prior to my trying uncontracted braille with her, she had been unsuccessful in learning to read, although she had memorized the alphabet. She had very good auditory and phonological skills. By the end of the school year, she was reading a number of little books that I had made up for her. She moved away at the end of that year, and called me the next year to tell me that she was now reading Grade 2 Braille books."
In Instructional Strategies for Braille Literacy we found an example of a young student, Tony, who was having difficulties learning to read braille. His TVI had taught him the alphabet using the Mangold program . She used the Patterns series, but he had problems remembering the vocabulary words from one day to the next and even from one hour to the next. The teacher tried numerous other strategies and then decided to consult with the teacher of students with learning disabilities (LD) in Tony's school.
The recommendation from the LD teacher was to use a linguistic approach. He guided the TVI teacher in using word families, such as the 'at' family (e.g. fat, cat, sat, and mat), to create stories that Tony could read. The TVI also created games and used other strategies that had been tried before, but this time with Grade 1 and the new reading strategies. Tony's self esteem improved and his reading level increased. He later became a Grade 2 reader and was on level with his peers by fourth grade. (Wormsley, 1997)
The Outreach survey asked for other categories of students who may initially need to use uncontracted braille. Students who are learning English as a second language were mentioned. These students rely on their knowledge of a written language they have already learned, and may become confused by needing to master new symbols and writing rules in addition to the new vocabulary. For some of these students, alphabetic braille was described as a gateway to literacy; a successful entry point from which they could move on to fully contracted Grade 2 Braille.
Some students may learn alphabetic braille and not switch to Grade 2. Debbie McCune from Colorado noted that this category includes students with "cognitive limitations and students who do not have a need for heavy reading." Tanni Anthony added, "There may be students with memory challenges who would need to stay on this type of system, or kids who need continual reinforcement of the braille code in their environment and as such, need to have everyday people around them understand the braille code." Dixie Mercer also identified students who are unmotivated to use braille and whose primary literacy need is for a functional labeling system. A simple alphabetic code might be the most successful system for this type of student. Frances Mary D'Andrea stated, "To me, the test would be: Is it functional? Is it practical? And does it contribute to the student's sense of accomplishment as a reader?"
Linda Mamer and others mentioned that students who are deafblind and learning many language codes, including finger spelling, might stay with alphabetic braille. All respondents stress ongoing assessment, keeping the possibility of Grade 2 Braille always in mind. Sally Mangold stated, "There may be students who learn slowly and have certain learning disabilities who may function best in uncontracted braille for years. The determination as to whether to keep them in uncontracted braille should be made on an evaluation of their level of success where they are."
Many educational practitioners rely more on folk art and instinct than formal studies. Alan Koenig and Cay Holbrook both noted that there is very limited research on the use of uncontracted braille other than One Is Fun. In many cases, instructional strategies may be based on what materials are available. Marjorie Troughton wrote, "When these decisions were made (to have all books published in Grade 2 Braille) it was not possible physically or financially to publish books in two different codes. However, with today's technology, computers, scanners and printers, it is no longer impractical. The reasons for only one code are no longer valid. The reasons for two codes are very evident. It is time that a larger percentage of possible braille users be given the opportunity to have a code that is useful to them." (Troughton, 1992).
Anna Swenson summed up our exploration of this topic well by stating, "I continue to feel that there is no `right' way to teach braille, given the many variables involved. Teachers should select the approach that best meets the needs of an individual child in a specific educational setting. There are certainly anecdotal success stories on both sides of this debate. While further research may clarify best practice in certain situations, expanding, rather than narrowing, the range of options will enable teachers to make the best instructional decisions for their students."
Overall when we looked at texts commonly used by vision professionals, the international work on developing a Unified English Braille Code, the Texas Reading Initiative, survey responses and dialogue with teachers of students with visual impairments, several questions kept surfacing:
- What are the most important skills young braille readers need to acquire reading in the braille medium?
The Texas Reading Initiative has shown that young readers must make a connection between sounds and individual letters. They need to associate and manipulate sounds to form words. They need to write about their experiences and be able to read back that information. Reading consists of many skills, including letter discrimination and use of meaningful vocabulary. For many reasons, young braille readers often do not have adequate reading readiness skills in the early elementary years. Research has shown that the tactual discrimination skills of first grade blind children, and their recognition of common household objects by touch, may vary widely. (Nolan and Kederis, 1969) Early instruction must maximize successful movement from oral to written language experiences, focusing on connections between sounds, letters and real life experiences.
- Should we completely switch from contracted to uncontracted braille?
All research we reviewed, ongoing discussions with practitioners, and our survey results point to adding alphabetic braille as an instructional strategy, rather than advocating taking away Grade 2 Braille. As in all decisions, careful consideration and assessment should determine the child's learning media. If a child is successfully progressing using contractions, clearly he/she is learning in the most appropriate medium. For most braille readers wishing to access published literature at the highest speed, the goal will be to master all of Grade 2 Braille. Currently, standardized tests such as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills are produced in Grade 2 Braille, as are most other normed test materials. The alphabetic braille code can be an entry for many who, once hooked on the excitement of fluent reading, transition into more advanced literacy instruction. In some areas of Canada and a few American districts, braille readers move to contracted reading in upper elementary grades. Others will transition earlier or later, as appropriate to their learning styles. Uncontracted braille offers early successes with the mechanical challenges of braille reading.
- Could we increase the literacy options for our students with learning disabilities?
All students are different, and no one method of teaching reading will work for all students. It is essential to have a variety of approaches to match individual student needs, especially for students with specialized learning challenges. Several reading strategies commonly used for students with learning disabilities are not recommended for braille readers because "of the contractions in the braille code that do not always provide for single letters." (Sacks & Silberman, 1998) Phonics-based reading, code-emphasis instruction, and the Orton-Gillingham methods all fall into this category. Rather than limiting the potential methodologies used to teach reading, alphabetic braille instruction for students with visual impairments and learning disabilities may expand the teacher's ability to individualize reading instruction.
- Could we increase the literacy options for our students with multiple disabilities?
Sighted students who have cognitive disabilities read and write using print to their maximum abilities. The teachers working with these students are motivated to continue providing reading instruction because they see the importance of their students being able to read and write their names, write lists for shopping, read a menu, or write a short note to a friend. Our students with visual impairments and cognitive impairments should have the same opportunity and means to complete these functional tasks. If braille is their medium, they need sufficient practice in reading and writing. Uncontracted braille may be the strategy that allows them to acquire functional literacy. Using uncontracted braille, they could braille a list for the grocery story, read a braille menu at McDonald's, braille phone numbers of their friends and family, and read the signage in many public buildings. Uncontracted braille would also be easier for the teachers and staff working with the student to learn, and would allow them to give immediate feedback to the student.
Sighted students are able to use materials that pair words with pictures and symbols that help decode the print. Students with visual impairments and additional disabilities may also benefit from tactual symbols that are paired with uncontracted braille to support communication and literacy activities.
- How would using uncontracted braille impact the braille reader in the mainstream?
Alphabetic braille in its simplicity allows everyone in the reader's life to become a participant in the reader's literacy. General education staff, peers, and family can quickly learn the letter symbols and punctuation signs. Use of alphabetic braille in early learning allows the braille student to listen to and learn the same reading lessons as their peers in the classroom. The rules governing spelling of words is the same for all students, and the materials can be more easily checked by the general education teacher without waiting for a skilled braille reading TVI to arrive.
The certified TVI may need to explore available published resources to find alphabetic braille materials. Agencies such as APH are beginning to research the use of alphabetic braille and plan to produce some titles in this format in the future. The first sixteen clusters of BRAILLE FUNdamentals, a new TSBVI braille curriculum, teach the alphabetic code. The textbook division of the Texas Education Agency will consider requests for Grade 1 Braille texts and currently produces some titles that have been requested in that format. At this time, most existing publications are available in Grade 2 Braille; however, with electronic files, all formats can be produced. It is exciting that advances in technology for braille production have given our students more options for literacy.
After compiling the survey responses, examining some of the available resources and speaking with TVIs from around Texas, we are convinced that the use of alphabetic braille has potential to increase literacy options for many students with visual impairments in Texas. Have you had experiences teaching uncontracted braille? We would love to hear about them. Does this article spark your interest? Do you want to try this strategy with your students? We are very interested in teaming with districts or TVIs who want to explore instruction in alphabetic braille. To be hooked up with a member of our VI Outreach team, you can contact Ann Rash at (512) 206-9269 or or Cyral Miller at (512) 206-9224 or .
References and Readings
Beginning Reading Instruction: Components and Features of a Research-Based Reading Program (1997). Publication Number CU7 105 01. Texas Education Agency, Austin, Texas.
Harley, R. K., Truan, M. B., and Sanford, L. D., (1987). Communication Skills for Visually Impaired Learners. Charles C. Thomas, Publishers, Springfield, Ill. p. 233.
Lowenfeld, B., Abel, G.L. & Hatlen, P.H. (1969). Blind Children Learn to Read. Charles C. Thomas, Publishers, Springfield, Illinois, p.27.
Nolan, C.Y. & Kederis, C.J. (1969). Perceptual Factors in Braille Word Recognition. Research Series No. 20. American Foundation for the Blind, New York, NY, p.43.
Sacks, S.Z. & Silberman, R.K. (1998). Educating Students who have Visual Impairments with Other Disabilities. Paul Brookes Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD, p.171.
Troughton, M. (1992). One is Fun: Guidelines for Better Braille Literacy. Brantford, Ontario.
Wormsley, D.P. (2000). Braille Literacy Curriculum. Towers Press, Overbrook School for the Blind, Philadelphia, PA.
Wormsley, D.P. & D'Andrea, F.M., eds. (1997). Instructional Strategies for Braille Literacy. American Foundation for the Blind, New York, pp. 161-162.