Go to navigation for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

Introduction: Early Literacy for Children with Visual Impairments

What Is Literacy?

Download PDF of this page

Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write—using written language to share information and ideas—at home, at school, in the workplace, and in the community.

Literacy is more than reading words on a page. It involves connecting written words to meaning. This requires an understanding of spoken language, as well as knowing how spoken language can be represented using written symbols—print letters or braille.

Literacy, in its most basic sense, is the ability to get meaning from symbols and communicate using symbols.1

When Does Literacy Begin?

Children begin on the way to literacy from the day they are born. Professionals who study literacy describe it as a process, set in motion long before actual reading and writing take place.2

A father gently touches an infant swaddled in blankets.

A mother shows the book she is reading to her child as she sits next to her.

Gradually, the child begins to imitate the reading and writing of those around her—scribble—writing messages, pretending to read from a familiar book. She notices and learns more and more about the sounds in words and their relationship to letters as she “bridges” into reading and writing.3

What Is Early or Emergent Literacy?

Early literacy refers to the period from birth until the time a child begins to read and write. Knowledge, skills, and attitudes built during this time, leading to reading and writing, are called “emergent” or early literacy skills.4 Although the early literacy period often extends to kindergarten or first grade, it is not defined by age. An older child who faces challenges in learning to read will continue to build early literacy skills. She may begin to read and write later, using literacy for many purposes at school and at home. Or she may learn to read key, useful words to help her carry out daily activities—reading a shopping list, schedule, menu, and labels. It is not possible to know how far a child will travel along the road to literacy. However, all children can make progress and will benefit from the positive expectations and support of parents and teachers.5

Opportunities to build early literacy skills are important for all children.

A caregiver and her small child read a braille book together.

How Does a Child with a Visual Impairment Develop Literacy?

Both braille and print letters are symbols that represent spoken language, so it is not surprising that literacy is built upon a similar foundation for a child who will read braille and a child who will read print.6

Early literacy for every child is built upon learning and development in key areas.

An infant attends to a toy his mother is showing him.

At times, the emphasis or way of learning will differ for a child with a visual impairment. A child who will read braille needs many opportunities to learn from firsthand experience since she cannot learn by observing others. She needs special support to develop her sense of touch and the ability to use her hands for learning and for literacy. Of critical importance, she must encounter and explore braille and the tools for writing in braille, just as a print-reading child requires print books and writing tools.7

A toddler explores a braille book with her mother.

For a child who has limited vision but will read print, making the fullest possible use of her vision will be a focus of instruction, enabling her to see and “unlock” the meaning of the print around her. She, too, should be encouraged to explore, using all her senses for learning. It will be important to provide appropriate lighting and print material that is highly visible with good contrast. (Appendix A lists resources containing information about materials, special aids, and learning strategies to help you meet the needs of a child with impaired vision who will read print.)

Sometimes, the best literacy medium for a child—braille or print—may not be obvious, especially if a child’s degree of vision is unknown or changing. A teacher may recommend providing both braille and print materials until more information can be gathered. Skills for learning through both touch and vision will be essential. Some children learn to read both print and braille, using each for different purposes, throughout life.

A child who faces significant challenges in learning to read braille or print may be most successful using a symbol communication system. Symbol communication systems use either visual pictures or tactile symbols (textures, small objects, or raised lines) to communicate meaning. They allow a child to make choices, communicate needs, and share information about daily activities and routines. She will need to develop concepts and the skills for learning through touch (or sight). She, too, must learn that a symbol is something that stands for something else and communicates meaning.8

What is braille?

Braille is a system of symbols for reading and writing. Braille symbols are formed of small raised dots the reader feels beneath her fingertips. Every braille symbol has from one to six dots arranged in a shape or pattern that is two dots wide and three dots high.

More than 60 different braille symbols can be made by varying the number and position of dots within this basic shape.

Close up of braille.

There are two main forms of braille—uncontracted braille and contracted braille. Uncontracted braille provides a symbol for each alphabet letter, the numbers 1-10, and for punctuation. Contracted braille provides additional symbols and combinations of symbols that stand for words and parts of words. Most braille books and materials are published in contracted braille, although recently, more materials in uncontracted braille are becoming available. Please refer to resources listed in Appendix A for more information about braille, its history, as well as materials for sighted persons who wish to learn braille. See Appendix B for a display of braille letters and numbers. The Early Literacy Experiences chapter discusses introducing a child to braille and basic skills for reading braille. Sources for children’s books in braille are provided in Appendix D.

What is a symbol communication system?

There are many forms of symbol communication systems. Their purpose is to make communication easier for a child who has difficulty with spoken language and/or difficulty using written language. The symbols may be highly individual but are linked to meaning for a particular child. Some use pictures or photos designed for a child with typical vision. A child with impaired vision may be able to use a system that uses simple line illustrations or photos with few details. Tactile symbol communication systems are designed for a nonverbal child who does not have enough vision to use a visual symbol system. A tactile system uses symbols that can be examined by touch. The tactile symbols chosen can be small objects, parts of objects, or textures. For example, a tab top from a soft drink container mounted on tag board can be used as a symbol for “soft drink.”

Through a gradual process of linking the thing (a soft drink) to its symbol (the tab top), the symbol gains meaning for the child. For a child who faces challenges in learning to read an alphabet-based system like braille or print, symbols can be used as a menu item, put on a shopping list, or signal snack time on a daily schedule. A child who has difficulty communicating can give the symbol to an adult to express her needs. Symbols are also labeled with the print or braille word. This allows a child who begins on her way to literacy using a symbol system to learn the written word. At some point, the written word may replace her need for the tactile or visual symbol. (For more information about tactile symbol communication systems and their use, please refer to resources listed in Appendix A.)

A child uses a tactile communication system.


A critical early decision

A small child sits in her mother's lap.

As early as possible, a young child with a visual impairment should be carefully evaluated to determine if she will rely on her sense of touch for learning, or if she will use vision for a significant part of her learning. This is a critical early decision affecting her path to literacy. Tactile learners—learners who will use touch—will need exposure to braille and may also benefit from experience with symbols in a tactile communication system. A visual learner should receive support in experiencing print and, perhaps, pictures in a symbol communication system. Your child’s TVI (teacher of students with visual impairments) is trained to evaluate your child and partner with you and other professionals to perform a learning media assessment. This important assessment examines your child’s way of learning in a variety of situations. It involves careful consideration of many factors and close teamwork between parents and professionals.9 A child’s learning media assessment should be updated each year, particularly when she is young and her needs may be changing. Although this book does not discuss the assessment process, you will find further information in the resources listed in Appendix A.

Now that you are aware of some of the options for literacy, let’s briefly summarize ways in which key areas of learning contribute to literacy for a child with a visual impairment. These and many additional points will be covered in detail in the chapters that follow.

Language Development

Literacy begins with spoken language, becoming aware of the sounds of language, learning to listen and speak with understanding. A young child learns to communicate—first in cries and gestures, and later, using words. When caregivers respond to their child’s early attempts to communicate they nurture early language skills. A child learns language by talking with caregivers who know her well and can interpret her early words. As she grows older, conversations with adults help her form more complex sentences and learn new words.10 The vocabulary she builds, from her earliest years, helps her find meaning in words she reads. Throughout her early years, she also sharpens her ability to hear the sounds within spoken words. Noticing rhyming words and words that begin with the same sound is a sign that she is developing phonemic awareness. When she begins to read, this awareness helps her link sounds to written letters.11

A mother hugs her child close to her face.

To support a child’s early language development

(Please see the Language Leads to Literacy chapter for discussion of these and other activities supporting language learning.)

A father kneels down to listen to his child at eye-level.

Concept Development

A child with a visual impairment must also build concepts to give meaning to the language she hears and speaks. Concepts are the understandings the child forms about all manner of things. Because she learns less by observing, this will take time. She will need many firsthand experiences to build concepts and learn related language. She needs to touch, hear, taste, and smell things in her environment as you name and describe what she is experiencing.12 A young child with a visual impairment needs opportunities to explore freely, within safe limits. She will also benefit from planned experiences guided by an adult—planting a seed and examining it at different stages as it grows, exploring the family car inside and out, visiting a farm and touching the nest where the hen lays her eggs. Networks of related concepts are important for all learning and for literacy.

To support concept development for a child with a visual impairment

A father helps his child scoop sand and fill containers in a sand box.

(Please refer to the chapter, Concepts: Center Stage, for a discussion of concept development and activities to foster this development.)

Skills for Learning through Touch

All young children need to explore and learn about the objects, people, and events in their environment. This is even more critical for a child with a visual impairment. Strong, skillful hands and the ability to use them in a purposeful way are important for finding out about the world. Strong, skillful hands are also necessary for reading and writing braille. She will need to learn how to use two hands, together and separately, to explore objects, books, braille, tactile symbols, and braille writing materials.13 Encourage and give her opportunities to notice small differences in the texture, temperature, and shape of objects, and later, in braille words and letters. She will also need your help to learn how to search and explore in an organized way, using the best strategy for each situation. And to learn through touch, she must be able to fit together the pieces of information she gathers to form a more complete “picture.” Touch, as a means of learning, differs from vision in significant ways. It does not provide information about things at a distance, and it does not offer immediate information about a whole object unless that object fits within the child’s hand.

A mother helps her child explore a new toy.

To support your child’s ability to learn through touch

Provide her with opportunities to explore and handle all sorts of things at home and in the environment, even when she is quite young.

A child grips tightly while swinging at the playground.

Two toddlers help each other work on a toy using a tool.

Provide toys and other items that require her to use her fingers in a variety of ways.

(Refer to the In Touch with Literacy and Learning chapter for more information about the skills needed for learning through touch.)

Knowledge about Written Language

A child with typical vision learns a great deal about what it means to read and write by watching family members and looking at printed words and symbols around her.14 A child with a visual impairment, however, does not see the print that surrounds her. She must be actively involved when others are reading and writing to learn what they do. She also needs opportunities to use written language for purposes that have meaning for her—making a shopping list with her favorite items, or writing messages to family members. If it is likely she will read braille, she must have many chances to explore materials in braille. She will need tools that allow her to “scribble” in braille—using a braillewriter (mechanical device for writing braille) or pointed tool to make braille-like dots.15 A child who is likely to use her vision for literacy needs print that is highly visible as well as crayons or markers for making marks.

A Perkins Braillewriter.

In addition to experiences with print and braille used for everyday purposes, all children learn important early literacy skills by listening to read-aloud books and sharing and talking about these with adults.16

A caregiver encourages a child as she attends to an open book.

Reading aloud is one of the most important things caregivers can do to support early literacy skills. If the book contains braille, the child will be exposed to braille and begin to understand its purpose—critically important for a child who will someday read braille. A child with a visual impairment will enjoy reading from a wide variety of books—carefully chosen print books as well as books that provide braille, tactile pictures, or books accompanied by a story box of items featured in the story. To be most effective, the adult reader should connect the story to the child’s own experiences, ask questions about the story, and encourage the child to respond. Through this type of interactive reading, the young child learns how to make sense of the story and may begin to act as a reader—joining in on parts she remembers and pretending to read the story on her own.17

To develop your child’s knowledge about written language

A caregiver writes a list using a bold marker as she talks to the child about her writing.

Two books opened to reveal colorful pictures with print text and braille text provided on clear overlays.

Children gather around a table with braille reading and writing supplies.

(Please see the Early Literacy Experiences chapter for a discussion of the many skills needed by a child on her way to literacy as well as experiences to build skills.)

Knowledge and Skills for Bridging into Reading

As your child’s experience with written language grows, she may become more curious about how the sounds within words are connected to braille or to print letters.18 Continue to use written language for everyday purposes, reading books aloud, making books, and encouraging her attempts to write and make marks. As you do, look for opportunities to comment on relationships between written words, letters, and letter-sounds. Answer her questions about how to form specific braille or print letters and words. Make your interactions fun and game-like.19

A child sits in an adaptive chair and plays with a toy that features print and braille letters.

Read-Aloud Reminders

Download this as PDF

Every child should have a read-aloud story time that

is fun and enjoyable

is shared with a reader who also enjoys the story

occurs every day or at a regular time

encourages participation —

  • holding toys related to the story
  • imitating animal sounds in the story
  • saying the repeated parts

appeals to personal interests or creates new ones

encourages talking about the story with the reader

allows time for talking about new or interesting words in the story

relates to familiar experiences or suggests new experiences to try

fits the level of understanding and attention span

opens the door to the fun of communicating in print and braille

creates a desire to read

Read-aloud story time should be fun for the child and fun for the reader!

Visit Our House!