Emergent Literacy and the Young Blind Child

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

When young children who are blind begin preparing to learn to read, teachers sometimes use the word “pre-braille” to talk about early literacy skills that need to develop before reading begins. Some parents have strong reactions when the word “pre-braille” is used. After all, sighted children are not taught “pre-print”. Yet most parents would probably agree that knowledge of certain concepts is necessary for the child to be a successful reader. The child must be adept at using and understanding language. She must also understand the environment and her relationship to it. Otherwise, she will not understand what she is reading even if she can read the words. Her motor skills must be developed so that she can handle books well and use various braille writing tools. A blind child’s skill in identifying objects with her hands and moving smoothly across the page must be developed just as a sighted child’s skill in interpreting pictures and following a line of print need to be
developed. Finally, she must also understand certain concepts about
text.

The period during which these skills and concepts develop is called emergent literacy. This period generally lasts from the child’s birth and continues as she plays, has experiences with books, and learns about the environment, building a foundation for learning through reading and communicating through writing. (Stratton, 1996) Parents play a vital role in the development of these skills. For this reason, it is important for parents to know what emergent literacy is and how these skills and concepts develop.

Language Development

Language development for the blind child is similar to that of the sighted child in most respects. There is no reason why the blind child cannot learn to speak words and use language fluently. The differences are in the manner that a child becomes curious about the environment and has reason to acquire new vocabulary.

Sighted children often initiate language development by pointing to interesting objects. The objects are then named by an adult who sees the child’s pointing, and the new words begin to become a part of the child’s vocabulary. Interaction between sighted children and parents is very natural.

Blind children cannot initiate this process; therefore, their exposure to new objects and concepts must be directed. They must be encouraged to move around in the environment and assisted in experiencing all kinds of sounds, smells, and textures. They must be provided with verbal feedback about what they are encountering. Otherwise, the words in their vocabulary are meaningless. Once they have a base of knowledge to build on, abstract descriptions will be more appropriate. Blind children’s interactions during the early years may be natural and fluid because of the need for this direction and assistance.

Awareness and Understanding of the Environment

Awareness of and familiarity with the environment give the child the basic tool of literacy: prior knowledge on which to build. The child who knows his/her environment is aware of things which can be written down. He knows that things have names and can later learn that these names can be written down. To develop this knowledge, children need to be exposed to various types of environments and activities. They need to be allowed to explore and to be given verbal feedback about their discoveries. Some activities which help blind children build an understanding of the environment include trips to various kinds of stores, bus rides, trips to places where live animals can be petted, etc. (Maloney, 1981) They need to examine all kinds of objects and learn what the objects do and how their parts fit together. Understanding the purpose of the objects they are examining is also an important part of developing an understanding of the environment.

Development of Motor Skills

Good motor skills are necessary for efficient braille reading and for operating braille writing equipment. There are many ways to develop motor skills (Ryles, 1995). Some ideas include weight-bearing activities such as pushing a wagon or other object and activities which develop finger strength, such as cutting various fabrics and types
of paper with scissors, playing with play dough, squeezing sponges or other objects, playing with Legos or tinker toys, using tongs or clothespins, using a whole punch or stapler, popping packing bubbles, and stirring. Many other activities of daily life will also develop hand and arm strength needed for operating a braille writer or using a slate and stylus. Some parents feel that use of devices such as braille note-takers, might be less tiring and more motivating for young writers. (Miller, 1997) However, many teachers still introduce the Perkins brailler first.

Development of Tactual Skills

Development of tactual skills is critical to a blind child’s ability to read. The ability to recognize Braille symbols is dependent on the development of more basic tactual skills. The following are the levels of tactual learning presented by Barraga
and Erin (1990)

  1. Awareness and attention
  2. Structure and shape
  3. Part to whole relationships
  4. Graphic representations
  5. Braille symbols

Activities which develop tactual awareness include touching vibrating objects, playing in water and sand, and playing with clay and dough. Activities which develop the concepts of structure and shape include sorting objects by size, shape, and texture; nesting objects; and putting parts together to form a whole. Use of blocks or other building toys can facilitate the development of part-to-whole relationships. Other activities which facilitate development of this concept include putting lids on pans, putting keys in locks, and putting screwdrivers into heads of screws. (Barraga and Erin, 1990) These three activities are also activities which are a part of everyday life and will be useful later.

There are many ways to create two-dimentional graphic representations: outlining a picture with string, a tracing wheel or stylus on foil (Barraga and Erin, 1990); or coloring screens, which are made by attaching a piece of screening to a board, allowing for a drawing to be made in the same manner that a rubbing is made from an engraving. Tactile pictures can also be made using materials such as felt and gluing them onto a page.

Children may also enjoy making their own drawings using a raised-line drawing kit or one of the other methods described previously. Discovering that they can make their own drawings encourages their interest in tactile drawings in general. Guidance and description can help a child learn to interpret what he is examining, making him aware of the shape of the drawing and helping him to become ready to examine Braille symbols.

The American Printing House for the Blind has a pre-Braille program available as part of the Patterns series. A few other instructional materials also have “reading readiness” levels which address development of tactual skills. The Patterns program uses tactile drawings which can be examined and compared to develop discrimination skills.

As tactual perception is developed, the reading of Braille can be introduced. In the earliest stages, this can involve something as simple as placing Braille labels on familiar objects so that the child is exposed to the idea that the name of the object can be written in Braille. Objects belonging to the child can also be labeled with his or her name in Braille so that the child can distinguish his or her own belongings from those of other children.

Formal instruction in Braille may occur in several ways, which are discussed in more detail in “Teaching Reading in Braille“. Barraga and Erin (1990) recommend that Braille symbols which have only one meaning be introduced at first and that more complex symbols be introduced later. Willoughby and Duffy (1989) recommend that letters be introduced in a manner which minimizes the chances of a child becoming confused by reversals (e and I) or
rotations (d,f, h, and J).

Concepts About Text

Developing concepts about print is prerequisite to beginning formal reading instruction. These include:

  • A book has a front and a back.
  • Text is read from left to right and from top to bottom.
  • Language is made up of words.
  • Words are made out of sounds.
  • Sounds are matched to Braille letters.
  • There is a limited set of Braille letters.
  • Letters have names.
  • Some sounds have special Braille symbols.
  • Other parts of text have names, such as word, sentence,
    paragraph, etc.

Sighted children develop concepts about text by observing others reading and writing. Blind children do not observe these things naturally; however, through opportunities created for them to
learn, they begin to understand many things about reading and writing. Reading aloud regularly helps the child to develop an enjoyment of reading. (Stratton, 1996) Scribbling activities help the child to develop an interest in writing.

The selection of books in braille for preschoolers is not as wide as the selection of books in print. The American Printing House for the Blind and Seedlings are two organizations which offer books with print and braille. Some parents make their own braille books using stories from printed books or by making up their own.

Story boxes or bags are also a fun way to share books with a blind child. (Rex, Koenig, Wormsley, & Baker, 1994) The box or bag should contain objects like those in the story which the child can examine while the story is being read.

Some additional ideas for sharing reading and writing experiences with a young blind child include:

  • Hold the child in your lap and read, allowing the child to open the book, turn the pages, etc.
  • Read to the child from a book with both print and Braille, allowing the child to feel the Braille as you read. Place your hand just below the lines of Braille dots so that the tips of your fingers touch the Braille. Encourage the child to examine your hands as you follow the Braille lines while reading. Even if you are reading the print in the book, this activity will demonstrate the value of Braille to the child.
  • Allow the child to follow along as you write something down, such as a reminder or grocery list.
  • Write down a story in Braille which the child dictates. Read it back, allowing the child to examine the Braille.
  • Allow the child to “scribble” with a braille writer or slate and stylus.

A Note of Caution

Willoughby and Duffy emphasize the importance of not spending too much time on pre-reading activities. Children who are ready for beginning activities may become bored. Using braille symbols in materials for practice in identifying “the one that is different” or “the one with the most dots” is a good idea. At the pre-reading stage, it is not necessary to teach the child what each letter is, but it is not harmful to identify the letters
informally.

References

Barraga, N. and Erin, J. (1990) Visual handicaps and learning. Austin: ProEd.

Maloney, P. L. (1981). Practical guidance for parents of the
visually handicapped children
. Springfield, IL: Charles C.
Thomas.

Miller, D. D. (1997). Encouraging an adolescent daughter who is
blind and learning disabled to read and write. Journal of visual impairment and blindness; 91(3);
213-218.

Rex, E.J., Koenig, A.J., Wormsley, D.P., & Baker, R.L. (1994).
Foundations of braille literacy. New York: AFB Press.

Stratton, J. M. (1996). Emergent
Literacy: A New Perspective
. Journal of visual impairment & blindness; 90(3), 177-183.

Willoughby, D.M. and Duffy, S. (1989). Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students.
Baltimore: National Federation for the Blind.

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