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In Place of Pictures . . .
Story Boxes and Tactile Pictures

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It's easy to see that exposure to braille, for future braille readers—and print for print readers—is an important part of developing literacy. However, a book's pictures also play a role for a child with typical vision:

What can adults offer in place of pictures for a child who cannot see them? For many books, a simple description of key pictures helps a child gather information she may be missing. You may try taking a "picture walk." Before reading, page through the story and briefly describe important information shown in the pictures. You might tell the child that the story is about a family, telling a bit about how each character appears, where they live—setting the stage for reading.

However, a number of parents and teachers of children with visual impairments have also tried alternatives—using real objects and tactile "pictures" to add interest, meaning, and opportunities for interaction. Although these can never represent all of the information carried in a book's visual pictures, a number of children show interest in these alternatives (Miller, 1985; Stratton & Wright, 1991; Wright, 1991; Lewis & Tolla, 2003).

A toddler sits with her caregiver and touches a tactile image in a book.

A child reaches out and touches a tactile picture in a storybook.

Story Boxes

Using "story boxes" or "story bags" provides a special kind of book experience for a young child with a visual impairment.

Real objects featured in the story are collected and placed in a box or bag for the child to take out and examine as the story is read. For a very young child, the story you choose should be simple and brief, and the number of objects kept to only a few. For example, in the storybook, Good night, everyone! (Ziefert, 1988), a boy finds a place for his four stuffed animals to go to bed. The stuffed animals could be gathered before reading, since they may not fit into a box, and can be tucked into the child's own bed, one by one, as the story is read.

An older child will enjoy a story box experience involving more items and a more complicated plot. In the storybook, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a very demanding mouse visits and requests a long list of items from his young host: a cookie, napkin, straw, scissors, comb, and other objects. These are easy to find and will be recognized by many preschoolers.

An example of a story box including the storybook, a box, and the items that relate to the book.

Your child may also come up with unique associations when choosing story box items. One child selected a talking toy that said "uh-oh!" to include while reading Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

There are no rules for story boxes, however, you will want the experience to be as meaningful as possible. For a young child, include the whole object rather than only a part of the object. Use real objects instead of models—a real apple instead of a plastic one. Toy models may not be meaningful for many young children with visual impairments. However, since part of the reason for using a story box is to involve the child in interactions related to the story, an argument can be made for using toy models, particularly if your child is older. A toy sailboat could be included in a story box for a tale about a real sailboat if a child understands how models differ from the real life objects they imitate. Although a real sailboat is not well represented by the tiny plastic "boat," the toy can be used to act out story events: as the boat sails over stormy seas, zigzags about, or races another boat. (See Appendix F for books that may lend themselves to a story box.)

Have fun creating story boxes to share with your child, but remember to choose items that she will recognize and that will add to the story's meaning.

An illustration that highlights the differences between a real sailboat and a toy sailboat.

Creating and using a story box

  • Select a children's book that features common objects or inexpensive items. Have your child participate in choosing objects to go with different parts of the story if she is able.
  • Gather up the items. Many people choose to permanently store the items, along with the book, in a box or bag so everything is handy at each reading.
  • Before beginning to read, help your child examine and identify each item.
  • As you read, encourage her to listen to the story. When an item is mentioned in the story, she can hold and explore the object as you read that part. You both can act out events in the story using the objects. Stuffed animals or dolls may serve as story characters.
  • When the reading is over, store items in the box until the next story time.

Books with Tactile Pictures

Storybooks with tactile pictures are like a two-way street: the meaning of the story leads a child in understanding the tactile picture, and the tactile picture adds meaning to the story (Stratton & Wright, 1991).

Once your child has used story box items during book-sharing, she may be ready for books that include simple tactile pictures. Like a story box item, a tactile picture—if it is well-designed—can serve some of the functions of a visual picture (Miller, 1985).

Tactile pictures come in many forms: small objects and textures, cutouts, or raised lines and shapes. Because a child can feel the tactile picture—and they are usually visible, too—both you and your child can explore and talk about them as you read aloud. This is similar to the way you would talk about a visual illustration while reading aloud.

A child examines a tactile picture in a print/braille book as her caregiver talks to her about what she is touching.

Some books include scented stickers or sound-making devices. These, too, can add interest and meaning for a child with a visual impairment.

Tactile pictures have another advantage over items in a story box. Because they are part of the book, tactile pictures draw a child's attention to the book's pages, engage her in book-handling, and increase her exposure to nearby braille text. Once a story is familiar, a child may use a book's tactile pictures as a guide to help her "pretend read"—allowing her to act as a "reader." For a young child, books with tactile pictures can act as a bridge, helping her take a more active role in book-reading, as a listener and as a reader.

In addition, an early introduction to well-designed tactile pictures may be an important step toward learning how to explore and interpret tactile maps, charts, and diagrams. These tactile displays are present in school texts and standardized tests in place of visual maps, graphs, and diagrams. It is important children begin to develop skills that will later help them explore these tactile displays.

As you explore tactile books from various sources, you will find a range of types of tactile pictures. Some of these include:

Real object (a toothbrush)

Molded relief (a scallop shell)

Raised-line (a hand)

Some types of tactile pictures are easier to interpret than others. This is related, in part, to the order in which children develop tactual discrimination skills, discussed in chapter 3 (Kershman, 1976). Tactile pictures that consist of objects appear easiest for a very young child. Molded reliefs and textured cutouts may be intermediate in difficulty (Barth, 1984). Raised lines and shapes are often most difficult, especially those with many lines or parts.

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