Teaching Students with Visual Impairments with Novel Effect

Kentucky-based librarian, Christi Unker, sat down with the Novel Effect team to share how she uses Novel Effect to teach students with visual impairments!
Teach Students with Visual Impairments with Novel Effect!

For our second installation of The Novel Effect, the Novel Effect team sat down with Kentucky-based librarian, Christi Unker, who uses Novel Effect to inspire a love of reading and teach students with visual impairments.

Since 2016, Christi Unker has worked at the Kentucky School for the Blind with students ranging from kindergarten to 21, focusing primarily on elementary students. She learned about Novel Effect six years ago from a professor while receiving her Master’s in Education for Visual Impairments and has used it ever since! The sound effects and music have become a reward for her students as they read aloud.

Teaching Students with Visual Impairments with Novel Effect: An Interview with Christi Unker

Below, find our interview with Christi about her journey into visually impaired education, her work at the Kentucky School for the Blind, and how Novel Effect impacts teaching students with visual impairments.
Kentucky School for the Blind librarian, Christi Unker

Novel Effect: Can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up at the Kentucky School for the Blind?

CU: I’ve worked for the Kentucky School for the Blind for about 7 years and have been a librarian for 25. Before the Kentucky School for the Blind, I had been employed as an elementary, middle, and high school librarian. Usually, as a librarian, you can get shooed into one spot but I had jumped around and had experience with all grade levels.

Someone posted on our state listserv from our State Department that there was an opening at the School for the Blind. I was intrigued and thought it might be a new challenge and something I might enjoy. I felt comfortable coming in with my experience in all grade levels.

Before starting, I had a Training and Development and Library Science degree, but for this position we all have to have a Masters in Visual Impairments. We learn about the various kinds of visual impairments, how to read Braille and are trained in how to adapt materials and devices for our students.

Novel Effect: What is the average age range you work with at the Kentucky School for the Blind?

CU: We start with kindergarten and go to the age of 21. There is a preschool for children with visual impairments that’s separate from us in our state. Kindergarten is the first time that we meet our students. We have dorms and some of our students live on campus and go home on the weekends. I would say about 40% of our kids live here because they live too far away to be transported every day.

If they live within an hour and a half radius they are usually bused in, but if they’re further out in the state than that, they live in our dorm. We have no snow days because our kids are always here!

“Prior to Novel Effect, I'd never given them a book and spread them out and said you just read the book. I just don't think they would have been that motivated to read by themselves without that little 'reward'."

Christi Unker

Kentucky School for the Blind 

Novel Effect: Are you using Novel Effect with just your elementary students or are you using it across the board?

CU: I primarily use it with elementary kiddos, but have used it with our middle school kids too. One of the ways I use it is just reading a book aloud to them, but they enjoy it when I put a bunch of books on the table that are twin vision braille books and have the iPads preloaded with the soundscape that goes along with them. The library is very big, so I will just put them in corners of the room and let them practice reading. They love the sounds. That’s an encouragement to them to hear the sounds as they read.

Novel Effect: Can you tell us a little bit more about what twin vision books are?

CU: Each state has a regional library that was set up back in 1931 that was designed to push out materials for the visually impaired. Ours is called the Kentucky Talking Book Library and it is located in Frankfort. They send us a free copy of any elementary age books that are turned into braille by the Library of Congress. Twin vision books have an overlay that has the braille text, the same as the print text. It’s primarily for someone teaching a braille reader when you don’t know braille. A lot of our parents don’t learn braille, so it’s hard for them to help their kiddos, but if they have that print right next to the braille then they can read side-by-side. Once they get up to middle school books, around 5th grade text, it switches over to totally braille text with no pictures or print.

A student reading a twin vision book
One of Christi’s students reading a twin vision book.
Some books, maybe 5%, have tactile pictures in the book with braille, but that’s kind of special when that comes across my desk. There is a publishing company called American Printing House for the Blind that is next door to our school here in KY. They are the primary company that produces those materials for the visually impaired.

Novel Effect: Cool! Are you able to use any of the Novel Effect book activities with your students?

CU: Yes! We have something called an embosser. It’s a printer that produces braille instead of print. I can input print and there is a special program that translates it into braille. I then press “emboss” and it creates the braille. We can also produce tactile images with an embosser.  I usually start with  a really simple image with a black outline. I can emboss it with my Braille printer (embosser)  to create a dotted outline of a bear. My kiddos can find the dotted outline of the bear and it gives them another avenue and sensory input for the story we’re reading. I love that Novel Effect sends emails out about the activities with books because it helps me get ideas on what I can modify and plan for my kids.
A Novel Effect activity after it has gone through Christi's braille embosser
A side-by-side visual of a Novel Effect activity and its braille counterpart, created with Christi’s embosser.

Novel Effect: That’s so great to hear. Are there any other challenges that you faced in your library that you feel Novel Effect has helped solve?

CU: Well before I knew about Novel Effect, I can remember reading The Polar Express my first week at the school–I started mid-year in December–I had sleigh bells and horse hooves queued up on my computer to play sounds for them as I read. Now that I have the app, I don’t have to worry about queuing up those sounds ahead of time that go with the books that I read.

Novel Effect: Has there been a time where Novel Effect has helped impact a student and their experience with reading?

CU: Some of the kiddos who are reluctant to read are more likely to pick up books and try to read braille because of Novel Effect. They know that once they get the word out, there’s going to be a sound, to kind of reward them. Prior to Novel Effect, I’d never given them a book and spread them out and said you just read the book. I just don’t think they would have been that motivated to read by themselves without that little “ reward”. It gives them the opportunity to practice those reading skills instead of me just always reading the book. Plus I can hear the sound so I kind of know who’s still reading and who’s not.
Christi reading The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming to a group of students at the Kentucky School for the Blind.

Novel Effect: That’s great! What is your favorite part about the app as an educator?

CU: I just enjoy reading and seeing what sounds you guys come up with! I was just processing a book, The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Mac Barnett, and I was like “Oh, my gosh! This will make a great Novel Effect book.” And then I looked at your list and you already had it. In the book the trolls are going over the bridge and talking about the horse hooves. It lends itself for sounds.

Novel Effect: That’s a great one! Do you and your students have any other favorites to read aloud with Novel Effect?

CU: Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Lloyd Moss is a really fun one and Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin. Those are probably my two favorites.

Reading is a powerful skill that can change the life of any child, but sometimes they need extra tools to help them experience literary magic. Novel Effect’s immersive read-alouds can make that impact. Join our community and change the lives of your educators and students today:

Download the Novel Effect app to bring stories to life with music and sound that respond to your voice. 

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