Sparking That Desire to Read

by B. T. Kimbrough, Salem, Oregon

Arizona School for the Blind Principal Samuel Ace is not one of those educators who believe that talking notetakers and personal data assistants have made braille obsolete. He doesn’t see electronic access as a barrier to braille utilization; in fact, he believes that synthetic speech can actually help students become better braille readers with the right combination of equipment and practice.

During Ace’s 13 years on the Tucson, Arizona, campus, access technology has become a major force in the daily lives of the 50 or so academic students at the school. As he told me during a telephone interview, “We have 47 32-cell braille notetakers on campus, so that almost any academic student who needs one does have one to use and take to the dorm. Most have braille keyboards as well–we made that decision early on because students are writing and reading in braille–and it increases their braille skills all ’round.”

One advantage of those notetakers is that they enable students to download and read electronic books in text and DAISY formats from such providers as Bookshare and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Under a major grant from the US Department of Education, Bookshare has extended free memberships to eligible K-12 students in the US and expanded its collection of textbooks and recreational reading to more than 70,000 titles.

Principal Ace told me that the ready availability of all those books is paying off outside the classroom. “We find that they’re actually reading a lot more–even reading in bed or at any time of the day–it’s always there for them.”

Some of this access is having an impact on classroom assignments. Deborah (Debbie) Hartz, a high school language arts teacher, says she uses Bookshare extensively as she tries to merge the needs of her students with curricular demands of individual courses. “When we develop a reading program to maximize student achievement, it is critical to locate books that students are motivated to read and that are sufficiently challenging, but not frustrating.

“When I began teaching, I believed that students would get better at reading if they just read more. Unfortunately, when given a choice, students pick books that are comfortable to read. They fixate on an author or genre and read several books without encountering new vocabulary. Most of the new words that people learn are absorbed inadvertently through books, newspapers, manuals, or other types of reading material. Students who do not read or who read only materials that are easy often find that their reading levels plateau at about the sixth-grade level.”

Where possible, Principal Ace and his colleagues seem to prefer having students use electronic books they can read on their braille displays, as opposed to listening to material supplied by Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic or the Talking Book program of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Of course, the school readily uses these providers for books which are unavailable elsewhere.

As convenient as they are in some cases, some electronic files still present serious challenges, especially when braille translation is involved. Most downloadable literary works don’t overtax the automatic braille translation which is to be found on a braille notetaker, but many textbooks, especially those for mathematics or science, require hours of special preparation. There are two specialists on the school staff who add image descriptions and carefully format textbook files so that they can be easily read on a refreshable braille display.

I asked Samuel Ace whether the use of refreshable braille displays backed by speech synthesizers leads to improved braille reading and writing by students, compared with older study methods employing paper braille. He said yes–explaining that the electronic tools seem to offer four advantages: The audible feedback makes for instant corrections of spelling mistakes; working with the electronic equipment increases the motivation of low vision students who might otherwise reject working with braille; the electronic environment offers quicker access to looking up problem words in a dictionary; and electronic tools allow students to instantly edit their own work, which seems to boost both motivation and productivity.

Of course, none of this would be happening without some unusual sources of funding. Many of the braille notetakers were purchased under a grant from the US Department of Education. The Arizona State Library also helped out by loaning the school thirty Victor Reader Streams.

Since the basic school budget from state funding sources is unlikely to allocate for assistive technology on this scale, Principal Ace knows that continuing to stay current with the latest new gadgets will present an ongoing challenge. For all that, he can’t keep the enthusiasm out of his voice when answering a question about what the future might hold for the school’s access program. “I know that the iPad has braille support built into it. We’d be able to use Bookshare right down to an iPad off the shelf with braille support just to get more of anything we can directly into our students’ hands. I think the availability of it has a direct connection to sparking that desire to read.”

Basic Facts

The Arizona School for the Blind serves between 90 and 100 students on the Tucson campus it shares with the Arizona School for the Deaf. About half of the students are enrolled in the K-12 academic program. Some of these students spend part of their time in public school classrooms. Although it has only one campus, which is the Tucson location, the school is responsible for supporting the education of blind children throughout the state of Arizona.