Language Arts

A young boy shares his experience book with an adult.
A young boy shares his experience book with an adult.

Language arts skills at the earliest levels include listening and speaking, expanding both children’s understanding of what they hear, as well as their ability to communicate their own ideas and experiences. As children get older reading and writing become a part of the standard curriculum. Communication skills are also part of the Expanded Core Curriculum for students who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, and deafblind. Children with significant disabilities need to focus on emergent skills for a long time, so their work will look different from their peers in many ways. That is okay!

Challenges in Language Arts

For many children with significant disabilities communication and language development are critical and often areas where they are extremely challenged. This might occur for a variety of reasons that include:

    • sensory impairments,
    • cognitive impairments,
    • physical impairments that impact the ability to produce speech or written language, and/or
    • medical issues that impact the child’s access to necessary experiential learning opportunities.

Challenges with language frequently contribute to behavioral challenges as the child becomes frustrated with others inability to understand what he wants or needs or thinks. Active Learning definitely has a place in developing the language arts.

Speaking and Listening

A young girl experiments with sound and vocalizes while playing with an Echo Bucket.
A young girl experiments with sound and vocalizes while playing with an Echo Bucket.

There are many pre-requisite skills necessary in developing language. These include first recognizing various components of speech or sign language. For children who are deaf, blind, visually impaired, or deafblind the teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing, speech-language pathologist, and/or teacher of students with visual impairments or teacher of students who are deafblind play a critical role in adapting instruction. More about this can be found in the Expanded Core Curriculum pages under Implementation.

Here are just a few activities that can help a child develop some of these critical skills:

      • Vocalizing while playing in a Little Room, on a Resonance Board, or with an Echo Bucket;
      • Experimenting with sounds made by various objects using any of the Active Learning equipment;
      • Playing singing and rhyming games with an adult such as Itsy, Bitsy, Spider or Pat-a-cake;
      • Making and listening to interesting sounds made with the voice;
      • Blowing bubbles in water (helps with breathing needed to vocalize) or blowing soap bubbles;
      • Listening to simple stories, poems, or songs read by an adult;
      • Making and listening to various pitches, rhythms, sound levels using the voice, drums, guitars, etc.
      • Listening to simple sentences from an adult describing the child’s activity during play such as “You bang the drum.”, “I heard the bell.”, “Your hands are sticky.” Remember, don’t interrupt the play with your comments. Wait until the child takes a short break in the activity and/or reflect on the play after he is finished.

Concept Development

A young boys explores a pile of autumn leaves with his teacher.
A young boys explores a pile of autumn leaves with his teacher.

Concept development, a critical part of language, is a life-long process. At the earliest stages of development concepts are tied to real-life experiences. Active Learning is all about hands-on experiential learning! When thinking about the standard curriculum, it is important to identify critical concepts from the large vocabulary the child’s peers may be learning. So a unit focused on life in the ocean might mean that the child will learn about salty water, sand, rocks, shells, and fish. If the child is able to experience the ocean directly that is ideal, but in the classroom this might mean doing things like playing in bins of salty water or sand with objects like shells and rocks. Can the child explore a fish from the grocery store using hands and noses or go fishing with his siblings? If the child has vision, can she watch fish in an aquarium and help feed them or clean the aquarium. You get the idea.

The focus should also be not just on objects but also on actions the child can make or experiencing others make. Start with the movements the child can make and give them names. For example, rock, bang, throw, scoot, chew, etc.

Emotions are also important for the child to learn. Give name to the emotions you see the child expressing. Play games of making surprised, excited, sad, goofy, angry faces. 

Reading and Writing

Pegboard Book
Pegboard Book

Emergent literacy skills focus on de-coding and understanding symbols (i.e., words, braille, tactual symbols), physically creating these symbols, and creatively connecting these symbols to share information. This involves vision, hearing, fine motor skills, cognitive skills, and social skills. Active Learning allows you to focus on all of these skills throughout the day and in a variety of learning environments.

Here are some ideas:

    • Read stories together and if the child has vision look and point to images in the story. If the child is blind, use tactile books, experience boxes/books, or with some children who are representational,  tactile symbols. 
    • Listen and play song or rhyming games such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or the “Name Game” using the child’s, friends and family names.
    • Read nursery rhymes and combine them with movement such as Pat-a-cake, Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross, or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Start.  Laptime Songs is a website with many of these simple rhymes. If the child is older, you may even want to try rapping together.
    • Singing any type of song is great. Figure out what types of music the child likes. Listen and sing along to recordings. Let the child play songs by attaching a timer switch to a device. Listen to audio books.
    • Create and play with Pegboard Books.
    • Explore tactile books and objects with braille or raised print labels.
    • Finger-paint on paper, rocks, plates, walls, sidewalks, or other items using various materials such as paint, pudding, yogurt, water.
    • Practice grasping and letting go using a Pegboard Book or Position Board.
    • Use various sized paint brushes and various materials such as paint, water, yogurt, pudding to paint on various surfaces.
    • Use large colored chalk to scribble on various surfaces.
    • Use vegetables to make vegetable stamps or play with inkpad stamps.
    • Explore words on signs such as the bathroom, offices, soda dispensers, on items in stores.
    • Play with books, magazines, junk mail, and other things that contain print and images if the child has vision. You can also use these items in making collages during art time.
    • Play with various scented markers, crayons, pencils, and chalk.
    • Play with magnetic letters on a baking sheet.
    • Play with keyboards, braillers, type-writers, clay or playdoh (this can strengthen hands and fingers).
    • Practice grasping various objects (writing tools, paint brushes, toothbrushes, etc.) that have slender profiles using a Tabletop Mobile or Position Board.
    • Create experience books, boxes and stories about familiar activities and memorable experiences with the child and read them repeatedly. Pay close attention to what is motivating to the child in the experience or activity and be sure to include that along with things that you might have noticed.
    • Tell stories by acting out the experience using simple gestures and body movements. You can see an example of this in the video below showing a young man, Jarvis, sharing his experience at the drum store while reading tactile symbols in an experience book with his speech-language therapist.

Jarvis Tells the Story of Going to the Drum Store

Experience stories are great for helping the child to “tell” a story and share about his own experience. In the video below you see snippets of the experience of going to the drum store with his teacher and then sharing the story about it with his speech-language therapist.

Play Full Video


Other Resources on Literacy

Paths to Literacy – Overview to Emergent Literacy

This website and in particular this article can provide great ideas and information on emergent literacy skills for children with visual impairments and deafblindness.

Playing with Words

This microsite developed by Speech-Language Pathologist, Linda Hagood, and her colleagues offers great ideas for co-creating stories with children who have significant disabilities and visual impairments.