high school student uses tactile graph book

Tips for Reading Tactile Graphics in Science with a Focus on State Assessment

Tips for reading tactile graphics in science for students who are blind or visually impaired.

Comprehending tactile graphics is an essential skill for braille students in the sciences.  Therefore, this skill needs to be both taught and used from an early age.  Unfortunately, many students with visual impairment lag behind their sighted peers in comprehension of these vital graphics.  I have often found that students who struggle with tactile graphics  typically also struggle with state assessments, as many of the questions on these assessments include charts, tables, graphs, maps, etc.   This blog will provide simple guidelines for teaching tactile graphics.

Braille readers are taught to read left to right.  However, when reading tactile graphics, this approach is rarely the most effective scanning pattern as students need to get the big picture (so to speak) before they can understand the details of the graphic.  This can be compared to a systematic scan, as when searching for a dropped item.  The appropriate exploration of the page with a tactile graphic is very different  from reading braille.  The student should take in some basic information from scanning with two hands on the page  from top to bottom.  This can feel very foreign to braille students who have learned to read braille without also learning to properly decipher tactile graphics.

Students should be taught to scan then study the page for the following information:

  1. TYPE:   What kind of a tactile graphic is this?  Is it a table, a diagram, a map, a graph (if so, what type of graph), etc.?
  2. TITLE:  After scanning the entire graphic briefly, find the title.  Read and think about it.  Ask yourself, “What is this graphic about?”   Take a minute to think about this. 
  3. KEY:   Look for a key.  Tell the student that the key should come before the graphic.  If it is not located on the same page, the student should look on the facing page.  If the student is still not able to find the key, have him/her flip back one page.  If not there, have the student look after the graphic in case there was a mistake in placement of the key.  If there is no key, tell the student that this graphic must not require a key and that the information needed is found within the tactile graphic.
  4. LABELS:  Find the labels on the graphic.  The labels will, of course, depend on what type of graphic the student is reading.  Are there labels that are difficult to understand or to relate to part of the tactile graphic?  Teach the student that on a coordinate grid, the label for the X axis is at the bottom of the graph, while  the label for the Y axis is a the top of the graph. 
  5. USE THE KEY:  After the student has found the key, he/she should find the items in the tactile graphic that are indicated in the key. *See instructions for state testing below for different suggestions when taking a test.
  6. ANCHOR:  Find an anchor – The anchor is the part of the tactile graphic that the student will return to in order to more quickly and adeptly orient to the tactile graphic.  Sometimes,  students may find it helpful to  keep a finger on the anchor to remain oriented.  It is also very useful to have an anchor when looking at the key.  Suggestions for an anchor spot include the point of origin for a line graph or a specific location on a map that is labeled.  Anchor sensibly by choosing something meaningful on the tactile graphic.

State Assessment Suggestions

Collaboration with the Science Teacher

As graphics are such an integral part of understanding science, it is vital that the student with a visual impairment in a science class have access to the graphic and comprehend it before the class covers related content.  To this end, it is highly preferable that  the student have the opportunity to study the tactile graphics which will be used prior to class. For this reason, the TVI will want to collaborate with the science teacher regularly in order to determine when to schedule extra time with the student to work on tactile graphics.  Ask the science teacher for a timeline for instruction for the year.  Schedule a meeting with the teacher at the beginning of the school year and regularly thereafter.  Some teachers will be able to provide a syllabus covering the entire year while others may need more encouragement to provide the TVI with needed information.    

Based upon the timeline given, the TVI should look ahead in the book (or handouts) and prepare to meet with the student regularly to study the tactile graphics which will be used in class.  If regular pull-out time is taken with the TVI, the student will become more comfortable with tactile graphics over time and require less time to prepare. The more time a student spends learning science-related tactile graphics, the more comfortable he/she will become with them.

Valuable Resources on Tactile Graphics

Setting the Stage for Tactile Understanding

Setting the Stage for Tactile Understanding Kit: Making Tactile Pictures Make Sense  by APH- Catalog #1-08853-00

For those TVIs whose students are just learning to read tactile graphics, the following kit available through APH will be invaluable. This kit is most appropriate for use with young children making the transition from real objects to tactile graphics.  

Tactile Graphics, Paths to Literacy

This section of the Paths to Literacy website includes basic information on preparing students to utilize tactile graphics and preparing tactile graphics.  

Tactile Graphics


Hands examining tactile graphic
Hands examining tactile graphic

Teaching tactile graphics to young blind students differs significantly from teaching tactile graphics to students blinded later in life.  This is comparable to learning language naturally as a young child and learning a language as a second language later in life.   For this reason, the tactics employed to teach students in these circumstances differs. For the young blind student, instruction in tactile graphics should begin as soon as the student has enough tactile skill to follow lines and recognize braille.  For the student who loses vision later, concentrated instruction in tactile graphics is most appropriate.  This may be through an intensive program or through pull-out time with the TVI. This page includes links to many resources on tactile graphics.

In addition, APH (American Printing House for the Blind) offers a number of tactile graphics resources that are specific to science, including the following:

Many thanks to Kay Pruett, TSBVI Braille teacher, for her invaluable words of wisdom on this topic.

By Laura Hospitál

Return to Accessible Science main page.

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