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Teaching Beginning Pre-Literacy Skills to Preschool Students with Multiple Disabilities

Tips to teach early literacy skills to young children who are blind, visually impaired, deafblind or who have multiple disabilities

Typically when we think of pre-literacy activities, we think of increasing tactual and print awareness, object and letter identification, and book handling skills.  Learning literacy skills begins even before students learn to recognize and identify objects, letters and words.  Students with multiple disabilities need to learn the movements that will support their vision and compensatory skills in regards to reading.

Moving Left to Right

Students with multiple disabilities should participate daily in activities that will prepare them for reading print or braille for functional or academic purposes.  Moving left to right is a pre-cursor to reading print or braille from left to right.  Students also need to learn to move up and down, which will lead to learning to look down to the next line or picture on a page. As students gain the skills to participate in whole body movements, often they can generalize those skills to smaller movements.  Ideally, students will learn to just move their eyes or head, or have the ability to move their hands and fingers across the page.

Students can learn to move left to right and up or down in a variety of fun and purposeful activities. Vision and tactile skills can be developed during reading, gross motor, vision, art and music experiences.   


student with 3 strawberries

Exploring Objects

During story times, when students are exploring multiple objects, (it may be a good idea to start with one and work up to three or four) place the items in a row on their workspace.  Highlight and identify each item, working your way from left to right.  This can be translated to choice making: when they are using objects to make a choice from a field of two, three or four, place the items in a row.  Then again, present each item from left to right.  If the student is a visual learner, you can pick up the item when you identify it, or shine a light on the item.  If they are a tactual learner, use hand under hand support to locate and identify each choice, again moving left to right. 



Another fun activity is experimenting with swinging, which also increases sensory awareness.  Move the swing from left to right.  If the student has the ability to push off with their feet, encourage this movement.  By simply encouraging the student to learn this left to right movement, they develop muscle memory and remember the sensation of the movement. 


Using Lights

A third activity to support left to right is to use lights.  A switch and a Select Switch box can be set up to control lights in stages.  For example, plug in two lights.  When the student pushes the switch the first time, the light on the left will light up.  When the push it again, the light on the right turns on.  As the student repeats the activity, they will to learn to use their vision to look from left to right and then return to the left.  (This also helps shift of gaze, which is another important visual skill for reading). 

student playing with multi-colored parachute

Parachute Play

Parachute play is a fun way to work on gross motor and pre-literacy skills. You can also use it to teach the left/right skills and the up/down skills.  To make the parachute play more fun, put a musical toy on the parachute, such as a ball with bells inside.  (Be careful with sensory overload; sometimes the student needs to work up to integrating this much input.)  Gel bags on a light box can teach student to look down.  Place the light box upright and secure a gel bag to it.  The gel will move down, encouraging the student to follow the gel. 


Art Activities

Vision skills can be taught during art activities.  A fun activity for left/right or up/down is the classic marble painting.  Line a work tray or box with paper, place large marbles in the tray.  Encourage or assist (using hand under hand support) the student to move the tray from left to right and right to left or to move it up and down.  This teaches their hands the movements and it also teaches visual tracking. Students can also hear the marbles moving from side to side, which increases the amount of sensory input they are receiving.


Music Activities

student playing with multicolored parachuteMusic activities can also focus on these skills.  They can hold bells, shakers or other small instruments during a song and raise their arms up/ down, left to right.  This activity usually requires modeling and hand under hand support, but as they participate in the activity on a regular basis, their independence level will increase.  You can also move the instrument from left to right or up/down in their visual field during the song.  Again, this may be a difficult activity for students learning to integrate vision while participating in other sensory activities.  Work slowly; building your way from the student learning to track the instrument without additional music, to tracking while you are singing or a song is playing.


These are just a few examples of activities that support movements and development of visual skills.  It can be helpful to lay the groundwork for students to learn these skills before they are required to learn to identify letters and learn to read using a print/braille or object system. 

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