How Students with Low Vision Read and Write

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Child at desk with reading stand and OTT light

Use of a reading stand and task lighting at her desk allows this first grader to maximize her vision to complete a reading assignment.

If your child has low vision—that is, has a visual impairment that interferes with his ability to perform daily activities—he may read standard print or enlarged print, or he may use one or several low vision devices, such as magnifiers, monoculars, telescopes, and video magnifiers (also known as closed-circuit television systems or CCTVs) to enhance his ability to read and write visually. These devices should always be prescribed by an optometrist or ophthalmologist who specializes in low vision, and your child will need systematic instruction in their use by his teacher of students with visual impairments.

Your child may also find any number of nonoptical devices helpful—including simple tools such as bold markers, dark-lined paper, book stands, or a high intensity lamp—as well as recorded books under some circumstances. He may also start using certain high-tech assistive technology, such as a computer with screen magnification software that enlarges the print and graphics displayed on the computer's screen.

There are also a number of ways for your child to get access to information that is provided at a distance in the classroom.

  • He can use a low vision device, such as a telescope, to read the material on the board or watch a classroom demonstration. He can also move closer to the material to be able to see better.
  • The classroom teacher can provide your child a copy of the material on the board. This could be a photocopied sheet of paper or one the teacher or teaching assistant writes out by copying the material on the board.
  • The teacher can read aloud what he or she is writing on the board.
  • If your child is using a computer, the teacher can provide an electronic file containing the material so your child can read it on his computer screen either as anyone else would or by enlarging the text on the screen using screen-enlargement software.

As your child moves through the elementary grades, the size of the print in his textbooks may get smaller, while the amount of reading and writing he is expected to do gets larger. At different times, therefore, he may need to utilize different reading methods or different tools to keep up with his assigned classwork. For this reason, it's important to review how your child is performing in his various literacy tasks continually and make sure a learning media assessment is conducted every year.

How Large Should the Print Be for My Child?

For many children with low vision, using regular, standard print, with or without low vision devices such as handheld magnifiers and video magnifiers, may be preferable to using enlarged print.

Even if using large print may be efficient for your child now, it has certain disadvantages if it is his only method of reading.

  • Large print is not always available. When your child goes to a store, the price tags and menus will not be written in large print. Learning to use a magnifier or other low vision device to read standard print makes him more independent overall.
  • Some children feel uncomfortable using large-print books because they look different from the books and materials classmates are using. Large-print materials often are also longer, bulkier, and more difficult to carry than are standard-print materials.
  • As your child progresses through life, most college texts, workplace reading materials, and recreational reading materials will not be available in large print.

If a child with low vision becomes efficient in using standard-print books, with or without optical aids, the transition to college and the world of work will be an easier one. If your child's teacher of students with visual impairments is recommending that he use large-print materials, it's a good idea to verify that assessments actually indicate that this is the most efficient option for your child. A clinical low vision specialist should also evaluate your child. Often well-meaning adults simply assume that a child needs large print, rather than basing their decision on information collected from appropriate assessments.

Literacy at School for Dual Learners

Travis, a third grader with low vision, is a dual reader, that is, he uses both print and braille to read and write during his school day. Today, his class begins the morning with 20 minutes of silent reading. For this activity, Travis uses braille. The silent reading is followed by instruction from his teacher in math. Travis finds it easier to use his video magnifier to view his math book while brailling the answers to the problems with his braillewriter. Throughout his school day, Travis uses both print and braille, often at the same time.

How do you know if your child, like Travis, would benefit from learning both print and braille?

  • Speed: Some children have the visual ability to read print, but their reading speed is very slow. For these children, it may be easier to use braille for longer tasks, such as reading a chapter in a book. They can still use print for shorter tasks such as doing a page of math problems.
  • Visual fatigue: If your child tires easily when reading and writing in print, learning braille may give him access to information with less fatigue.
  • Prognosis: If your child has an eye condition that may worsen with time, it might be a good idea to start braille instruction early so that if he begins to have difficulty with print or can no longer see it, he'll already be able to read and write in braille.
  • Learning media assessment: When your child's teacher of students with visual impairments conducts a learning media assessment for your child, if there is a significant difference between what your child is able to comprehend and what he is actually able to read in print, braille may be an option to consider.

If your child needs to start learning braille after having learned to read print, the teacher of students with visual impairments will most likely begin gradually, perhaps by using braille in fun and functional ways. For example, your child may bring in his DVD collection to school so that they can put braille labels on them, or they can play card games using braille. Once your child develops some skills with braille, the teacher may ask your child to start using braille for certain classroom or homework activities. For example, rather than writing his spelling words three times, the teacher may ask him to print them once and braille them twice. As your child becomes more knowledgeable, the teacher of students with visual impairments will help him to consider the tasks he needs to do and determine whether the use of print or braille will be more efficient for each one.

There are a variety of ways for children with low vision to read and write. The important point is to find, with the help of the teacher of students with visual impairments and other professionals on your child's educational team, the combination of methods and tools that work best for your child.

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