Feel your Reading Book" - Early Braille Literacy
GYNTHA: Hello, my name is Gyntha Goertz, and I'm a teacher and braille specialist in Royal Dutch Visio in the Netherlands.
ANN: Hello. I'm Ann Conefrey. I'm an independent tactile designer working in the Netherlands, and we're both very happy today to be co-presenting "Feel Your Reading Book."
GYNTHA: As a group of teachers having a lot of experience in teaching braille to young children, we had a long-cherished dream, let's come up with a series of customised tactile books for children starting to read braille. We wanted to develop a series of early braille literacy, because we thought the gap was too big between books for preparatory braille and those for initial braille.
ANN: In this session we'll take turns explaining our ideas behind the series, highlighting the main points of the concept, and using three short films to demonstrate how children with different abilities are actually using these books. We'd like to note that these books are an example of how the concept can be applied, and we hope that we can inspire you to write and to develop your own customised tactile reading books for very young children.
GYNTHA: Our main goal was to develop books that blind and severely visually impaired children will really enjoy reading at school and also at home. Parents often indicate that their childs love stories so much, so the books had to be storybooks that fit the blind child's perception. And we had high expectations about the tactile pictures, because tactile illustrations make reading more enjoyable, and support the reading process. The tactile pictures give the child an idea of what the book is about, even before the child is actually capable of reading it himself or herself. We dreamed about pictures with different textures relating to the subject. Because blind children are still learning to understand pictures, we wanted tangible objects to accompany the book, so the child can make the transition from the concrete form, 3D, to the tactile illustration, 2D. What we also wanted was to stimulate the initial reading process. We thought it would be ideal if the books consisted of different reading levels, so children can read together with a parent or coach or with classmates. One reading level had to be suitable for the first steps in the reading process, so we looked for topics, for words, that are most easy to read in braille, words with the letters that differ as much as possible, both tactilely as phonologically. The first letters in braille, such as A, K, L, G, they are very simple. That's why the main subjects in books are very easy Dutch braille words, like, I say them in Dutch, (speaks in Dutch), and a bit more difficult maybe, (speaks in Dutch), so, the three-letter words. To summarise, these are the main educational requirements: reading pleasure, early literacy, simple stories, different reading levels, easy words in braille, tactile pictures, tangible objects, and reading together. We had so many wishes that we started compiling a list of criteria. For each criterion, reading pleasure was always our main goal. Then we decided to write the books ourselves, because we knew exactly which simple braille words to use as a starting point for the topics. With these simple braille words, we wrote simple stories, which could be used for the different reading levels. We wanted to create the stories from the perspective of the blind child. Our project manager had to look for a graphic designer who was willing and able to design this new series of books according to all our wishes, and then we found Ann.
ANN: Sighted children are spoiled for choice when it comes to the abundance of beautifully-illustrated children's storybooks. However, I know from personal experience, because I have a daughter who's blind, that this is not the case for children with a visual disability. The teachers presented me with a list of requirements which I needed to implement in the design. They wanted a real book with a proper cover, which preferably could hold the 3D objects, a title page, followed by a series of double-page spreads, a left-hand and a right-hand page, tactile illustrations which the children would be able to understand, and in which, in combination with the 3D objects, would encourage the children to actually interact with the story. The same textures needed to be used throughout the whole series to aid tactile recognition. For instance, the cat feels the same in all the books. Finally, they wanted the books to be appealing and attractive also for sighted class mates and for family. Such a project had never taken place before in the Netherlands, though there were certainly many challenges to meet all the educational requirements. But because there was no blueprint, I was given a lot of space to come up with more ideas during the design phase, and also to develop a workflow to produce these books. There are a total of six titles, and each one is published in an edition of 25, so in total, there are 150 books.
GYNTHA: Our aim for the books is also to encourage symbol awareness. Symbol awareness is an important pre-reading skill. Sighted children see letters in their environments everywhere, but a blind child mainly finds letters in braille if we introduce them in books. Parents, important. They can support their child's reading development by reading aloud to them. This interaction during reading is so important. That's why these left pages can first be read aloud by a parent or a teacher whilst the child examines the tactile illustration on the right-hand page. That's the reason for using black print above the story in braille. The right-hand page has a simple but meaningful braille word and one short sentence in which the word appears and can be recognised, and young children love repetition. We decided not to use black print on the right-hand page. We hoped that parents would be stimulated into trying to work out what those easy braille words meant. For the parents, we included a leaflet in each book containing reading tips and a braille alphabet. We preferred colourful tactile illustrations, not only for the visually-impaired children, but also for their sighted classmates, brothers or sisters, so they could read together and enjoy an inclusive experience. For us as teachers it was very inspiring working together with Ann as a graphic designer. She often surprised us for her possibilities for the books. In this first video clip, a teacher introduces one of the books to a six-years-old boy. He's blind. We can see the importance of providing adequate links between language and haptic experience. This story is about a dog that bites into all kinds of objects. The hand puppets is used to explain the word bite, to experience. The tactile drawing alone would never have been clear enough for him. Later on in the video, he recognises the first letters, A and B, on the right-hand page. (teacher speaking in Dutch) (boy speaking in Dutch)
ANN: Throughout the project, I worked very closely with the teachers, either as a whole group, or sometimes individually on a specific book. As a group, it meant that we were all able to be involved in the development of the books, and we could all share ideas to make the books even richer and more inclusive. In that sense, it was very much a collective approach. Working closely with the teachers, it meant that I was also able to test different elements of the design with the children at school, using models and prototypes. Designing books like these involves a great deal of functionality, so it's really important to investigate different design solutions, to test these, and then to choose the best solution which works well for the children. It also means that one has to find a good balance between functionality and aesthetics. Braille books are often very plain, dare I say, even sterile, without any form of tactile pictures, and lacking in fun, especially if you compare them to reading books for sighted children. Here I had the opportunity to bring the stories to life on the pages of the book, which was really exciting. I thought it was nice to also add some humorous touches to some of the illustrations, so that children would have even more fun investigating them and talking about them. For instance, one of the books, I added a fly, which the children could discover in the illustrations. The teachers wanted real books, and I wanted the design and the production of the books to be of a high quality, comparable to any good children's book.
GYNTHA: The right pages in the book are the pages in which the simplest braille letters are used. These pages are meant for children starting to read, so these words have the specific braille structure. Furthermore, they are supported by tactile illustrations. In order to introduce children to the correct reading technique, feeling from left to right with six fingers in a row, that's what we hope, we came up with the idea of placing the word in a dotted line at the top of the page, with a thick strip above the braille, so that children would naturally be stimulated to use their fingers correctly without intervention. And to make it even more easy, this word is first written with spaces between the letters, so that the child can feel the letters separately. The word is then repeated in the line, but without the extra spaces, for instance, B space A space G, and then the word bag repeated in the braille line without the letter spacing. At the bottom of the page, we made a short sentence using the same words, as you can see. As teachers, we did not know if it would technically be possible having a thick strip above the braille, and Ann came up with a good solution for this. In the next film, you will see a girl being able to read the right-hand page with the simple words herself. You can see that she's prompted by the thick strip above the braille to use her fingers properly in a row. In this book, you're going to see, the story is made up of rhymes, because rhyming is a preparatory skill for reading. Whilst the teacher is reading aloud, the child completes the rhyme. Let's see the movie. (child speaking in Dutch) (teacher speaking in Dutch)
ANN: We live in a world full of visual communication, but when designing tactile books, one has to think tactile constantly, which isn't easy. Tactile illustrations for this book needed to correspond as closely as possible to the story, or an element from the story, to the extent to which a child was able to, who couldn't yet read, was able to still have an idea about what the story was about. This also encourages pretend play, which is an important part of language development. When selecting materials for the books, I paid a lot of attention to the unique properties in combination with shapes and forms, so that they will be recognisable to a young child with little or no sight and very limited experience in making the transition from 3D to 2D. Children look for tactile clues, and draw upon their own tactile experiences. For one illustration, I used a mini beach ball made from a real one, so it felt and it smelled like a beach ball, even though it was a 2D representation, so, a symbolic version, stuck to the page. I've also added other tactile elements to illustration to create context for the story. For example, a hen isn't just floating on the page, but it's standing on sandy ground next to a chicken wire fence. I searched extensively for materials, and wherever possible, I used real materials or objects, or close substitutes, and I ended up coming, I ended up coming up with a huge variety of materials. In the film, we saw the girl finger walking down the stairs with the spider, and putting the spider in a bag at the bottom of the stairs. By doing this, she's experiencing the story. The meaning of the words are made tangible because the girl is interacting with the illustrations and the 3D objects. We also see thick strips above the braille. During the design phase, I tested a whole series of models using different materials, some soft, some hard, looking at the thickness and the height of the strip and the distance from the braille, as well as all their technical requirements for production, so it's strong, stiff, lightweight.
GYNTHA: I will tell something about the braille layout of the left page. The left page is the story page and intended for children with a level of reading experience of one year up to 1 1/2 years. Even though these children are further in their reading development, it remains very important to maintain a simple braille layout, because in this way, children keep a positive feeling about their reading process. So, our criteria for the left page are: extra line spacing between the lines, the words are not too difficult, the sentences are short, so that they fit on the line, on one line, there are no more than 10 lines on a page, and in first instance, there are no capital letters or punctuation marks, because this could confuse children reading braille. And in our language, we have no contractions at all in braille, so we always use grade 1. Well, it was a challenge for us as teachers to write the stories for the left-hand pages, but we consulted a lot about the criteria for the books. We wanted meaningful words, simple stories from the experience world of the blind child, and thereby, we had to construct sentences with a maximum of seven words. But we did it, and the children really enjoyed the stories, and are eager to read the books, not only at school, but also at home. They really like the illustrations a lot, and are very proud to be able to read for themselves. These "Feel Your Reading" books can now be borrowed free of charge from the adapted library in our country. In the last film, you will see a little school girl reading the left-hand page of a story about the ball, and talked about. The girl enjoys being able to read a story by herself, which corresponds perfectly to her current reading level. (girl speaking in Dutch)
ANN: If I come back to the teachers' requirements, specifically for braille, then it was very important that the braille would be of a very high standard. Braille is often printed on plastic or on paper. Sometimes it's printed using screen printing or elevated printing, but we all felt that braille on paper will be finer for these very young children who are learning to read. The braille in these books is embossed on heavy, high quality printing paper, and the pages are glued back to back so that there is no imprint from another page. Apart from the tactile contrast, colour also plays a role in the design. Many children with a visual disability do see some colour, so it's important to use good contrast to make sure that the design is accessible. I used a white paper for the story pages and coloured paper for the illustration pages, in effect making a distinction between the different reading levels. Using colour also makes the books more appealing for sighted classmates and family. The books are strong, with a hard cover, contained in a box for the 3D objects. There's a tactile print on the cover, and I've added tactile material to the outside of the flap, so that children will be triggered to open the book. When opened, the pages lie nice and flat, because we used a Wire-O binding. The thick strips, they help to keep the pages flat, and they also have the added function of stopping the braille from being flattened by the illustration. Parents can borrow the books from an adapted library here in the Netherlands. Each book comes with a leaflet containing reading tips, and also a braille alphabet. The idea is to support and encourage the parents to play an active role, and maybe to stimulate some parents to learn to read braille themselves, or at least the basics.
GYNTHA: We are very proud of the fact that one of the six books won the second price in the 2019 edition of the International Competition for Tactile Children's Books.
ANN: It was actually Gyntha's book which won this prize, so she was really honoured. It's also very nice that it was this book, because this is a book that contains elements from all the other books. These books are an example of how this concept can be implemented in a design. The design can, of course, differ with this, depending on your own specific criteria and needs, and not forgetting your budget. You can find more information about the design on the Braille Dots site.
GYNTHA: And you can download the criteria for the books on the Visio site. And we really hope we have inspired you to develop your own early reading-together books, using the most simple and meaningful braille words in your own language. Furthermore, we hope that we have made you enthusiastic that you look for collaborations between education and graphic design. We truly hope that the youngest braille readers in all countries will enjoy reading just as much as their sighted classmates and their brothers and sisters. Thank you for your attention.