OREM -- Unlike most beginning readers in schools across the Wasatch Front, Kirt Manwaring won't learn by sounding out words describing Dick, Jane and their dog, Spot, in playground games.
Why? You see, the phrase "see Spot run" doesn't mean much to the gregarious 7-year-old boy who is instructed at the Utah County satellite classroom of the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind.And now, thanks to efforts by Utah Valley State College business students, sight-impaired children like Manwaring can start to hone reading skills with charming books like "Bees in the Mud."
Although it's not unique for blind children to start running fingers across raised text in early elementary grades, until recently there haven't been many books in Braille for them to read other than textbooks, said Norman Gardner, a UVSC professor and founder of the Braille and Literacy Center.
"It isn't that books aren't available to children in Braille," said Gardner, who is partially blind. "It is the kinds of Braille they are printed in."
A little-known fact about Braille is that there are two types: Grade 1, which also is called alphabetic Braille, uses a character for each letter of the alphabet. Grade 2 uses symbols that mean an entire word or suffix instead of letters to shorten or contract words.
"For several decades now, blind children have been taught to read Braille using grade 2," he said. "Adults always use grade 2, but little kids learning to read were also taught using that contracted form. Then we began to notice that blind children weren't reading or spelling well."
Gardner said research has shown an alarming number of blind people cannot read or spell proficiently because they are rushed into a grade that has characters instead of letters.
"People say that is because they are blind, but it is not that at all," he said. "It is because they never learned to read properly."
Sighted people use the equivalent of grade 1 Braille -- the alphabet -- to learn to read using phonetics and spelling. "It's phonics and spelling. Blind children should have the same chance to learn to read as sighted kids," he said.
Teacher Louise Johnson, a leader in the movement to make sure blind children know alphabetic Braille before moving to the next level, agrees. "Grade 1 is the way to go," she said. "The problem is, it's not a real popular idea" within education circles.
Students in UVSC's chapter of Phi Beta Lambda who were in search of a service project contacted Gardner to see if they could help his 18-month-old nonprofit literacy center .
"A lot of people don't focus on blind people when they think about how they can help literacy efforts," said Andrea Brown, a student in the business group. "We wanted to do something creative and unique, and we felt that this project met the criteria."
Becky Fish, another UVSC business student who helped on the project, was surprised at the need for books about bees, bears and ball games that blind children could read, understand and enjoy.
"That was the biggest surprise to me," she said.
The initial challenge was to find appropriate tales for blind children.
"You have to be careful of the books you choose. One of the things you have to keep in mind was that the words couldn't describe the pictures," Fish said. "We also had to be sure it didn't say 'see' anywhere because blind children don't see."
The group started working on translating "Frog and Toad" books by Arnold Lobel because each book contained several stories and the text didn't describe the pictures. Each volunteer typed a few stories over the Christmas holiday, and the text was converted by a software program into Braille.
Printouts of stories were collated and bound. The books were then distributed to schools that helped blind children learn to read. At last count, 50 copies of 15 different stories were made -- and have been shipped to people as far away as Australia.
Gardner says there are few sources for parents and educators to buy children's storybooks in alphabetic Braille. "There is only one other company besides my own organization that I know of that sells grade-1 storybooks -- and they only have three titles. We have more than 50 now."
For their efforts, UVSC students won a first-place award for the community service project. Their work in the literacy project will be presented at a national Phi Beta Lambda competition in July.
"I observed the children who got the books," Fish said, "and I am amazed at blind children who can read Braille at all."