Teaching Tactile Graphics

In this webcast, Lucia Hasty discusses spatial relationship and graphic literacy and strategies for teaching students to read tactile graphics.

Graphics provide so much information to a sighted reader, and symbols conveying what a story is about or what’s being displayed can be really important and meaningful to a braille reader as well. In this webcast Lucia discusses spatial relationship and graphic literacy, moving from models to graphics and strategies for teaching students to read tactile graphics.

Lucia Hasty has held teaching and administrative positions in special education for more than 30 years. Retired from education, she is a consultant, presenting workshops and developing training materials for a variety of audiences. 

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Presented by Lucia Hasty

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. Introduction
  2. Spacial Relationship and Graphic Literacy
  3. Moving from Models to Graphics
  4. Strategies for Reading Tactile Graphics

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

HASTY: Well, graphics provide so much information for a sighted reader, and authors include them intending to transfer messages about the character or some of the details of the story or whatever. They write the story with the intention, so it’s important that we also include things for the Braille reader to pick up those intentions and that much information.

Teaching Tactile Graphics with Lucia Hasty.To reproduce pictures, photographs, is usually not something that is going to be particularly meaningful to a Braille reader, but to have some symbols of what the story is about or what they’re looking at is really important.

NARRATOR: A page of detailed ink drawings of various plant leaves is shown. The shot then dissolves into a page of embossed, raised line tactile graphics of tree leaf shapes. The leaves are also identified with Braille labels.

HASTY: When they get to school, they’re going to find that their text books are full of graphics that have content in them, and they need the content in order to understand the whole concept. So it’s really important we start really early teaching kids to read graphics.

CHAPTER 2: Spacial Relationship and Graphic Literacy

HASTY: Your own relationship to the environment is something that, hopefully, that instruction starts when kids are really, really little. If they can’t figure out where they are in space within their own environment, they’re going to have trouble with an awful lot of other academic skills as they go along the way. So understanding where they are in the environment and where things are in relation to them.

For instance, we use words like “in front of,” “behind,” “above,” “below.” If young readers don’t… pre-readers don’t learn to do that — don’t learn what those concepts are — they’re not going to be able to transfer that information to something more representative, more symbolic, like a book, and saying, “Go to the top of the page; go to the bottom of the page.” And they certainly are not going to be able to understand graphics and what they represent if they don’t have the real concepts.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, A teacher and a young boy in a yellow shirt return books to a book shelf.

TEACHER: Can you put the book on top of the blue one? Good job!

HASTY: Understanding your position in space is definitely involved with having the experiences to do that and some directed activities to do that. “Go to the desk that’s on your left; stand behind this chair; put the book on top of or underneath a table.” So actually having those physical experiences and moving within your environment are the prerequisites for being able to do that in an abstract form.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, an adolescent boy is working on a geometry problem in math class. In order to solve the problem, he must determine the dimensions of a grid that is represented by a line drawing in his Braille textbook.

HASTY: Visual learners use information from their visual environment to form lots and lots of concepts. Tactile learners don’t depend on that, but they do need to get that information from… in other ways, and again, we’re talking about having the experience of actually doing that. You can’t move on to, “this is the symbol for the real thing,” when you don’t understand what the real thing is.

NARRATOR: In a science classroom, a young woman who is blind is examining the features of a taxidermy duck. With her hands, she explores the body and wings as well as the head and bill.

HASTY: And so having students be able to understand that real thing as much as possible — obviously, you can’t be an airplane; there are some concepts that you can’t do that way — but having students understand that is just absolutely vital.

CHAPTER 3: Moving from Models to Graphics

HASTY: The most important piece is that the reader learn that whatever this graphic presentation is represents a certain amount of information; it represents certain contents or it has certain meaning, and once they learned that this is… that this is also part of the information that’s coming from their book, they’re going to be able to interpret the things that they go through.

Graphics is something that we have to teach kids to do. Sighted kids are used to interpreting the visual environment, Braille readers don’t get to do that very much. And so we have to deliberately teach Braille readers how to interpret those symbols and how to put them together and have meaning for them.

A young woman and a teacher are exploring a large tactile map of North America.NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young woman and a teacher are exploring a large tactile map of North America. Together, they trace the outlines of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

HASTY: An example would be a ball. If you take a ball, for a Braille reader, you can put your both hands around a ball, and it has depth and it has an overall shape. If we’re going to put that on paper, that’s going to end up being what we call a circle, and so that circle is actually a symbol for that sphere in that particular instance. Sometimes a circle is just a circle and it doesn’t necessarily mean a ball, but learning that this– for right now, in this situation– is the symbol for that ball is something that we have to actually students.

And whether it’s a solid circle or whether it’s an outline shaped circle may be perceived real differently by the student, but knowing that those are different ways that we write the symbol that means “ball.” So starting with very simple concepts and going from the three-dimensional to the two-dimensional is part of the instructional process for teaching kids to do that interpretation of abstract stuff.

CHAPTER 4: Strategies for Reading Tactile Graphics

HASTY: Sighted learners learn new information in what’s called “whole to part.” They see the whole picture, they see all of the parts of the picture all at one time, simultaneously, and are able to tell where that fits in relation to other objects around it; for instance, size, distance, that kind of thing. Tactile learners learn in exactly the opposite direction. They learn part to whole. They get the information from what they’re looking at — for instance, a tactile graphic — with whatever they’re seeing at that moment. What you touch is what you see. And they have to put all of the little pieces of information together in a sequence to come up with a whole picture. They have to build a whole picture out of all these little, tiny views. So teaching students to compile that information is an important piece of instruction.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young woman examines a large, 3-D model of the North American continent. Along with her teacher, she traces a groove that runs north to south on the map, depicting the 2,300 mile length of the Mississippi River, which bisects the US.

HASTY: Where you start reading a graphic depends on how much the reader understands the concept; how much experience they’ve already had in reading graphics. If they know pretty much what it is they’re looking at and they only need a couple of details, they may quickly scan the graphic and then go immediately to the key for the details. Or if they really don’t know what the nucleus of a cell looks like, they may be exploring every bit of it.

TEACHER: I would like you next to look for the star-shaped organelle within the cell.

One of the students use a 3-D model with large, distinct shapes to locate organelles within a cell.NARRATOR: The science teacher asks the students to locate organelles within a cell. One of the students is using a 3-D model with large, distinct shapes. Another boy has a page with raised line drawings, which has less tactile differentiation.

HASTY: Whether you choose 12:00 or 6:00, or whether you choose the most significant line that’s on the graphic and then use that as sort of a starting point… sort of a home base, and looking at the graphic and always being able to come back to that piece, so you know that you’ve explored the whole thing. So how students approach that depends on content — how much of a content do they understand; how new a concept is this to them — and it also depends on their experience. You know, have they had a lot of experience reading graphics, or have they not?

TEACHER: Great job, Corinne.

Students create tactile models of a cell and its organelles using materials such as Styrofoam shapes.NARRATOR: In a science class, students around a lab table create tactile models of a cell and its organelles using materials such as Styrofoam shapes and large seeds.

HASTY: A tactile graphic that’s going to be readable and is going to be useful for the student has some characteristics. Actually, those have been identified through some research — fairly recently, a joint project between the US and Canada. The graphic needs to be non-cluttered, so it needs to just include the information for the task that that student has. So it needs to be not tactilely cluttered with lots of extra stuff. A lot of things will be not… that are in the print graphic won’t be on the tactile graphic, but will explained in the key.

STUDENT: This diagram represents a park.


NARRATOR: In a geometry class, a young man examines a work page in his Braille text book. On the open page, there is a line drawing of a grid. Within the grid, there are two rectangular diagrams. In the upper left corner of the page, there is a small, similarly textured rectangle explaining what the texture represents.

HASTY: The more information that we can give the student — again, imparting what it is that the author intended for somebody to get from that graphic — sometimes doing it in graphic form is not the most efficient way to do it for the reader. There are just too many details that you can’t discern tactually that you need to… but they need to have the information. So it may be in the key, it may be in an introductory short paragraph before the actual key and before the graphic. I think it’s important that we add those.

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