Children with visual impairments (i.e., blindness or low vision) have unique educational needs that call for the development of alternative methods to help them obtain and incorporate information generally acquired through the visual mode. Compensatory skill development is one of the domains identified as a unique educational need in the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) for children with visual impairments. In literacy development for children with visual impairments, much is known about teaching Braille reading and reading with low vision. However, when it comes to the development of writing skills, the emphasis seems to be upon mastering the tools for writing such as the Braille Writer, learning handwriting, and keyboarding. The mastery of writing as an expressive communication mode seems to be among the last in a long list of specialized curricular needs for this population.
This study compared the status of written language practices in 4th- and 5th-grade students with visual impairments to those of their sighted peers. Prior research regarding language development has focused upon the oral language of children with visual impairments. Such studies have identified areas of concern, including latency in use of abstract vocabulary, delay in classifying objects, and restriction of word use primarily to reflect concrete or functional items. This study focused on the incidence of abstract noun usage, the categorization of nouns used, the use of modifiers, and the prevalence of sensory-based vocabulary in the written language of students with visual impairments and their sighted peers. Three groups of students participated in the study: students with functional blindness, those with low vision, and those with sight.
Additionally, holistic scores for oral and written language samples between the three groups of students (functionally blind, low vision, and sighted) were compared. Oral language samples that paralleled the writing samples were collected for the purpose of identifying improvement in content, organization, and vocabulary when the physical mechanics of writing were removed.
Forty-five students participated in the study in three groups of 15 each. Each group was separated according to their primary literacy media: Braille, large print, and standard print. Students identified as functionally blind were Braille readers. Students identified with low vision were readers of print with or without modifications. Sighted peers were readers of standard print. All students were reading at or above grade level, by no more than one grade as confirmed by a reading assessment. Students with visual impairments were matched based upon their reading levels, so that each student with a visual disability had a sighted counterpart.
In 62 categories of analysis, 11 areas were found to have statistically significant differences. Two narrative prompts were given to each student drawing from (1) imagination or from things never experienced directly and (2) mundane experience or things experienced directly. Noun use for students with visual impairments varied significantly in the narrative writing based upon imagination, with students with visual impairments using significantly more concrete nouns and fewer abstract nouns than their sighted peers. Students with blindness utilized significantly more verbs that evoked the sense of hearing in narrative writing based upon direct experiences than students with low vision. Students with blindness used fewer adjectives in their writing based upon imagination.
Data analysis revealed that students with blindness were functioning commensurate with their sighted peers as per holistic scores on narrative writing drawing from imagination. However, students with low vision scored significantly lower in this category. In addition, the holistic scores for students with blindness and low vision were significantly lower than their sighted peers for narrative writing based upon direct experience. However, the use of basic, superordinate, and subordinate noun phrases were consistently represented in written language across all groups.
Although data analysis revealed that the holistic scores between students with blindness and sighted students were comparable for writing samples based upon imagination, the quality and quantity of word usage varied in levels of word sophistication. The study demonstrates differences between the groups and supports the need for further investigation into instruction in abstract vocabulary for students with blindness and low vision.