Paths to Literacy

for students who are blind or visually impaired

Overview of Emergent Literacy

What is Emergent Literacy?

Young boy with glasses looks at picture book.

Emergent Literacy is a process involving the development of language and concepts, especially as they begin to be linked together.  This begins at birth, long before any formal instruction in braille or print.  Communication and literacy are interrelated, and the expression and comprehension of ideas is an essential first step on the path to literacy.  This may include listening and speaking, signing, using objects, pictures, gestures, or any combination of ways in which a child understands and interprets experiences. 

How is communication related to literacy?

Sighted children typically have been exposed to a flood of language, books, and experiences before they are formally taught to read and write.   Children who are blind or visually impaired, however, do not have the same access to incidental learning, and thus must be taught specific concepts that other children develop naturally.  Immersion in a language-rich environment in which objects are described, and events are discussed can help to establish a foundation for the development of literacy skills.


Early Literacy

“Literacy in its most basic form is the ability both to understand and to express one’s feelings, desires and experiences to others”  (Perkins Panda Resource Guide, 2002).  Using examples from Perkins Panda, this power point presentation by Tom Miller, Educational Partnerships Program, Perkins School for the Blind provides and overview of early literacy and how it develops. (Click here to download presentation in plain text.)  All too often, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. While this might be the highest level of literacy one can achieve, this definition is too narrow and fails to look at both how literacy develops and its many variations.  
To better understand literacy, we should first look at how it develops and some of the differences and similarities in the development of literacy for children with and without visual impairments.
The development of literacy is founded upon our experiences – beginning with birth – and our interactions with the world and those around us. Over time, these experiences enable us to develop the ability to connect meaning to words and letters. First, though, the path to literacy requires establishing communication and connecting meaning to objects, events and people in our world.
Perkins Panda

Early experiences are at the heart of literacy development

Through our senses, we experience events in the world. Through their repetition, we begin to anticipate their occurrence, and they begin to develop meaning for our lives. Through interaction with others, family and friends, we receive the language around these experiences, and we form a deeper understanding that words can communicate and express our desires to others. We begin to connect words with experiences, objects, and symbols (e.g. letters and numbers). And, we learn to use words through speech or writing to communicate our meaning and desires to others.
For sighted children, this process seems almost automatic. They are able to receive a full range of sensory experiences to enable them to quickly observe the patterns in their world and to connect words to these experiences and their symbols. They begin to identify objects, symbols and letters through their ongoing exposure via direct experience, television, and books. (For example, note the amount of information sighted children are exposed to during one episode of Sesame Street or another children’s show.)
For children with visual impairments – with or without additional disabilities – this seemingly automatic or incidental learning is not readily available.
In our primarily visual world, many experiences and the meaning of those experiences can be lost to children with visual impairments without special efforts on the part of parents and other caregivers to expose and interpret those experiences for them.
Touch, hearing and our other senses are not as efficient as vision in providing ready access to and understanding of childhood experiences. Understanding these experiences and connecting words or symbols to them, however, is essential to the development of literacy.
Learning literacy skills for children with visual impairments is closely tied to how we as caregivers enable them to experience childhood activities and how we interpret those activities to give them meaning. Literacy development is tied not only to exposing children to books, but also to objects, symbols (e.g. pictures, tangible symbols), and written language (e.g. words, braille).

Every child is unique, and children with visual impairments – with or without additional disabilities – will develop literacy skills to a wide range of levels.

For some children, literacy will be their ability to get meaning from objects in their daily experiences (e.g. cup=drink; towel=bath time). For other children, literacy will mean using tangible or more abstract symbols both to organize their day using a calendar box system and to make choices or communicate their needs. Other children may advance to use more formal forms of literacy such as print or braille.
Literacy in its most basic form is the ability both to understand and to express one’s feelings, desires and experiences to others – a system of communication.
All children with visual impairments need to be offered the opportunity to develop literacy skills to the best of their ability. Literacy is founded upon early and ongoing meaningful experiences – experiences given meaning through creating a language-rich environment for ALL children with visual impairments. 

The Opportunity to Build a Strong Foundation for Literacy is Every Child's Right

Literacy for the blind or visually impaired child is a gradual process which develops from experiences that are meaningful to him. He needs opportunities to:
Graphic of children engaging in literacy opportunities.

  • Develop motor skills fully
  • Develop language that is meaningful to him
  • Listen to many stories that do not depend on visual experiences or pictures
  • Explore the environment tactually
  • Handle books that are tactually interesting to him
  • Gain added enjoyment and meaning from stories through tactile interaction






emergent literacy collage


From: On the Way to Literacy: Early Experiences for Visually Impaired Children, APH for the Blind, Louisville, KY ©1991.
Graphic based on the original found in One the Way to Literacy, it has been simplified and colorized for optimal Internet viewing.

The materials in this section appeared on the e-advisor site, which was originally hosted by Boston Children's Hospital.  This material has now been moved to the website of Perkins School for the Blind.