Teaching Braille to Young Children
By Laurel J. Hudson, Ph.D.
Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments
- Make it Fun
- Make it Meaningful
- Make it Developmental
- Self-Check: Teaching Braille to Young Children
For more ideas on teaching braille to young children, see Laurie Hudson’s iBook, Introducing Braille. It’s available for download on the iTunes store and includes 14 linked videos showing clips of actual Braille literacy lessons with young children.
As we teach young children with visual impairments/blindness to write braille, our approach needs to be developmental. We need to look at readiness for formal instruction, and then we need to adjust our pacing, expectations, and activities according to the learning needs of young children. In the guidelines that follow, these approaches are addressed.
Before children begin a formal braille writing curriculum, they should be able to attend for at least a few minutes at a time. They also should be able to isolate their fingers and their thumbs, pressing each one separately and firmly. (Modeling with clay and manipulating other art materials can increase hand strength. Children’s songs and poems can be used to teach them to isolate and name their fingers. If these are not available, teachers can invent simple verses, themselves.) Next, it would be helpful if the children already have some experience with braille and tactile symbols, pretending to read tactile books and being involved as older children and adults read and write braille. Lastly, because literacy builds upon language, they should be able to speak or sign words and simple messages, and understand as others communicate with them. (However, please note that while language provides readiness for braille, sometimes braille literacy in turn builds spoken/signed communication skills. In forming braille symbols, children at a pre-language level may come to realize that written messages carry meaning. This may motivate and shape their spoken/signed language skills.)
- Emphasize enjoying braille and having fun with it. There is an expression that “play is the work of children.” It’s important for young children with visual impairments to enjoy reading and writing braille, rather than regarding it as an arduous task that is to be resisted. Adults can make braille fun by incorporating children’s ideas in what they read and write, in keeping sessions short, and in modeling their own pleasure in braille literacy. (“Oh, it’s a brand new page. The dots are so nice and crispy!” or “I think I’ll see how fast I can write the numbers 1-2-3-4-5.”) Another marvelous way to bring enjoyment to braille writing is to pair it with music, such as singing an alphabet song while writing the ABCs.
- Give children the opportunity to playfully explore reading and writing. Let them pretend to read as they move their fingers across pages, even if they have no idea what the letters and words say. And let them form patterns and pretend to write before you ask them to produce conventional braille characters. This might involve children simply pressing any keys until they reach the end of a line and the bell rings, or creating an up-hill-down-hill pattern by pressing dots 3 then 2 then 1 then 4 then 5 then 6, or making a simple tactile-graphic by alternating dots 1-2-4-5 with dots 2-3-5-6. It might involve pretending to write: pressing seemingly random keys while telling a story orally, just as young sighted children do. Children typically take great pleasure in doing what they notice adults and older children do, and even more when the adult joins them in “reading back” what they have “written.”
- At the beginning of the curriculum, enthusiastically accept approximations, or all attempts to read and produce braille. Then gradually guide children to use correct posture and hand formation, to read real letters, to decode real words, and to produce Braille which is increasingly closer to conventional braille. A component of incorporating fun into early braille is giving children the freedom to attempt it without needing to adhere to rules they are not developmentally ready for. That is, while some children will be motivated to form correct characters with correct fingering right from the beginning, others will be easily discouraged if every early attempt is suppressed because a key is pressed with the wrong finger, or a character is inverted. As long as correct posture and fingering are expected in a reasonable amount of time, inefficient posture and movement habits don’t seem to persist. Given this, a successful practice is to enthusiastically respond to all early attempts to read and write, even when they are incorrect, then gradually expect greater and greater accuracy.
- Let children experience whole events, from obtaining books or a braillewriter and paper, using them, then putting them away. It clearly takes time for a child to walk to a shelf, pick up a piece of paper and a braillewriter, carry these to his/her desk, load the paper in the braillewriter, produce his/her work, unload the paper, and pass in the paper and store the braillewriter back on the shelf. However, participating in the whole event allows the child to understand the literary process and develop independent literacy habits. The child doesn’t need to participate in the full process every time he or she writes. However, it is important for him/her to do this periodically, or at least to participate in some of the obtaining/putting away steps regularly.
- Let children witness adults reading and writing braille. Fully sighted children regularly see adults as they read books, signs, menus, instructions, etc., and they see them as they write notes, lists, letters, etc. In witnessing adults doing literacy, sighted children learn about literacy tools, literacy techniques, and purposes for literacy. With these models, they become motivated to do literacy, themselves. Future braille users need these same models. To accomplish this, even if adults read braille visually and not by touch, they might open their own braille books as they are sitting beside children, explicitly labeling what they are doing. (“I think I’ll read this story. Oh, I like how the design on the cover feels. Now I’ll turn the page and read who the author is………”) Similarly, adults might make it a point to save some of their braille writing tasks for times when the children are within earshot (and possibly even within reach), so the children can hear a braillewriter being carried to the table, the paper being loaded into it, the keys being pressed, lines periodically checked, errors corrected, etc.. The adults may mediate as they write, just as they had when they read out loud, “I think I ought to write down this telephone number, so I won’t forget it. Let’s see, which dots is a number sign?” or “I’m going to make a list of all the children in the class now. I’ll start with a capital sign……” This exposure to purposes and methods of writing will introduce children to some braille writing steps, and it will motivate them to write, as well.
- Integrate reading and writing, so that children continuously read back what they have written. Braille reading and braille writing are quite separate processes. First, they are based upon different sensory systems. Braille reading is tactile and motoric; dots are felt through the touch receptors in the fingertips as they move across lines. Braille writing is kinesthetic/proprioceptive and motoric; dots are formed by moving the fingers to press specific keys, and braille writing is mastered by memorizing how the joints in the fingers feel as specific keys are pressed. Secondly, when braille is produced with a braillewriter, reading and writing are based upon different layouts of the six dots. Braille is produced in a one-by-six array, with the six keys in a horizontal line to produce, from left to right, dots 3-2-1 with the left hand and then dots 4-5-6 with the right hand. Braille is read in a two-by-three array: dots 1-2-3 in the first column, and dots 4-5-6 in the second column. Given these differences, children should integrate reading and writing by writing a few characters, reaching up and feeling what they produced, writing a few more characters, feeling these, etc. This sets the stage for more advanced literacy processes, where students may write preliminary notes, write a first draft, read it back, then write a finish draft.
- Approach the mechanics of braille production and reading within the larger context of Braille literacy. Give children opportunities to produce braille characters which are meaningful and functional for them as soon as possible. Children are often motivated to read and write their own names, and those of friends and family members. Children who often ask, “What ‘s next?” may quickly realize the importance of a simple daily schedule taped to the corner of their desks. Place a strong focus on reading and writing messages which have meaning for the children, even when their braille reading and production skills are extremely limited.
Allow some portions of lessons to be child-led, that is, let the children have some choices as to what they write with the braillewriter. This can provide more functionality and more motivation in braille literacy curricula. For example, in introducing a specific letter of the alphabet, a teacher might let the child select a list of words that begin with this letter, rather than pre-planning a teacher-made list. Similarly, children may be much more motivated to read and write lists of family members, favorite toys, or preferred foods.
In sequencing both producing and reading braille characters, build from symmetrical to asymmetrical, from fewer dots to more dots, and from unique characters that are easily reversed and/or inverted. In addition, in writing braille, try to begin with letters that use the first and second fingers of each hand (dots 1,2,4 and 5), then build to writing letters with the third fingers (dots 3 and 6.) (An example of a symmetrical braille letter is “X” and an asymmetrical braille letter is “M.” In terms of number of dots, braille letters “A” and “B” have fewer dots with one and two, respectively, while “Q” and “Y” have more with five dots each. “G” is not easily reversed with other letters, while early readers typically confuse “E” and “I”, “M” and “U”, “R” and “W”, and “D”, “F”, “H” and “J.”) Published braille literacy curricula vary in their sequences of letter introduction. That is, there is not a standard for exactly which letter is introduced first, second, third, etc. However, all the braille literacy curricula for young children take into account these principles of symmetry to asymmetry, fewer to more dots, and unique to easily reversible characters. Beyond that, easily reversible/invertible characters should not be taught together; for example, a teacher might have the child learn the letter “R” to mastery before introducing the left-right reversal of “W.” Specifically to writing braille, the fingers that are used is also a factor for sequencing. The first and second fingers of each hand are typically stronger than the third fingers, so a braille “A” (dot 1) will probably be easier to form than a capital sign (dot 6.) Of course, all four of these factors may be trumped by letters/words that are most motivating and/or most functional for children, such as their own names.
Begin by scheduling short lessons, and expect speed and stamina only at the end of the curriculum. Young children have short attention spans, perhaps especially for the more structured, seated tasks of braille literacy. Physically, it takes time to learn to maintain correct reading and writing posture and hand/finger positioning, to tolerate the sensation of running their fingers over Braille lines, and to strengthen each finger, especially for pressing the keys for dots three and six. It also takes time for children to build up speed in reading writing, especially with the letters with more dots. Accordingly, braille writing instruction might begin with just five or ten minute lessons and expectations of just a few lines of braille. (In braille writing, the margin might even be set in the middle of the page, so that each line is shorter.) As lessons progress, lessons become longer and longer and expectations for strength and stamina increase. Sometimes children maintain their attention in braille, and sustain more arm and finger strength, when they stand (rather than sit) at a table or desk as they read and write braille. In any instance, the pages or keys should be at elbow level or even slightly lower.
Make It Fun
Make It Meaningful
Make It Developmental