Reading Comes Naturally: A Mother and Her Blind Child’s Experiences
by Diane D. Miller
Reprinted from Diane D. Miller, “Reading Comes Naturally: A Mother and Her Blind Child’s Experiences,” Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 79 (1) (January 1985), pp.1-4. Copyright 1985, American Foundation for the Blind.
I use the word reading in exactly the same sense as when a sighted child picks up a favorite book and thumbs through retelling the story in his or her own words. The child is obviously aware of the meaning and the wholeness of that book. Although the child is not actually reading the words, there is an awareness of the fact that the story comes from these printed words on the page. This activity of retelling a story, dismissed by most as memorization, is actually a very important first step in learning to read. When a child discovers a broom for the first time and then proceeds to wreck the kitchen while “sweeping,” mastery begins. But if we do not support and encourage these early approximations, the final skill will never be accomplished. In the same way, a child flips through a book and retells the story, perhaps filling in familiar words for others not yet in his or her vocabulary but retaining the original meaning of the story. The enjoyment and success of these early experiences with books will carry the child through the steps from approximations to final success in deciphering the print—what most people consider “real” reading.
Blindness and Bridging Concepts
Jamaica was born at home within a close circle of family and friends. Shortly after her birth, someone gently said, “You may find out that she is blind.” It was true. She was born anophthalmic or without eyes. Feelings flowed deeply, sadness—true, but also good feelings. We were given the unique opportunity to witness the depths of love and understanding unlocked in others by her specialness. It was a time of change, a time of growth, a time of acceptance. And then it was time to get on with making Jamaica’s life as full and complete as possible.
Jamaica’s brother, Lucky, was only a year-and-a-half old at the time, but already we had spent many hours reading and sharing books. Those were some of our most special times together. Times I didn’t want to miss with Jamaica. Lucky, like most very young children, spent most of his time looking at and talking about the pictures. What could possibly replace this lure into books for Jamaica? I began to realize that tactual pictures could easily be based on visual representation but also that these would have very little meaning to Jamaica based on her own special kinds of experiences. What could a little piece of fur with four thin strips sticking out of the bottom and pasted on a page have to do with that warm, wiggling, panting mass of fur that she would know as a dog?
Putting my background in graphic design to work, I set out to make Jamaica’s first book. She had a little circle puzzle that she liked, so I chose a circle theme. First of all the book had to be durable, able to withstand lots of handling. I used cardboard with fabric cover and filled it with many different textures and sizes of circles, repeating patterns. Most of all I wanted it to feel good; my only mistake was to use sandpaper as one of the textures. I’ll never use it again. It sets your teeth on edge…not something that encourages tactual exploration. The book was a success. Jamaica and I would “read,” tactilely following the patterns and saying the same verses each time. On one page, we would say “Ring Around the Roses,” on another “Round and Round the Mulberry Bush.” Then surprise! “What is that square doing in our Circle Book?” Jamaica seemed to enjoy these activities, but I saw a definite increase in her enthusiasm when with big Elmer’s Glue dots I added the braille words Jamaica’s Circle Book to the cover. (Lucky was equally fascinated with picking the new dots off and eating them!) So at eight months, Jamaica and I had begun the process that would eventually lead her into the exciting world of books.
As a mother of two young children, I had very little time to spend making books. So I was constantly searching for appropriate commercially produced books. Golden Books publishes a Touch and Feel Series. These books offer activities such as patting the fuzzy bunny or snapping Santa Claus’ rubber band suspenders. We purchased several of these, but Jamaica soon lost interest in the activities because the stories were not exciting. I also found that several publishers offer Scratch and Sniff books. These contain stories about children favorites like Bambi and Winnie the Pooh but with the addition of fragrance labels to the pages. They provided some involvement for Jamaica, as she searched the pages to find the stickers. She even began to recognize some of the books by their general fragrance. We enjoyed the stories, and Jamaica often requested these books by name.
Sees Special Need
However, I felt a need for books made especially for a child living in a tactual world. I found What’s That? by Jensen and Haller. The characters in this book, Little Rough, Little Shaggy, Little Spot, Little Stripe and Little Smooth, all really feel like their names sound. They live in triangles and squares and travel along paths made tactual through a method of printing using thick ink. The book is graphically pleasing. The story is fascinating and includes a fun surprise ending. It is excellent in every respect. Philomel Books in New York publishes this and other books designed especially for blind children. All share similar qualities. We were excited to find these books but wanted more. My search continued.
Due to the scarcity of specially designed books, we spent most of our time reading regular ink print books. I was always trying different ways to make this reading exciting and meaningful to Jamaica. Whenever we all sat down to read together (including little sister Dixie now), Jamaica’s part was to turn the pages. This helped to keep her alert and involved in the process, otherwise, she had a tendency to fall asleep. I encouraged Lucky and Dixie to describe to Jamaica what was happening in the pictures, also hoping that this would expand their understanding of her blindness. While reading, I would leave words off of the ends of sentences for them to fill in the blanks. I hoped this would help them all to develop the important reading skill of prediction. This was just another way to keep Jamaica actively involved. It was working. She was listening. She could answer questions about what we read. She had favorite books and would ask for them to be read over and over again.
The bookshelf was one of Jamaica’s first landmarks in the house. She would sit on the floor and pull down all of the books. She would hold one in her lap and just flip through feeling the pages. She liked the slick ones best. Books have their own particular smell, a special feel about them, qualities that I seemed to destroy if I did too much pasting and gluing. So I settled for adapting covers only, that left the pages smooth and book-like but still gave Jamaica some independence in choosing which book she wanted at the bookshelf. On the cover of Pinocchio, the puppet is holding a match to light the fire inside the whale. I glued a match on that book. There were beans on the cover of Jack and the Beanstalk. One day I found Lucky squeezing glue all over the cover of one book. “I’m fixing it so Mai-Mai will know which one it is, Mama.” She did indeed learn to recognize that book by its special glue configurations.
Because Jamaica didn’t like lumpy books, ones that didn’t feel like real books, an alternative was to make “book bags.” The book was placed in a paper sack along with as many of the objects mentioned in the story as possible. Why have a picture if you can have the real thing? In Jamaica’s favorite story, Mickey ‘n Donald, the doorbell rang so we had a bell on hand. Robbers stole money from a bank. So we had handcuffs from ropes and money bags with coins tied up in handkerchiefs. Larger items such as a stepladder and a laundry basket were gathered together just before reading. Then with all of our props ready, the family would act out the story as I read. We would tape record the whole performance. The book bag with its contents was returned to the shelf, ready for the next reading.
A Search for Brailled Books
But in spite of all my efforts, Jamaica was still missing some very important pre-reading experiences. First, a child grasps the wholeness of the book and its meaning, but gradually, the pieces begin to emerge, sentences, words, letters. Dixie would be listening to a story and interrupt to say, “There’s my letter,” as she pointed to a “D” in the text. I could see that Jamaica needed books with braille so she could find her letter too.
When I went to look, I had difficulty finding appropriate brailled books for Jamaica. Although there were a few braille “readiness” materials such as the ones prepared by the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), very few actual books were available.
I did locate some sources of braille books. The American Brotherhood for the Blind offers, without charge, a lending library of Twin Vision books. These are selected books with print and braille text side by side. In other words, the book is unbound, brailled pages are inserted beside the printed text, and then the book is re-bound. Now, with these books, Jamaica could follow along as I read, or could she? I was reading the print on one side, and there was a whole page of braille beside it. But I didn’t even know where to put her hand. How could she possibly follow along? With much time and effort, I could maybe pick out a “J” or was it? I wasn’t ever sure about where one letter ended and another began. I can remember once trying to decipher a very short sentence using my APH braille alphabet card. Try as I might, I just couldn’t figure what it said. I later learned about contractions and whole word signs and special braille configurations representing frequently used words and letter combinations. You won’t find them on an alphabet card. I imagine that many other parents are also unaware of these special characteristics of the code. Other print braille books are offered by the Library of Congress and Howe Press, but the same problems exist here and are often compounded by the fact that the braille is embossed on clear overlays. This makes the pictures in the book more visible, but the braille is even harder to see than ever. Jamaica and I still preferred our regular ink print books.
Later on, I would have Jamaica’s teacher take home some of the books and hand copy the text into each book so we could really begin to use them. Another teacher, upon hearing this said, “I did that too.” Why so much duplication of effort? Perhaps, with just a little bit more planning and thought, good ready-to-use material could be produced. If quality braille books appropriate for preschool children were accessible, then parents and teachers could spend their time reading with their children.
When Jamaica was three years old, I returned to school seeking my master’s degree in Visual Disabilities. As part of my coursework, I learned to write braille and read it, not tactilely but by sight. This was when I learned why I previously had so much trouble figuring out the code. Knowing how to read braille didn’t really make it much easier to use available materials. But now I at least knew that the braille word that matched the word I was reading might not even be on the same page.
Jamaica was now in a home-bound vision program, so we were given a braille writer to use at home. This was very exciting to me. I knew how important paper and pencil experiences were for sighted children in the process of learning to read.
Lucky had invented an ingenious way of making pictures for Jamaica. With the point of a pencil, he would punch holes in a sheet of paper laying on the carpet. The reverse side had nice “braille” dots. Whenever Lucky and Dixie drew or painted, Jamaica did too. Sometimes we used a screen board or raised line drawing kit so she could feel her marks. But more often than not, Jamaica preferred plain paper and pencil. This is probably because these materials were much more accessible. Also, I was not as likely to try to direct or teach her as she worked. She was allowed more freedom. She would tell me about what she was making. Then, hand-over-hand, we would always sign her name on her work.
She continued to love these activities. But now with the braillewriter, she could also begin to make marks in the medium she would eventually use. Jamaica would “clunk” away on the brailler and dictate letters or stories which I could write down and then read back to her. This activity was similar to a sighted child’s scribbling. Gradually lines take on familiar shapes and forms and are refined into letters and words. Jamaica could become familiar with the braillewriter. She pushed the levers and then felt the paper, getting immediate feedback from her actions. “Look Jamaica. You made an A!”
Now with knowledge of the braille code and access to a braillewriter, I could begin to braille materials myself, such as titles to books and tapes and favorite passages in books. On special occasions, I would always try to make a new book for Jamaica. These books would have braille text with the corresponding hand-printed word directly above the braille, the perfect format. As Jamaica’s hands moved across the page, I followed reading each word as she touched. We were together at last.
I brailled make-believe stories about Jamaica and her best friend. I wrote about familiar things that she talked about often, our two cats and the dog next door. The picture of the dog, instead of a complicated confusing outline, was simply two bumps for eyes and two floppy pieces of fur for ears. Now, our experiences like making banana bread became stories, and Jamaica had her own braille copy. “Jamaica put white flour in her mouth. She looks like a clown. Dixie poured eggs but missed. Lucky, please put the bananas in. Yuk!” These were very special stories, and the children loved to read them over and over again.
Here also we began a “journal” for Jamaica. In a special notebook, we would record her experiences, brailling the most important parts of each story in her exact words. Her journal also included letters, newspaper articles, and pictures. One of Jamaica’s most prized possessions was her photo album. Like all children, she wanted to know all about when she was a tiny baby. In addition, our collection of personal tapes, recordings of places we had visited and people we had met, served as an “auditory experience album.” These tapes became Jamaica’s favorite bedtime stories. Although she was unable to actually read the braille titles, she would find a tape with no label, “Mama, this one needs braille.” Yes, for everything I brailled, there were 20 other things waiting to be brailled.
In efforts to increase the number of books available to Jamaica, I contacted the state center providing instructional materials for the visually impaired. I asked if they would be willing to braille some of Jamaica’s favorite books. They found a volunteer who was more than willing. She returned the completed books with a note saying she would be glad to do more whenever we wanted. Suddenly, I had 10 or 12 new braille books piled on my desk, pages and pages of braille and no ink print. Yes, I could read braille but very slowly and painfully. I struggled with each word, sounding like a first grader just beginning to read. So before we could really use our new books, I had to hand copy the text into each one. Of course, I used the previously described format where the print word was directly above the braille word. It was a slow process. Six months later, I had finished only a couple. Then another volunteer offered to do this transcribing for me. Finally, Jamaica’s library began to grow.
We had already explored the materials available which were developed to promote braille reading readiness. The Tactual Road to Reading has books with yarn and stick designs for practicing tracking skills, but Jamaica had to be coaxed to use them. One difficult afternoon I put them away and pulled out one of our new braille books instead. I told Jamaica that I would read while she tracked lines. If her hands stopped, I stopped reading. The next day she came home from school and said, “Mama, don’t you think we should practice tracking those words in that book again?” She had never asked to practice on readiness materials. The motivation is intrinsic in the words that tell a story, a whole book.
We learned so much as each new batch of books was made. The first books were brailled horizontally onto whole sheets of braille paper and then bound. The format was wrong. The books were just too big to handle comfortably. The next books we made were smaller. These were much better for Jamaica’s little hands and lap. We learned to hand copy in indelible ink so wet fingers wouldn’t smear all the words. I found that I was really missing the pictures and the other children showed little excitement over reading in a pictureless book. One of the original books that we had copied was coming unbound, so I cut it up and pasted the pictures into our new braille book. It worked very nicely. Books thrown away by libraries became an incredible resource for producing braille materials with illustrations. Our braillist had another good idea. She copied the pictures from original books and had her own children color and paste them into the new braille books before sending them to us. They were beautiful. Now Jamaica and I had braille ink print in a format which allowed us to read together and the other children had pictures too. The books were coming together at last.
A Literate Environment
What of all the time and effort that had gone into developing a pre-reading literary environment for Jamaica? How important is this to reading skills? And could my experiences with Jamaica benefit more than one blind child?
Reading and writing are natural extensions of the literacy learning which begins with the acquisition of language. Holdaway (1979) suggests that for a better understanding of the developmental processes involved we should look closely at the ways in which children learn to read (as opposed to the ways in which we teach them). Some children have been observed to learn completely on their own, without any formal instruction.
The common element in the lives of these early readers is described as a “literate environment.” Kenneth Goodman (1976) explains this is a place “where kids are constantly exposed to print, made aware of its functions, how it works, its subtle differences and similarities” (p. 2). According to Goodman, children learn to read in much the same way as they learn to talk and to listen: “That is, they become aware first of wholes and their relationship to specific messages. And then with teachers’ help. they begin to develop a sense of the structure and of the relationship of part to whole” (p. 4).
If we take reading and break it up into letters and words separate from the context of the story, we offer the child the most complex element first. And we expect children to be able to make sense of these abstractions. Conversely, if we offer them a whole book and then proceed to the parts, we are going from the simple to the complex, a logical approach.
If a blind child’s experiences have led to adequate and meaningful language development, this will form a sound basis for learning to read and write. However, the literate environment so important in encouraging development of these new skills will not occur naturally for the blind child. Sighted children enter school with five years of experiences with print and books behind them. By the time school starts, many children are ready to learn to read, if they haven’t done so already. On the other hand, the blind child might come with very few similar braille reading experiences. Is it fair to send these children to school with a five-year deficit and expect them to learn something twice as hard?
There are many readily available and untapped resources that lend themselves to our print above the braille format, the format which allows the parent to read with the child. For example, children’s Easy-to-Read books can be adapted by inserting braille copy produced on sticky contact paper directly beneath existing text. These books contain only one or two lines of large print text per page. Thus, the one or two lines of braille will be easier to track than a page full of print lines, but still give the child practice in moving left to right, turning pages, recognizing the top and bottom of the page…conventions of print which are prerequisites to reading. More importantly, this offers the blind child a chance to tactilely discover the patterns of words and sentences in the context of a whole story as the parent reads aloud. With so many good children’s books being published, there are probably many which could be inexpensively and easily adapted.
In addition to adapting books, perhaps a method can be devised to make it easier for sighted parents to easily recognize letter configurations in braille. Here there is the possibility of brailling books on specifically prepared pages of printed squares where each braille configuration falls into its own square. This gives a relationship of the raised dots to the whole braille cell and delineates each character. If parents could begin to recognize certain letters, they could point these out to their child as they read. In addition, notes and helpful hints to parents about braille code could be printed in the margins or between lines.
Jamaica is now five years old. She is in a regular kindergarten class with itinerant vision services. She is learning braille letters and tactual print letters. It’s not easy. I know it’ll probably take longer for her to learn to read than it will for many of her sighted peers. But I’m not worried. She walks around the house and finds the bookshelf, still one of her favorite spots. She pulls down a few books (many of them slick ink print only). She opens one and says “What is this?” I answer, “Wolfie. Do you know what Wolfie is?” “Oh yes, he’s a spider.” And I know she knows what a spider is because I’ve let one crawl on her leg. She might even talk about Wolfie or make up a story of her own as she flips through the book. She’s got the basics…the meaning of the story, that the story comes from the book and that braille forms the words in the book. She loves books. She’s on her way.
Goodman, K. (1976). Reading: A conversation with Kenneth Goodman coauthor of Reading Unlimited. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Company.
Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundations of literacy. Sydney, Australia: Ashton Scholastic.
Jensen & Haller (1978). What’s That? New York: Philomel Books.