Dr. Nicole Johnson, Head of Vision Department at Kutztown University shares her findings in how to improve this necessary skill for the visually impaired

From Teaching Tips Tuesday

Alex: Hey everybody! Welcome back to another episode of Teaching Tips Tuesday; today we have with us Dr. Nicole Johnson, she is the head of the vision department at Kutztown University–how are you doing today Dr. Johnson?

Dr. Johnson: Good! Thank you for having me today.

Alex: Absolutely! Thank you so much for being on. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many, uh, Kutztown–I guess at the time they were interns and they became TVI’s so I, I put some stake into the quality of your program.

Dr. Johnson: Thank you, thank you, they’re wonderful students.

Alex: Absolutely, and I understand that you have some research done on increasing braille reading speed?

Dr. Johnson: Yes, over the past about 7 years I’ve been looking at various ways to increase braille reading speed and comprehension.

Alex: Well now what is the–I guess there’s the obvious value of just being able to read more but I guess would you say there’s any further value to an increase to a braille reading speed?

Dr. Johnson: Yeah. So we know that on average, a braille reader reads roughly a 1/3 slower than peers. So, it’s important to try to close that gap or get as close as possible to that typical sighted reader as we can. Um, and it helps develop a love for learning and decreases that frustration when reading. So, if they’re able to concentrate on having fun reading and not focus so much on the comprehension, um, it’ll really really help them engage in their learning and become life-long readers.

Alex: All right! Well then let’s get straight into some strategies, what is the first thing you’re gonna recommend?

Dr. Johnson: So I think early on we all know about braille tracking sheets, so we make–we have them track different things with their fingers. And a lot of times this is only used early, early on but it’s important as we introduce more contraptions and that grade 2 braille to go back to more complex tracking sheets. Um, it helps build sensitivity on the fingers, you know, and it could be super complex where you might have a bunch of D’s and throw 3 F’s in and they have to find them. Um, where there’s very slight differences, but it helps build that speed and when they’re doing these tracking sheets you wanna make sure they’re using proper hand positioning, you know, the right hand is the lead hand, the left hand drops down and they’re doing that line, the line very fluently. And that really helps with the reading, although they’re not reading words, but building in those tracking sheets not only in pre-school and kindergarten, but possibly bringing them back in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade more complex really helps with that hand movement and speed.

Alex: So you’re just–you’re really focusing on the, the muscle memory of that, so you’re–they’re not having to spend that chunk of your brain saying going “okay, hand move, hand drops” now, you wanna just make that automatic.

Dr. Johnson: Yes and sometimes that takes longer to develop, and, um, and when we’re cited we do that very seamlessly, um and it’s taught-its’s a very visual skill-they do it very early on. So, with readers of braille we’re so focused on them identifying contractions sometimes we forget to teach them that automaticity of line-to-line ’cause that can really slow a braille reader down.

Alex: [smiles] Automaticity is a great word, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, that’s great. Alright,  so, we’ve taken care of that, let’s say our student is now absolutely killer with the motorics of their braille reading, what’s the next strategy we’re gonna employ?

Dr. Johnson: I think the next strategy that really is helpful is the use of repeated readings in braille. Uh, repeated readings is something that is well-documented and researched with cited learners and students with learning support or learning disabilities. In braille, we did a study with 3 readers using repeated reading and you take a passage that’s only their reading level, so, it doesn’t necessarily have to be grade level but their reading level and they read it once, and then we go back and correct their errors and make sure they know what they got wrong or what they said wrong, and then the next day they read it a second time and the goal is is that they’re going to increase their reading speed. If they make mistakes, you go back and correct them, and then you read it a third time, and then check for comprehension. So, the three times, by the third time, they’re really reading more fluently, they’re not getting stumbled on those words anymore, and we found that by using repeated readings, you know, we use use repeated readings with students over the course of three months the baseline data on the first cold read went up by almost 10 words a minute. So, with building that reading confidence, so, you know, with the third grader, it went up 10 words a minute. So just the use of a same short story, it doesn’t have to be long, like a 2-minute read, very simple, on their le–instructional level.

Alex: And then do you see that that speed increase generalizes into novel readings? Not-not reading novels but reading new passages?

Dr. Johnson: Yup, so that’s what we did, the cold read of a new passage and from the first baseline data on a new passag–

Alex: Oh, THAT’S what went up 10?

Dr. Johnson: [nods in agreement] mhm, yup.

Alex: Okay, I thought you meant the repetitions went up by 10.

Dr. Johnson: No.

Alex: That’s great.

Dr. Johnson: And the repetitions, um, yes, it went up significantly the third time, but then when we went back and did a first read the words per minute went up a lot because they were building confidence using these repeated readings, and by the time you start off base-line again, they increase braille speeds significantly.

Alex: Okay, excellent! So now we’ve done–we’ve done our tracking, we’ve done our repeated reading, do you have one more for us?

Dr. Johnson: Yup, the third one I would say is using peer assistance strategy and we use this-we did a study with a kindergartener, a 3rd grader, and a 6th grader. So, a kindergartner was still learning the alphabet, and like all kindergartners, they were not fluent readers, and but getting again at their instructional level and we would the general education teacher identify a peer, so then the peer and our learner would have the same passage with the teacher visually impaired in front of them and we would have one be the helper and one be the leader. So, we would switch who that was, so sometimes a student learning braille would be the helper of the other student, so it wasn’t always that our student was a weaker student, but they would read together. So, one would read a paragraph–if one got held up on a word together the other would help, then second-would read the second paragraph and then they would answer comprehension questions together. And we would use the same student and do this two or three times a week with different passages. It built confidence for our student because we made sure the students were around the same reading level, but it helped build confidence because our student was able to a sighted reader and vice versa so they weren’t always the one being helped and if they really got into that, especially the third grader, she wanted to help the other student. And she even said “I’m always the one asking questions” and the other student, she was helping her sound out words and it helped her build that reading confidence. In addition to helping increase braille reading speed, the teacher noted we had them fill out a survey that these students continue to talk outside of the one-on-one time so it helped build socialization in the kindergartner and third-grader; we didn’t see it so much in the sixth grader or the socialization piece but their middle school’s a little different, so, not only were we helping reading and confidence, but, then we had that socialization aspect. So, that one-on-one, peer-assisted really did help with the braille speed and socialization.

Alex: Out of these three strategies, which one would you most recommend to a high-schooler who’s not an active braille reader, but we’re worried about visual degeneration down the line–they’re not particularly motivated to read braille, but it is what the IEP team has determined to be appropriate–which of these three strategies would you implement first?

Dr. Johnson: I would definitely start with the tracking sheets, uh, and then increase complexity because you want them to be successful. And a lot of times, uh, with progressive conditions and they’re older, they find braille very frustrating, so we want to try to make them successful from the start so those easy tracking sheets-oh-let’s see if you can get to the end of this, uh, you know, making it a game. Making them be successful, increase the complexity because you’re building up that finger sensitivity, um, and starting to get them to use their fingers for when they lose their vision. So I would say definitely starting with the tracking sheets would be the best.

Alex: Alrighty, excellent, I will implement that into my teaching literally next week! I’ve got a kid who is not digging braille, so I’m glad we had this talk.

Dr. Johnson: [chuckles]

Alex: All right! Well thank you so much for telling us about these great strategies, I have one more question for you Dr. Johnson, that is: what is your favorite part of your job?

Dr. Johnson: I like a lot about my job, I really love my job so I feel lucky in that aspect, but, I really have a love for kids with visual impairments so, I like that I get to train many teachers to be good role models, and advocates, and very knowledgeable in visual impairments to positively impact children who are blind and visually impaired not only in Pennsylvania, but throughout the country because our teachers go everywhere. So, it makes me happy to be a small part of that, and they come back and tell me stories of how students are doing and how successful they are, and it’s very rewarding.

Alex: Well you gotta think how many-how many total kids you are affecting [stammers] through the drizzle-down effect of all the TVI’s that you train, that does have to be very rewarding.

Dr. Johnson: Yup, I love my job. [smiles]

Alex: All right, well thank you so much for being on this episode of Teaching Tips Tuesday Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Johnson: Great, thank you for having me.

Alex: And thank you so much to everybody at home for watching another episode of TTT, we will see you next week. Have a good one!