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Summer 2009 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

By Jim Durkel, Outreach Teacher, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Abstract: The entire education team, including the teacher of the visually impaired, classroom teacher, family, and reading specialist, must collaborate to ensure that a child who has a visual impairment develops all of the skills needed to become a proficient reader.

Key Words: , blind, visually impaired, collaboration, literacy, reading, research

What is the National Reading Panel (NRP)?

In 1997, Congress asked for a national panel to assess the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. For over two years, this panel reviewed research related to the teaching of reading. On April 13, 2000, the NRP finished its work and submitted “The Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read.” The full report is available at .

What Were the Findings of the NRP Report?

After carefully looking at the research on how to successfully teach children to read, the NRP focused on 5 main skills:

  • Phonemic awareness – the ability to think about and play with the sounds in spoken words;
  • Phonics – the ability to connect specific letters to the sounds in spoken words;
  • Fluency – the ability to read quickly and accurately;
  • Vocabulary – the words children must know to speak and read well; and
  • Text comprehension – understanding the message in written materials.

Research indicated that successful reading involves all 5 of these skills. The amount of time spent working on these skills may change with the child’s abilities and age. For example, phonemic awareness might be emphasized in kindergarten and first grade but not receive much direct attention after that. Phonics might be a focus in first grade but by third grade more time may be spent on text comprehension.

The NRP Report and Children With Visual Impairments

This report does not address any issues specifically related to children with visual impairments. It does not discuss the use of Braille or large print. It did not discuss the use of hand magnifiers or digital video. So in this way, the NRP report says nothing about teaching reading to children with visual impairments.

On the other hand, nothing in the report indicates that reading is a different process for children with visual impairments. Nothing indicates that once a child has access to text, either through Braille or large print or the use of magnification, that reading for children with visual impairments is different from reading for students who are typically sighted. Nothing implies that phonological awareness or phonic skills are any different for readers with visual impairments than for readers who are sighted. Nothing implies that fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension are not important reading skills for a child with a visual impairment.

Children with visual impairments must be given access to text; they must be taught Braille if they are tactual learners or they must be given access to print they can see easily and recognize quickly.

However, the NRP clearly finds that reading is more than just recognizing letters— either in print or in Braille. To be good readers, all the areas identified by the NRP must be addressed. Letter recognition is only a small part of the whole reading process.

One study by Carol Gillon demonstrates this issue. “The Phonological-Awareness Skills of Children Who Are Blind” was published in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 96(1) p. 38-49 (Jan 2002). In this article it was found that Braille readers who had trouble reading had difficulties in phonological awareness skills at the same rate as sighted children who had difficulty reading print.

How Can Children With Visual Impairments Get Instruction in the 5 Areas Identified by the National Reading Panel?

Typically, a teacher for students with visual impairments (TVI) does not have the background in reading that a general education teacher has. Even if the TVI has a certificate to teach general education, the fact is that he or she is not in a classroom teaching reading day in and day out year after year. Often the TVI is not invited to or even allowed to attend in-service training on reading that a school district is offering.

For a child with a visual impairment to get quality reading instruction the best solution is that the classroom teacher (general education, special education, or preschool), the TVI, the reading specialist (if there is the need for one), and the family work together.

The role of the TVI.

Conducting a Learning Media Assessment (LMA) is clearly the role of the TVI. The LMA should support the IEP team in its decision regarding the use of Braille in order for the student to be a proficient reader. The LMA should also help the IEP team decide how a child will access print if he or she is to be a proficient print reader. That is, the LMA should specify what print characteristics such as size, contrast, or spacing the child will need or what kind of magnification and/or lighting would be needed. Reading speeds, fluency, and comprehension are also assessed as part of the LMA.

Providing adapted materials and teaching children with visual impairments to use them clearly is the role of a (TVI). Nobody is better prepared to teach recognition of Braille letters or the use of the Braille code. Nobody is better prepared to help a child with low vision to recognize print letters with or without the use of devices.

The Role of the Educational Team.

If a TVI has questions about conducting and interpreting informal reading assessments, the TVI should confer with the classroom teacher or reading specialist. It is important for the results of the LMA to be shared. For example, slow reading speed might be the result of unfamiliarity with the Braille code or the use of a low vision device, and remediation would then be included in IEP goals. However, it is not acceptable to assume slow reading speed is the norm for all students with visual impairments. A student with a visual impairment might also have a reading impairment that is causing slow reading speed. Addressing this reading impairment should be done by the entire team, not just the teacher for students with visual impairments.

The Role of the Family.

With support from a TVI, families can provide early experiences that will help the child with visual impairments once she or he begins school. Vocabulary is developed as children are given meaningful experiences and the words that go along with those experiences. Nursery rhymes, songs, and simple word games can set the foundation for phonemic awareness. When families read together and discuss what they read, this improves fluency and text comprehension. High interest children’s books (in Braille or in print), as well as any low vision device the child might need, gives a child the opportunity to learn about letters and how they go together on a page.

Oral vocabulary, the language that a child can understand and use, is an important indicator of later reading ability. It is crucial that the TVI help families learn how to support early oral vocabulary during the first few years of the child’s life. For a child with a visual impairment, good vocabulary development means that the child has lots of hand-on experiences with the world so that every word that is learned is meaningful to the child. The need for experiences to support vocabulary development continues as the child becomes older and is in school. It is important that the classroom teacher understands the impact of vision loss on the child’s ability to learn and use new vocabulary taught during instruction and in classroom reading materials.


Once a child starts school the need for good collaboration becomes crucial. For example, if the TVI pulls the child out during classroom reading time to focus on teaching recognition of Braille letters and use of the Braille code, is the child missing out on instruction in the areas identified by the NRP? Without support from general education, would a TVI know when and how to teach the skills identified by the NRP? Without support from the TVI, how would the general education teacher know when a child with visual impairments was failing during a reading lesson due to lack of access rather than due to not understanding the lesson?

There are many ways that a TVI and the classroom teacher can collaborate. Rather than a pull out model where the student is taken out of the general education classroom, it may be possible that the TVI goes into the general education classroom and supports reading activities. This “pull out” vs. “go in” does not have to be an either/or situation. Some reading instruction can be done as pull out and some offered the general education classroom.

Another model of collaboration would involve the general education teacher and TVI meeting on a regular basis to review the lesson plans for reading and to decide who can best teach which skills in which settings in order to get maximum results from the student. Eva Lavigne, from the TSBVI Outreach Program, wrote a great article on how this might work in the area of vocabulary development. This article, “Essential Literacy Experiences for Visually Impaired Children,” can be found online at .

What is clear is that for a child with a visual impairment to succeed in reading in his or her general education classroom, the TVI and general education teacher need to work together. Families are crucial in advocating for this collaboration during the IEP meeting, as well as encouraging and supporting reading outside of the classroom.

A reading specialist may need to be involved if the general education teacher and TVI need help to figure out why a child with visual impairments is having trouble learning to read. Children with visual impairments can have learning disabilities and dyslexia, even when reading Braille. These additional learning problems may be outside the expertise of the classroom teacher and the TVI.

Want to Know More?

The following are just two of the many websites that discuss the findings of the National Reading Panel in greater detail. “Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read” is a longer document that goes into each of the 5 areas in detail: . “Put Reading First: Helping Your Child Learn to Read” is a shorter document about how families can support the 5 skill areas at home: .