American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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Emergent Literacy: Picture Books for Babies

by Ann Cunningham

From the Editor: Ann Cunningham is a co-owner of Sensational Books! a company that creates tactile access by manufacturing books, materials, and tools that provide information through pictures. Currently she is focused on publishing a Little Library, a collection of books that are designed to introduce young children to tactile graphics.

According to UNESCO, "Beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world."

Reading with tactile media is an important part of a tactile reader's literacy development. Unfortunately, many blind readers have not had access to tactile pictures. Pictures help stories come alive and help to develop readers' literacy practices. In this article, I present an overview of strategies to support tactile readers as they develop tactile literacy skills. The information I provide is based upon my years of experience teaching art and graphic design to students at the Colorado Center for the Blind and on my own practice as a tactile sculptor and illustrator.

Literacy begins to develop at an early age and is continuously enhanced throughout adulthood. I believe a child who is blind, if given the chance and presented with well-designed tactile picture books, can learn to interpret pictures right along with children who are sighted. I have come to believe that it is appropriate to introduce pictures to children when they are infants. 

How Does a Person Start Learning Tactile Literacy?

Throughout my teaching experience, I have found that it is helpful to understand the difference between the senses of vision and touch. Vision is essentially a two-dimensional sense. Our brains add depth to the objects we look at by calculating the difference between the two images our eyes simultaneously see and then estimate the depth differential from these images. Our eyes can see only the width and height of an object. We teach ourselves to anticipate depth from what we know about the world and from clues we take from the arrangement of objects within an environment.

In contrast, touch is inherently a three-dimensional sense. It can be taught to interpret 2.1-dimensional information contained in raised-line drawings or sculpted low-relief images that can function as 2D pictures.

Suggestions for Developing 3D to 2D Tactile Literacy

Whether the baby is sighted or blind, the first books should contain "spot pictures." Spot pictures represent simple objects on the page with a plain background. With these simple pictures it is very clear when a child is touching the object. For instance, here is a photo of an illustration from Sadie Can Count. It is a string of ten beads, labeled as “10 beads.”

Chloe Mae studies page in Sadie Can Count book.As you cuddle in to read together, you will begin the story. You will also want to hold the book in a way that makes it inevitable that your child will touch the page. I recommend that you move your finger across the Braille lines as you read to model reading for your child. Even if your child is not touching your hand to find out what your fingers are doing, he or she will register that when you read your body moves in a specific way, just as your voice changes when you read the story.

Each time your child accidentally touches the picture on the page, be sure to confirm this by saying, "That is the ball!" or "You found the ball!" or "Do you feel the Braille dots?"

Begin to collect actual objects and models of the objects pictured in the book you select. When your child is a little older and begins to play on the floor with toys, connect real objects with the images. Name the real objects, such as basketball and toy basketball, and connect them with the image of a basketball. When your child actually makes the connection between the circular shape on the page and the ball itself, the child will have taken the first step toward literacy.

Through my teaching I have discovered that it is not a large step for a student to make the connection between 3D objects and their 2D representations. When I teach this distinction to adult students, I line up a cube, a sphere, and a three-sided pyramid in front of them. Then I give them three cut-out shapes: a circle, a square, and a triangle. After we examine the 3D objects and the 2D cutouts, I ask them, "What shape would you use to represent the sphere?" Without exception, everyone selects the circle.

Key Characteristics and Categories

A squiggly path leads to a piece of cheese.Another tactile literacy skill that is important to teach and learn is to recognize representations of objects. For all early readers this skill begins with simple, common objects. My book Sadie Can Count introduces new objects in groups of 2, 3, and 4. This is a counting book, and it adds new information such as key characteristics, categories, directionality of the object, rhythm, patterns, texture differences, and tracking. These concepts don't even need to be taught. They are examples of the many opportunities for incidental learning that are contained within pictures. For instance, the beads illustrated in the book don't need to be identical to the string of beads your child has, as long as they have characteristics common to a string of beads.

An illustration from Sadie Goes to the Lost and Found Pound shows the dogs chasing a cat.Max the Mouse Goes on an Adventure is a satisfying story illustrated as a map, another important concept. When you work with a map it is helpful to reinforce the idea that it is a top view, a view from above. Place the map flat on a tabletop while you trace along the path. Unlike "spot pictures," which have no environment indicated, a map is read from above. Putting it on the table will support that idea nonverbally. Of course you can talk about it as well.

Tracking Content

Max the Mouse introduces map concepts, the relationship between 3D and 2D forms, and identification of objects and their key characteristics. It also helps tactile readers to learn about tracking. Tracking involves moving the hands from left to right along the path and anticipating the action from one page to the next. This is done through the position of the path as it leaves one page and starts on the next one. If it ends at the upper righthand corner of the page, children will learn to anticipate that it will continue on the upper lefthand corner of the next page.

Sadie Goes to the Lost and Found Pound is almost ready to go to print. It introduces perspective picture concepts. A book like this is better held up at an angle to indicate that we are now reaching out to objects around us. It is very helpful, though not essential, for your child to have had the opportunity to interact with a dog or a cat. When they get the chance, more parts of the puzzle will fall into place.

If you are able to make a tactile picture book, include uncluttered objects positioned within an environment. Your child will learn how separate objects can be arranged within an image and indicate their relationship to each other through scale. Such simple pictures can show the ground-line, where an object connects with the ground. In the Lost and Found Pound the dogs are attached to the ground at their feet. The relationship to a line where the wall meets the floor can also be shown. Most people aren't familiar with these definitions, so don't worry if they are new to you. Most people who use pictures are sighted, and they learned these codes as infants, so they aren't conscious of the concepts.

Cover of the book Pedro and the Octopus.In addition to scale and relationship, children can experience textures and understand how they can indicate qualities and key characteristics. Sadie Can Count also includes an extra object in each picture, something that is not talked about in the text. This is one of the greatest strengths of a picture. It can add complexity that is hard to describe adequately in more complicated diagrams. By discovering extra information independently in a simple, low-stakes picture, children will learn to take the lead on examining the picture completely.

In the final picture in the Lost and Found Pound, the animals that were introduced earlier are now in different positions. The picture requires finding the key characteristics that identify each animal. This calls for much more advanced skill, but the child's caregiver can help if the child is too young or inexperienced to decipher this puzzle independently. Some children may welcome the challenge.

Pedro and the Octopus

Pedro and Lena stand on the beach with the ocean in the foreground.Pedro and the Octopus is a new book published by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults. The book is a big step into complexity. The illustrations in this book present many more picture perspective concepts. Pedro, a young blind child, and Lena, his sister, discover all sorts of things along the beach as they search for an octopus. In addition to the objects they find, these pictures contain perspective concepts such as picture plane, on and off the picture plane, up and down, and the direction of the picture frame. Readers will also learn to decipher proximity, what is near and what is far away. Readers will be able to answer questions such as, "What role does texture play in these images?" "What relationship does the reader have to the objects illustrated in the picture?" "What relationship do the objects in the picture have to each other?"

My sights are set on filling in the gaps between my concepts in these first three books and those presented in Pedro and the Octopus. Then I would like to teach more advanced perspective concepts in subsequent books.

My goal is to create a little library of tactually illustrated books available for families with children who are blind. With exposure to these books, blind children will be able to enter school with the skills to read tactile pictures. Their skills will be commensurate with the abilities of their sighted peers to read visual graphics.

I understand that this is a big dream, but I know we can do it. If you would like to hear about the progress of this project, and if you would like to learn when there are opportunities to field test the prototypes and make this collection a reality, please contact me at [email protected]. Let's talk about how we can all join together to make this happen!

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