Technical Presentations to Braille Authority of North America

On April 28, 2012 the National Technical Braille Committee made a series of presentations to the Braille Authority of North America in St. Louis, MO. Each of these presentations is reprinted in this blog category. We hope you find them educational and useful.

Sara Larkin (April 22, 2012)

Hello, I am Sara Larkin. I am a Math Consultant for the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. I cover the entire state and have seen a rapid increase in the number of students taking higher level math classes in the state of Iowa. Much of this is due to the fact that the students have had a firm foundation in the Nemeth code and are able to efficiently read and write using this code. I am here to address the suggestion that students just switch to Nemeth when they get to higher level math classes.

The entire goal of this effort to change to UEB has been to create a code that unifies all current braille codes. The fact that some UEB supporters suggest retaining Nemeth for those who want to take higher level math classes, demonstrates recognition of the shortfalls of UEB in the scientific arena. Is it truly unification of codes if we are keeping one of the current codes because this so called “Unified” code can’t handle it? UEB is unable to handle technical material such as math and science beyond the basic level. If it is supposed to be universal, then why can’t it handle these areas? It instead creates a new literary code and leaves behind the need for a more technical code. In fact, now with the common core curriculum, students are learning advanced concepts like algebra and geometry even in the early grades.

We must not set the braille user behind his or her sighted peers by requiring the student to switch from the UEB code to Nemeth code when the math becomes too difficult for UEB to handle it. Instead we must use a logical and effective code from the start of a student’s education. It is important to be able to write high level math in order to be able to enter and be successful in any STEM career. Learning upper digit braille and then suddenly having to switch in middle school or high school would not be an easy change. How can we expect students, who would have been provided with UEB texts for 7 or 8 years of school, to suddenly discover that, if they want to take any normal junior high or high school math or science course, they will have to learn a different code, called NEMETH. This is a terrible time for a student to throw away all of that math braille and start over. All of a sudden symbols would have a totally different meaning. Fraction indicators would now become parentheses. Subscripts and superscripts would now become 5′s and 9′s. In fact, the operations, decimal point, parentheses, fraction indicators, subscripts, superscripts, and signs of comparison are only some of the symbols that would change. Most students, caught in this situation would throw in the towel and study something else. We know of several blind Ph.D’s who claim they depended very heavily on the Nemeth code to achieve their educational goals. Students will make a choice not to take high level math classes because of the need to learn a whole new code at the same time as trying to learn very advanced concepts. We currently have students taking Calculus, in fact, more than ever before. These students would not have been able to get that far if they didn’t already have a good handle on the Nemeth code before entering upper level math classes. If we adopt UEB, fewer students will take algebra and geometry. Without that algebra and geometry, they can’t even go to college.

On another level, let’s consider brain research. Learning both a new code and high level math obviously causes an unnecessary cognitive load that can impede the processing and understanding of mathematical concepts. This additional load happens within UEB due to the need for indicators to identify a letter verses a number since only upper digits are used. Working memory is acknowledged to be at a level of 7 +- 2 items (or bits) of information according to Kalet (2005). Many mathematical expressions easily exceed this limit in UEB which will undoubtedly affect the student’s ability to remember information accurately, manipulate it in problem solving, and ultimately to learn the math concepts. The first limitation of working memory deals with its ability to hold on to information. According to McGee & Wilson (1984), without rehearsal or constant attention, information remains in working memory for only about 15-20 seconds. By the time the student would read through an algebraic expression in UEB and begin trying to solve the problem most of that time would have elapsed and they would have to go back and try to figure out the details of the problems again.

Automaticity is the ability to perform a skill or habit automatically or unconsciously. Using the same symbol in 2 different situations such as number vs. letter is going to decrease the likelihood of automaticity especially if these symbols then change when a student would have to switch to Nemeth code. Currently, a student is able to quickly differentiate between whether a cell is a letter or a number by its position. If a student constantly has to think about whether the same symbol is a letter or a number also slows down their fluency. Again, fluency would be affected by this change from UEB to Nemeth. When referring to previous work students would need to constantly remind or ask themselves whether a particular cell is a letter or a number by looking at a second cell before making that decision. This would definitely decrease fluency and break up the thought process. The use of upper vs. lower digits will now be discussed more by Allison O’Day.

Filed under: National Technical Braille Committee

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