Future Reflections                                                                                         Winter/Spring 2005

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Emerging Victorious:
How Braille Reading Pals and Similar Programs
Are Promoting a More Literate Generation of Blind Children

by Anna Cheadle

NOTE: The full text of all research cited in this article is available online. See "Sources" for URLs.

What do Woody, Fred, Colossal, Snowball, Fluffy, and Emily have in common? They are helping blind children ages 3-7 develop reading skills that will enable them to be self-sufficient, independent, and successful throughout life. Ok, so the kids' parents might be helping too, by setting aside time each day to read with their child, but furry Beanie Babies� certainly play their part. For one thing, they provide an incentive that makes reading time fun and social. They also allow the child to practice pronunciation, intonation, and pacing they hear during story time by reading to the Beanie pal as if it was the "child." A growing body of literature and research regarding early experiences of written material, referred to as "emergent literacy," finds, time and time again, that successful readers develop literacy skills long before they actually "read." Using the example from above, children can learn pronunciation, intonation, and pacing, without actually being able to read words on a page. Most importantly, the research finds, children who learn to associate reading with fun and to associate symbols with spoken language at a young age (2 or 3) are more successful when they do learn to read. Such skills are just what the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) wants to encourage with its new, non-competitive Braille Reading Pals (BRL Pals) program.

My son really enjoyed participating in this program. He liked the idea that we were also reading to his reading pal, who he named "Fred." Thank you.
-Gloria (Liam is 6)

The program for blind infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and reading-delayed older students calls on parents to read aloud to or with their children for 15 minutes a day, with a Beanie Baby� "reading pal" and reading pack provided by NOPBC. Braille Reading Pals allows blind children to relate reading with fun and associate raised bumps with language, skills that the body of research in emergent literacy deems as essential for future reading success.

Braille for Life

Ellie reads Braille a lot�her favorite thing!
-Jan (Ellie is 6)

You've all heard the figures. Braille readers truly are leaders. According to one study by Ruby Ryles, Ph.D.:

(Ryles' study is selectively reprinted in the February, 1998, issue of the Braille Monitor.)

Sound like something you've heard before? Probably. We all know the importance of Braille, not only in more measurable terms as in Ryles' study, but also in self-esteem, confidence, independence, and, if I may allow myself a dip into more "technical" terms�self-actualization, since Braille enables the uninterrupted pursuit of interests and passions. Braille has all sorts of important uses in the adult world�from being able to read the label on medication, to choosing the vacation destination of your dreams.

But maybe you haven't heard the overwhelming evidence that success in learning to read in the first place is greatly improved by even earlier literacy experiences. "Experiences with print (through reading and writing) give preschool children an understanding of the conventions, purpose, and function of print�understandings that have been shown to play an integral part in learning to read," write Gunn, et al., in a synthesis of emergent literacy research. Debra Johnson cites no less than six studies when she claims, "According to current research, children' s literacy development begins long before children start formal instruction in elementary school (Allington & Cunningham, 1996; Burns, Griffin, & Snow, 1999; Clay, 1991; Hall & Moats, 1999; Holdaway, 1979; Teale & Sulzby, 1986)." The mounting research finds that experience and interaction with written material before kindergarten lays the groundwork for future literacy skills.

Emergent Literacy

Though this concept might seem obvious to some, it has been a long time coming. Emergent literacy contrasts the "reading readiness" view, which holds that children must reach a certain level of physical and neurological maturation before they are ready for reading and writing. Often in the past, and still some today, reading to pre-K children is considered irrelevant, useless, or according to some, harmful. (Johnson) Emergent literacy holds that reading and writing skills develop concurrently in response to environmental stimuli, rather than linearly after a certain amount of cognitive development (i.e., after a child learns to read, he is ready to learn to write). (Johnson) Emergent literacy, then, "is characterized by the early development of understanding that abstract symbols have meaning and that people use these symbols for the communication of ideas." (Koenig, cited in Stratton) In short, emergent literacy describes how children can become attuned to spoken and written communication almost from birth. The more attuned they are, the better readers they become.

Observable stages in development mark this process as it occurs. Specifically, Johnson notes that at 2-3 years old children begin to "produce understandable speech in response to books and the written marks they create." At 3-4 years, children begin to "read" by themselves, actually reenacting from pictures and experimenting with written scribbles. Studies have found these "written scribbles" to be distinct from drawings in children as young as 3, as J. M. Stratton remarks. "Harste and Woodward (1989) reported that when 3-year-olds were asked to make a picture, the marks they made were distinctly different from those they made when asked to write their names. Gibson (1989) and Neuman & Roskos (1993) reported similar findings." This "written scribbling," clearly requires knowledge that symbols represent speech and are different from other visual representations.� If children already have this knowledge at age 3, it only further confirms that literacy skills begin developing even earlier, in the first year of a child�s life.

There is no reason that the stages of development should be different for blind children, and no excuses can legitimately be made about how they are often denied the rich environment in which pre-literacy skills emerge. Not surrounded by and immersed in Braille like sighted children are in print, blind children could lack the opportunity to associate the Braille symbol with spoken language at an early age. Even worse, some parents of blind children intentionally forego reading to them: "since the children could not see the pictures, the parents thought they might be confused by the visual concepts." (Crespo, 1990, cited by Stratton) Surely, the result of such an approach would be a more confused child, one from whom information about the visual world is intentionally withheld for no apparent reason. In fact, storytelling is the ideal platform to instruct your blind children about the visual world. From the comfort of their own bedroom, your children can learn about tiger stripes, unicorn horns, sign shapes, different textures, car and truck shapes, and more, then take that information with them into the world as they learn to socialize with other children who avail themselves of such information through sight. It is an opportunity that should be capitalized on rather than avoided.

Likewise, parents who believe that the Braille code is too complicated for their blind child should use preschool as a time to introduce their son or daughter to the "bumps" of Braille, rather than waiting a few years to introduce the concept, after the "preliteracy" window may have already passed. If anything, the research shows that the 3-year-old brain is ripe for discovery of the symbolic world. Children can either conclude that they have access to written language themselves through "bumps", or that they can only access written language through another person. Though it is never too late to introduce Braille, the research is clear: it is never too early, either.


The girls [blind/visually impaired triplets] loved reading time and the Beanie Pals. We used reading time as a reward after doing Braille lessons and cane (O&M) lessons each evening�It was our time together to explore new worlds, meet new friends, have wonderful adventures, and most of all be together. They had so much fun! We would love to participate again!!!
-Darlene (the triplets, Caitlin, Courtney, and Cassidy, are 5)

I read to my daughter every night�usually 3-4 small books�several times�she LOVES story time.
-Dawn (Kimberly is 3)

During a child' s first two years, the most important thing you can do to foster reading is fill a child with "warm interactions around age-appropriate books that teach them the equation: books = love + fun," says Grover Whitehurst, a renowned reading specialist and Chairman of the Psychology Department at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. (Gabriel) The same theme appears when Stratton discusses literacy outcomes that are common to all emergent literacy research. They include:

�the discovery that books are fun, awareness that symbols represent meaning, understanding that the story comes from print, awareness of the structure of stories, hearing "book language" as different from conversational language, and fostering a desire to read (Anderson et al., 1985; Clay, 1991; Gibson, 1989; Neuman & Roskos, 1993; Teale & Sulzby, 1989). Among the suggested indicators of preacademic skill outcome for 3 year olds in this area, compiled by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (Ysseldyke, Thurlow, & Gilman, 1993) is that the child demonstrates an interest in books and in listening to stories.

Indeed, making reading into a fun-time is so crucial that the authors of the new book, What Parents Need to Know about Reading and Writing, offer a list of tips to achieve this result. Though not designed with blind children in mind, any of the tips can be adapted easily for use with a blind child. Compiled by the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh and the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), these tips include reading with your child every day, listening to your child read to you, reading street signs with your child, making shopping lists together, finding books to match your child' s interests, and encouraging your children to act out stories with brothers or sisters [or reading pals!] (Gabriel)


[Kimberly] has now started to identify the "bumps" on the pages as Braille!����
-Dawn (Kimberly is 3)

I now can read to [my son] while he reads it with his fingers. I love the books.
-Brenda (Aso is 5)

The girls loved picking out a book and Courtney would learn to trace the Braille �They had so much fun! We would love to participate again!!!
-Darlene (the triplets, Caitlin, Courtney, and Cassidy, are 5)

We read to Harmony several times a day and she is starting to feel the Braille much more.
-Lynsey (Harmony is 3)

Though it would be unconscionable for parents of a sighted child to keep their child from seeing any print until the age of 5, 6, or 7, it is fairly routine for blind children never to experience Braille until that age or older. Considering that, "Developing the concept that a symbol is functional and represents meaning is essential to emergent literacy (Clay, 1991; Gibson, 1989)," (Stratton) such an omission could, and does, have serious consequences for blind children. As MacCuspie states, "The value and life-long benefit of early intervention with children who are blind or visually impaired is well documented (Ferrell, 2000)�.As noted by one professional, �if we don' t prepare children for formal literacy instruction before they enter school then we are already way behind the starting point of their peers who are sighted.� At the appropriate age, their peers can be expected to "understand that pictures represent real items in the world, pick out one book from another by its cover, become aware that words are different from pictures, and [maybe] pretend to read." At the same age, blind children should be expected to understand that pictures represent real items in the world (tactile pictures would be useful in that context); pick out one book from another by its weight, shape, and texture; become aware that Braille bumps are different from tactile pictures, and maybe pretend to read. The appropriate age, referred to in the quote above by Butler, is the age of 3.

Kayla Harris and Kevin Harris
Kevin Harris prepares to read a Dr. Seuss print/Braille storybook to daughter, Kayla, and her Beanie Baby reading pal.

The Braille Readers are Leaders Braille Reading Pals program has just these goals in mind�in addition to the Love+Fun part, of course�and makes them truly achievable. By encouraging parents to spend 15 minutes per day (a lofty goal, but high expectations are part and parcel of reading success), the program encourages the "literate environment" in which "reading, writing, and oral language develop concurrently and interrelatedly," (Sulzby & Teale, 1991, cited in Gunn, et al.) and which is so crucial to literacy acquisition (McGee & Lomax, 1990, cited in Gunn, et al.).� It fosters specific skills, such as an awareness of print (in this case, Braille), and knowledge of the relationship between speech and print (or Braille), that "substantially affect the ease with which children learn to read, write, and spell (Hiebert, 1988; van Kleeck, 1990; Weir, 1989.)" (Gunn, et al.) Something as simple as letting your child feel bumps on the page while you tell them a story can impact their ability as a reader and writer in school.

If your commitment to reading and playing in an open, "literate" environment (say, with Braille blocks, a slate and stylus�under supervision�or a stylus-shaped object, or other toys), your expectation of them to become literate will work its own influence. Stratton describes a study that compared a group of visually impaired children who were expected to be print readers to a group expected to be Braille readers. Not surprisingly, 72.2 percent of the group of children expected to be print readers "engaged in scribbling activities (using pencils, markers, and paint brushes), compared to 27.6 percent of the group of expected Braille readers (using Braille writers or slate and stylus). (Craig, 1996)" Of course, these results were based entirely in the environments produced by such expectations. Blind children introduced to Braille "bumps" at a young enough age might also exhibit "scribbling," by poking holes in paper or otherwise mimicking the code. (They can use Braille writing tools, or if those are unavailable, they too can use pencils, markers, and paint brushes.) The research results do not imply that children expected to be Braille readers develop more slowly, but rather that the proper environment must be created in which they are exposed to Braille play in order to develop literacy awareness.

The Parent�s Role

Thank you for sponsoring this program. It was motivating to me as a parent, and enjoyable to Maura who knew every day she would get books read to her!
-Jean (Maura is 3)

We love to read! By doing this program, Sonny is learning to love books too! Thanks!
-Jeannie (Sonny is 4)

Thank you so much for this! The Beanie Baby was a great incentive!
-Ann Marie (Kaitlyn is 3)

First and foremost, when it comes to story time, the parent is a provider. Gunn reports that in a study of 59 parents of preschool children, Hildebrand and Bader (1992) found a commonality among children who performed well on three emergent literacy measures (i.e. writing letters of the alphabet): their parents were more likely to provide them with alphabet books, blocks, and shapes. But parents also provide the time and commitment to make story time a fun and dependable part of the daily routine. Much of the research cited in this article is also replete with findings that storybook reading or reading aloud to children repeatedly emerges as "a key component in facilitating early literacy acquisition."� Both time spent reading and interest in reading are two of the strongest indicators of later reading success. The more open and creative a parent is willing to be to spark such interest and sustain it through regular reading, the more the child reaps the benefit. For one parent in the Reading Pals program, it was not books, blocks, or shapes that she needed to provide, but an alternate reading method. When her son showed disinterest in books, she found that singing the stories would keep his attention. One child's blocks are another child's songs, and it's the parent's job to identify what works and provide it. Because this parent provides a regular, specially customized story time, her son will be better prepared to read and write and enjoy it later on!

Another crucial role of the parent is as a model reader. Research draws strong correlations between "reading to children and subsequent success on reading readiness tasks." Such studies, too numerous to cite specifically here, were conducted by Hiebert, 1988; Mason & Allen, 1986; Morrow et al., 1990; Teale & Sulzby, 1987; Burrough, 1972; Chomsky, 1972; Durkin, 1974-75; Fodor, 1966; Irwin, 1960; Moon & Wells, 1979; Smith, 1989; and Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, and Wilkinson, 1985. Some of this research indicates that the child will model their own reading behaviors on the parent. "The child discovers many things about the functions of symbols and writing by observing others who are engaged in such activities and by actively experimenting (Gibson, 1989; Teale & Sulzby, 1989)" observes Stratton, and Gunn, et al., echo the sentiments. Johnson also describes this phenomenon, and detailing how children come to imitate their literacy models: "Gradually, these readings [play reading exhibited by toddlers] demonstrate the intonation patterns of the adult reader and language used in the book." Just as children "play house," by imitating parents and relegating their own role to a doll, children can "play read" by imitating story time. The Beanie Baby� Braille pal provides an excellent "child" for play reading, but the parent must be the original reading model. A child who understands that symbols are related to language and intonation patterns is already well on the way to literacy.

But parents and teachers all know committing this time is not easy. Moreover, finding new and fresh Braille books for your child, in addition to the old favorites, requires more than a quick nip to the local library. A position paper on literacy found on the Canadian National Institute for the Blind's Web page declares, "parents must be provided with both the materials and the skills and ideas so they can implement simple emergent literacy programs in their homes. These kinds of programs must be made accessible to parents without undo hardship or cost, for parents are the primary teachers of all children in this age group [2-5 years old]." While the sentiment is noble, the follow-through can be tricky. Braille Reading Pals is one way that parents can set up their own "emergent literacy programs," though we still prefer to call it "Love+Fun time"! Parents and teachers aware of techniques to encourage emergent literacy ensure that a child need not be competitive to be victorious.

How to Get Involved and Additional Resources

I enjoyed the extra readings for myself. I did like having the opportunity to have the "twin" books.
-Anonymous parent

Be sure to provide plenty of tactical stimulation to your child while you read. This may include touching and holding the book (don't worry if it isn't "the right way round"), handling toys or objects like those in the story, or acting out the story with the Beanie Baby. When your child is ready, you might also have them retell some of their favorite stories by touching objects in sequence, much like a sighted child would retell a story by looking at pictures. But of course always remember, as one parent noted, "the actual time spent with the parent is what is most important to [the child]."

BRL Pals Program

Why not add a Big Ears, Beanie, Lucky, Whitey, Orion, or Blue Eyes to your family or classroom? Once you register, your BRL Pals packet includes:

The program for 2005 will officially begin in November. To request a pack contact Barbara Cheadle, (410) 659-9314, extension 2360 or 2361, <[email protected]>. Also, watch for updates on the NFB Web site at https://archive.nfb.org/nopbc/braillereaders/prereaders.htm

ReadBooks! Program

The National Braille Press, along with Seedlings Braille Books for Children, is producing and distributing free Braille book bags to families with blind and visually impaired children in the U.S.A., ages birth to seven (limit one bag per child per age group). The goals of this project include fostering a love of reading, encouraging parents to learn Braille, introducing blind children to a means of independent reading and writing, promoting high expectations for literacy, and preparing parents to advocate for Braille instruction in school.

Each bag contains:

1. An age-appropriate print/Braille book for three age groups: birth-3, 4-5, and 6-7 in English or Spanish;

2. a Braille primer for sighted parents entitled Just Enough to Know Better;

3. A colorful print/Braille place mat;

4. print/Braille bookmarks;

5. Because Books Matter, a guide for parents on why and how to read books with their young blind child;

6. a gift coupon redeemable for another print/Braille book or Braille/large print playing cards; and

7. print/Braille magnetic letters.

For more information contact the National Braille Press, (888) 965-8965, extension 34, or select ReadBooks! on the NBP Web site home page at <www.nbp.org/>.

Perkins Panda Early Literacy Program

The Perkins Panda program provides kits designed to increase self-awareness, develop object-identification skills, explore new environments, and expand the use of pretend play, all essential skills in developing communication and literacy. Kits include:

Complete kit is $94.95 (20% off cost of items purchased separately). Dual-speed cassette player is $79.95.

For more information, contact the Perkins School for the Blind at (800) 972-7671 or (617) 972-7667, or go to <www.Perkins.org>.v

Internet Resources

Literacy tips for deaf-blind children, many of which would be useful for blind children as well:

Emergent literacy resources


Ryles, Ruby. The impact of braille readings skills on employment, income, education, and reading habits. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. May-June, 1996.


Gabriel, Jerry. Creating a reader: "Books= Love + Fun" Feb, 2001. http://www.brainconnection.com/topics/?main=fa/creating-reader

Butler, Shelley. Helping young listeners become successful readers: babies & todlers.




Gunn, et.al. Emergent literacy: synthesis of the research. National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators. Technical report no. 19, 1995.

Johnson, Debra. Critical issue: addressing the literacy needs of emergent and early readers. 1999.


Stratton, J.M. Emergent literacy: a new perspective. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. May-June, 1996.


MacCuspie, Anne. Access to literacy instruction for students who are blind or visually impaired. Canadian National Institute for the Blind. 2002.


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