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Teaching Students to use Tactile Displays

In order to be successful at handling and interpreting a variety of models and tactile graphics, blind students must first have many opportunities to experience real-life concepts, handle real objects, then models, and finally two dimensional and symbolic representations with guidance from their teachers. Dr. Snorre Ostad of Norway stresses the importance of this latter stage in his study, Mathematics Through the Fingertips (1985), by reminding us that mathematics processes and symbols are abstractions. Students’ abilities to understand abstract (pictorial) representations of real items need to be developed before working with the abstract processes involved in mathematics. Snorre stresses the need for early, repeated exposure to, and manipulation of, tactile images of concrete objects not only as a pre-reading strategy, but also as a pre-mathematics strategy.

Developing well-designed tactile displays is not enough to insure that blind students will be able to interpret and use them effectively. Successful reading of tactile displays involves not only the legibility of the display, but also a) the students’ strategies for exploring and interpreting the tactile graphics, and b) the students’ knowledge of spatial and geographic concepts. Yet numerous studies have shown that blind students have poor haptic skills, especially related to tactile discrimination, spatial orientation, systematic searching, and tracking and tracing.

Furthermore, blind children often do not “see” the whole or the gestalt at once, as sighted viewers do, and so they must experience many concepts sequentially, part by part. This synthesizing can be much more difficult and time-consuming, and requires that students examine objects, displays, and graphics carefully and systematically in order to a) insure that they experience the entire field and do not miss any important information, and b) take advantage of relationships that will help in synthesizing or putting together the whole picture.

Students also need specific experiences and training in the concepts and skills needed for reading and interpreting tactile information, including:

Furthermore, since it is extremely difficult for blind students to recognize different-sized shapes as being the same, and even more difficult for them to recognize shapes which are rotated in space as being the same, practice in these perceptual skills is also very important, as is the ability to determine when changes in size and spatial orientation should be interpreted as meaning the same thing or when they indicate different information.

The appropriateness and importance of teaching students to be more proficient in reading tactile materials is highlighted in Barth’s (1982) statement:

The skills of display users improve with instruction and practice. Therefore, appropriate materials and curricula should be developed for the instruction of blind students in the use of tangible graphic displays. Teachers should be taught to teach their use (p. 402).

In addition to the above suggestions, the following guidelines may help to facilitate your student’s success in working with a variety of tactile displays and graphics:

Examples of teaching aids

Paper folding, or origami, can be a fun and motivating technique for teaching a variety of concepts. It actively involves students in discovery and helps their understanding of basic constructions. It also supports the learning of such concepts as fractions, angles, line segments, area, altitude, and more complex geometric concepts. Examples of using origami in geometry can be found in Tinsley’s (1972) “The Use of Origami in the Mathematics Education of Visually Impaired Students”

Some things to keep in mind when using this technique:

You can use this technique to illustrate such mathematical concepts as perpendicular line segments and altitude of a triangle.

Another commonly used tool is a geoboard. Geoboards are boards of wood or masonite with nails placed at regular intervals much like a pegboard; some have line segments like grids displayed while others do not. Line segments, shapes or other designs can be made by arranging rubber bands or string or other appropriate materials. Numerous games and activities can be carried out on a geoboard to teach such concepts as shapes, positional concepts in two dimensions, patterns, area, perimeter, and fractions.

Teachers can find many suggestions for teaching concepts with geoboards from activity books in teacher stores, such as those at different grade levels by Learning Resources; additional ideas are included in Marion Walter’s (1974) Use of Geoboards to Teach Mathematics, and Patricia Brosnan’s Visual Mathematics Using Geoboards (1986).


Barth, J. L., Bentzen, B. L., & Dixon, J. M. (Schiff, W. & Foulke, E., Eds.) (1982). Tactual perception: a sourcebook. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Brosnan, P (January-February, 1997). Visual mathematics using geoboards. Teaching Exceptional Children, 19-22.

Ostad, S. A. (1989). Mathematics through the fingertips. Gimse, Norway: Tambartun Skole. [Available through the American Foundation for the Blind].

Tinsley, T. (1972). The use of origami in the mathematics education of visually impaired students. Education of the Visually Handicapped, IV, 8-11.

Walter, M. (1974). Use of geoboards to teach mathematics. Education of the Visually Handicapped, VI, 59-62.