A new invention tested at Perkins School for the Blind has the potential to transform braille instruction by making it possible for students to practice literacy skills independently.
The Read Read features a collection of credit card-sized movable tiles, each emblazoned with a tactile letter of the alphabet and its corresponding braille code. When a student runs a finger across the braille dots, the device speaks the letter out loud. When the tiles are arranged to form words, the device will sound them out phonetically.
“You can do all sorts of words, it’s not just limited to the alphabet,” said Alex Tavares, who created the Read Read. “This is a true phonics device that can do everything that top-of-the-line phonics programs do.”
Inspiration for the Read Read came to Tavares while he was working in Ohio as a literacy instructor for students with disabilities. He wanted a device that would allow his students to practice their skills between sessions. When he couldn’t find one, he decided to build his own.
Tavares relocated to Cambridge to complete a master’s program in educational technology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At the Harvard Innovation Lab, he used 3-D printing to create a prototype of the Read Read.
His next stop was Perkins’ Watertown campus, where he met with assistive technology specialist Cory Kadlik, who is blind, and introduced the device to Perkins students.
“I knew some of the leading experts in the world were at Perkins and I wasn’t going to get easy feedback,” he said. “People like Cory could be skeptics, and that’s important. I wanted people to challenge me and help me make this thing better.”
Over the next three months, Tavares refined his prototype based on feedback he received from teachers, students and staff. After watching a student with low muscle tone struggle to remove a tile from its slot, he reprinted the pieces using a different design.
The response to the Read Read was overwhelmingly positive. Longtime assistive technology teacher Kate Crohan, who is blind, said the device is a game-changer for early braille learners.
“The letter identification is huge,” she said. “This can change the course of history for kids who are blind.”
Kadlik, who remembers learning braille as a student at Perkins, agreed.
“It’s just brilliant,” he said. “It’s fun but it’s also not a toy – it truly teaches you.”
For now, the Read Read is still in the prototype phase, but Tavares is already thinking ahead to additional uses for the device, including developing tiles that would help kids learn musical notes as well as basic computer programming symbols.
But teaching students who are blind to read remains his core goal.
“I’m super personally invested in this because I’ve met the kids and I’ve worked with the kids,” he said. “And I know there are hundreds more who could benefit from this.”
The Read Read features large moveable tiles with letters and braille, as well as audio recordings of each letter that play when a tile is pressed.