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How can a blind parent help their child learn to read? 

September means a new term and for many children, a new thing called school. Arguably, the most important thing we learn at school is to read. Children entering reception year will embark on this learning in class. Schools expect parents to support this learning at home by hearing their children read, ideally every day.

So, the child, aged 4 or 5, comes home and in the bookbag is a school reading book of the first level. The question is, how does a blind parent help their child learn to read? Pay someone sighted to do it? If they can afford it. If they can’t: get a family member or friend to do it? Sorted. Or is it? well, it might be an answer for some people but suppose it isn’t? Suppose there isn’t anyone available often enough? In that case, fulfilling a daily routine represents a considerable ask.

How to help your child learn to read if you are blind or partially sighted

Let’s assume parents want to be involved directly in this aspect of learning. What can they do? How can they access the text the child has to read? I think we can safely say that the average school is not fully supplied with large print, Braille and audio versions of books.

A utopian vision would be of a child coming home with two versions of their reading book in their bag, one for the child, one Braille version for the parent. Very utopian since it assumes all blind parents read Braille, because this is unlikely to be the case. Parents that do read Braille have recourse to the Clear Vision library and the Living Paintings Trust. They both produce visual books with Braille integrated with the print and schools can access these. The only problem is, these books might not be the ones used by the school. So if Braille is not an option, then we are looking at e-books – and this is where RNIB Bookshare comes in.

The RNIB Bookshare

Bookshare is a resource dedicated to blind and partially sighted students of all ages, including primary school age. But what if your child is not visually impaired? What then? Well, parents can obtain e-books to help them to support their children, sighted or otherwise. So, thanks to the E-books, blind parents can access the text their children are working with.

However, it transpires that not all reading schemes are available via Bookshare. There are numerous reading schemes and, to complicate things further, some schools use a mixture of reading schemes. Great!

So, what if you are the one whose school doesn’t use a scheme available on Bookshare? There are approaches but they all require sighted help, at least at first. When the books come home in the bookbag, perhaps someone could record the text for you on some kind of audio device, such as a Victor Reader so that you have it.  Maybe they could type it up on a Word document, after all, in the early stages, the text is not exactly abundant. Of course, this makes one dependent on others.  Might there be some other way, something that you could use independently?

Apps that can help your child learn to read

Voice Dream Scanner can be downloaded cheaply and Seeing AI can be downloaded for free. Might these be able to read out Biff, Chip & Kipper? If so, this would eliminate the need for versions in an adapted format. Alternatively, if you want sighted help from a stranger, download Be My Eyes and get the volunteer to tell you what’s on the page.  You can listen to them via an earpiece and that way you will be up to speed with what your child is looking at. Then again, would your Be My Eyes volunteer stay on the line for the duration of a reading session?  It has to be worth a try.

If Be My Eyes proves not to be the answer, and if you are happy to pay out a bit, join AIRA. This app connects you, not with a volunteer but a trained professional who won’t mind staying connected for the duration of a book. It is not free but worth the money if it helps you to understand your child’s difficulty and reduce their frustrations.

Other options

Finally, if the smartphone approaches don’t work for you and your school’s reading scheme is not accessible via Bookshare, there is another suggestion. Basically, find out what reading schemes are present on Bookshare and buy your own print copies to use at home.  Then you will have the E-book versions to help you access the text.  Yes, your child won’t be following the school’s scheme at home, only in class, but ultimately, they would still be learning to read and equally importantly, you would be helping them.

Footnote and additional ideas

Of course, a child’s journey into reading begins long before reception. It begins with telling them bedtime stories and reading them books for babies. Accessing these books was still a challenge for myself and my partner, and there were two things we did to work around it:

For the Braille readers: with sighted help, we made our own Do It Yourself Clear Visions by Brailling out the text on labels and sticking them on the pages.

A similar idea was with the Pen Friend. The Pen Friend is a pen-like device which, when touching a pre-recorded label, plays a recording of someone’s voice. Again, with sighted help, we recorded the text on the labels which were each affixed to the appropriate page, then, we used the Pen Friend to read out the book. In time, our son enjoyed taking the Pen Friend and making the labels speak in his mother’s voice. (We recommend only using sticky labels on your own books!)


Liam O’Carroll

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