Future Reflections Winter/Spring, Vol. 14 No. 1
Editor's Note: Christopher Craig is a former NFB Scholarship winner.
As the father of three, I have had the opportunity and pleasure to see two of my children emerge into literacy. The term emergent literacy refers to a process which begins at birth and continues until children begin to read and write conventionally. That is, this process ends when children are able to gain meaning from words either in print or Braille and use these written words to communicate with moms, dads, siblings, friends, and teachers.
In recent years, professionals have become very interested in this process for children who are blind or have low vision. There is some research which suggests these children begin kindergarten with fewer concepts about written language than their peers with normal vision. However, until recently, there has been virtually no research on how this process might be similar or different for children with visual impairments or how the family or home literacy experiences for these children impact on literacy development. Thanks to the help of the National Federation of the Blind, there is now at least some information on which to build a program of research in this area.
In September of 1993, Barbara Cheadle and other members of the Parents of Blind Children assisted me in disseminating survey instruments developed, in part, by parents of children with visual impairments to families throughout the United States. Through the use of the toll-free number at the American Printing House for the Blind, parents were able to call if they had questions or needed help in completing the questionnaire. As a result of the efforts made by Mrs. Cheadle and other members of the parents organization, I was able to complete my doctoral dissertation and hopefully make a contribution to the professional literature on educating blind children. This article briefly summarizes some of the findings of this research and suggests some ways in which families can improve the home literacy experiences for children with visual impairments.
The survey instrument was designed to collect information on a variety of issues identified as important in the professional emergent literacy. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they believed their child would be primarily a print reader, primarily a Braille reader, or both a print and Braille reader. These groups formed the basis for comparison on issues such as reading aloud by adults and siblings and participation in reading and writing activities in the home. The extent to which learning to read and write is regarded as a priority in the homes of children with visual impairments and the expectations parents have toward their children's literacy development were also examined.
Reading aloud to children has been identified as one of the most important practices for fostering literacy development. While the results of this research indicate the children who comprised the print group were read to more frequently by adults in the home, all three groups were read to an average of three to four times a week. In addition, where there were siblings and other children living in the home, the children who comprised the print/Braille group were read to more frequently by siblings. However, the respondents who indicated that their children would be primarily print readers on average spent more time as a family reading and talking about books per week.
Another practice which is believed to impact on literacy development is making outings to places which help to build understanding for stories. Visiting a zoo, farm, shopping mall, and park are all examples of experiences which might be referenced in children's books. Children who comprised the print, Braille, and print/Braille groups were comparable on this item and made outings to these places an average of one to two times a week.
These groups were not, however, comparable in the frequency of using the library or bookmobile. The children who comprised the print and print/Braille groups used these resources more regularly than the Braille group. In fact, the results suggest that many of the children who comprised the Braille group had never visited a library. This finding is not surprising given the interviews I conducted with parents prior to the beginning of this study. Many parents whose children read Braille stated "the library is simply not a place for my child."
Independent Reading and Writing
Differences were found between the print and Braille groups in the amount and range of participation in reading and writing activities in the home. For example, 75.6 percent of the respondents who comprised the print group checked the item "chooses books to read or to be read aloud." By contrast, 35 percent of the respondents from the Braille group checked this item. In addition, 65.6 percent of the print group checked the item "asks questions or made comments about books during reading," compared to 52 percent of the Braille group. With regard to pointing to pictures during reading, 75.6 percent of the respondents who made up the print group checked this item. By contrast, 40.7 percent of the Braille group checked the item "points to or examines pictures you can feel." Finally, 50 percent of the respondents who made up the print group checked the item "retells stories or pretends to read using print." Only 41 percent of the Braille group indicated their children exhibited comparable behaviors using Braille.
Of course, these findings can be attributed in part to the differences in the amount of material available in the home in the chosen medium. While the majority of the respondents who comprised the Braille group indicated that they had been provided early literacy material in Braille such as touch books or shape books, only 33 percent indicated that they or someone else in the home read Braille. Thus, the children who comprised the Braille group had less access to material in Braille and fewer opportunities to observe others in the home reading Braille.
With respect to writing activities in the home, 72.2 percent of the respondents who comprised the print group indicated that their children scribble with pencils, magic markers, and paintbrushes. By contrast, 27.6 percent of the Braille group checked the item "scribbles in Braille using Braille writer or slate and stylus (just makes dots)." In addition, 17.8 percent of the print group checked the item "tells stories for others to write down in print."
Only 12 percent of the respondents who made up the Braille group indicated their children engaged in comparable behaviors using Braille. Finally, 44.4 percent of the print group checked the item "copies letters or words in print," compared to 15.4 percent of the Braille group who have comparable behaviors using Braille.
Priorities and Expectations
Among the respondents who indicated that their children had no additional disability such as a speech impairment or mental retardation, learning to read and write was ranked as the highest goal for their children, followed by learning self-help skills and communicating effectively. By contrast, the respondents who indicated their children had one or more additional disabilities ranked learning self-help skills as the highest goal, followed by communicating effectively and learning to read and write. Only half of the respondents who have children with additional disabilities indicated their children would some day learn to read and write efficiently.
1. The family and home is a key component in the literacy development of young children with visual impairments who will use print and those who will use Braille. While it may be next to impossible to provide your child access to the same amount of material in Braille that is readily available in print, try to target a few places in the home and times during the daily routine to increase your child's exposure to either print or Braille. For example, designate an area in your house as a reading center or corner. Be sure there is a variety of material available in either print or Braille which is physically accessible. That is, the child can easily pull books off the shelf or obtain them with little effort. If a sibling generally begins the day by mindlessly eating a bowl of Captain Crunch with his or her nose three inches away from the box, make this a regular literacy event for your child with the visual impairment. Label the box with Braille or encourage the child with low vision to examine the box with an optical device. Describe in detail what the box looks like, or have the sibling read aloud the printed material.
2. Encourage "pretend" reading and writing. Whenever you perform mundane tasks, such as paying the bills or reading something for school or work, involve your child. Have him or her pretend to do these tasks as well. If your child will be a Braille reader, encourage scribbling using the Braille writer or slate and stylus. Make over what your child produces in relation to what you are doing.
3. As part of the "On the Way to Literacy Project," APH has adapted several classic children's books with tactual representations of visual concepts. These materials, as well as other children's books which have been adapted tactually, can be used to form the basis of a shared reading experience for you and your child. Encourage your child to point to pictures and examine them visually and/or tactually. When possible, maintain a high standard for your child's comprehension and involvement in stories you read aloud.
4. Explore ways in which your child's early intervention program or school can serve as a resource to you in your efforts to promote home literacy experiences. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) specifies the responsibility of school districts in providing assistive technology to students in special programs in order to insure a free appropriate public education. The IEP team can make determinations concerning the need for providing equipment and material for use in the home.
5. Finally, if you believe your child will be a Braille reader, by all means learn to read Braille. Grade I Braille can be learned quickly and can be a fun activity for you and your family. Involving the family in the learning of Braille or in the use of optical devices creates opportunities for your child to learn that reading and writing serves a functional or meaningful purpose in your home and that your family values literacy in either print or Braille.