January 4 is World Braille Day, which aims to increase awareness of the importance of braille as a means of communication for those who are blind or with visual impairment. The date chosen honors the birthday of Louis Braille, who invented a reading and writing system – braille – consisting of raised dots that are read via touch. This system of reading and writing is an important component of education and literacy for many individuals. Recognizing this importance, Simon Fisher-Baum, Robert Englebretson, and Cay Holbrook were awarded a NCSER grant in 2019 to explore the knowledge, skills, and strategies teachers of students with visual impairments need to effectively teach braille reading and writing. We asked this team of researchers to answer a few questions about their work on teaching braille in recognition of World Braille Day.
What do we already know about the complexities surrounding learning braille for a person with visual impairment?
The ability to read and write braille is crucial for individuals who are blind, just as print literacy is crucial for individuals who are sighted. Braille literacy opens a host of opportunities for education, leisure, and employment. Learning to read and write braille depends on children having direct instruction from competent professionals who know braille and recognize its importance in facilitating literacy. Most children who learn braille do so under the instruction of a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI) with support from their classroom teachers who generally are only familiar with print. One major challenge for children learning braille is having sufficient access to a TVI. A second challenge involves the differences between print and braille and the different perspectives required of a typically sighted TVI and the children with visual impairment. The sighted TVI has learned braille as a ‘code’ (and thinks about transliterating it to their much stronger knowledge of print) whereas children are learning braille as their primary system of reading and writing. It is this potential mismatch that we are focusing on for our project. We seek to understand the perceptual and cognitive underpinnings of braille as a writing system for its readers in contrast with the print-based ‘code’ perspective that TVIs often implicitly and unconsciously bring to their teaching.
Your project has the challenge of researching a low-incidence population. Describe how you are able to find your sample.
There are no current, reliable demographics of the number of individuals who read braille in the United States. But the fact remains that even in a large city like Houston, where two of the co-PIs are based, it would be a real challenge to find a sufficient number of braille readers to conduct studies with any degree of statistical power. Because of this, we recruit participants at summer conventions of blindness organizations where there are large numbers of braille readers present. At least we hope to do this again once people can gather safely. Meanwhile, we are developing experiments involving adult braille readers submitting braille writing samples online and, thanks to the support of the Braille Institute of America, we are analyzing spelling tests and writing samples from over 1000 braille-learning children from the U.S. and Canada who participated in a literacy-focused contest called the Braille Challenge. In addition, we have access to teachers of students with visual impairments who read and write braille through the Braille Institute and professional conferences as well as strong contacts of researchers involved in this grant.
Tell us a little more about the Braille Challenge.
The Braille Challenge is an annual contest for braille-reading children in grades 1-12 in the U.S. and Canada that celebrates braille literacy and the academic use of braille. Since 2003, the Braille Institute of America has sponsored this event. You can think of the Braille Challenge a bit like the Scripps National Spelling Bee for kids who read braille, with sub-contests in areas such as spelling, writing braille from dictation, reading comprehension, proofreading, and analyzing tactile charts and graphs. The written materials that students produce from these contests are a treasure trove of comparative data. They enable us to analyze the error patterns in the same words and sentences produced by a large number of students, track the development and error patterns in the same students over the years, and ultimately associate student outcomes with the specific attitudes, knowledge, and skills their TVIs (who attend the contest with their students) bring to the teaching of braille.
Your project is using some innovative data collection approaches, such as finger and eye tracking studies. What do you hope to learn from this part of your project that can be better understood by these data collection approaches?
Eye tracking is, of course, central in the reading sciences for understanding key perceptual, cognitive, and linguistic processing aspects of reading standard print. There has been little work to address those same types of questions with braille readers using finger-tracking technology. Our finger-tracking experiments will help us compare the proficiency of adult braille readers with the ways in which braille is being taught. In addition, one area that has never been explored is the underpinnings of how TVIs read braille. Typically, sighted TVIs read braille by eye (not by touch), and we would like to understand how reading braille by eye is similar to or different from how these same individuals read print by eye, and in turn, how TVIs reading braille by sight is similar to and different from the typical way blind readers read braille by touch.
What impact do you hope your project will have on how TVIs are trained and how they teach braille to students?
We hope that by understanding how braille is conceptualized and read differently by TVIs, proficient braille-reading adults who are blind, and children learning to read and write braille, our project will ultimately lead to evidence-based interventions for both TVIs and learners. This may include improved curricula for university TVI personnel preparation programs and improved materials designed for children learning braille that leverage their unique perspectives as braille readers.
Tell us about your research team and the diversity of experiences among team members with braille.
Clockwise from top left: Cay Holbrook, Simon Fischer-Baum, Robert Englebretson
The three research team members complement each other in areas of expertise, as well as in experiences with braille. Robert Englebretson is currently chair of the Linguistics Department at Rice University. He teaches a course on braille from the perspective of cognitive science and linguistics research. He has been recognized internationally for his work updating and publishing the braille version of the International Phonetic Alphabet, which enables access to careers in the language sciences for those who are blind or visually impaired and has served as co-chair of the research committee of the Braille Authority of North America. He also brings to this project his perspective as a life-long braille reader and his lived experience of the importance of braille literacy.
Simon Fischer-Baum is an Associate Professor of Psychological Sciences at Rice University. He comes to this project as a cognitive scientist who focuses on understanding literacy, using a wide variety of methods, from the careful analyses of the errors people make when reading and writing to analysis of the patterns of brain activity generated when we read and the study of individuals who have lost the ability to read or write following stroke. He learned about braille as a part of this current collaboration and applies his skillset as a cognitive scientist of language to figuring out the mental representations and processes that underlie how braille is read and written.
Cay Holbrook is a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She learned braille during her undergraduate program as part of an initial teaching credential. She began working as a teacher of students with visual impairments in Rock Hill, South Carolina and has also worked directly with students in K-12 in parts of Georgia and Florida. Her commitment to direct, ongoing, and consistent instruction by qualified teachers has guided much of her work. Her research and scholarship have included the publication of more than 12 co-authored or co-edited textbooks as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. She holds a PhD in special education from Florida State University. She has prepared teachers of students with visual impairments in Canada and the U.S. and was a member of the original advisory committee for the Braille Challenge.
What other research do you think is needed in the area of learning braille? What are your future plans to continue research in this area?
There is still much to be learned about how braille is read and written, and there are many lines of inquiry in braille literacy that would benefit greatly from a multidisciplinary approach to research like we are taking here. After we complete this project, our next goal would be to develop and test interventions that bring the perspectives of TVIs closer to the learning challenges their students are facing. But there is also the opportunity for new lines of research. One key question is how braille is learned by people who become blind later in life, including school-age children and older adults. There is already some evidence that these readers approach reading by touch differently than individuals who have only learned braille, but more research is needed to explore how those who become blind after learning to read print approach learning braille and what kinds of instructional strategies would best support their literacy acquisition. It is also worth exploring how different service delivery models – that is, what role the TVI plays in the student’s education plan – impact how the student learns to read and write. Finally, we know little about whether learning differences that lead to dyslexia and dysgraphia in the print reading population also occur in the braille reading population. To our knowledge, these kinds of developmental differences have never been explored within the population of braille reading children, but if they do occur, it seems like additional interventions would be needed with these students to help them acquire literacy.