Collection: Technology for Students Who Are Visually Impaired

A Framework for Understanding the Literacy of Individuals with Visual Impairments

REFERENCE: Koenig, A.J. (1992). A framework for understanding the literacy of individuals with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairments and Blindness, 84, 277-284.

Description of article:

In this article, Mr. Koenig offers a framework which explores four facets of literacy considered essential for understanding the issue of literacy of individuals with visual impairments. He proposes that literacy is demonstrated in four ways: 1) when an individual is successful in communicating through written communication; 2) through communication with a desired audience; 3) through the successful application of reading and writing skills; and 4) at different levels throughout the life span (p. 277). Citing the literature in the field, he carefully considers and defines each of these considerations. He provides examples of literacy tasks which require communication with self and others in four environments: home, school, community and work. For example, the individual (communicating with self) at home, might maintain an address and telephone book; at school, might take notes in class; in the community, might write directions to a specific location; and at work, might make a list of "things to do" (p.279).

In outlining three levels of literacy - emergent, basic and functional - he presents their defining characteristics and provides sample behaviors. For example, at the emergent literacy level, the defining characteristics include meaningful attempts at early reading and writing tasks. Sample behaviors include: the individual recognizes his or her name and some letters in print or braille or both. The author states that it is important to note the differences in these characteristics in order to be able to recognize the additional requirements on written communication for individuals with visual impairments. The case is made by comparing preschoolers: those with normal vision "emerge" into literacy by constantly encountering print; by comparison, children with visual impairments are not likely to do so without direct intervention.

In discussing basic literacy, the author describes the growing distinction between basic academic literacy and practical functional literacy that is required for independent and successful functioning in society. He discusses the importance of measuring and documenting achievement in reading and writing in order to provide accountability and to encourage minimum levels of student accomplishment. Noting the difficulties involved in establishing criteria for measuring writing skills, he recommends that they should be "commensurate" with reading skills and also recommends further discussion.

The level defined as functional literacy involves skills in "negotiating" one's daily experiences and emphasizes the uses of reading and writing. The focus shifts from school-based literacy to real-world practical applications of reading and writing. The two characteristics of functional literacy for individuals with visual impairments include the successful accomplishment of tasks requiring reading and writing, and "the use of skills or tools to independently gain access to regular print when literacy tasks require communication with others in this medium (p. 281)." The author discusses the variety of options needed to accomplish these tasks, including the individual's commitment to lifelong learning and self-advocacy skills.

Concerning the issue of whether or not to establish a separate set of standards for judging the literacy of individuals with visual impairment, the author argues for adherence to the same basic standards to assure assimilation and meaningful equity. He concludes the article with a set of proposed definitions of basic and functional literacy which he hopes will serve as a starting point for continued discussion. Only with more objective data and research findings can instructional practices be "modified to ensure basic and functional literacy for all individuals on the basis of their individual abilities (p. 283)."

NCIP's funding ended in September, 1998. For more information about this resource, please contact:

Alan J. Koenig, Ed.D., assistant professor, Division of Educational Psychology and Leadership, Texas Tech University, Box 41071, Lubbock, TX 79409-1071.

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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