Helping Your Blind or Visually Impaired Baby Learn about Reading and Writing

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You've got your shopping list in hand and the baby safely secured in the shopping cart. You glance at your list to see what you need and then look up at the signs above each aisle to find where your first item is located. You're using your literacy skills—your ability to read and write—for both a near task (your list) and a distance task (the signs).

But what is your baby learning from this experience, if she is blind or has low vision? If she has low vision she may see you look at the paper in your hand but may not see the print on it. She probably isn't seeing you look at the overhead signs or the print on them.

If she's blind, she's not seeing any of this. But if you talk to her and describe what you're doing as you do it, she will begin to understand that words are not only spoken, but exist in a different form—something that people call "writing."

Preliteracy—that is, readiness to begin the actual task of learning to read and and write (also known as emergent literacy or reading readiness)—isn't something a sighted child develops the day she starts kindergarten. Rather, her parents have been exposing her to print and the idea of reading and writing from the time she was an infant. She's been watching them read and write, seeing words all around her, and learning about these important tasks mostly through daily experiences.

By the time most sighted children are 2 years old, they are able to start making the connection that pictures and words have meaning. A child may recognize the logo on the box that contains her favorite breakfast cereal or the large sign in front of her favorite restaurant. She may look at the pictures in the book her dad reads her at bedtime and slowly start to make the connection that the "squiggles" on the page are words that tell the story.

When your baby has a visual impairment, she may not be able to take advantage of these natural opportunities to learn about literacy because she doesn't see print or how it is used throughout her environment for a wide variety of tasks. But you can give her the same experiences in a different way, so that she will be ready to learn about reading and writing when the time comes.

Starting Early: Preliteracy for Babies Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

You may be thinking that it is too soon to be concerned about literacy for your baby, but in fact, you've been preparing her for reading from earliest infancy. When you talk to her, describing the world around her and what you are doing in it, you are helping her understand her environment and giving her the words and concepts to make sense of what she perceives—words like "big" and "little," "hot" and "cold," "in" and "out," "high and "low," "hungry" and "happy," and so many others. She is also learning about communication, which, after all, is the beginning of literacy. All kinds of early learning contribute to preliteracy. The more experiences your child has in her early life—of different objects, animals, people, places, and activities—the easier it will be for her later on to figure out the meaning of the words she tries to read.

As your child grows and develops more awareness of her surroundings, you can encourage her development of literacy by exposing her as much as possible to words in her environment, whether those words are in print or braille or both. As you go through your day, let her know when you're reading or writing. For example, explain to her when you're making a shopping list and let her see the marks on the paper up close or feel the pen as it moves across the paper. Tell her about the labels on the cans and her cereal box and the street signs that let you know you where you are when you're driving in the car. And of course, read to her at every opportunity.

Literacy for the Young Child Who Is Blind or Has Low Vision

If your child has low vision—if she is visually impaired—she may learn to read and write print in a very similar way to her sighted friends (see How Students with Low Vision Read and Write). Or, she may use a combination of both print and braille, because for some tasks, such as reading a chapter in a book, braille may be more efficient. If your child has little or no vision, she'll probably learn to read and write in braille (see How Students Who Are Blind Read and Write). Since she is so little, it may be too early to say for certain what medium she will be using for reading and writing. What's important now is to help her develop her awareness of print or braille and the way reading and writing is used.

These suggestions for developing a readiness for literacy will be helpful to children who are blind or visually impaired:

  • Read stories to your child that are written for her age level about things that are meaningful to her. For example, a book about a dog will be exciting if she has a dog, but if she has never had the chance to meet a cow and can't see the pictures of a cow, the book won't have too much meaning for her.
  • You can make your own books together with your daughter about things she does and enjoys. This also helps introduce her to the idea of writing. (See Reading and Making Tactile Books with Your Child for suggestions about picking books and for making tactile books). You can illustrate her books with photos you take of her and with items from the activities she enjoys. You might make a book about going with her Grandma to the bakery. You can paste a piece of tissue paper—the kind that the clerk uses to wrap up her doughnut—on one of the pages. If she and Grandma sit on a bench to eat their doughnuts, you can attach a small piece of wood that feels like the wood slots on the bench on another page. You can even let your child dictate a few words to go with each tactile illustration, so that it truly becomes her book.
  • Many very young children especially enjoy listening to books with text that is rhyming and rhythmic. If you pause just before the end of a line, your child may soon learn to fill in the missing word, as if she could read herself!
  • Show your child the things you are using print for, such as paying bills, writing out a birthday card, reading the newspaper, and ordering from a menu, and read them aloud. When she is very young, she won't understand what you're saying, but she will enjoy hearing your voice. As she moves into the toddler years, you can put more emphasis on showing her things you read and write that interest her, such as a letter the two of you are writing to Santa Claus or the recipe you're reading to make her favorite desert.
  • Let her color and "pretend write" using a variety of tools such as crayons, pens, chalk, and markers. What she writes or draws may not be recognizable but she'll be making the connection that writing is a way to tell a story, at the same time that she is building the fine motor skills she will need to write actual words. If she has little or no vision, try taking a piece of paper and put it over a piece of window screen cut to fit on a clipboard. When she writes on the paper using a crayon, it will make a raised mark that she can feel.
  • Ask your child's teacher of students with visual impairments to show you how a braillewriter works. A braillewriter is a mechanical device, somewhat like a typewriter, that creates braille on paper when its keys are hit. Ask to have one in your home for your child to explore and "scribble" on—that is, to hit the keys in a random manner to imitate writing in braille, the same way a toddler with a crayon scribbles on paper.

As your baby becomes a toddler, you may also want to take a look at the suggestions for helping preschoolers who are blind develop early reading and writing skills.

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