From Amy Shepherd, MDE-LIO Parent Liaison, MEd, Perkins-Roman Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) Range Endorsee
Think back to your early formative experiences with books. What special childhood memories of reading still linger? Did you cuddle up in the lap of a loved one? Were you tucked into bed “snug as a bug”? Was it the thrill of running to the bookmobile as it arrived in your neighborhood? Was it the anticipation of being transported to a magical world?
I experienced all of these things, but the memory that stays with me most is the magical book nook in my first-grade classroom. Mr. Jennings’ book nook was an old claw foot bathtub piled high with large throw pillows. It could comfortably fit two students during reading time. The opportunity to snuggle into the magical reading nook and escape within a good book was very motivating.
Importance of Early Literacy
Early literacy is more than simply memorizing letters and numbers. It’s an accumulation of abundant reading experiences that are enhanced through imaginative and independent play. All children need opportunities to interact with a variety of books, to ignite their imagination about the world around them, and to discover the enchantment of reading and writing through imaginative play.
Children who are Blind/Visually Impaired (BVI) don’t have the eyesight to pick up on the constant bombardment of environmental literacy, referred to as incidental learning for their sighted peers, so opportunities for early literacy experiences need to be intentionally built into everyday routines. Providing positive reading experiences at home can inspire motivation and confidence while creating an environment that is conducive to early literacy learning.
Set Up a Book Nook
Take a page from Mr. Jennings’ book and create a special book nook for your child. Ideally, it will be a space that they naturally gravitate to, a place where they feel safe and have immediate access to a variety of reading materials.
Engage your child in turning the space into something magical by adding comfy pillows or building a tent out of sheets. My favorite book nook in my childhood home was my bedroom closet. Shutting the doors and flopping into a big bean bag was like entering a cozy, quiet world of my own. My son, who was a dual print and braille reader as a young child, had a book nook in a little room under our basement stairs. It was the perfect size for a small chair, a few comfy pillows on the floor, and stackable book bins. He spent hours in that little room and often fell asleep on the floor, literally covered in books.
Create Story Boxes
Another way to infuse wonder into your child’s early reading experiences is to turn their favorite books into story boxes. Story boxes are a creative and interactive way for emerging readers to experience a story, understand concepts, and make connections to real world applications. Students who are BVI often miss out on the magic and imagination gained from looking at the pictures in a book. Emergent readers use pictures as cues to retell a familiar story long before they are able to interpret the words on a page. Gathering a few real objects that represent images or important concepts from the story can help a child make important connections as they manipulate and explore the object while reading.
Depending on the stories you choose, you can often find the objects you need around the house, at the dollar store, or at a craft store—and you certainly don’t need to have an object for every image in the book. For example, a story box for Goodnight Moon could include simple household items to illustrate parts of the story, such as your child's comb, hairbrush, and a pair of mittens. The magic of story boxes is that they can be used to inspire independent and imaginative play as well as guided reading experiences with a caregiver.
Take time to handle and talk about each object before reading the story. This can lead to conversations about real-life experiences and build understanding of key concepts that might otherwise be missed. In addition to Goodnight Moon, some of my son’s favorite story boxes were Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See; Sheep in a Jeep; My Favorite Toys; and Getting Dressed. The latter two books were real-life experience stories we created ourselves by taking pictures of his toys and clothing, printing the images on paper, and stapling them together like a book. Although it was very low-tech, it was effective because he got a kick out of reading stories in which he was the star character!
Sing Songs and Rhymes
When my boys were young, one of my favorite ways to have fun with words was to put words to familiar rhymes and songs. The magic of saying a silly rhyme or singing a silly song is that your kids won’t realize they’re learning—they’re just having fun with you! Every adult in my immediate family still remembers our address and phone number from our first home 20 years ago because I created a simple song for them with a catchy familiar tune. We sang those songs so many times that they are forever imprinted on our brains! We sang songs to learn how to spell names and to introduce letter sounds by connecting them to the first letter of familiar objects.
You don’t have to create these songs yourself; find some silly letter and word songs online and sing them together. Rhyming and singing stimulates the imagination and demonstrates the use of language. It creates magical opportunities to celebrate and enjoy words and the sounds they make.