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Summer 2006 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

To Contract or Uncontract?
Is This Still the Question for the Beginning Braille Reader?

By Ann Rash, Education Specialist, TSBVI Visually Impaired Outreach

Abstract: This article explores the effectiveness of uncontracted Braille for beginning readers and presents a strategy to help students switch from uncontracted Braille to contracted Braille.

Key Words: Programming, blind, visually impaired, reading, uncontracted Braille, contracted Braille, fluency, decoding, general education

In 2001, Cyral Miller and I wrote an article about the use of uncontracted Braille for our VI students. (See/Hear, Summer 2001). Since that time, we have experienced many changes in our field. We now have the opportunity to order textbooks and TAKS tests in uncontracted Braille, there continue to be national articles and research to determine the effectiveness of using uncontracted Braille, and we have uncontractedBraille teaching materials such as Un’s the One. We have also had the opportunity to be trained in the Struggling Readers Training for VI students, which recommends the use of uncontracted Braille as a strategy to intervene with a struggling Braille reader.

Does research support the use of uncontracted Braille?

Each research project tells us that more research is needed. But what does the VI teacher do today if there is a young student on the caseload who needs to learn Braille? Does the research give enough information to make a decision about the use of uncontracted Braille? If the VI teacher uses the information we now have from our field, along with the research from the field of reading instruction, I believe that the use of uncontracted would be considered research-based.

The most important point I have gained from reading the latest research in our field is that beginning with uncontracted Braille does no harm. There has been a perception in our field that if our students only read uncontracted they would have difficulty learning contracted Braille later. Hong and Erin’s study did not support this perception. They state “findings… do not support the commonly held view that changing to contracted Braille later in school will impede the speed and efficiency of reading.” (Hong & Erin, p. 326). My personal experience in working with VI teachers and students in the state of Texas also does not support this perception.

As VI teachers, our main emphasis has been on teaching a complicated Braille code with many rules to our young students. The classroom teacher has had the pressure of teaching the print code with its many rules. We have felt the pressure to have our students reading all of their contractions by the third grade so they can take the TAKS. The classroom teacher has felt the pressure of our students being able to pass the TAKS with other students. I think we should stop and consider what kind of pressure our students feel.

All beginning readers must begin with decoding. Print readers have one code to break and Braille readers have two. Print readers have many people in their environment to help them “break” the code. Braille readers have few.

If our students have only a few people in their environment that can help them decode the Braille, how does that impact the VI teacher’s role in the student learning to read? I have heard many vision teachers say, “I am not the reading teacher.” If we as vision teachers only concern ourselves with teaching the code, and we are the only ones who know the code, how do our students learn to read? The classroom teacher is responsible for teaching reading but when the child has questions about decoding the Braille and the teacher can’t read the Braille, how does teaching take place?

I have witnessed the above scenario and it is frustrating for all who are involved—teachers, parents and especially the student. Many times the student is blamed for not learning the Braille fast enough and teachers begin to question if something is wrong with the student.

I have also observed a vision teacher in a general education classroom with her uncontracted Braille student when the first grade teacher was giving oral instructions on reading and writing rules. The student participated in the discussion and when it was time to practice what had been taught, the vision teacher could oversee the student reading from his brailled materials and formatting the brailled answers with his braillewriter. When the vision teacher was not in the classroom, the first grade teacher read the student’smaterials because she had a “cheat sheet” of the Braille alphabet and could help the student decode words and assist with the student’s brailled answers. She was able to help the student decode with the print rules that had been discussed in class. (For example, a spelling rule—i before e except after c.). The vision teacher could still pull the student out of the classroom during part of the day, but not during the language arts block. During the pullout time, the VI teacher’s reading instruction included Braille reading, reading speed, and fluency. She was able to help the student decode new words in passages using the same terms that the classroom teacher used because she had heard the same explanations in the classroom as the student.

In the above classroom observation, the classroom teacher was the primary reading teacher and the vision teacher was a support to the instruction. (One particular student did not know the entire Braille alphabet at the beginning of the first grade. Both teachers worked very hard to help him catch up.) The student was not frustrated because the instructional vocabulary remained the same and he had people in his classroom that could decode his reading medium.

One benchmark for schools today is how well students read. Teachers are under pressure to have fluent readers in the early elementary grades. Fluency is defined as the ability to read a text quickly, accurately, and with expression. VI teachers have been taught that the average Braille student will not learn all of the Braille contractions until the third grade. The goal of the vision teacher has been the student’s acquisition of the contractions. Reading speed and fluency have been secondary concerns. Our young Braille reading students need the opportunity to work on fluency along with their sighted peers. They cannot wait until the third grade to begin working on fluency. The use of uncontracted allows the student to learn to read first, and then learn the Braille contractions. They are able to concentrate on reading and practice reading which builds fluency, comprehension, and speed.

A friend shared with me that she tried to take two foreign languages at the same time. She took Spanish and French and declared it was a disaster. She tried to juggle three different grammar systems (English, Spanish and French) as well as vocabulary and pronunciation. It reminded me of how our students try to learn the print rules, the 450 Braille rules, and how to read. 

Fluency in reading requires practice, and with practice you also achieve speed. “Fluent reading is one key to good reading comprehension because fluent readers focus their attention on understanding the text and comprehending what they read. Nonfluent readers focus their attention on decoding, leaving less attention for comprehension.” (Effective Instruction for Struggling Readers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired: Research-Based Practices, FL Handout 2A, University of Texas, 2003). 

In the January 2006 Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, an article entitled “Developmental Stages of Reading Processes in Children Who Are Blind and Sighted” uses Chall’s (1983) model of six stages of reading development. It reviews literature to determine if Braille readers followed the same developmental processes as sighted readers. The authors used examples of students learning contracted Braille. The authors concluded that “readers of both print and Braille text formats may progress through similar stages.” (p. 45). The most significant differences between the groups occur in the first three stages. The stages span from pre-reading through formal skill instruction to fluent reading. Both print and Braille readers must become fluent readers before they can advance to the next stages of reading. In the next stages, “the purpose of reading is to acquire new information—to comprehend meaning. In these later stages, the focus becomes the message, rather than the medium.” (p. 43). The differences in the beginning Braille reader’s progression occur because learning the contracted Braille symbols slows the reading process which, “at least temporarily, return a reader to a mode of progression that is similar to Stage 1 (formal skill instruction) until the entire character set can be assimilated into memory as a complete set of patterns.” (p. 40).

My hypothesis is that once a student is a fluent reader, it is easier for the reader to learn the contractions. The student is able to use context cues to help decode the contractions because they are already fluent readers. Vision teachers have told me their experiences with foreign exchange students who have been uncontracted readers and how quickly they learn contracted Braille once they began instruction in contractions because they were already good readers. They enjoyed breaking the code of contracted Braille.

So the big question is when and how do we switch from uncontracted to contracted Braille?

The when has to be determined for each individual student. When the student is a fluent reader you begin to make the switch. Keep the student in uncontracted textbooks for the year you begin adding the contractions. Braille the supplemental materials in a controlled contraction format. With the translation software available today, a teacher can control the contractions contained in the reading material based on the contractions introduced. It is important to spend time allowing the student to become fluent with each set of contractions before you introduce another set. This will allow the student to remain fluent in his reading and not compromise his comprehension.

Many of the perceived reasons for introducing contracted Braille to the beginning Braille reader have been questioned in our field. Hong and Erin conclude, “If the preponderance of research on the effects of the use of contractions indicates no differences based on that factor, it will be a sufficient reason to question the current practice of introducing contractions when a child is learning to read. If it is established that the early introduction of contractions provides no advantage in reading skills, then teachers will have support for making individual decisions on the basis of other factors, such as motivation, context and instructional setting.” (pp. 338-339).

One of my goals is to convince APH to provide more uncontracted materials on quota or develop teaching materials in uncontracted Braille. As teachers of the visually impaired, we have a strong voice when we speak up for the needs of our students. If our students need uncontracted materials, it is time to speak up.

References

Effective Instruction for Struggling Readers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired: Research-Based Practices. (2003). FL Handout 2A, University of Texas.

Hong, S. & Erin, J. N. (2004). The Impact of Early Exposure to Uncontracted Braille Reading on Students with Visual Impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 98, 325-340. 

Miller, C. & Rash, A. (2001). Reading for Everyone: Expanding Literacy Options. See/Hear. 6, 22-26.

Steinman, B. A., LeJeune, B. J., & Kimbrough, B. T. (2006) Developmental Stages of Reading Proceses in Children Who Are Blind and Sighted. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness 100, 36-46.


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