Paths to Literacy

for students who are blind or visually impaired

Overview of General Literacy

By Charlotte Cushman


What is Literacy?

A student points to letters to spell out a word during an outdoor lesson with her teacher.

In the past, the term literacy focused specifically on the ability to read and write, whereas now a broader definition is becoming increasingly accepted.  Speaking, listening, object communication, sign language, concept development, and an understanding of one's environment and experiences are all part of a more inclusive view of literacy.

Literacy encompasses many different formats, including print, braille, objects, speech, sign language, and other symbol systems.  All children, regardless of whether or not they have a vision loss or additional challenges, must begin with continued exposure to meaningful experiences.  In this sense, literacy is much more than learning to read, whether it be in braille or print, as it begins with an understanding of one's environment, including people, activities, and routines.  Learning to communicate about these experiences may be through speech, sign language, objects, or some combination of these.

To learn more about definitions of literacy, see The Impact of Literacy on the Expanded Core Curriculum. Dr. Phil Hatlen, Superintendent, TSBVI, explores definitions of literacy in this 2003 address.

The Importance of Literacy for All

Literacy is crucial to independence, as well as to quality of life.  It has a strong impact on one's ability to participate in society, and there is a high correlation between literacy and employment rates.  In recent years, the rates of braille literacy have declined sharply, due to a variety of factors.  At the same time, many have greater access to information through technological means that are available to people at an increasingly early age. 

The problem of illiteracy in this country is by no means limited to those who are blind or visually impaired.  It is estimated that more than 30 million people in the United States over the age of 16 are functionally illiterate, meaning that they are unable to fill out a job application or to read a newspaper written at an eighth grade level.  Internationally,  there are 774 million adults around the world who are illiterate in their native languages.  Across all populations those who are literate tend to have higher incomes, be healthier, and live more independent lives.


Reading is reading. 

Issues and concerns about reading for children who are sighted apply also to children with visual impairments. 

Strategies to promote literacy for children with blindness or visual impairment:

  • Determine what medium is best for an individual child through the Learning Media Assessment.  This may be braille, print, dual media, auditory strategies, objects, symbols, or some combination.
  • Provide books and literacy tools in a format that is accessible to the child.
  • Read aloud using stories and books that are interesting and appropriate for the child.
  • Create a literacy-rich environment, in which the child knows that others are reading and writing.

There are additional strategies throughout this website and we hope that you will share your ideas and questions.

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