The Development of Tactile Skills

Authors: Ann Adkins, Education Specialist, TSBVI Outreach Program, and Debra Sewell & Jeri Cleveland, TSBVI Curriculum Department

Keywords: tactile skills, tactile learning, Hierarchy of Tactile Skills, tactile development, braille reading, tactual

Abstract: This article provides information on the development of tactile skills in students with visual impairments, including those with low vision. It explains the importance of the Hierarchy of Tactile Skills and includes suggestions for activities and resources

Although we may typically think that only blind children need instruction in the development and use of their tactual skills, research suggests that students with low vision may also be missing crucial information about their world. This can affect concept development, language acquisition, orientation and mobility skills, the development of independent living skills, and many other skills that impact a student’s ability to acquire the information he needs about his environment and the world around him. A visual impairment affects the entire process of information gathering. Far too often we expect blind or visually impaired children to base their knowledge of the world on verbal descriptions and very limited “hands-on” experiences. This cannot compare to the almost constant barrage of incidental information that fully sighted children have received before they go to school. It is imperative that teachers of students with visual impairment understand tactile learning in order to provide the experiences and instruction needed by all of their students with visual impairments.

Tactile learning, by its very definition, is not the same as visual learning. Tactile learning involves the acquisition of information about the tactile qualities of objects, such as their texture, weight, or temperature, and the composition of objects, their shapes, the materials from which they’re made, etc. This requires immediate proximity to the object. Tactual information cannot be gathered from a distance – if a student can’t touch the object, his perceptions of that object may be wrong, incomplete, or dependent upon information from someone else. For students with low vision, being able to tactually explore an object can provide the additional information needed to confirm an impression gained visually.

Tactile learning also requires that information be gathered over time by systematically exploring an object one aspect at a time. This may require multiple explorations. The inability to simultaneously perceive all parts of an object means that the entire image of the object must be built-up out of an understanding of each of its components. This is clearly not as simple a task as gathering information in a single glance. A higher level of cognition may also be needed for the integration of sequential information, and without an understanding of “the whole”, or the gestalt, future learning may be impaired. Research shows that while the development of tactile skills follows the same general progression in the blind child as it does in the sighted child, the blind child must develop his tactile skills to a much higher degree than his sighted peer, and blind children need more stimulation and motivation over a longer period of time (The Blind Child in the Regular Kindergarten, 1977).

Tactile learning simply takes more time. There are additional concerns for tactile learners as well, including limited incidental learning, fewer opportunities to share information that is learned tactually with others (reduced peer learning and interactions), and difficulty understanding the relationships between objects. Tactile learning also necessitates a lot more touching than society may accept, affecting a child’s social skills, rec/leisure skills, and self-esteem.

In the best of all worlds, the development of tactile skills happens simultaneously along with concept development and language acquisition. Before children know they can reach out and touch things, the adults in their lives must intentionally create opportunities for tactile exploration and interaction. This needs to start in infancy by increasing movement, stimulation, and access to interesting and motivating people and objects. If children do not become actively engaged in experiences and exploration at an early age, their approach to gathering information can be passive and they may not fully develop their sense of touch and their ability to learn tactually. Historically, by the time students with visual impairments enter school, they have not received enough instruction in the development and use of their tactile skills or had enough opportunities to touch and explore their world. Therefore, they may be behind in concept development, which has a long-term impact on their ability to benefit from traditional instruction. Further, if they haven’t had enough opportunities to be tactile learners, they won’t choose to do things tactually, and teachers may assume that they will be auditory learners. Children with visual impairments must learn to be active seekers of information about their world, and it is the role of the teacher of students with visual impairment (TVI) to guide educational teams in ensuring that appropriate instruction is provided for the development of tactile skills.

There are three important components of tactile skills. In order to be an efficient tactile learner, a student must have all of the following skills:

  1. Motor skills (mechanical skills & hand development)
  2. Cognitive skills (an understanding of the Hierarchy of Tactile Skills)
  3. Sensory skills physiological tactual development (levels of tactual learning)

All of these skills are equally important and should become more integrated as the student becomes a more proficient user of his tactile skills. In 2009, Jeri Cleveland and Debra Sewell addressed the importance of sensory skills in their article, “Early Tactile Learning” (Texas SenseAbilities, Summer 2009). The information below on the first two components, motor skills and cognitive skills, is also derived from their work.

Motor Skills – Mechanical Skills and Hand Development

  • Grasp and release
  • Rotary motion
  • Finger isolation
  • Bilateral hand use
  • Hand and finger strength
  • Tactile discrimination
  • Light touch
  • Proper finger position for Braille
  • Tactile tracking skills

(Sewell & Strickling, 2004)

Activities to Promote Motor Skills:

  • Using Thera-putty
  • Opening doors with door knobs
  • Finger puppets
  • Stress balls
  • Scooping and stirring
  • Dressing skills – buttoning, snapping, zipping
  • Rolling cookie dough or playdoh into balls
  • Stringing beads
  • Finger painting
  • Games on Talking Tactile Tablet (TTT)

Functional Applications of Tactile Skills:

  • Locating – randomly finding or intentionally searching for an object
  • Exploring – getting information about the tactual properties of an object (by moving hands or by moving the object)
  • Manipulating – intentional movement of an object
  • Recognizing – associating an object with a memory of the object
  • Comparing – discovering similarities, differences, and preferences; matching and sorting
  • Communicating – using objects to request, refuse, comment and question; for choice-making, calendars
  • Organizing – finding objects in their usual place; returning them to their usual place; sorting or categorizing by placement, function, attribute; gathering materials for a task

(Smith and Levack, 1997)

Cognitive Skills – Hierarchy of Tactile Skills: Concrete to Abstract

It is important to note that each level of the Hierarchy of Tactile Skills is equally important and that students must move through the hierarchy in order, mastering skills at each level before moving on to the next level. If students aren’t provided with a variety of meaningful experiences at each level, braille and/or print will have little meaning to them. We often discover that students who are struggling with tactile skills, especially tactile discrimination of braille letters, have moved too quickly to succeeding levels of the hierarchy, not spending enough time at the beginning levels to completely master them. The Hierarchy moves from concrete, real objects to the most abstract of tactile concepts and skills, braille symbols and letters.

The Hierarchy of Tactile Skills (adapted from Kershman, 1976):

  • Real Objects
  • Object Representations
  • Graphic Representations
    • Two dimensional objects
    • Solid embossed shapes
    • Outlines of objects
    • Raised lines (solid and broken)
    • Symbols/letters

Activities for Real Objects:

  • Touching, exploring and using familiar objects in the environment
  • Exploring objects in object bags
  • Creating Objects Books
  • Exploring Story Boxes

Resources for Real Objects:

  • Familiar and unfamiliar objects in the environment
  • Setting the Stage for Tactile Understanding (APH)
  • Pre-K curriculum and instructional materials

Activities for Object Representations:

  • Side-by-side comparisons
  • Real objects to toys
  • Real food to play food
  • Real animals to stuffed animals
  • Using parts of objects to represent the whole item
  • Tactile symbols

Resources for Object Representations

  • Real objects and things used to represent them (e.g., playdoh cookies, doll, toy dishes)
  • Setting the Stage for Tactile Understanding (APH)
  • Tactile symbols

Activities for Graphic Representations (two-dimensional objects, solid embossed shapes, outlines of objects, raised lines, and symbols/letters/numerals):

  • Making hand-prints and foot-prints in plaster
  • Making faces out of playdoh
  • Creating Thermoform representations with the student
  • Puzzles and color-forms
  • Yarn or string art

Resources for Graphic Representations:

  • Setting the Stage for Tactile Understanding (APH)
  • Picture Maker: Wheatley Tactile Diagramming Kit (APH)
  • Chang Tactual Diagram Kit (APH)
  • Velcro and magnet boards

Because it takes more time to amass tactile information for building concepts, educators and parents should expect to continue instruction in these areas throughout the students’ educations. The development of tactile skills is too important to wait until students begin formal schooling and is important for students who are functionally blind and those with low vision. Parents, caregivers, teachers, and all members of the educational team of a student with a visual impairment must work together to promote the development of tactile skills – and a love for the information that can be learned tactually.


Kershman, S. (1976). A hierarchy of tasks in the development of tactual discrimination: Part one. Education of the Visually Handicapped, 5(3), 73-82.

Sewell, D., & Strickling, C. (2004). “Motor activities to encourage pre-braille skills.”

Smith, M. & Levack, N. (1997). Teaching students with visual and multiple impairments: A resource guide. Austin, TX: Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Stratton, Josephine. (1977). The Blind Child in the Regular Kindergarten. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Ltd.

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