Promoting Early Literacy for the Young Child with Deafblindness

a baby reads a book next to an adult family member

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

December 17, 2020

For the young child with deafblindness, home is the first and best place to begin literacy development, and it’s never too early to start! In this blog entry, we’re going to explore a couple of the components of literacy development, and some of the things parents and caregivers can do at home to promote this all-important skill.

Today, literacy encompasses many more things than simply the ability to read and write print or braille.  For very young thinkers, it can be reading your on-the-body touch cues (specific ways of touching a child that cues them as to what will happen next, as in picking them up), or understanding the meaning of the object you place in their hands that signifies an upcoming activity. And think of the ways you use literacy in your home: books, magazines, newspapers, grocery lists, ads, icons of well-known businesses (think MacDonald’s!), greeting cards, TV captions, and the list goes on. 

There are many factors that go in to becoming literate: auditory and visual discrimination, language/communication development, cognitive abilities, concept development, a child’s interest and motivation, exposure to reading and writing, environmental and parental influences, and of course specific teaching strategies. Let’s take a look at a couple of these factors: exposure to reading and writing, and environmental and parental influence, and some activities you can do at home to promote literacy.

Literacy begins at birth! It is not silly to read to your baby. Some people even read to their babies in utero. Babies learn a great deal about language and the sounds of language from being read to, especially when there are rhymes or when stories are repeated over and over.

Research studies bear this out over and again. Reading aloud is, according to the landmark 1985 report Becoming a Nation of Readers, "the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading." (readaloud.org).  And let me add reading and signing if appropriate. Reading aloud and/or signing helps build your child’s vocabulary, gives them a sense of “story” and that things happen in a sequence. You can prop the book up on a reading stand in order to both read and sign, or sign with one hand as you hold the book. In any event, try to let your child see the book, your face and your signs simultaneously. And don’t be limited by the print! Use props, facial expressions and body movements to convey the story.

In your home, establish a “print rich” environment in which many different kinds of print are displayed to be readily seen. Label, label, label! Label rooms, appliances such as the stove or refrigerator, room components such as cabinets, the sink, table, chair or window. Labeling a room with meaningful print exposes children to literacy skills. Place the labels at eye level for children, correctly spelled, and with neat, well-contrasted print. You can include photos or drawings, or symbol cards with partial objects or raised line drawings. Do this with your child as a joint activity so they can see what’s being done and the labels don’t magically appear. Write the word, and give the sign if your child uses sign language, and mount the label together. If you need to add braille, use puffy paint to create braille dots for the word.

Let your child see how you use literacy. Establish a reading time in the home when you let your child see you read, be it a book, newspaper or emails on the computer. Give him a book to look at while you read. Let him watch you make out a grocery list at home and then read it again together in the store as you gather your items. The more exposure your child has to words and signs, the more he will understand that they carry meaning and are useful.

You can set up a “reading/writing” corner in your home. Fill it with books, paper, crayons and markers that are readily available for your child to access. If appropriate, put a bean bag chair in the area to make it comfortable and inviting.

These are just a few of the myriad ways you can promote literacy in the home for your young child with deafblindness. Get creative as to how to include your child in the ways that you use literacy. Keep in mind how your child takes in information from the world whether visually, auditorily or tactually, and utilize those pathways to help develop his literacy skills, making it fun for all.

For more information, refer to the article “Literacy for Persons who are Deaf-blind” by Barbara Miles. M.Ed.