Fluency, one of the five areas recognized by the National Reading Panel, is a goal for all beginning readers, whether they use print or braille. We recognize fluency when children read accurately at a normal rate of speed, observe punctuation marks, and use expression appropriate to the meaning of the text. Comprehension is a vital component of fluent reading, since without understanding, reading that may sound fluent is simply word calling. Because the braille code adds an extra layer of complexity to the reading process, some braille readers may take longer to achieve fluency than their sighted peers who read print. However, results from the ABC Braille Study described later in this article indicate that this lag is temporary, and most children who read braille master the code with relative ease, given appropriate instruction (Emerson, Holbrook, & D'Andrea, 2009). It is important to include fluency-building activities in instruction for young braille readers from the very beginning and to maintain high expectations for their progress in reading.
Research shows a correlation between fluency and comprehension for typically sighted children who read print (Marcell, B. 2011-12). Initially, all beginning readers must read with “divided attention”, decoding words and reading for meaning simultaneously (Clay, 1991). However, sighted students often begin making the transition from phonetic decoding (sounding out most words) to automatic recognition of many whole words during their first grade year (Steinman, LeJeune, & Kimbrough, 2006; Wormsley, 2006). By second grade, many of them are able to read print fluently at their instructional level and devote the majority of their attention to the meaning of the text.
Beginning braille readers must also read with divided attention, but their thinking is divided in more ways than that of print readers. Not only do they need to decode and read for meaning at the same time, they also need to pay attention to the intricacies of the braille code when decoding and think about their hand and finger movements as they track across lines of text. Children who are learning braille also lack access to picture clues and may have more limited background knowledge and concepts to aid in comprehension.
When working with beginning braille readers, it is helpful for classroom teachers, parents, and other members of a student’s educational team to understand the structure of the braille code and how it impacts the reading process. Briefly, braille differs from print in the following ways for beginning readers:
• Number of symbols: In addition to the letters of the alphabet, the braille code includes 189 space-saving contractions (e.g., special symbols for “ch”, “tion”, and “en”) and short form words (e.g., The word “tomorrow” is spelled “tm”). This means that braille learners have significantly more symbols to learn than their sighted counterparts. Many braille readers do not master the complete braille code until third grade, so they are still assimilating new symbols long after their sighted peers have learned all their letters and begun to read fluently. It should be noted, however, that contractions can help with decoding, since they represent common letter groupings found in words.
• Similar and reversed characters: Nearly every character in braille is a top-bottom, left-right reversal of one or more other characters. Some reversals are normal for beginning braille readers, although they do not remain a long-term problem for most children. In the examples of reversed or similar contractions below, the full braille cell with numbered dots
appears on the left. Contractions are shown in parentheses.
• Multiple meanings for individual characters: Because of the limited number of ways to arrange one to six dots in the braille cell, a single braille shape often has more than one meaning, depending on its position in the braille cell, in a word, or in a sentence. Also, punctuation marks are the same size and shape as letters and contractions, which can be initially confusing to early readers. The example below shows that the same shape represents both an opening quotation mark and the letter “h” when it is written in different parts of the braille cell. This explains why beginning readers often begin a line of dialog with the /h/ sound before they realize the first character is in the lower part of the cell, making it a quotation mark. Many other characters play multiple roles in the braille code, and children assimilate these gradually through supported instruction and extensive reading practice.
• Lack of redundancy: Most print letters include a number of characteristics that help children learn to identify them. A capital “A”, for example, has a triangular shape, a point at the top, two “legs” at the bottom, and a horizontal line across the middle. In contrast, braille characters include relatively few identifying characteristics. If a child misses one dot in a letter or contraction while reading, the meaning of the character totally changes.
Contrary to what might be expected, recent research suggests that braille contractions do not have a negative impact on reading progress for children who are blind with no additional disabilities. The results of the Alphabetic Braille and Contracted Braille Study (the ABC Braille Study), a five-year research project that studied the reading progress of children in relation to the number of contractions they had learned, supports the early introduction of contractions as rapidly as students can master them (Emerson, Holbrook, & D'Andrea, 2009). Specific research findings from this study related to braille readers in kindergarten through grade 4 include:
• Children who knew more contractions were better spellers.
• There was no difference in reading speed between beginning readers who knew many contractions and those who knew few. The researchers noted that the reading speed of both groups was significantly slower than that of their print-reading peers.
• Children made relatively few braille errors, such as reversals, when reading aloud, implying that mastery of the braille code was not a major obstacle for most students. Their miscues tended to be more typical of the decoding errors made by sighted readers.
• “Students [with no additional disabilities] who were introduced to more contractions earlier in instruction performed better on reading measures, such as vocabulary, decoding, and comprehension.” (Emerson, Holbrook, & D'Andrea, 2009, p. 610) It should be noted that although the ABC Braille Study participants had no disabilities except their blindness, many children with additional disabilities also learn braille contractions successfully.
Strategies to Help Beginning Braille Readers Develop Fluency
Due to the increased cognitive load for beginning braille readers, the automatic recognition of words necessary for fluency may occur somewhat later than for print readers. This is certainly not true for all young children who use braille, but teachers can work on fluency for those who do read more slowly using a variety of instructional strategies.
• Talk to children about fluency, and demonstrate what fluent reading sounds like. Model appropriate rate, phrasing, and expression.
• Select books that are at students' instructional or independent reading level. If you find a student is struggling to read, provide additional support through echo reading (teacher reads first, then child reads the same passage), reading together, or taking turns reading.
• Always preview books that children will be using in a guided reading group or other general education activities. Introduce them to new contractions, vocabulary, and concepts, and give them a chance to read the book through at least once with support.
• Expect students to reread books until they achieve fluency. Check to be sure their fingers are on the word they are reading, even if they have memorized the text. It is far more beneficial for children to read fewer books fluently than to stumble through many books without taking the time to practice them. Create a tactile record with the student to keep track of the books he or she has read fluently. For example, have the student write the title of each book on an index card and attach it to the wall in a "train" of increasing length.
• Expect children to read at home every night. Early readers should practice rereading familiar books, rather than new ones. If the book is short, specify how many times the child should read it.
• Team with the general education teacher during reading groups and assessments. Explain errors related to the braille code, so the teacher can differentiate them from decoding errors.
• Teach students to recognize common words in contracted form quickly and accurately, such as the 220 words from the Dolch list.
• If children are reversing or confusing letters and contractions, provide intensive targeted practice with these characters in isolation using short worksheets, flashcards, and games. Focus on one confusing pair at a time, providing on-going review of those the student has mastered to be sure they are over-learned.
• Build children's reading stamina by increasing the amount of time they are expected to read in one sitting.
• Record students' reading and have them critique their own fluency, perhaps using a student rubric. Provide them with purposeful opportunities to read aloud, such as reading to a younger sibling, participating in a readers' theater production, or visiting another classroom and reading a book as part of a braille presentation.
Watching a kindergartner's fingers move haltingly across a line of braille, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that in a few years' time, those same fingers will be flying across the page. The key to developing fluency is making sure children read (and reread) a lot, until the symbols and rules of the braille code become automatic. To achieve this, students need access to a wide variety of motivating reading materials and opportunities to make some of their own choices about what they read. In time, motivation and practice will lead not only to fluency, but also to the more important goals of understanding and enjoyment.
Clay, M.M. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Emerson, R.W., Holbrook, M.C., & D'Andrea, F.M. (2009). Acquisition of literacy skills by young children who are blind: Results from the ABC Braille Study. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 103(10), 610-624.
Marcell, B. (2011-12). Putting fluency on a fitness plan: Building fluency's meaning-making muscles. The Reading Teacher, 65 (4), 242-249.
Steinman, B. A., LeJeune, B.J., and Kimbrough, B.T. (2006). Developmental stages of reading processes in children who are blind and sighted. Journal of Blindness and Visual Impairment. 100(1): 36-46.
Wormsley, D. (2006, November). Using the functional approach to teach braille literacy. Presentation at the Virginia Workshop on blindness and Visual Impairments. Hampton, Virginia.