Editor’s Note: Carol Castellano is widely known and respected for her knowledge and grasp of the essentials in the education of blind children. She is the author of numerous publications, including the NOPBC publication, The Bridge to Braille: Reading and School Success for the Young Blind Child. This article is an excerpt from Castellano’s upcoming book tentatively titled, Making It Work: Educating the Blind Student in the Regular School, which will be published by Information Age Publishing for the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University.
The ability to use a reader effectively is one of the most important skills the blind/visually impaired student needs to develop. A reader is someone who reads print material to a blind/visually impaired person either directly or by recording it onto a tape or CD. Blind/visually impaired adults use readers on the job and in their homes for personal mail and other material. Students use readers for various tasks, such as research in a library, accessing texts and articles that are not available in their preferred medium, and in many testing situations. A student’s need for readers increases in the higher grades and in college. A reader can be either paid or volunteer.
Basically, a reader serves as a pair of eyeballs. If you think about how you might go about performing a certain reading task for yourself, you can understand how a reader operates. If you were looking through a book for a piece of information, for example, you might quickly read through the table of contents, check a few key words in the index, skim the first few paragraphs of several chapters, and skip around, skimming for a name or particular phrase. These are the kinds of tasks that a reader does. The key, however, is that the blind/visually impaired person directs the reader in each of these tasks.
The blind/visually impaired person directing a reader makes all decisions about what is to be read. The reader must realize this. The blind person moves the reader through the material, telling him or her how fast to read (as fast as possible is the usual recommendation!) and when to read straight through, stop reading, skip, skim, read captions, describe illustrations, read graphs, etc., as necessary to extract the information the blind/visually impaired person wants. The reader does not find the answers”or do the work for the blind/visually impaired person. The reader does not explain what has been read or teach the material to the blind person. The reader is simply the conduit for the information.
In order to direct and use a reader effectively, the blind/visually impaired student needs to know a good deal of information. He/she must be familiar with various print page formats, headings, captions, contents, indexes, etc., and also with the typical elements found in charts, graphs, and diagrams. The student needs to understand the set-up of dictionaries, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, Web sites, etc. The student also needs to know what information is contained in card catalogs (paper and computer) and library databases and understand how to search them. The student should obviously be included in all school training on library and research skills.
In addition to being able to listen well, the blind/visually impaired student needs to learn how to synthesize and analyze the material he/she is hearing quickly in order to decide what is important and what can be skipped or skimmed. Chances are the student will be taking notes during the reading session, so note taking skills are also of great importance.
In order to give good direction to a reader and to keep the appropriate control of the reading situation, the student needs to develop social interaction ability, communication skills, and assertiveness.
Training a student in all these skills begins with every book the child reads, every social interaction, every lesson on library skills, and every subject that requires notetaking. Most often family members are the child’s first readers, but the TVI, classroom teachers, and the librarian all play a part in making sure the child gains the skills.
Training the Student to Use a Reader
The person who trains a student in using a reader usually plays two roles during the practice sessions, that of reader and that of teacher, stepping in and out of each role as needed. As reader, the person stays relatively quiet and follows the student’s direction. As teacher, the person asks questions to help the student think, and gives suggestions and explanations when needed. For example, he/she might say, “Okay, I’m going to stop being your reader for a second. You know we just came to a graph. What might you want to tell your reader to do now?”
A useful way to get the student thinking about the process is to give him/her an assignment to find a certain piece of information in a book using a reader. Before you begin reading, ask the student to think about how he/she would go about trying to find that piece of information if the student were able to access the book directly. The student can then try giving the reader directions based on how he/she would approach the task.
One beginning training idea is to simulate real assignments but apply them to simple materials that the student is already familiar with. For example, a typical English class assignment might be the following:
So-and-So learns a lesson in the novel. Tell what lesson is learned and give examples from the text supporting your idea.
Instead of using a novel that the class has read, however, use a simple book or story like: Little Red Riding Hood”or The Three Little Pigs.” The student then directs the reader to the parts of the story that have the information needed. As reader, sit quietly and await instructions from the student and then follow them exactly, whether they are good instructions or not. Through exercises like this the student will learn ways to give clear, concise direction.
Another training exercise could be to assign the student to research a certain piece of information (for example, the population of a certain country) from an encyclopedia-type article. In this exercise the student would practice instructing the reader to begin reading the article, but to skip to the next paragraph when the student says, “Skip.” The idea is for the student to begin recognizing very quickly when a paragraph is likely to contain the needed information and when it does not have to be read fully.
The student will probably get real experience using a reader at the library when the first research paper is assigned. When trying to decide which books would be useful for his/her topic, the student might direct the reader first to read the table of contents, then to check the index for certain entries. He/she might ask the reader to turn to a certain chapter and read the first paragraph or the first sentence of each paragraph and to look for certain key names or words. The final decision about which books to choose should be the student’s. If it is clear that the student needs more practice before he/she can make these decisions successfully, it would make sense for the reader to step out of the reader role at times to offer further tips and instruction.
One of the difficulties of training a child in reader skills in school is that the readers are usually adults and it can be awkward for a child to take charge and direct an adult. Likewise, sometimes the adult takes over the process. Be alert to this potential problem. If the student is being too passive, help him/her learn to be more assertive. If the adult is taking over, remind him/her that it is necessary for the blind person to be in charge of the task. Possible in-school readers might be a classroom aide, a volunteer from the community, or an older student.
In college and in adult life, the blind/visually impaired person will be responsible for hiring, training, directing, supervising, and, yes, firing readers when necessary. Keep this in mind as you provide training to your student in this critical skill.