A Developmental Sequence for Teaching Tactile Skills

Authors: Ann Adkins, Education Specialist, TSBVI Outreach Program

Keywords: tactile skills, tactile learning, developmental sequence, Hierarchy of Tactile Skills, tactile development

Abstract: This article is a follow-up to “The Development of Tactile Skills” published in the last issue of TX SenseAbilities. It describes the importance of following a developmental sequence for teaching the use of tactile skills and provides another way of thinking about the progression of skills needed to be a proficient tactile learner.

In the previous issue of TX SenseAbilities, we published an article about the development of tactile skills. The authors stressed the importance of providing appropriate tactile experiences for students at all stages of development and suggested some resources, materials, and activities to help in the instruction of tactile skills at each stage. They also explained the sequential nature of tactile learning and the importance of having students demonstrate mastery of each step in the Hierarchy of Tactile Skills in order. This hierarchy emphasizes the cognitive aspects of tactile learning, delineating the sequence of skills needed to move from the concrete skills of tactile exploration, manipulation, and identification of real objects to the very abstract skills of discriminating braille symbols.

A new publication from the TSBVI Curriculum Department, Nemeth at a Glance: A Math Resource, Grade-Level Chart, and Evaluation Tool (Cleveland et al., 2017…give link), includes an entire chapter on tactile skills and offers another way of thinking about the progression of skills needed by tactile learners. The authors share two different ways of thinking “in terms of both cognition and skill levels” (page 16), which are represented in the chart below. It may be helpful to examine both of these ways of thinking when determining a course of evaluation and instruction that will be most meaningful to specific students.

“The Hierarchy of Tactile Skills”
from Concrete to Abstract

  1. Real objects
  2. Object representations
  3. Graphic representations:
    1. Two-dimensional objects
    2. Solid embossed shapes
    3. Outlines
    4. Raised lines (solid and broken)
  4. Symbols (letters and number)

“Levels of Tactile Learning”
Sensory Stages

  1. Awareness and Attention
  2. Structure and shape
  3. Part-to-whole relationships
  4. Graphic representations
  5. Braille symbols

The chart above presents a side-by-side comparison of two different ways of thinking about the development of tactile skills. The information on the left side of the chart focuses on the cognitive issues related to tactile skills development, the Hierarchy of Tactile Skills described in the previous newsletter article (Adkins, Sewell & Cleveland, The Development of Tactile Skills). The right side of the chart emphasizes “skill levels”, delineating the physiological-sensory stages of development. It is adapted from the research of Barraga and Erin (Visual Handicaps and Learning, 1992), and while some of these sensory stages parallel the Hierarchy of Tactile Skills (the areas of graphic representations and braille symbols), it breaks down the early sensory stages into more specific components:

  • awareness of and attention to objects – “the beginning level of tactual learning” (Barraga & Erin, page 80),
  • tactile determination of the structure and shape of objects – Barraga and Erin cite a 1987 study by Klatzy, Lederman, and Reed which found that students were able to identify specific characteristics of objects in the following order: shape, hardness, texture, and size (page 79)
  • part-to-whole relationships – the necessity of developing an understanding of an entire object by “piecing together” information about the individual tactile components of the object, creating a “whole” out of the sum of its parts.

This third sensory stage requires that students build a “gestalt” of an unfamiliar object by exploring the object tactually and then using the information they’ve discovered to create an understanding of the object in its entirety. For additional clarification about the possible confusion and difficulty in this task, consider the ancient Indian fable about “The Blind Men and the Elephant”.  American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) based his poem on the fable that was told in India many years ago, demonstrating “how our sensory perceptions can lead to some serious misinterpretations; especially, when the investigations of the component parts of a whole, and their relations in making up the whole, are inadequate and lack coordination. The goal, then, for VI professionals is to provide instruction that helps students develop the concepts and skills necessary for making the “part-to-whole” connection. Barraga and Erin suggest using a task-analysis approach, presenting tactile information in small increments, within an orderly progression (page 78).

Although both of the approaches in the chart on The Sequence of Tactile Skills Development stress the importance of following a developmental sequence, it appears that there is a considerable leap from Barraga & Erin’s third sensory stage, part-to-whole relationships, to their fourth stage, graphic representations. The Hierarchy in the left column breaks down the area of graphic representations into four smaller categories of skills, illustrating that VI professionals would benefit from using BOTH developmental sequences in their approach to instruction. For more information and activities on the four areas of graphic representations, see the previous TX SenseAbilities article on “The Development of Tactile Skills”.

Cognitive skills and sensory skills are two of the important components of tactile skills development; motor skills is the third component. It is important to remember that ALL of the skills are equally important. Following a sequential progression of instruction, drawing from information on both sides of the chart, should allow for a smoother integration of skills, a task with which many of our students struggle. The information on motor skills from previous newsletter articles is also recommended (“Early Tactile Learning” and “The Development of Tactile Skills), as is the webinar on tactile skills from the TSBVI Outreach Program. It is hoped that suggestions from all of the sources can help students become more proficient users of their tactile skills, reducing the evidence of splinter skills and decreasing some of the tactile issues observed in many struggling readers. The mastery of these skills is important for all tactile learners; they are crucial, however, for students who will become braille readers.


Adkins, A., Sewell, D. & Cleveland, J. (2016, Fall/Winter). The Development of Tactile Skills. TX SenseAbilities.

Barraga, Natalie & Erin, Jane. (1992). Visual handicaps & learning. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed Publishers.

Cleveland, Jeri & Sewell, Debra. (2009, Summer). Early Tactile Learning. TX SenseAbilities. (For an updated version of this information, visit the Free Publications page.)

Cleveland, Jeri, et al. (2017). Nemeth at a glance: A math resource, grade-level chart, and evaluation tool. Austin, TX: Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

ECC Webinar Series: Compensatory Skills – Tactile Skills. December 10, 2015.

Saxe, John Godfrey. (1855). The Blind Men and the Elephant. Retrieved on January 31, 2017 from:

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