Chapter Seven – Adult Literacy Programs

Now we are talking about adults who never learned to read and write well in either print or braille. There are many reasons for this. They didn’t go to school. They got lost in the system. They devised clever strategies to avoid detection. The reason is only important for its implications and the shame it has often mistakenly brought onto the person. The wonderful thing is that they had the courage to ask for help. It is hard for literate people in a literate society to understand what suffering these people have born over the hears. This may be the last chance. Don’t let them down.

Find out why the person wants to learn to read and write and adjust the program to that goal. If they want to learn to read to their children or grandchildren then use children’s literature and write the words that are used most often. Use the common words list from the primary section. Use some of the books from the list. See if they have favourite stories.

If they want to learn to write so they can write stories then adjust the program to that goal and teach writing first. Write and then read words that they use most often and/or phrases and/or sentences and/or stories.

If they want to be able to study factual information about a topic such as space or sound then use the vocabulary they will need for that and move from simple to complex. Remember that motivation is important.

If they want to learn how to read something to keep their job or to get a better job, then use what is needed for that first.

There are advantages and disadvantages to individual lessons vs small group lessons. Sometimes the student will have a choice, sometimes they won’t. If possible it usually is best to start with individual lessons and then when appropriate move into group sessions. It is ideal if there can be another braille user in the group.

If however they must be part of a group from the beginning, give as much specific help as possible so they won’t become discouraged.

If the person is hesitant about writing let them dictate and someone can braille their story. At first use only letters. Punctuation can be introduced later on.

Always use alphabetic braille. It is easy for instructors to learn and their confidence and positive attitude will be picked up by the student. If you need to know why alphabetic braille should be used, then read Chapter One. In fact you should read the whole book because bits and pieces from all over will apply to your task of teaching braille literacy.

After you have found out why the person wants to learn to read and write, you need to discover what level of skills they have. This may be somewhat difficult because the person has had miserable experiences with testing and your assessment will probably just have to be made on observation. Far better to begin with a simple task that they can do, than a more difficult one that might cause failure. Proceed slowly enough so that the student keeps meeting success.

If your program has computers and your student wishes to learn using the computer, fine. Be sure then to read the chapter on computers and technology. However, in my visits to adult literacy programs across Canada, most did not have access to computers. Any money available went for heat, rent, security and basics. Many adults in literacy programs have limited funds themselves and will not have access to equipment. Again we come back to the necessity of programming for the individual.

If the student needs to be taught to read and write individual braille letters, read the sections on primary and learning disabilities and see if any of the suggestions there are useful.

Unless you have good reasons for using a brailled version of an adult literacy program that is intended for print readers, it is better to take the student from where they are and read or write individual personal items, a journal, a grocery list, whatever. Many print literacy programs are visually oriented with pictures and diagrams essential to the learning.

If the student needs and wants a phonics program to help them with the sounds of letters, especially vowels, the one suggested in the learning disabilities section may help.

Basically, all that can be done here is give suggestions. Each instructor and student need to choose what is best for them. The next student you have may need an entirely different approach. Once your client has learned to read and use punctuation, they might enjoy some of the adult literacy books that are available from the C.N.I.B. Library for the Blind. These books are in alphabetic braille.

Also, here is a list of publishers and the books for which you could get copyright permission to braille yourself.

The New Start Reading Series from East End Literacy Press, Toronto.

Collins English Library, Level I Books, For ESL and Reluctant Readers, William Collins Son & Co. Ltd.

Also, if your client likes stories on tape to accompany the reading, many of these can be purchased in bookstores or from the following companies.

Audio Language Studies Read-Along Series, Durkin Hayes Publishing
Scholastic Canada Limited
Ulverscroft Soundings
Random House Read-Along

Even better, during lessons, take turns with student reading. They read a sentence or a paragraph or a page, then you read a sentence or a paragraph or a page while they follow along. Pace your reading to their following. If they can handle only a word at a time pause after each word. If they can handle a phrase at a time pause after each phrase.

If appropriate, you could tape the clients own stories, remembering to pause and read slowly so that the tape can match the student’s speed – no matter how slow.

What about pictures? Do you describe them? Do you mention them? Do you make a tactile? Sometimes yes, but usually no. Here is another advantage of making your own materials. You don’t need to worry about pictures. I have been present at many emotional debates around the issue of tactile graphics for the blind, by experts in the field. They cannot agree about tactiles. So if you are new to braille and literacy, don’t feel inadequate because you don’t know what to do.

A good guideline is this. If the picture is essential to the story or the information given then describe what is needed to the student. If the picture is just there to add interest or colour for the sighted person don’t mention it because that only reminds the person of what they are missing rather than emphasizing what they are able to get from the braille.

Always keep in mind the wide range in levels of literacy in adult programs. Some need to learn the basics of letter recognition and sound symbol correspondence. Some need practice reading easier stories. Some need practice writing sentences. Some need vocabulary and experience building, Others need upgrading to a higher level.

If you area literacy volunteer and you need to learn braille, contact your local Canadian National Institute for the Blind office and explain why you want to learn braille. They may be able to help you or put you in contact with someone who can. Remember to tell them that you want Grade One Braille.

English as a Second Language

English as a second language is included in this chapter because people who are just learning English often end up in Literacy Programs. They don’t belong there, but often there is no other place for them to go. There is a wide variety of people needing to learn English as a second or third or fourth language. Some were literate in their native tongue, some were not. Some know braille in their native language, some do not. Some have learning disabilities, some do not. Some are adjusting to their new life, some are not.

The most difficult barrier to overcome is the language barrier. It is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to get information to a blind person if you do not speak their language and they do not speak yours.

I shall cite an example from my own experience. The student had reached the point where we could carry on a conversation about everyday events in English. He had learned to read slowly stories in alphabetic braille. He brought his notes from a geography course to receive help with studying for an exam. The material to be covered was lumbering in Canada. How do you explain the difference between trees to a blind person who has never seen them and who doesn’t know what maple, pine, ash or f ir mean? You need an interpreter. You need someone who knows the native language and can explain. You need models. You need humour and patience.

This is one time where a pictures would be worth a thousand words but a tactile picture is not. The added dimension of blindness makes learning factual information extremely difficult. Real meaning and understanding are hard to achieve without an interpreter. Learning factual material is very difficult if you don’t understand what you are trying to learn. It is just like memorizing meaningless non-words.

If the student knows braille in his/her native language, this may pose an additional problem because braille signs and their meanings differ from language to language. When English is not a student’s native tongue, alphabetic braille should be used.