Monday, March 24, 2008

(Re)Learning to Read

When I started school, in the late-mid 1980s (I now have music from Hedwig and the Angry Inch stuck in my head, *sigh*), the prevailing notion was that a child's ability to read would be irreparably damaged if parents tried to teach their children literacy skills outside the classroom, except as explicitly instructed by the teacher. If this hadn't been the case, I might have been the stereotypical Little Professor who learned to read at age 3 or 4, but, as it was, I didn't have any difficulty (other than trying to remember how to draw a letter S) with the way I was taught to read in school, so things turned out ok for me. This isn't to say I didn't have school trauma in my early education. I clearly remember freaking out when my kindergarten teacher changed our seating arrangement, and also being upset because the name of the current month seemed to change just as soon as I was able to remember and recite it. My mother remembers me coming home from my first day of first grade in tears because they hadn't started teaching us to read on that day. I breezed through the lessons, maxed out the extra credit options, tested at the highest possible percentile on all the standardized tests. My teachers weren't quite sure what to do with me (and a handful of other "gifted" kids) so I got pulled out of class a few times a week to write my own stories in the library. I even got to put one of my little story booklets on a featured shelf in the library (I wrote a story about my pet budgie, Polly). I was terribly proud. From that early age, I identified myself as a Reader, and my family, friends, and teachers did too. I befriended and pestered a series of elementary school librarians (I had the odd distinction of attending three different elementary schools because of a local Baby Boom Echo in the late 70s and early 80s that resulted in the contruction of several new schools and a shuffle of students while the district was reorganized) and collected masses of printouts from the electronic card catalog on various topics. I started reading a few "grown up" level books in third grade, but my teacher didn't believe me. Cliche that it is, I think most of my friends were books when I was a kid. I wasn't totally socially isolated, I had friends, but I've always been a nerd.

Fast forward to the last couple years of high school, when I started losing my sight. I was in denial for a couple of years (my parents still are) but as I slowly came to the realization that I couldn't read for more than a few minutes at a time, I was frightened and angry. How could I be me if I couldn't read? I got access to books on tape from the local library and later from NLS, and I've grown quite fond of reading-by-listening (despite auditory processing difficulties), but it just isn't the same. I can (for the most part) read large print books, but the books that get large type reprints aren't always the kinds of books I want to read.

The obvious first thing that most people think of when they think of a blind person wanting to read is braille. However, learning to read an entirely new alphabet, in a touch-based medium rather than a visual medium, as an adult, is significantly more difficult than starting out with braille (or both print AND braille) as a child. Braille, as you may not be aware, consists of more than simple substitutions of dots for letters and numbers. Because it takes up so much more space than even large print, because of the size of the characters and the thickness of the dots, literary braille by necessity must use over a hundred contractions. These contractions consist of abbreviations, special symbols, and combinations of letters and symbols. It's also optimized for transcribing the Christian Bible and other Christian materials, which makes it somewhat clunky for other materials. The special symbols and contractions are typically taught in chunks of a few contractions followed by practice material using those contractions, so the practice stories are of necessity fairly contrived, syntactically awkward, and BORING. I remember the basal readers in elementary school being similarly weird and boring, but I wish I could recall the enthusiasm that got me through them then.

I hope I can finish the dratted class by the end of the year. Or by June if I'm really motivated.

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