The overwhelming majority of vision-impaired children attend regular public schools, rather than specialty schools for the blind, and few have teachers who are trained to understand differences between tactile and visual language, experts say.
That can be problematic because understanding these different language modes can be critical for teachers to boost literacy skills for their visually impaired students, according to researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference here earlier this month.
About 3 percent of U.S. children are blind or have low vision even with corrective lenses, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of them read and write using braille, a tactile language that uses small raised groups of raised dots.
Braille has been used to represent more than 50 world languages, as well as math and scientific figures and musical notation. (The tactile writing system was created in France in 1829, building off military codes developed to allow soldiers to communicate in the dark.) While visually impaired readers recognize braille through touch, those with normal vision often learn to recognize braille patterns by sight instead.
There are no national data on how many children with low vision are learning or fluent in braille; often-cited estimates of about 1 in 10 blind students who are fluent in braille in grades K-12 are more than a decade out of date.
“We’re in a constant battle of trying to keep up with the need,” said M. Cay Holbrook, a special education professor at the University of British Columbia.
Holbrook and her colleagues found that only 26 teacher-education programs in North America include training in braille and its connection to print and oral literacy. This leaves many districts, particularly those in rural areas, with little professional development support for educators working with low-vision readers.
“Often paras with no knowledge of braille become the primary teachers of reading to visually impaired children,” Holbrook said. “In my almost 40 years of preparing teachers, fewer than 10 percent are native tactile readers [meaning they grew up reading the language tactilely, usually because they or a family member has low vision]. Ninety percent read braille visually.”
Teachers who only receive training in reading braille visually often mistakenly consider the tactile language just a “code” for print, Holbrook said. That’s a problem, because differences in the two language modes can be invisible to those reading braille visually instead of by touch.
Differences in print and braille
Braille uses a two-by-three matrix of raised dots (called a “cell”) to represent individual letters as well as 180 contractions representing groups of letters or words. Researchers have found that differences in the way words are broken up in braille and print can lead to misunderstandings for visually impaired students taught by sighted teachers.
For example, braille contracts “ER” into a single cell which represents those two letters. In a word like “runner,” where the "-er” is a suffix, this contraction doesn’t change how a student with regular or low vision would naturally break up the word.
By contrast, look at the word “redraw.” In braille, it is made of five cells including a contraction: “r-ED-r-a-w.” In this case, the braille contraction bridges the natural break between the prefix “re-" and stem word “draw” in print. The student reading braille tactilely could mistakenly pronounce the word “red-raw.”
“Reading and writing braille is not simply a matter of ‘decoding’ or ‘encoding’ contractions to and from print,” said Robert Englebrotson, an associate professor of linguistics at Rice University.
In two related studies, Englebrotson and his colleagues looked at how visually impaired readers recognized morphemes, the smallest meaningful units of a word. In both a study of adults and a separate one of students in grades 1-4, the researchers found that readers were slower and made significantly more mistakes when writing words that included a morpheme that bridged a contraction in braille—like “ED” did in “redraw.”
Visually impaired children made more than 40 percent more errors in reading the word “mistook"—which in braille includes a contraction “ST” that bridged the prefix “mis-" and stem word “took"—than the mistakes they made when reading “crystal,” which does not include a bridging “ST” contraction.
Similarly, adults were slower and 15 percent more likely to make mistakes when reading words with bridging contractions in braille.
“If teachers who are usually visual readers of braille primarily understand and have experienced braille as a code that represents print, then they may unconsciously or not teach students to use a more print-like reading strategy,” said Englebrotson. “But if teachers intentionally conceptualize braille as a writing system that represents spoken language parallel to, equal to, and not dependent on print, then they may better enable students to achieve reading fluency.”
Emerging technology—from braille translation software and keyboards to portable electronic braille displays—can help support students with low vision in a general education classroom. Audio books and read-along software availability also grew significantly for sighted and blind students during the pandemic, when school library systems like New York City’s moved to provide more virtual access to text.
But Englebrotson and Holbrook also said teacher education programs should incorporate different modes of language—not just to better serve blind students—also to to develop a deeper understanding of the elements of how all readers develop understanding of language.