The Biblio Files  

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The Biblio Files

The Biblio Files
Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
January 01
We (Steve and Helen) irresponsibly gave up our promising careers in aviation and bookselling over ten years ago. Now books seem to have taken over our lives. We frequent libraries, bookstores, and thrift shops in search of interesting books. We buy/swap/sell, but mainly, we read. We both wear glasses and have been mistaken for librarians.


Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 2, 2010 11:05PM

Listening Isn't Reading -- Why Braille Is Still Necessary

Rate: 13 Flag

If you listen to an audio book, have you read the book?

proust and the squid

It's undoubtedly a different experience to read a book with just ink and paper (or pixels and screen) between you and the author than it is to listen to someone's vocalization of the sentences. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, author Maryanne Wolf describes how the brain processes written information differently than audio or other information. Stanislas Dehaene delves even further into the science of reading in his book, Reading and the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention.

reading in the brain

Listening or reading? It seems like an academic question. What difference does it really make? But a couple of articles I read recently have made me wonder.


In this New York Times article, we find that many blind people, including the governor of New York, don't read braille. Instead they rely on audio books, recordings of newspapers and magazines, and human assistants to orally brief them on the business of the day. Text-to-speech technology allows people to hear their emails and other documents.


And in this article, we find that the major provider of books in braille in Canada is about to go out of business if it can't get government funding or some other source of revenue. They are having a hard time convincing people that braille is even necessary anymore.


In the New York Times article, one advocate for the disabled characterizes blind people who don't read braille as illiterate. He describes their writing as “phonetic and butchered.” If it were merely a matter of acquiring information, as seems to be the case with the woman profiled in the New York Times article, then there's no doubt that the quickest, most efficient method of “reading” is preferable.

  swiss braille stamp

Swiss Postage Stamp, braille-embossed


I can't help thinking that it's a mistake to let braille die, though. According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 10% of blind children learn braille today, down from 50% in the 1950s, and only 10% of blind people in America read braille. Is it just as good to listen to a book as it is to read it? When I listen to a book, my mind wanders more often than it does when I read a book. If I want to read faster or slower, it's up to me, not the person who is reading (although there are audio books now with adjustable speeds). My brain seems more passive when I'm listening than when I'm reading, but that could be a lack of mental discipline on my part.


Human beings have been talking and listening to each other for at least 50,000 years. We've been reading and writing for around 7,000 or 8,000 years. People don't have to be taught to listen. Reading is a different, more complex activity than listening.


Don't get me wrong – audio books are great for car trips or when you're in the gym. Multitasking dynamos like Governor Paterson and others, blind or not, find audio books and other recorded documents an efficient way to acquire information. You have to admire that.


But listening isn't reading. I hope that braille instruction and braille books remain an available option for people who can't read print.


braille e-book reader

braille e-book reader: technology that doesn't exist -- yet

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You convinced me, and I'm an avid audio-book, audio-information-acquiror. I am shocked to learn that braille has been in such great decline.
Those books are on my list now, Biblios! I love listening to stories/books, but there's a substantive difference in how I experience them - what I read always stays longer than what I just hear.. And that's a fascinating question about the future of Braille. Great post...
jane smithie r. -- yes, it's hard to know what the experience of listening to books is for someone who doesn't have other options. And I imagine it's not easy to learn braille, especially as an adult.

Skeptic -- It was news to us too, until we saw the New York Times article. The good news is that new technology has made printing books in braille quicker, cheaper, and less cumbersome than it used to be.

Donita -- good point! btw, Proust and the Squid is available on audio CD ;-)
Steve and Helen, I hadn't considered the ramifications of listening to audio books versus braille. I also did not know how few are learning to read braille these days compared with the past and that seems totally wrong. Thanks for such an informative look at this topic!
So here's my question: If a blind person doesn't learn Braille, how can they read the important signs that (thanks to the ADA) have been translated on elevators, ATM machines, public transit, etc.? I ear-read 99% of what I consume, thanks to a long commute, and most of the time I love it. But there are things I want to see and often go to the library to see them. (Or see if they're in the sample pages at Amazon.) The book I'm listening to now, Wolf Hall, is full of quotes I would love to refer back to. (By the way, I LOVE THIS BOOK.) Audio versions of printed material are wonderful, but don't limit those with sight issues from holding a book in their hands and reading it.
This is a wonderful post. I completely agree, and frankly, had never thought about this. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. There is just a more deeply felt, intimate experience when a person actually reads - and in my opinion - from an actual book that can never and should never be replaced. xxA
Every once in a while I listen to a book. But since I don't own a car or an iPod (or other personal listening device), the only way I can listen to a book is sitting at home, listening to it on my computer. And somehow I just cannot stay focused. So listening to a book rarely works well for me.

This is sad about the dying of Braille. Thank you for post.
I knew Braille was in decline, but had no idea just how far that decline had progressed. Wow.

I agree, reading is not the same as listening. Reading is active, listening is passive. A person will retain information acquired actively much better, I think, than when the information is acquired passively. In addition, when a person realizes he has not absorbed the information, I think he is more likely to re-read what he needs than he is to rewind the audio book. At least, that is my guess.

I would also be interested to see a study on the pros and cons of online reading, such as with Kindle, vs. reading an actual hard copy of a book.
listening while, say, driving a car, no, does not impart the same experience

and because my mind wanders when I read, I'm able to go back over a paragraph on a page, as opposed to rewinding

we all learned to understand speech before writing

but understand also that tactile "reading" is different from auditory and visual input. Touching dots and translating that into letters and words - and then ideas - uses different parts of the brain.

and this is only supposition (I've never read braille) but is the reading experience the same? We, as readers of words, read the entire word, not the individual letters. (to say nothing of people capable of reading whole pages at a time) I know people who understand Morse code say they recognize the patterns of words, not individual letters. But this is again auditory. Do readers of Braille feel entire word patterns? Or are they spelling them as they skim across?
I don't read Braille, so I don't know there.

But reading and listening are two very different areas of the brain, and I'm much much much better at reading comprehension. (I kick ass at Jeopardy! playing along at home until they do a "Video Daily Double"--then it doesn't matter if I know the answer to the question or not, I can't really wrap my mind around it. Same with "Win Ben Stein's Money" when that was on.)

I even turn on the closed captioner on the TV because it's much easier to follow that way. Part of this is that I have shitty hearing, but part is that I'm just much better at processing info that way.
Interesting discussion.

My son is dyslexic. He can see just fine, but reading and writing are inordinately difficult due to written symbol mis-wiring that I still don't quite understand. He listens to a lot of books.

I would agree that reading and listening are different. But to call one "better" than the other? Not sure if I buy it.
My father and a good friend are both totally blind, one since birth and the other after many years of deterioration. Both have been trained to read and write in Braille, but both use audio media for almost all of their reading. Computer technology, although not essential, has made their lives much simpler. My father is a PhD (psychology) and professor, now retired, and my friend Ana has multiple advanced degrees in literature, writing and language/linguistics.

Braille is slow reading and extremely slow writing, especially if one doesn't employ it regularly. Dad uses braille for marking playing cards and not much else. He has a very old braille typewriter but I have only seen it a few times in my life. I have never seen Ana use braille, but I have heard from other mutual friends that she took notes with an awl early in graduate school.

I think both of them might take issue with the idea that they haven't actually read a book in decades or that their published scientific articles, poetry and stories are in some way inferior.

My parents often listen to audiobooks together for recreation, and the availability of audiobooks is huge now that many people with normal vision read that way, but when my father reads on his own, he accelerates the speed on his specially designed players. I grew up in a house where gnomes chattered in the bathroom, their bedroom, his study, and in the car. The gnomes spoke so quickly that I couldn't understand a word. Audio reading is about concentration and focus, and any skill you might employ improves dramatically with regular practice.

I can't imagine two more literate people than they.
Just for clarification, my dad is a scientist in psychology and did not study applied stuff. Mom is also psych scientist. They studied behaviorism and cognitive psychology, a broad field that includes language acquisition, memory, learning and the like.
My parents met when my dad hired my mom to record his textbooks. I worked in disabled student services recording books to tape for visually impaired students and worked directly for Ana recording her books for her before the audiobook boom.
Fascinating stuff! First, I'll give you my answer to your lead question:

"If you listen to an audiobook, have you read the book?"

No. And I spend about three hours a day in my car, so I listen to a lot of audiobooks. However, it's not the same thing. And I feel like I am fibbing if I tell someone I read a book when I only listened to it.

Just last week, I listened to a novel by Ross McDonald, an autobiography of Ted Turner, and a book about the collapse of the music industry in the digital age. I don't retain the information as well, but I figure fifty percent is better than nothing. And some of them are fun, if the reader is good (nobody reads Stephen King as well as the late Frank Muller).

Fudo's point about the neural processing that goes on when a blind person "reads" braille is a good one. I also wonder how difficult it is for people who have been blind since birth or early childhood to translate words that signify things they have never seen.
Thanks for poking my brain to think about such things. I'm enjoying the comments thread, too, and wonder precisely what Fudo does: Does the brain work the same for Braille reading as it does for "regular" reading? So, although we can agree that visual and auditory "reading" are different, the tactile reading may be something else entirely. Do you read Braille yourself? Because in a way, the only person who can answer that is someone who reads both ways; that is, someone who is not blind but can read Braille.

I definitely agree that visual and auditory book acquisition are different, although I'd have a hard time articulating exactly how. I do know that I can't listen to books while driving b/c it takes too much concentration for me.

[As an aside, I'd love to see a post about speed reading. I am a painfully slow reader, most especially when it comes to academic, scientific, or generally nonfiction stuff. I'm a linear thinker and a "maximizer" person--someone who has to exhaust every possibility before making a decision--and I wonder if these traits relate to my overly thorough reading. It has become such a hindrance in our current info-glut society--there's so much I want to know and so much available, but I can't digest it fast enough to stay as well-informed as I'd like. Anyway, I'm wondering if I can practice or something.]
I am a teacher of students with visual impairments, and I have a very close friend who is blind. Reading is absolutly necessary, as it creates passages and hardwires your brain to function on more concrete and abstract levels. It really does help you to think on different levels and in different ways. Plus, there is more to reading than books and newspapers. What about signs in public places, like bus stop signs? How about when you go out to eat? Wouldn't you like to be able to read the menu? Isn't it nice to be able to make quick grocery lists, write little notes to yourself, or jot down phone numbers? Or playing games? I have braille versions of Scattegories, Uno, and other games that I play with my friend and my students. Without the ability to read braille, these things just would not be an option for them. No one should be forced to be dependent on others and/or technology. Especially considering the cost of these technologies today.
Several very important things about NFB's 10% statistic must be addressed. First, the majority of blind children these days are multiply impaired as more children with multiple impairments survive to school age when they would not have in the 1950's. These impairments include severe cognitive delays along with blindness. Were they not blind, these children still wouldn't be readers because of their cognitive delays. Yet they are included in NFB's count of Braille non-readers.

Other impairments include physical ones, such as Cerebral Palsy. While these students may have the cognitive ability to read, they do not have the physical ability needed to track Braille. Again, however, they are part of NFB's count of Braille non-readers.

Finally, NFB considers anyone who is legally blind in this count. I know numerous legally blind people who are efficient print readers and not Braille candidates. One has Retinitis Pigmentosa, has very good acuity but is legally blind due to field loss. Another needs 18-24 point type and reads with a handheld magnify or a video magnification system. Both can write on standard paper legibly and do not need Braille.

While I definitely agree Braille is incredibly important and is definitely under taught and to many people who would benefit from it and should have learned it do not, the "shocking" 10% statistic is not a true picture of the situation.
I might be frail but i believe in braille.
I am going to forward this to a friend who is blind to get her take. It is a very interesting examination. I am wondering about those with reading disabilities who also rely on audiobooks. There is a great service called which makes electronic books available to those with print disabilities. Braille versions of any book can be requested from Bookshare as well. Maybe such services have a part in the decline of braille publishers?
Great article and discussion! I read it first with a screen reader after it showed up on Google Alerts. Then, it was published in "Syndicated Columnists Weekly," a Braille magazine put out by the National Braille Press, to which I subscribe. In brief, my thoughts are:
1. Learning to read print or Braille is not solely about reading books. My spices, vitamin supplements, to-do lists, files of important paperwork, media library and personal phone/address books are all Brailled. If I never opened a Braille book, just this labeling use would make it possible for me to live independently. In fact, it did for years.
2. I think in the discussion in general we are getting sidetracked because people who read audio books are offended by the implication that they are illiterate. For those who have children with learning disabilities who rely on audio books, I would ask if your child can read signs on bathroom doors, food containers, stores, street corners and so on. Chances are the answer is yes. It would be foolish not to expose these children to print even though they may never read a print book. So too it is foolish to deny blind people a system of reading that they can use for many other things besides books.
3. As for the arguments about statistics … The truth is that many legally blind children of average or higher intelligence with no other disabilities are being denied Braille education. I interviewed some of their parents last year for my Braille literacy series on American Chronicle. They should not have had to struggle like they did to get basic education for their children.
4. Most people who are denied Braille have some residual vision. We have imposed a harsh burden on these kids. The thinking is that a person should use their remaining vision at all costs because Braille and blindness are viewed as failures. I was one of those kids. I have RP. Though I had to get my nose on the page and hold that page as close to a light as physically possible, though I had constant headaches, eye strain and neck problems, though I couldn't keep up with my homework and essentially faked my way through school, though my peers made jokes about me throughout my public school years, I was not taught Braille. By the way, like many people with degenerative eye diseases, I lost that little reading vision. It happened between high school graduation and college. With no other tools, I turned to audio books. My spelling deteriorated; you just don't think to ask whether Smyth has a y in it or whether it's John or Jon and a thousand other subtleties of spelling. I taught myself Braille after college. It took me decades to make up the deficit –, I never really made it up because meanwhile opportunities were passing me by.
5. Braille is hard to learn. I love this as a reason not to teach something. It was hard work to learn to speak or walk, but we don't discourage that. Kids have a hard time with different subjects; for some it's math, for others history or science. The school doesn't give them a pass because it's hard. In fact, Braille isn't that hard to learn. It makes much more sense than the print alphabet. There are only six dots and they're laid out in a grid in a pattern that repeats itself with small changes.
6. Braille is slow. How fast would your children read if they studied print one hour a day, or one hour a week and weren't allowed to look at anything with print on it in between? How fast would you read if everyone your whole life had told you that you would never be able to read more than 60 or 90 words per minute? One blind kid, whose mother I interviewed, had trouble getting appropriate Braille instruction for ten years. When he finally did, he quickly began to read Braille faster than he was reading print. At high school graduation, he could read 160 words per minute. There are many blind people who read over two hundred words per minute and a few who have hit three hundred. Most Braille teachers have little experience learning, reading or teaching Braille. In part, this is because blindness is a low incidence disability. Many try to do it with their eyes. Many think the two-handed method of reading Braille involves using the left hand to merely mark your place as you read with the right index finger.
7. Audio books are wonderful. I use them a lot. I have always had a problem paying attention and/or staying awake though. One person on this thread mentioned being a slow print reader and stopping occasionally. I think a big problem with audio is that it is a constant speed. No matter how fast or slow you read, the story will – we hope – engage your mind in such a way as to make you think or wonder or question. With Braille and print, it is easy to keep your place for however long you aren't reading. With audio, it requires you to grab the book reader and stop and rewind. Most of us think we're only going to be distracted for a little bit, but when we reconnect with the book, we really have no idea what we missed.
8. Someone mentioned that if a person was blind not being able to read would probably be the least of their problems. I was initially offended by this because it struck me as conveying the notion that blindness is insurmountable. Though I think this poster probably meant just that, I must confess that it is literally accurate. Finding ways around the reading and traveling obstacles that blindness brings are straight forward, though perhaps not "easy." The biggest problem blind people face however is the public perception that blindness is a sentence to a life of non-productivity, dependence, inactivity and misery. How unfortunate for sighted people and blind people to feel this way. Most blind people grow up sighted. When blindness comes they turn those shortsighted, unimaginative, ill-informed beliefs on themselves. Belief is a powerful force, and in this case it is destroying many lives and burdening the taxpayer while denying the society the gifts of talented and intelligent people who don't happen to see. There are blind NASA engineers, a blind NYC ADA, many blind lawyers, teachers, journalists, chemists and mechanics. Nonetheless, 70% of working age blind Americans are unemployed. Of those who work, over 80% read Braille. My apologies for my lack of brevity.
I am totally blind from birth, and learned and have been using braille since age 6, and as a user and a teacher I must say that the supposedly incredible difficulty and slowness of braille is both a misperception and a misconception. Yes, it takes practice to learn and get fluent, but so does learning print. Or will everyone say your sighted kids learned to read and write overnight?
I use a screen reader in my laptop, and audio books as well, technology which has indeed improved my access to information and I love it. But I wouldn't be able to write a paper, a letter in my job, not even a decent email, if I hadn't learned to read and write in the first place, through the only literacy method for persons with no sight: braille. A child who doesn't learn to structure his/her thoughts through spelling, grammar, syntax, is plain functional illiterate. Technology is a wonderful complement, but it can never be a replacement.
To Leslieca: I'm sure your father has succeeded in his education as you mention, but it's because he acquired that knowledge first, before the technology.