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Impact of CVI: Building a foundation for literacy

Incidental learning often isn’t accessible for kids with CVI. Here’s what your child’s team should know.

A young girl in a wheelchair wearing pink glasses with a big smile on her face.

The foundation for literacy development begins as soon your child is born. It’s when she begins to use her senses to learn about the world around her and to discover her place among other people, objects, and events. These early experiences pave the way for all future learning, as language is connected with the development of concepts. We use our past experiences (visual, tactual, auditory) to decipher and understand new information.

Literacy is built upon learning from broad experiences, linking language with the development of concepts and providing exposure to the written word in a variety of meaningful contexts. In that vein, most early learning is acquired passively, or incidentally, through observation.

Here’s the tough part: Incidental learning often isn’t accessible for kids with CVI. Think about all the ways we use literacy when running to the grocery store. We read a recipe and write out ingredients; identify the store by its logo and name; go into a door marked “enter”; and spot a cart and inherently know how to use it. For people with CVI, this can’t happen naturally. All of these ordinary concepts need to be explicitly taught.

Download NDCB’s Steps to Literacy Guide

Importantly, literacy can be learned. Kids with CVI require the same opportunities to develop the foundational skills required for future literacy skill development presented in an assessment-driven way: methodical, intentional, and accessible. Literacy involves our understanding of symbols regardless of form; for kids with CVI, this can include objects, pictures, photographs, tactile symbols, or print/braille. As kids with CVI interact with the world around them in appropriate ways, they can begin to understand concepts. They can begin to attach meaning to words and to their world.

Regardless of your child’s age, it’s so important that team members take a “whole child” approach, where they look at various areas of development and drive recommendations based on assessment. Literacy media (such as print, braille, photographs, pictures, or objects) can’t be determined by one sole tool or provider. Collaboration and thoughtful planning are essential for building rich literacy programming.

Who can work together to evaluate literacy skills and accessibility?

  • Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI): Your TVI will conduct a Functional Vision Assessment/CVI evaluation that looks at your child’s accessible visual, auditory, and tactile media. The TVI can help discuss which form of visual media is appropriate for your child based on her visual needs and conceptual level. The TVI supports material adaptations, incorporation of accommodations, and implements teaching strategies. The TVI often uses a Learning Media Assessment (LMA) to evaluate sensory channel use, among many other areas. Sensory channel use and efficiency is incredibly important to determine how well your child can use senses to gather information required for learning. This evaluates visual, tactile, and auditory efficiency. The LMA was originally designed for children with ocular impairments, so it’s important that the TVI evaluating your child has a strong understanding of the implications of CVI when using this tool. The TVI works with your educational team to support the inclusion of accessible literacy across the Common Core and Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC).
  • General Education Teacher/Special Educator: He or she will conduct an evaluation of literacy skills and developmental level within your state’s Literacy Curriculum Frameworks and determine how to incorporate these skills into the common core curriculum.
  • Reading Specialist: He or she works with students having challenges with reading or writing and supports instruction and evaluation.
  • Speech-language pathologist (SLP): An SLP works to identify your child’s communication level by assessing her expressive, receptive, and social language, using tools such as the Communication Matrix. The SLP works with your team to design appropriate communication-based assistive technology (Alternative-Augmentative Communication, or AAC) ranging from low-tech object symbols to high-tech augmentative communication devices, such as the use of TouchChat. The SLP also engages your child in language therapy targeting many areas, such as vocabulary development, expanding functional communication skills, and social exchanges.
  • Occupational Therapist (OT): An OT may support your team in helping with your child’s posture, seating, and positioning. He or she supports the identification of appropriate tools (i.e. writing utensils, assistive devices) and supports handwriting-associated skills such as muscular strength and control, visual motor integration, muscular endurance, coordination, and motor planning. An OT may also work with your team to target cognitive skills related to processing and understanding of content.

Right now, there are many promising practices surrounding accessible literacy for children with CVI. But research to support these practices or the methodology behind them is limited; it continues to be an area of need. It’s important that teams work together to support your child in acquiring literacy skills through careful evaluation that monitors effectiveness. Acknowledging the wide breath of literacy skills in life is essential. Remember: Building a strong foundation sets the stage for future learning.

Here are some ways that kids with CVI might struggle with literacy

Your child may be able to look towards objects, pictures, or words. But that doesn’t mean that she recognizes or understands them. Skills, such as looking, are different from grasping concepts. Explicit instruction and assessment are both necessary to understand what your child knows. Visual attribute language such as “tall,” “curved,” or “below the” must be explicitly taught for full concepts of symbols to develop.

Your child also may struggle with interpreting stories read aloud or have difficulty understanding abstract concepts due to limited life experiences with various objects, people, and events. She may miss the teacher’s facial expression when listening to stories and lose context. When looking at pictures of people and characters, your child may not interpret the presented body language or affect that gives valuable context clues that could otherwise help her understand the text.

Your child may also need time to attend and recognize materials. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t understand, but just that she requires extra time to break down visual information and make sense of it.

Clutter can significantly affect accessibility, too. Having too many objects, letters, words, or sentences presented at once increases the complexity of presentation. When reading an eye chart at the optometrist’s office, your child may be able to identify the letter in isolation–but once it’s presented on a line of letters, she can’t identify it. Size, type, and color of font can support visual attention and recognition, but this must be carefully evaluated and supported by data.

Children with CVI may only attend to one side of a book due to visual field neglect. If a book is placed on a tabletop instead of in the child’s accessible visual field, that information no longer becomes available.

Learn more about evaluations and CVI assessments to guide literacy programming.

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