Incidental Learning and Early Literacy

By Morgan Foreman

Incidental learning, the first type of learning that occurs within babies and toddlers.  With incidental learning, there is little to no explicit instruction involved. Instead, learning is developed through visual observations and experiences.  But what happens when a young child has a visual impairment? How is their incidental learning impacted?  

A sighted child receives a full range of sensory experiences, makes connections of patterns and routines, anticipates occurrence, and begins connecting communication with words, letters, and numbers (Paths to Literacy, 2019).  A child with a visual impairment, with or without additional disabilities, receives an impacted range of sensory experiences or some sensory experiences may be missing, making connections of patterns and routines are not as automatic as a sighted child, and the connection of communication with words, letters, and numbers must be explicitly taught and may look different than standard print (Paths to Literacy, 2019).  Directly tied to incidental learning is the development of literacy skills; for the baby and toddler population, specifically, early literacy skills.

Literacy skills are developed long before a child is reading words, sentences, and books.  Early literacy starts at birth and continues through experiences and interactions with people and the environment.  Experiences and interactions are built and expanded upon, eventually resulting in the connection of written language and meaning (Paths to Literacy, 2019).  As a child grows, the development of early literacy becomes more complex and can be categorized into six different components: oral language, phonological awareness, concept development, knowledge of the conventions of print/braille and print/braille intentionality, alphabetic knowledge, and rich literacy environments.  Early intervention providers and parents alike can use developmentally appropriate strategies in the home to reinforce said components by engaging in play, creating routine-based literacy and responsive literacy environments, sharing storybook reading, storytelling, and having dialogue and conversation (Paths to Literacy, 2020).

As we work with families to support the growth of early literacy skills, early intervention providers must also keep in mind the importance of building a foundation.  If a strong foundation is absent, making progress will prove challenging for both child and provider. The most effective way to build a foundation starts with the provider developing a trusting relationship with the child.  Through the process of developing a trusting relationship, the provider should aim to determine how the child shows attention and response, how the child interacts and communicates, along with the child’s sensory, tactile, motor, and cognitive needs (Literacy for Children with Combined Vision and Hearing Loss, 2019).  Said findings, along with a trusting relationship, will result in appropriate and individualized interventions, progress, and, ultimately success for the child.

There is much we can do as early intervention providers to foster the development of literacy skills of babies and toddlers who are blind or visually impaired.  Although we are looked to as the experts in our field, the heart of early intervention is to support families. Involve families as much as possible by inquiring about routines, their child’s likes and dislikes, what they do for fun, and, most importantly, what they want for their child and what is most important to them as a family.  Two of the most valuable skills we have as early intervention providers are being flexible with our instruction and giving parents the strategies, knowledge, and confidence to feel empowered.