An image showing page flippers strategy for literacy.

Early Literacy for Students with Multiple Disabilities or Deafblindness

Deirdre Leech talks about the challenges that parents and teachers of students with multiple disabilities and deafblindness face with regard to literacy.

Students with multiple disabilities, including deafblindness face many learning challenges. They do not learn literacy in typical ways. Often they do not have exposure to books and literacy based materials. Children with hearing loss may not have heard stories read aloud, and may not have used books on tape. The goal for these students is to maximize access using specialized formats.

In this webcast, Deirdre Leech talks about the challenges that parents and teachers of students with multiple disabilities and deafblindness face with regard to literacy. She also offers early literacy activities that teachers can perform with students and different ways teachers can adapt books for their students.

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Download handout: Literacy Around Every Corner »

Presented by Deirdre Leech, M.Ed.

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. Introduction
  2. Challenges
  3. Early Literacy
  4. Adapting Books
  5. Conclusion

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Early Literacy for Students with Multiple Disabilities or Deafblindness with Deirdre Leech.LEECH: Hi, my name is Deirdre Leech, and today’s topic for the Webcast is Early Literacy for Students with Multiple Disabilities and/or Deafblindness. I am a teacher in the Deafblind Program at the Perkins School for the Blind. And I’m very interested in the topic of literacy, for the past several years, particularly the last three to four years, since taking a class taught by Leslie University here at Perkins on just this topic. And this really inspired me to think about all of the things that we could be doing with regard to literacy with our students. We thought we were doing a lot, but when I took this class, I realized there was so much more we could be doing.

The main topics I’m going to cover today are the challenges that parents and teachers face for students with multiple disabilities and deafblindness with regard to literacy. Secondly, I’m going to talk about some early literacy activities that we can do with our students. And lastly, I’m going to talk about different ways we can adapt books for all of our students.

When we look at the definition of literacy, the older definition is ‘the ability to read and write.’ And if we look at many of our students here at Perkins today, they… they may not fit into that category. But when you look at the newer definition, which is ‘a proficiency in understanding and using written language, as well as spoken language, as a reader, writer, speaker, and listener,’ it really encompasses many more of our students, and we think of many more of our students as readers or writers.

The newer definition is more an integrated process, which develops gradually from birth. It looks at building literacy concepts and experiences from a broad experience and linking language with the development of concepts. In addition, the newer definition looks at providing exposure to the written the word in a variety of meaningful contexts. And if you look at that in its entirety, we really do encompass all of our students in this definition and don’t just see them as readers or nonreaders or writers or non-writers. We see them all as readers and writers.


CHAPTER 2: Challenges

LEECH: Now I’m going to look at some of the challenges that our students face. Primarily, our students have limited opportunities for incidental learning, in that they are not overseeing and overhearing their parents, their siblings, their peers reading, writing, making up shopping lists, all of those activities that occur on a daily basis.

Challenges of early literacy experiences.Our students also do not hear the language and stories being read if they have hearing impairments. And for a lot of our students who are medically fragile, medical interventions often take precedence over other learning opportunities, which include literacy. Students also have a delayed concept development due to these lack of early literacy experiences because of motor impairments, visual impairments, hearing impairments, health issues, and behavioral issues.

Another challenge that our students face is the limited exposure of stories being read aloud. They have limited opportunity for reading time. They have limited access to accessible print materials such as dual-media books, books in Braille, auditory books, tactile books. In addition, students and parents often have limited sign language capabilities to communicate a story that’s being read in a storybook. Communication strategies that teachers utilize when reading stories are often hard to replicate at home. In other words, tactile books, using objects to communicate a story are not done, and it’s often not seen as a priority for children that are small.

For lack of motivation, we can look at it a couple of different ways: for the child, for the parents, and for teachers. For the child, they may see no value in books or reading. It just may not be something that they are motivated by or find it’s an interesting thing to do in their free time. So for that, we might look at considering music, sounds, books with flip-ups, tactile components, and movement.

For parents, it’s hard because you may not get enough feedback from the child or response from the child when you’re reading stories to them. They also may not think that the child is enjoying this time, because it’s often a time that parents of typical children take to bond and to, you know, before bed, as a routine. So if that’s not seen as an enjoyable time, it just doesn’t happen.

And for teachers, it can be very time consuming to make materials that are appropriate for all of the students in your class. You could have a class with students who are primarily blind. You could have a student who is primarily deaf, or you could have a student who is totally deafblind and with other multiple disabilities. And that can be very challenging when you are trying to create materials and books that are accessible to everyone.

The next slide shows some pictures of some motivating books and some of the components I’ve talked about. The tactile component, the auditory component, and the movement and flip-ups are examples.


CHAPTER 3: Early Literacy

Early Literacy.LEECH: Early on, children really need to participate in as many literacy activities in any way possible. So the theory is really exposure, exposure, exposure. First off, we think about modifying the environment. So having visual, tactile, and sign language alphabets accessible to children. If you look at any preschool classroom in any school, you will see alphabets on the wall, on the desks, in the, you know, all over the classroom. So we need to think about making that accessible for all of our students. Labeling the environment is also very important. We label students’ coat hooks, their cubbies where they keep their personal items, their desk, and any other personal items with a form that is accessible to the student, their desk, be it Braille or tactile.

The use of bulletin boards is also important, but we need to think about it differently for students with disabilities, because they may not be seeing or accessing all of the information we display on bulletin boards in typical school buildings. So when you think about displaying unit vocabulary or displaying your favorite books that you might like, you have to make sure that the bulletin board is at a level that the student can access and read if they’re using their hands or else setting up – organizing a classroom so that the students know where they can go to access that thematic unit vocabulary or, you know, other things that the classroom might be working on.

Another thing that’s very important is name symbols. All of our students have name symbols that we use when we’re labeling all of their personal items or that the other students can access so that they know when we’re talking about another student. And they’re often used in attendance cards, in morning meeting, and for other labeling situations.

Book handling skills are important to encourage for students of all abilities.Book handling skills are also important to encourage for students of all abilities. It’s important to address the language around the top and the bottom of a book, that you can touch and feel books and explore them, page turning, reading from left to right and top to bottom, if we’re looking at Braille or text. And that a book has a title and it has an author; it has a front and a back. These photos show some students at the library, and they’re exploring books of all different kinds. And I think it’s important just to encourage students to go not only to the regular library to explore books, but to really build your own at home and in classrooms of books that are accessible and that are interesting and motivating to all students and children.

Experience stories are another way you can connect and incorporate literacy with children. Experience stories are stories written by teachers and students and incorporate real-life experiences. We talk about events that have happened during the day and write sentences about them and just combine any medium that we need to. So if the student uses Braille, if they use objects, pictures, print, any combination of which, to communicate something about a photograph or an event or something that happened. These experience stories are really helpful in that you can bring them back out, and they can be used over and over again. The next picture is a picture of a student who is creating an experience story – or has created an experience story about a school event, and you can see that the objects in the story are then described underneath with Braille and with tactile representations of each of the words in the sentence.

Another way to use literacy in a nice, functional way is to do daily journals and home books. Every child in our school does a daily journal at the end of the day, and we write about events that have happened during the day, you know, anything that – just to, you know, support memory and connect what this sentence and this picture just to, you know, support memory and connect what this sentence and this picture mean to the student. And then they can bring that home, share it with the parents, and then parents often rerecord, if it’s on a device, or write something in about the student’s evening and come in the next day, so that can be supported in both the home and school environments.

Story boxes and literacy kits are another nice way to look at reading books in a meaningful way. Story boxes are primarily if you have an adaptive book that’s appropriate for a student – for each student, and then props related to the story. It might also contain switches that the student can use as you’re reading the story.

Literacy kits are a little more than that. They incorporate not only everything that we said in the story box, but they also might have communication boards, switches, and then extension activities such as work sheets, games, sentence starters, electronic activities that can be done on the computer, and then assessment activities. So it’s taking the book to the next level.

This picture is an example of a story box or a literacy kit for a student on this book Inside, Outside, Upside Down, and it has all of the objects that you might need when reading the story. For a student who is, you know, not necessarily reading text yet, may need the object to support and then also may need the objects when you are going to assess the comprehension or the vocabulary within the story.

Story boxes.Story boxes can be looked at from – in different levels, from the very concrete to more abstract. For a concrete story box – for a student who might need a concrete story box, you might look at just having the objects only. Then, as the student is ready or as they get, you know, better at reading the story and understanding what these objects mean when reading the story, you might look at reading a book with a more repetitive line and have objects and materials related to that story as well.

The next level would be more story books with more materials that may be a little more challenging. And then finally, for the more abstract level, we might look at more curriculum books with materials. So it’s good to think about and look at where your student is at in that spectrum and not start on a too high of a level or, you know, maybe even too low of a level. Story boxes also may have cutouts, puppets, other things representing some of the concepts and ideas in the book. And I think it’s important to choose books that have familiar experiences for the student and really to use as many real objects as possible instead of miniature objects or things like that. You want to think about what is the student feeling when they touch the object and what meaning does that have to the student.

Making your own books is often an option if you can’t find traditional trade books that meet your needs. So if that’s the case, you may look at making your own book. It may promote – It promotes language skills. They can teach that books come in a variety of shapes and sizes, that they have the various parts that we talked about; the front, the back, the, you know, the top and the bottom. And that books contain pictures and they also have text that we read left to right and all of those things. And when you’re making a book with a student, you can use all of that language and share all of that language. Some homemade concept books, which are another way of making books, can help teach different concepts that students may need to learn, such as actions, colors, shapes, sizes, and spatial relationships.


CHAPTER 4: Adapting Books

Adapting Books.LEECH: Now I’m going to look at how to adapt books. There’s three ways we can look at adapting books. We can modify the text, we can modify the picture in the book, or we can modify the actual book. And all of these are going to meet the needs of every student.

When we modify the text, we want to think about what is the student getting out of the text. So if they’re reading Braille, you want to adapt a book with Braille on top of the text or below the text.

For a student who may just need the print enlarged, you might think about typing – retyping out the print and replacing smaller print with larger print so that the student can then see the print.

For students who may need a contrast between the print and the background, you may think about replacing that as well. And finally, you may need to support the print in a book for a student who uses tactile symbols with those tactile symbols. The following is an example of a book that has been adapted for a student who uses tactile objects and symbols.

Modifying picture is important for students who might have cortical visual impairment or low vision. Modifying the picture, this is important, too, for students who might have cortical visual impairment or low vision. For some students, you may want to simplify the background. So a lot of the books we get are very visually cluttered. We have no trouble seeing the small details in all of the, you know, different colorful pictures in books, but I think for some of our students, we need to choose what the, you know, main idea is in the book or what, you know, if it’s the title or if it’s a page within the book, what the, you know, main idea is, and you might need to highlight that. So you may need to cut the picture out and put it on a black background or a different color background to just highlight that, because you really want to bring the student’s attention to that picture.

For a student with cortical visual impairment who may, for example, be drawn to the color orange, you may outline that picture with orange either tape or ‘Sticky Wikki’ or different materials like that. You also may need to provide a tactile enhancement to a picture, and you can think about, you know, what the student individually needs before you do that.

For modifying the book, you may think about a student's physical and fine motor needs when you do that.For modifying the book, you may think about a student’s physical and fine motor needs when you do that. So we often might use cardboard to make the pages thicker and make it easier to manipulate so students can turn the pages independently, and this gives students a lot of, you know, builds their self-esteem if they can do more independently. So we’re always looking at ways to do that. ‘Page Fluffers’ are another thing that can be used, and those are just little foam tabs that you can put at the corner – top right-hand corner of the page so that the student can also find that, grab it. Not only tactilely, but they might need a different color to see it visually to turn the page.

You also might want to rebind the book so that it stays open more easily, and this is particularly true if you’re signing a book to a student or if you need to sign tactilely with a student. It’s very hard to keep the pages open in a book – in a typical book. So rebinding it and maybe using the spiral binding, I guess, allows the book to stay open, and you can, you know, then communicate with your student.

Sometimes you might have students who might like to rip pages out of books or put books in their mouths, and for that, you can take the pages out of the book and put them in those plastic protective sheets. It’s a very simple thing, but it can lengthen the life of your book and allow you to use it for a lot longer. You can also laminate pages.

And then also, you might want to provide some tactile enhancements to the book. The next picture shows a book that is adapted tactilely, so it’s – and it’s actually a good example, too, because it might show an example of motivation for students who really like music and songs and singsongy type of stories. So this book, as the student opens the book, each page and each song have their own tactile cue. And so the student has to find that cue and then has to go over to the side and find which button is going to activate that song. So this is a nice way also to, you know, to promote, you know, tactile exploration and things like that for students of all abilities.

Other ways we can modify books are by putting a book on tape or CD. So the student might have – then have a switch, and then they can indicate that they want to read more or, you know, that they like it or, you know, other comments that the student maybe can make. You can also create an electronic version of the book on a tape or CD or mp3.

You can put a book into PowerPoint and other software, and the student can then click through the book. And books can also be made accessible using switch or touch screen for students who use those materials and adaptations.


CHAPTER 5: Conclusion

LEECH: In summary, incorporating literacy into all aspects of our students’ education is very important, and I think that through doing this, we might discover that children actually enjoy reading books, which is a wonderful thing to foster. Students may then choose reading as a free-time activity. They also – Some other positive outcomes are that they have an awareness that symbols represent meaning, that they understand that stories come from print and have an awareness of the structure of a story; it has a beginning and a middle and an end.

Page fluffers.Students may also learn to differentiate between book language versus conversational language, which, you know, we use so much when we communicate, but then, when you read a book, it’s a much different type of language and learning that they can gain meaning from both of those. It also helps develop vocabulary and book-handling skills, as we’ve mentioned. So there’s many positive outcomes.

You also want to think about assessing not only reading books, but you want to assess what your students are learning. So by using meaningful activities I think is – is very important to assess what your students are learning from their book-reading time. I always think that finding ways to increase students’ independence, whether it’s using assistive technology or just by the design of the activity, are very important. And you also want to think about your teaching time versus your assessment time.

So there are times where you may just want to sit and read a book, and that’s fine. But then there are times where you might want to assess what the student has learned or comprehended during that reading time. So you need to think about differentiating those two times and not, you know, overlapping. And then sometimes you may want to just purposely change things and observe. So inverting letters or inverting text or, you know, moving pictures around or different things, especially when you’re making your own books, and seeing, you know, what your students are comprehending. It’s a great way to, you know, assess their learning.

And finally, this is my favorite quote, is, “Every child is a potential reader.” I think we need to compare this to our original definition, which looked at a student being – having the ability to read or write. And I think, if we look at our students and all of the things we can do with them that really every child has the potential to read and write.

Early Literacy for Students with Multiple Disabilities or Deafblindness with Deirdre Leech.

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