Maximizing Literacy Opportunities in Everyday Experiences

Authors: Gwyneth McCormack, Director, Positive Eye Ltd.

Keywords: emergent literacy, concept development, experiential learning, reading readiness, story boxes, story buckets

Abstract: Gwyneth McCormack of Positive Eye Ltd. has developed fun, engaging and easy to use activities using buckets to bring stories and hands-on experiences to children with visual impairments. Students with visual impairments can explore the objects as they learn the topic or review the experience. The use of story buckets promotes the development of concepts and allows children to experience literacy in a meaningful and interactive way.

Sighted children develop a huge amount of knowledge and experience through incidental learning. During the first few years of life they have exposure to a vast range of visual symbols that convey meaning. This access to the literate environment doesn’t occur naturally for the child with visual impairment. Our goal is to expose the child with visual impairment to a rich variety of concrete experiences involving as many objects, people, places and activities as possible. This should be done systematically, as early as possible and as often as possible. Building this solid foundation of reading readiness skills and fun experiences from infancy is critical. Using a theme-based approach during the emergent stages of literacy development enables us to offer a multitude of rich, meaningful literacy learning opportunities linked to everyday situations, as well as ensuring we maximize the literacy opportunities from within fictional books.

Gwyneth McCormack Holding the character Marvin along with her book, Marvin’s Market Adventure and Grandma’s Special Birthday Picnic

Photo of Gwyneth McCormack Holding the character Marvin along with her book, Marvin’s Market Adventure and Grandma’s Special Birthday Picnic

We are surrounded by a vast array of learning opportunities which can be used to support the learning development of children with visual impairment. These start in the home, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the garden and beyond. A holistic approach harnessing the child’s everyday environment, embraced by professionals and parents, offers the opportunity for exciting, creative and fun ways to develop the child’s skills. These skills, all crucial to the child’s emerging literacy pathway, include auditory and language skills, concept development, tactile and fine motor skills, book and story skills.

Key to concept development is that you ‘milk’ and ‘reinforce’ each learning opportunity as much as possible. You are teaching the child about objects, their characteristics and qualities, how they are made, where they are stored and what their purpose is in different contexts. The child needs to feel, smell, taste (if appropriate) and look at objects and develop appropriate and meaningful language to support their understanding. I call this the ‘ness’ of the object.

A popular Positive Eye concept building activity to demonstrate this is the ‘woodenness of wooden spoons’. Gather a collection of wooden spoons (different lengths and types); explore how they are made, where they are kept, what they are used for and where they can be purchased. Investigate the sounds that can be made, explore the textures and feel of each spoon and taste food from them. We are looking at developing a clear understanding of ‘Process, Form, Shape and Purpose’.

Experience and maximize the learning opportunities by organizing spoons from the shortest to longest, thinnest to widest, or smallest head to biggest; or measure using each spoon as a unit of measurement. Visit your local store and buy a wooden spoon, wash it, feel it when it is wet, dry it, put it in the drawer. Make beans on toast, feel how many beans fit on the spoon, try eating the beans from the spoon, does the spoon fit in your mouth? If not, whose mouth does it fit in?

Then, building on this approach, collect a Basket of Everyday Objects, and develop and progress to include greater concept development, tactile discrimination and fine motor skillsUse different textures, make sounds, play and extend the learning – rattle the spoon in the cup, fill the cup and the jug with water and find out which holds the most, squeeze water from the sponges, match the socks or categories of the brushes, such as toothbrushes and paintbrushes.

Marvin and pages from the book Marvin's Market Adventure and Grandma’s Special Birthday Picnic

Photo of Marvin and pages from the book Marvin’s Market Adventure and Grandma’s Special Birthday Picnic

These approaches form the way Story Buckets work. They offer a fun, creative way of cueing the child into enjoying a meaningful literacy experience linked to either a story or everyday learning opportunity or both. A practical example of this approach is Positive Eye’s ‘Marvin’s Market Adventure and Grandma’s Special Birthday Picnic’. This is a story about Marvin who was a kind little boy. He loved to visit his Grandma and help her to look after her beautiful garden. One day he decided he would surprise her as it was her birthday and he want to make her a special picnic. He wrote his list of all the things he would need for the picnic and set off to the market to make his purchases. He would buy a beautiful flower for her garden and a little shiny fish for her pond…. little did he know that he was in for a surprise when he arrived at the market!

Our story demonstrates how to support and develop a theme based approach using a fictional story, based on the rich learning opportunities within the everyday experience of the market place. It embraces the ‘marketness’ of the market place.

Using an appropriately sized bucket with a bucket apron fitted around it provides a convenient portable carrier and a place from which to bring the story to life. The pockets of the apron create exciting storage spaces to place the objects for the child to find, while larger objects can fit into the bucket itself. Blank credit cards with large print and Braille labels are attached with Velcro to each pocket to encourage the child to read the label, letter or word.

Here is a list of some of the things gathered for the story bucket:

Bucket, bucket apron, Marvin (boy doll), sunflower with tatty leaves, silver fish, vegetables and fruit. Piggy Bank, purse, shopping list, shopping bag, real or plastic flowers. Bread rolls, gingerbread men, cake, lots of little and big shiny fish cut out on cards, picnic cloth, bottle of lemonade, big and little plastic boxes for big and little fish, real vegetables and fruit. Red hat and apron, flat cap and apron, fisherman’s hat and wellington boots, baker’s apron and hat, paper bags, birthday candles.

characters from the story sitting inside a story bucket

Photo of characters from the story sitting inside a story bucket

As the story is told the child is cued into the critical features of the objects as they are introduced. With encouragement and support they can locate, explore, feel, press, touch, lift, hold, grasp, look, smell and taste (as appropriate). Talk to the child and use meaningful language to describe and explain purpose, shape, form and process as the story unfolds.

Here are some examples of the wonderful learning opportunities that lie within Marvin’s story.

Main story

  • Read the story and give the child the real objects to hold while they listen
  • Provide labels for all the items and have the child match the braille or print label to the item
  • Dress up and role play the story
  • Make a simple model of a market stall
  • Make a book of main characters and key words
  • Make a shopping list; handwrite, type, record using audio labeller
  • Count money into wallet, sort coinage

Flora Flower’s Stall

  • Plant flowers and vegetables – measure growth
  • Feel the parts of the flower, petals, stalk, leaves
  • Talk about how flowers are used to signify different occasions: birthdays, weddings, saying thank you

Veg Man Vernon’s Fruit and Vegetable Stall

  • Buy and explore real fruits and vegetables, count, sort, categorise, discriminate, smell, taste, cut, cook, eat
  • Make vegetable prints, adding sand to paint to create texture
  • Explore a vegetable patch, grow own vegetables

Fishman Phil’s Stall

  • Visit a fishmonger (grocery store), buy a fish, feel and explore, smell, cook and eat!
  • Talk about where fish live, discuss ponds, seas, rivers, lakes

Grandma’s picnic

  • Make or buy and decorate a birthday cake
  • Make gingerbread people: count, buy ingredients, make, bake and eat
  • Set a table for a picnic, count how many plates, glasses, spoons are required
an activity to support concept development

Photo of activity to support concept development

To sum up, literacy opportunities are all around the child waiting to be explored and experienced. Remember to add ‘ness’ onto everything you talk about, the ‘bucketness’ of buckets, the ‘fishness’ of fish, the ‘cakeness’ of cakes and more!

Keep it concrete and purposeful with learning maximized to the full, but most of all keep it fun!

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