Building Language Skills in Preschoolers Who Are Visually Impaired
By the time your child is a preschooler, she is probably using language fairly effectively to convey her thoughts and wishes. At this stage in the development of language skills, increasing her vocabulary is a primary goal. But communication involves more than the words your child speaks and understands. Because your child may not be able to observe other people around her, you may need to help her develop an understanding of the nonverbal ways that people use to communicate and how they use language when they are interacting with others.
Tips for Building Your Blind Child’s Vocabulary
Your child will increase her vocabulary tremendously during her preschool years. Most likely she will be quicker to learn and understand words for objects and activities that she experiences first-hand. She may not spontaneously use words for things that are at a distance, such as “mountains” or “moon,” because she hasn’t experienced them herself and may not have been able to see their pictures in a book. When asked to describe things she has experienced, she may focus on different attributes and characteristics than a sighted child does—which might be expected because she is not receiving the same visual information. For example, if she is describing a flower, your child may talk about the smell or the way the petals feel, rather than the colors.
To help your child build her vocabulary, involve her in activities at home, school, and in the community. As much as possible, go beyond just labeling an object or activity for her; instead, engage her as much as possible in the activity and then talk about it. When she hears the marching band at a parade, show her how the band members are moving their arms and legs and encourage her to pretend to march. If possible, take her where the band is waiting and get permission to let her touch some of the instruments and uniforms.
After carving a pumpkin with his dad at home, this preschooler has lots to talk about with his friends at school and others in the community. He truly understands what “carving a pumpkin means” because he’s done it!
Try to relate past experiences to current ones. If your child is familiar with the smell and taste of orange juice, show her an orange before it’s peeled. Involve her in peeling the orange and squeezing her own juice from it.
Some children with visual impairments may have a large vocabulary and may use words in the correct context but may not really understand what they’re talking about, especially when referring to an abstract concept or something they haven’t directly experienced. (This is sometimes termed “verbalism.”) For example, your child may talk easily about the “legs” of the dining room table, but if she has never gotten down and explored them, she may be assuming that the table has legs with feet that wear shoes like her own! It is important, therefore, to help your child get an understanding of the words she hears through actual experience to make sure that she truly comprehends the concepts behind the words.
Echolalia, or repeating what others say, is typical behavior in toddlers, but some children need help to grow out of it. Try to figure out why your child is using this speech pattern. For example, she may use echolalia as a way of starting or continuing conversation. Try to help her learn a more socially appropriate way to achieve the same purpose. If she wants to maintain conversation, for instance, help her practice ways to keep someone talking with her. She might share what she likes to do at school or talk about a favorite television show and ask others about their favorites. Making comments about or responses to what someone else says will help keep a conversation going.
Let your daughter listen to children or adults talking back and forth in a conversation so she can hear how this sounds. Be sure to praise her efforts when she answers on her own or starts a conversation rather than repeating something she has previously heard. You can also talk with other members of your child’s educational team for specific strategies to try to decrease her reliance on echolalia.
Some children with visual impairments tend to ask a lot of questions when it may not be appropriate. Because adults may tend to ask them a lot of questions—about their visual impairment, for example—they may learn to use questions as a way to start or maintain a conversation. Though this can be an effective strategy in the short term, as a long-term way of conversing, it becomes rather one-sided. Help your child practice other ways to start a conversation, such as commenting on the activity another person is doing (“You’re playing with the cars”) or talking about what she is doing or has done recently (“I went to the store with my Dad”).
Pay attention to your own interactions with your child. If you hear yourself continually asking your child questions, think about how you can approach conversation with her in a different way. She’ll imitate what she is hearing from you and others, so don’t let yourself get stuck in the question mode all the time.
Staying on Topic
Preschoolers like to talk about what’s on their minds. At this age, they are very focused on themselves, which is to be expected. You may find that your child has more challenges than others her age when it comes to staying on the topic. Give her feedback about her conversations with you and others. If you find that she is having trouble staying on topic, cue her by saying, “It’s not time to talk about _____.” If she has a favorite topic that she always likes to discuss, encourage her to talk about something else first, before you go back to her favorite subject.
You can learn a great deal from listening to preschoolers who are talking to each other at the park or a birthday party. Note how they interact with each other and maintain the topic. You can use this information to guide your child in having more age-appropriate conversations.
Nonverbal Behavior or Body Language
Part of communicating is using nonverbal behaviors such as facial expressions or gestures. Your child may not see the body language of others and may not realize that her facial expressions and gestures are giving messages to others. When you observe someone using body language—smiling, frowning, waving goodbye, or motioning someone to come over—share what you are seeing with your child. When your child interacts with someone else, watch her body language to see if she is smiling at the right time or using gestures properly, and let her know once you’re alone. Without visual feedback, she needs you to help her interpret the subtleties of body language.
You can play games with her to practice body language in a fun way. Perhaps you can pretend to be mean witches or happy mermaid friends. Let her know if she is scowling or smiling appropriately and whether her gestures are on target. Show her how you are using your hands or the expressions you are making with your face. At this age, pretend play is a wonderful way to practice gestures and body language without making it seem like “work” for your child.