This Mattered to Me
"Reading Comes Naturally: A Mother and Her Blind Child's Experiences," by Diane D. Miller, published in the January 1985 issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Volume 79, pp. 1-4.
Print edition page number(s) 188-189
The series editor of "This Mattered to Me" is Stuart H. Wittenstein, Ed.D., superintendent of the California School for the Blind.
Nearly 25 years have passed since I first read Diane Miller's article entitled, "Reading Comes Naturally: A Mother and Her Blind Child's Experiences" in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB). At the time, I had been teaching for nine years and was in my third year working with beginning braille readers in a resource room setting. I had subscribed to JVIB when I was in graduate school and regularly read articles related to children. However, rarely had an article enticed me as much as this one. The personal narrative format was appealing, and, as a teacher of reading, I looked forward to learning from the author's experiences in the area of emergent literacy.
In this article, Diane Miller describes her efforts to provide her preschool-aged daughter Jamaica, who was born blind, with the same early literacy experiences as her two sighted siblings. Ms. Miller brought to this challenge her background as a graphic designer, training as a teacher of visually impaired students (when Jamaica was three years old), and a commitment to the whole-language reading philosophy. This approach, which became widespread in the 1980s, advocated a focus on meaning before the introduction of isolated skills; teachers matched instructional activities to individual learners' interests, experiences, and skill levels, while using high-quality, authentic reading materials (Swenson, 1999).
The author's first sentences made an impact on me with their message of equal expectations for children who are blind and sighted:
I use the word reading in exactly the same sense as when a sighted child picks up a favorite book and thumbs through retelling the story in his or her own words. The child is obviously aware of the meaning and wholeness of that book.
Embedded in this introduction are important emergent reading behaviors: independent choice of preferred books; development of book-handling skills, such as locating the front cover and turning pages; the ability to retell a story; the understanding that print or braille contains an important message; and, finally, the sense of pleasure books can bring when the content is motivating. The author notes that families and teachers should encourage children's early approximations of these reading behaviors, as they are important steps along the road to formal literacy. She continues her description of the literary environment she creates for Jamaica with many practical suggestions for assembling homemade books, recording "auditory experience albums," and adapting commercial books for young children who are blind.
Diane Miller's successful inclusion of Jamaica in her family's literacy activities is a testament to the power of family members as their children's first and most important teachers. Tactile learners don't acquire emergent literacy skills incidentally, as do most print readers; rather, it takes considerable time and effort to create appropriate learning materials and activities for them. The article also highlights the benefits of a family member learning braille even before a child begins formal reading instruction.
At the time when this article was published, I, too, was discovering that the whole-language philosophy, with its emphasis on meaningful and motivating instruction, was ideally suited to the literacy needs of young children who were blind. Ms. Miller's story expanded my repertoire of teaching strategies and confirmed that the success I was seeing with my own young braille readers was not isolated. As I began publishing myself, I referenced Diane Miller's work in my first article for JVIB, entitled, "Using an Integrated Literacy Curriculum with Beginning Braille Readers" (Swenson, 1988) and later in my book Beginning with Braille: Firsthand Experiences with a Balanced Approach to Literacy (Swenson, 1999). Over the years, I have shared the article highlighted in this essay with many families and colleagues. I believe that readers of this essay, especially teachers of students with visual impairments, will still find it to be a valuable resource for themselves and the families they serve.
"Reading Comes Naturally: A Mother and Her Blind Child's Experiences" is a seminal work in the area of literacy for young children at the emergent stage of braille reading. Its themes are as fresh, accessible, and relevant today as they were when the article was first written. Diane Miller's positive message and practical ideas continue to inspire families and teachers as they work together to create optimal early literacy environments for children who are blind or visually impaired.
On the web
The article relating to this commentary is available free to subscribers at JVIB Online: <www.afb.org/afbpress/pubjvib.asp?DocID=jvib040308>. Nonsubscribers may purchase a copy of the article from the JVIB Classics area of AFB's ePublications web site: <www.afb.org/ePublications/JVIBClassics>.
Swenson, A. M. (1999). Beginning with braille: Firsthand experiences with a balanced approach to literacy. New York: AFB Press.
Swenson, A. M. (1988). Using an integrated literacy curriculum with beginning braille readers. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 82, 336-338.
Anna M. Swenson, M.Ed., teacher of students who are visually impaired, Fairfax County Public Schools, 2334 Gallows Road, Dunn Loring, VA 22027; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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