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Fifth Biennial Getting in Touch With Literacy Conference
November 9, 2001
Philadelphia, PA

Sheila Steiner Amato, Ed.D.

Complete text of presentation below:

Literacy is:

  • An issue of national concern
  • Involves reading, writing, math, computer skills, culture (Rex, 1989)
  • Technology skills (Koenig, 1992)
  • Necessary to function on the job and in society (National Institute for Literacy, 1993)
  • Demonstrated at various levels throughout one's lifetime (Koenig, 1992)
  • The means to a limitless array of activities and encounters (Schroeder, 1989)
  • The means to a better quality of life (National Institute for Literacy, 1993)

Braille literacy can:

  • Make it possible for a person who is blind to participate equally in society (Nemeth, 1988) and in the cultural and political life of the community (Stephens, 1989)
  • Open the way to information by tearing down barriers of myth and ignorance (Schroeder, 1989)
  • Determine the degree of independent functioning on the job (Johnson, 1989)
  • Enable individuals who are blind to read and write for themselves

By the numbers...

In 1989

  • 70% of working age people who are blind were unemployed or underemployed (Schroeder, 1989)
  • Of the 30% who are employed, 85% read braille (Spungin, 1989)

In 2000

  • 74% of working age people who are blind are unemployed or underemployed (Maurer, 2000)
  • Of the 26% who are employed, 85% read braille (Maurer, 2000)

  However& there is evidence of a nationwide decline in braille literacy

In 1968

  • 40% of children who were blind or visually impaired could read braille
  • 45% read large print
  •   9% could read neither   

In 1999

  • less than 10% of children who were blind or visually impaired could read braille
  • more than 40% could read neither
  • (APH, 1999)

Consumer services have placed partial blame for the decline in braille literacy on:

  • Teacher incompetence in using and teaching braille (Allman & Lewis, 1997)
  • Teachers' lack of proficiency in braille (Mullen, 1990)
  • Teachers' poor attitudes (Mullen, 1990)
  • Inadequate preparation of teachers by the university teacher preparation programs (Spungin, 1989)

The catalyst &WHY????

  • The National Literary Braille Competency Test (NLBCT) was developed by the National Library Service for the Blind/The Library of Congress
  • Purpose: to allow teachers of children and adults who are blind to demonstrate their competency in writing braille with the braillewriter and the slate and stylus, their ability to proofread braille, and their knowledge of braille code rules
  • Administered to 396 candidates between May, 1994 and June 1999 (Stark, 2000)
  • The discovery that there is a 25% passing rate for teachers who take the National Literary Braille Competency Test

Issue of concern for:

  • Students of university teacher training programs ~ and staff who teach them
  • Their future students or clients
  • Braille consumers
  • National organizations using these statistics to support their contention that teacher training programs were graduating less-than-competent teachers (NFB, 1995)

Questionnaire Standards and Criteria for Competence in Braille Literacy was designed by the investigator 

  • Descriptional survey design
  • Purpose: to examine the issue of teacher competence in braille literacy and the specific role played in the achievement of braille literacy by university teacher preparation programs in blindness and visual impairment
  • Some of the questions designed for a previously completed Teachers College doctoral dissertation  that investigated Braille Training and Teacher Attitudes: Implications for Personnel Preparation, 1993  were either used in their entirety or modified with the written permission of the author, Dr. Stuart Wittenstein.

Pilot instrument

Pilot version of initial questionnaire draft was distributed to 13 individuals in fields of:

  • blindness & visual impairment
  • regular education
  • special education
  • literacy & reading
  • statistics & measurement
  • teacher training
  • and a consumer who uses braille
  • revisions made were based on their feedback

Final document Standards and Criteria for Competence in Braille Literacy

  • Section 1 - course format
  • Section 2 - course content
  • Section 3  course expected outcomes
  • Section 4 - grading and determining the level of competence
  • Section 5 - opinion poll
  • Section 6 - demographic information for the respondents

Programs Surveyed

  • The list of programs was gleaned from Colleges and Universities in the United States and Canada Offering Programs for Teachers of Children with Visual Impairments Recognized by AER (
  • Cross reference done with the National Plan for Training Personnel (NPTP) (Council for Exceptional Children, 1999)

By the numbers:

  • Surveyed 39 institutions that offer programs in Blindness & Visual Impairment
  • Represent 21 states from within the United States
  • Represent 3 Canadian Provinces
  • Include undergraduate, graduate (Master's & Doctoral) and post-graduate programs

Rate of Response

  • Responses were received from 34 programs (87.2%). Thus, it is possible to say that these results are truly representative of teacher education programs in blindness & visual impairment throughout the United States and Canada
  • Caveat~ These data should not be interpreted as a means to judge the quality of the programs, nor to claim superiority or inferiority of practice or the instructor.

Major Findings of the Demographics of Respondents

  • 55.5% institutions offer only graduate programs in BVI
  • 46.6% of university level braille courses are taught by adjunct instructors or graduate faculty
  • 39.9% have tenure or are in tenure-track positions
  • 43 instructors have:
    • known braille for a mean of 26.4 years
    • taught a total of 5,356 students during the past 25 years
  • 69.0% received their braille training as part of a university graduate program
  • 65.1% hold no certification unique to braille (as distinguished from certification as a teacher of students who are blind/visually impaired

Results in a nutshell

Widespread diversity and lack of consistency within university level braille courses in terms of:

  • format of instruction
  • content and instructional materials
  • expected student outcomes
  • standards and criteria for competence in braille literacy

Research Question 1: What is the format of instruction offered in braille as a method of written communication in university level teacher preparation programs in BVI?

  • 75.6% incorporate the term Braille as part of their course title
  • 31.1% offer only one semester of braille, the other programs offer either 2 or 3 semesters of braille.
  • 93.0% have freedom and latitude to create their own syllabus within a general framework
  • 48.9% programs (primarily graduate programs) follow a traditional university semester of meeting once a week for approximately 15 weeks
  • 75.6% meet for a time period between 1-3 hours per class session
  • 46.7% use distance learning as an integral part of their braille course
  • 68.9% report average class size range is 6-15 students

Research Question 2: What topics and instructional materials are included in the university level braille course syllabus?

  • 20.0% of programs do not include instruction in the Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation in their teacher preparation programs
  • 48.9% of class time spent in direct instruction
  • 37.8% of class time spent in combination with direct instruction, drill & practice, use of instructional videos, web-based research, braille games, quizzes, exams, and student presentation of lessons
  • Texts used:
    • 48.9% use Instructional Manual for Braille Transcribing, 3rd.edition
    • 42.2% use New Programmed Instruction in Braille
    • 42.2% use Learning the Nemeth Braille Code
    • 53.3% use Instructional Strategies for Braille Literacy (non-code)

Research Question 3: What are the expected student outcomes in terms of the acquisition and demonstration of braille-related skills and knowledge for these courses?

  • All  require demonstration of braille transcription by use of a braillewriter
  • All  require translation of braille into print
  • 93.3% read braille visually
  • 82.9% transcribe braille by using a slate & stylus
  • 77.8% transcribe mathematics by using the Nemeth Code
  • 73.4% instruction in braille reading methods
  • 15.6%-62.2% other skills and knowledge: teacher made materials, creation of lesson plans, presentation of sample lessons, evaluation of curricula, access technology, observation of braille user, observation of master braille teacher, identification of resources
  • 38.6% expect less than 5 hours/week out-of-class study
  • 45.5% expect between 6-15 hours/week out-of-class study

Research Question 4: What are the standards and criteria for competence in the braille code as employed by university level teacher preparation programs?

  • 59.1% count total number of errors per assignment (which may vary in length and/or complexity)
  • 40.9% provide the option for the student to redo/resubmit an assignment that is not passing
  • 38.6% require the student to redo/resubmit an assignment that is not passing
  • 56.8% allow students to use open books/open notes when taking exams
  • 38.6% permit use of a standard dictionary, but allow no braille code reference materials during exams
  • 40.0% minimum grade for competence is B range
  • 42.2% minimum grade for competence is C range
  • 72.7% will receive grade of incomplete if not competent at end of course
  • 56.8% will be required to repeat the course
  • 38.6% will receive grade of F
  • 75.0% of instructors indicated that their students were required to pass a teacher-made braille competency test in order to receive a passing grade for the course.
  • 52.3% indicated that their students were required to pass a comprehensive exam at the end of their educational program, in which braille was included

Research Question 5: What opinions do teachers of university braille courses hold about key issues in braille literacy?

Entry Level* Competence in Braille Skills

  • 57.8% transcribe, read, and proofread literary braille by braillewriter and slate & stylus
  • 40.0% transcribe math into Nemeth code, proficiency in music code, foreign language code, rules of formatting, braille access technology, curricula, instructional strategies and teaching practice

* Entry level into the field

Graduate Competence in the Literary Code, Nemeth Code, and in Teaching Braille

  • 48.9% rate students as definitely capable of handling almost any literary braille code transcription independently
  • 22.2% rate students as definitely capable of handling almost any Nemeth code transcription independently
  • 57.8% rate students as definitely capable of handling almost any braille related teaching situation independently

Requirement for Refresher or In-Service Braille Training

  • 97.9% indicated that refresher courses or in-service courses should be required, either at regular intervals, or when the teacher feels it is necessary to refresh one's skills
  • 40.5% believe it is the responsibility of teacher preparation programs to provide refresher courses or in-service braille training

Comments about Teacher Competence in Braille

  • 73.8% believe that competence at time of graduation is a function of continuing braille practice
  • 28.6% believe there is a need for further professional development, the opportunity to practice skills, and the availability of braille refresher courses and in-service training

Significant Factors in the Development of Braille Skills

  • 26.2% attitude and motivation
  • 37.7% multiple factors: attitude & motivation, number of hours spent in practice and drill, the instructor, previous experience with braille, natural talent

A Decline Or A Resurgence Of Braille Literacy For People Who Are Blind?

  • 54.8% believe there is a resurgence due to state and federal legislation, required learning media assessments, states putting more money in to train teachers, computer production, refreshable braille displays, refresher courses and conferences, new textbooks, the quest for higher standards and accountability, and more positive attitudes towards braille
  • 11.9% believe there is a decline due to large student caseloads, age of onset of visual impairment, inability to find quality higher level braille textbooks - especially in math and science, the amount of auditory material presently available, and lack of national standards

Comments About University Level Braille Training Standards

  • 31.0% standards are not high enough to produce competent teachers
  • 23.8% students are amazingly competent for their short exposure to braille
  • 11.9% we need to teach students how to teach braille; knowing the code is not enough
  • 9.5% we need to establish national standards for braille training

Limitations of the Study   

  • Inclusion of all established programs in blindness & visual impairment
  • Personal bias of participants
  • Self-reported data
  • Anonymity
  • Exit skills of new teachers trained under different models of personnel preparation

Implications for Personnel Preparation

  • Recommendation that programs provide 2 semesters of braille
  • Inclusion of Nemeth code to enable teachers to transcribe higher level math and science
  • Program model which provides time for assimilation and practice of newly learned skills
  • Need for further research regarding effectiveness of distance learning for braille instruction
  • Commitment to provide ongoing inservice and refresher courses in braille
  • Use of a psychometrically stable instrument in terms of content and construct validity with established reliability as a valid assessment of entry level braille skills prior to awarding a degree or teaching license
  • Establishment of a high minimum national standard for competence in braille literacy

Implications for Future Research

  • Need for documentation of skills of those who will teach children
  • Need for reevaluation, standardization and field testing of university curricula in terms of content and criteria
  • Exploration of use of distance learning as an effective means of service presentation for braille courses

For further information...

Sheila Amato, Ed.D.
72 Aster St.
Massapequa Park, NY 11762
(516) 541-2296 (home)