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The learning environment for young Braille reading pupils

Focus: School Years

Topic: Inclusive Education

Anders Rönnbäck

Special teacher

Swedish Institute for Special Needs Education

Resource Centre Vision Stockholm

Box 1313

S-171 25 Solna

Sweden

Phone: +46 8 4 700 700

E-mail: anders.ronnback@sit.se

Background

To become an included part of the learning environment is for a young Braille reading pupil dependent of several factors. The competence of the teachers, the teaching model that is used, the choice of teaching material and the access of technical aids are some important ones.

A study has been made to increase the knowledge of different learning environments with the focus on the education in reading and writing. Teachers, of all fifteen Braille reading pupils in grade two in Sweden, were asked to fill in a questionnaire about the way they are working. There were also questions about the teaching style and the role of the student with visual impairment in the learning environment.

Out of the fourteen teacher teams that were answering the questionnaire I made a strategic choice representing four learning environments and made deep interviews with the teachers. I also made a short interview with the pupils. At this conference I will present two of the case studies and draw some conclusions from them. 

First I will give you a short background of the Swedish educational system for pupils with Braille as a reading and writing medium. There are about ten to fifteen Braille reading pupils every year that begin the first year in school. Most of the children are seven years of age and all attend a mainstream setting. For some of the pupils Braille will be the main reading and writing medium and for some of them it will be a complement to ink print.

In a class that includes a Braille reader it is common with an extra teacher besides the classroom teacher. It is uncommon that the support teacher has training as a vision teacher. Therefore, most of the teachers, even the classroom teacher, attend the further education courses that are arranged at the Resource centre vision. These courses have a total length of three weeks spread over a period of two years. The participants learn grade one Braille and methodology, among other basic subjects. The school has also the possibility to ask for support from an adviser for visually impaired in the region.

All Braille reading students are visiting the Resource centre vision four days once a year for a group visit. At that visit we have, among other activities, the opportunity to make a reading observation with each pupil. We can then follow the reading development for each pupil over the years.


Two case studies


Now let me present Bo, a boy eight years of age. He has very little residual vision, but acts in most situations like a blind. Bo is eager to learn, and knows a lot of current events. He gladly relates and shares his knowledge among his classmates. But reading is nothing he likes, and Bo’s parents don’t encourage book reading either, according to the teachers. Bo has an older sister who is also a Braille reader.

In Bo’s class they are 18 pupils in a mixed group of second and third graders. Bo has got an extra teacher who is an experienced vision teacher. She is at the school, supporting Bo, half of his school day. An assistant is helping Bo the other lessons. The two teachers in the classroom plan very seldom the activities together; there is no time for that. So, the vision teacher plans Bo’s schoolwork, and the classroom teacher does it for the rest of the class. As there is a “specialist” engaged for Bo, the classroom teacher thinks that she can hand over most of the responsibility of the teaching of Bo to her. The classroom teacher says: “Yes it is different, because he looks at the vision teacher as his teacher. Bo asks me too, but they are the team.” 

The classroom teacher thinks that it is very positive that there is a vision teacher for Bo. But she has noticed some disadvantages too, she says: “ I don’t learn how to teach Bo, I don’t learn Braille and when I plan, maybe I don’t think so much that Bo is in the class. Because I know that I will meet the vision teacher in the morning and she will prepare the exercise.”

In the classroom the children sit in small groups, Bo is a part of one of them.  Not far from Bo’s place is a small room were he has the possibility to work alone together with the vision teacher. He also has his material and computer device in that room. “In first grade we sat in the little room 75 percent of the lessons in reading and writing, now in second grade maybe 25 percent, mostly when he uses his computer “ says the vision teacher. Bo himself expresses it in another way “I sit most of the time in my room, because the others become disturbed by my Perkins machine”.

Bo seldom works together with any other child in a reading and writing activity, for example in pair reading. The vision teacher thinks that Bo’s reading rate is still too slow to be a part. He reads about 15 w/m. On the whole, Bo has a passive role in all kind of reading. He never takes an initiative to read a book for joy, reading is something you have to do, and in the reading situation the vision teacher mostly sits by his side. Even if Bo during the second school year has been more independent, he easily becomes irritated if the teacher is not near to give him help.

Bo never asks a classmate about how to do an exercise, the classroom teacher says: “Because he presumes they are not able to, they can’t write in his way. They can’t read his texts.” On the other hand, the classmates never come to Bo to do an exercise together with him or to ask for help. Maybe the vision teacher is the barrier. The classroom teacher says: “I think it is because of the vision teacher, she is always there, I think so. It’s always someone beside him and then they are not needed.”

Bo likes to write on his adapted computer device and he manages to handle it by himself very well. But the computer is never used as a tool for cooperation with a classmate. The vision teacher says: “Yes, you could work in that way, if such an occasion would turn up”.

Let us leave Bo with his word about the interest for Braille amongst his classmates: “Yes, a lot of them know. Robert my best friend, I have taught him. And Stefan he has been able to write his name”.

Anna is a blind girl, as Bo, eight years of age. She is described as an ambitious and motivated pupil “in her quiet way”, as the support teacher expresses it. In Anna’s class there are 24 pupils. The two teachers who work in the group are both trained for the junior level. They have decided, that one of them has the main responsibility for the whole group and the other one focuses on the teaching of Anna. But both of the teachers take part in the planning of Anna’s work and both are able to read Braille. The support teacher is new at the school this second school year.

In the classroom the children sit in small groups and Anna has her working place in one of them. Her textbooks and teaching aids, including her special computer device are placed in the classroom.

A lesson in reading and writing often starts with a gathering of the children sitting in a circle on the floor. Then the classroom teacher presents the exercises of the lesson. During this activity Anna is described as passive and takes up more of a listening role. The classroom teacher says:

“ She likes to sit and take in all the impressions and she has to concentrate so much on that, so it is difficult for her to participate then.”  When Anna, after this gathering, is going to continue with her exercises the support teacher needs to give her advice how to carry on. After this extra push the teacher often leaves Anna in her work. If she has any problem, Anna knows that she can raise her hand to ask for help, in the same way as the other children do.

During the lesson, the sighted children in the class often communicate with each other, sometimes to hear what a classmate is working with or maybe to ask for help to solve a certain problem. Anna never takes such an initiative. The support teacher says: “No, and unfortunately I have to say, with sorrow in my heart, I neither see someone of the other children take such an initiative and say “Come on Anna, let’s do this exercise together”.

Anna has a computer device equipped with a refreshable Braille display and a Braille keyboard. Especially during Anna’s first year in school the teachers took advantage of the possibility with her computer to work with two keyboards in parallel. Anna and a sighted child could then write a text together. The classroom teacher says: “ When she works in that way she is active and plays an important role, she knows how to do”. During the second school year Anna doesn’t work in this way so much any more. Because of technical problems, the teachers say, but also maybe because the new support teacher isn’t as used to computers as the former one was. The computer is still, of course, an important reading and writing tool for Anna.

Anna works almost all the time in the classroom, it is very seldom that she sits alone with the support teacher outside. Anna’s parents want it this way. At least twice a week the children in the class are divided into smaller groups, four or five in each. Maybe to read a text together or, after a proposal from Anna’s parents, they have a small discussion group where to talk about important issues. Anna is a permanent member of that grouping. In that type of group activities the teachers meet another Anna, the support teacher says: “If it is a small group and she feels that she can have an overview of the situation, then she becomes very active.”

Anna has developed her capacity in reading during the two school years. In second grade she reads 59 w/m. The teachers estimate her reading capacity a little bit under the capacity for the average pupil in the class. Anna herself says: “I’m in the middle. I know that Michael is very good. He is much better than me. But he is nearly as me too. Michael is good.”


Conclusion


What can we learn out of the situation for these two children? Of course every child is unique, especially as we know that the group of Braille readers are very heterogeneous and the needs for each pupil are so different. But I will focus on some areas that I have found especially important in order to improve the inclusion in reading and writing activities for the Braille user.

In both cases we meet children that work very much alone or together with the support teacher in reading and writing activities. The interaction with the sighted children is very limited. The teachers, to both of the pupils described, have noticed that the children are more active when they work in a small group. In spite of that, this is not done very often. I believe there have to be more opportunities for the Braille user to work in small flexible groups, within the frame of the class, where co-operation is stimulated.

The young Braille beginner needs exciting material that trains the particular technique concerning the Braille medium. But he or she also needs the same teaching material as the rest of the class adapted in an attractive way, material that will facilitate co-operation, maybe with nice tactile pictures and coloured paper pages. It is important that the teacher prepares material so that the visually impaired child, from an early stage, is able to be involved in pair reading or similar activities with a sighted child.

The computer has made it possible for the Braille user to work more freely with the written text. However, too often we forget the opportunity the computer aid also gives for co-operation with sighted people. In Sweden nearly every Braille reading pupil gets a computer device equipped with a Braille keyboard and a refreshable Braille display, from first grade. The device gives the possibility to work in parallel with an ordinary keyboard. The Braille reader and the sighted child are then able to work together with the same exercises. This is done far too seldom.

The teachers, of course, have an essential role for the inclusion of the visually impaired child in the class. It is important that the classroom teacher also takes the responsibility for the teaching of the visually impaired child together with the support teacher. Therefore, the teachers must have the opportunity to plan the activities in the class together. Both teachers need to have knowledge of grade one Braille even if the support teacher must have a deeper knowledge. It is important that the support teacher for a Braille beginner has the experience of how to teach a sighted child to read and write and has learned the very special methodology in teaching reading and writing Braille. The teacher also has to know how to use the computer device in the education. Besides to teach these special skills it is essential for the teacher to stimulate independence and give the possibility for interaction with the sighted children. This role for the teacher is demanding. Therefore, further education and the possibility to meet other teachers in the same situation have to be offered continuously.

If we are going to succeed in the work to motivate a child to learn Braille we have to convince the child and all others involved, parents, teachers and other resource people, that Braille is not the barrier but the opportunity for interaction with other sighted children. And in my presentation I have focused on some areas that I believe are essential in that work. The organisation of the teaching in the class, the design of the teaching material, the use of technical aids and the role of the teachers, areas that have to be developed if we are going to reach the goal of an inclusive environment for the young Braille user.


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