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Summer 2004 Table of Contents
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The Early Braille Readers Project

Holly Cooper, Ph.D., Outreach Technology Consultant, TSBVI Outreach

Abstract: The Early Braille Readers Project, a grant-funded two-year project begun in the 2003-2004 school year, provides specific braille technology and training for vision teachers and classroom teachers of braille-reading students ages 5-7. Infusing the classroom environment with braille and including the braille-reading student more fully in educational activities with print-reading peers is encouraged.

Keywords: braille literacy, inclusion, Mountbatten braille writer

At the beginning of this fiscal year our grant, The Early Braille Readers Project, finally was funded after a wait of almost a year. Many of our readers may be familiar with this project, as we published an announcement in the Winter 2003 See/Hear newsletter. We received funding to purchase some high tech braille writing devices, and to support the use of these devices through face-to-face and distance instruction. But the grant is not about making technology available to students, it's about giving braille reading students more opportunities to read braille, giving them more opportunities to be included in classroom activities with their print reading peers, and making braille writing easier for the students and teachers.

This two year grant funded a total of 20 different students in kindergarten and first grade classes across Texas. Ten began in the 2003-2004 academic year, and ten more will be added for the 2004-2005 academic year. To make the greatest impact on the students' education, we wrote the grant for students who were 5 to 8 years old, primarily braille readers, and at or near grade level for their age compared to their print reading peers. According to the state census of students in this age group, we estimate we will provide services to almost two-thirds of the braille reading students in those grades in Texas! That's a big impact on a very small population.

To participate in this project, regional Education Service Centers were contacted and given the opportunity to apply for partnership with the Early Braille Readers Project. Students in partner regions were then eligible to apply. Since we got off to a late start with our funds not being dispersed until after the school year started, we scrambled to contact partner Service Center consultants for students with visual impairments to help us locate students and their teachers who were in the correct age and ability range. By late October, we were able to fill a workshop with teachers interested in training on the technology.

As vision teachers, we are aware of the vast differences in access to reading materials between print and braille users. Sighted children grow up in a world in which they are able to use vision to gain information from both near and distant sources. They see print everywhere in the world around them. Early in childhood potential print readers begin to recognize and attach meaning to signs, symbols, and letters, as any parent of a toddler who sees a sign for their favorite fast food restaurant will testify. Strong correlations have been established between environments rich in print and children's early success in learning to read. Preschool and kindergarten teachers routinely label items around the room, post signs and schedules, provide books and consumable print materials, and do art and learning activities which use letters and words. Our students who are blind miss out on many of these rich opportunities. Parents and early childhood service providers struggle to find and make books in braille, but this is just a small part of the literacy experience of young children.

There have been great strides in technology for braille users in the last decade. Unfortunately, most braille reading students in the primary grades do not have access to much of this technology. Our grant selected one device, which we believed would be versatile and easy to use both by the student and by the teacher. This device was the Mountbatten Pro braille writer, which has features allowing it to: be used as an electronic braille writer; connect to a computer keyboard and will output braille; connect to a visual display device and show in print what is written in braille; connect to a printer and output in print; and connect to a computer, and with braille translation software, be used as a braille embosser. The Mountbatten also has voice output capabilities and speaks the letters or words as the user writes. Because of the ease of use this device provides in going from print to braille and braille to print, we believed it would be an ideal device to enrich the literacy environment of braille reading children. We also believed it would facilitate interaction between the print reading general education teacher and the braille reading student, and between the braille reading student and the class peers.

In October, we began to meet our participants, and shortly thereafter we began to go on site visits to deliver the equipment, set it up, and teach the vision teacher and classroom teacher to use it. It was February by the time all sites were set up. We had three students in Region 4 (Houston and surrounding counties), two students in Region 6 (Huntsville and surrounding counties), one student in Region 12 (Waco and surrounding counties), three students in Region 13 (Austin and surrounding counties), and one student in Region 19 (El Paso and surrounding counties).

We spent some exhausting months setting up and training vision teachers to use the Mountbatten and its peripherals. We also worked hard to impress upon all staff members involved in each student's education that this device was easy to use and could be used to provide a much greater quantity of braille reading opportunities to the student. We encouraged the use of the Mountbatten for creating braille "on the fly" easily and informally. Classroom teachers were very interested in the technology and the ability to create braille. We soon heard stories of classroom teachers making lists of spelling words, writing the "question of the day" in braille, or introducing a topic for the student's journal page in braille. Classroom teachers were generally eager to use the Mountbatten and to make materials for the braille reading student. Vision teachers loved the ease of use and the ability to download materials translated by Duxbury using the computer into the Mountbatten and output them in braille in the classroom. Close collaboration between the vision teachers and the classroom teachers was now possible, as they became partners in educating the braille reading student.

As part of the application process to participate in the Early Braille Readers Project, we tried to impress on the vision teachers and classroom teachers that being part of this project would require extra work and time on their part. Teaching a kindergarten or first grader to read and write braille requires a lot of time and energy ordinarily, but adding a new device to the mix could potentially make it more complicated. Although the Mountbatten took some additional effort for the vision teacher to learn, it also saved time by making braille easier to produce and making it easier for the classroom teacher to share some of the responsibility. In no way was this device seen by either teacher as a replacement for the vision teacher's role as instructor of the student with a visual impairment in reading and writing braille. In addition, there was careful proofreading and checking of braille content by the vision teacher. During the course of the year, we were often impressed with the dedication and skill and energy and creativity of the teachers who participated in the Early Braille Readers Project.

Results of surveys and other feedback from teachers indicated overall satisfaction with using the Mountbatten to teach braille writing, and to support braille reading. Several specific advantages were mentioned:

Some other features that vision teachers listed or stated were helpful for their braille reading students were the following:

Next year we will add some new regions to our project. New regions which have joined are: Region 1, the lower Rio Grande Valley; Region 2, Corpus Christi and surrounding counties; Region 10, Dallas and surrounding counties; Region 14, Abilene and surrounding counties; and Region 16, Amarillo and surrounding counties. We are looking forward to adding 10 new students to the Early Braille Readers Project for next year, and getting to watch as new students discover braille and the joy of reading and writing. Please contact the specialist for students with visual impairments at your Education Service Center if you know of an eligible child for this exciting project.

Resources

For more information about the Mountbatten Braille Writer, see the resources listed below.

Quantum Technologies, maker of the Mountbatten Pro Braille Writer - http://www.quantech.com.au/products/quantum_products/braille/mountbatten.htm

Tutorials and guides for using the Mountbatten - http://www.quantech.com.au/support/index.htm

SET BC (Special Education Technology British Columbia), Vision teacher Graham Cook's Visual Guide and Teaching Guide and Lesson Plans - http://www.setbc.org/res/mbpro/default.html

Emerging Braille Literacy Project: a report on a project similar to ours which was conducted by SET BC - http://www.setbc.org/projects/braille_lit/monty.html


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Last Revision: September 1, 2010