“Fire is so loud”

Guest blog post by Peggy Palmer, TVI*

Recently I had yet another conversation with a distraught parent from another state, who was upset that her child who has cortical visual impairment (CVI) was not being included in the story/circle time at preschool. “He doesn’t need to see the pictures,” the parent was told.

As a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI), it is my job to help educational teams find ways to make all activities accessible, as well as educate everyone about why it is SO critically important that children with CVI or other visual impairments, be fully included and have access to these very important, daily activities in the classroom.

“Fire is so loud”

When was the last time you read a story to a 4 year old child? If you imagine that scenario, it likely includes a picture book. Now imagine reading a book to a 4 year old and refusing to allow him or her to look at the pictures as you read. This would surely be a short-lived activity!

Why do young children need these illustrations to stay focused and interested in the story? Why is it that books for young children are so richly illustrated?

For young children, words are important, of course, but the real world (or a representation of it through pictures) is what they crave, because real world interaction is what they need to grow, learn and develop vocabularies rooted in meaning. Stripping away pictures from their books demonstrates very quickly how much young children need the pictures to anchor them to the words being read.

Children who have CVI or other visual impairments have a much greater chance of developing “empty language” than their sighted peers. That is, vocabularies that are not rooted in meaning. “Empty language refers to a situation of confusion where the blind or visually impaired child has words to talk about something, but incorrect or no ideas to attach to the words.”  (Anne McComiskey, Family Connect, American Foundation for the Blind). With less visual input, reduced shared visual attention, and fewer chances to interact with their environment, they may have poorer vocabularies and use “empty words.”

Consider this story to illustrate empty (or incorrect) language:

Carlos is a four year old, who has been blind from birth.  He attends a preschool program located within a public school building and fire drills are a common occurrence. The shrieking siren is extremely loud. Carlos’s team tells me he absolutely hates fire drills, covers his ears and cries throughout them. They have a hard time calming him down afterward.

One day, I was visiting him on a fire drill day. I tried to prepare Carlos in advance, by talking to him about it and warning him that one was coming soon. It did not help. He covered his ears, burst into tears and was inconsolable for some time after it was over.

When he calmed down a bit, and I could talk with him, I asked him about the fire drill, hoping to get him to express his thoughts and feelings. “I HATE fire!” he told me, through jagged breaths.

Then, it struck me. Empty language?

I asked him, “Carlos, what is fire?”

He put his hands to his ears and told me “Fire is so loud.”

Carlos had assumed that the siren sound itself was “fire.” Due to his vision loss, he had no direct experience with fire and had assumed (with good reason) that fire was the obnoxious sound. Think about it from his perspective: every time that horribly loud noise came blaring through the school speakers, the word he always heard associated with it was “fire.”

Sadly, I did not have any magic strategies to help him cope with the drills, but we could at least help him learn the difference between fire and the fire drill siren.

With empty language, children can frequently ‘talk a good game.’ Telling us that he hated fire sounded perfectly reasonable from a four year old perspective. But it was only though probing his thinking that we could discern his “empty” or incorrect language.

In children with CVI, empty language is also common. They may look at images or scenes but not be able to decipher or make sense of what they see. Meanwhile they hear language swirling around them. When the two don’t connect, the situation is ripe for the development of empty language.

Strategies: What can we do to prevent empty language?

Name the item that the child is looking at – keep it simple at first! “Cat, you see the kitty cat!”

Repetition is how all children learn language. Children with vision impairment including CVI need repetition as well, probably even more, due to processing delays and lack of experience. An adult may feel they repeat things millions of times, but it is not wasted effort.

Story time: Too often, children with CVI are plopped down to listen to stories in preschool programs, while their sighted peers have the benefit of seeing the pictures. We are doing a double disservice to these young children if we do not make the pictures accessible and available to them.

But how?

• Bring one or two of the central themes to the child. For example, for a book about a little girl and a pumpkin, bring a real pumpkin and a life like doll to the child. Support as they explore the objects with hands and eyes as the story is read.

• Use an iPad. For children who are able to understand and process pictures, take pictures of the book’s contents before the story is read. Show the child the pictures using back lighting, zoom in to reduce visual complexity, and expand function to their benefit.

• If the pictures from the book are too complex, showing these to a child who cannot process them is not helpful. If the story is about a cow, and the child has shown the ability to understand simple clear photographs, call up a simple picture of a cow and use that instead of the pictures from the book.

* Peggy Palmer, M.A. Peg is a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) working at Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind (BESB) in Connecticut for over 20 years, specializing in young children, ages birth to five. Peg is a Perkins-Roman CVI endorsee.

8 thoughts on ““Fire is so loud”

  1. This is a fantastic and, dare I say, accessible way to describe how our children learn, and how they DON’T learn. Every parent, preschool teacher, and aide should read this post. Thank you, Peg. Thank you, Start Seeing CVI.

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  2. Thank you for this information. Do you have references based on the idea of “empty language”? I would like to look into it further.

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  3. My daughter has CVI when she was younger and I read to her I always had 2 books that way she had her own and could study the picture. I waited til she was done “reading” to “turn the page” Today (she’s 9) she reads electronically with headphones. her regular reading speed is slow but with audio and sight she can keep up. Her reading comprehension is awesome.

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  4. I am a parent of a child with CVI, I have been flying blind for years – no support just a diagnosis – I have been battling the schools etc alone. I have recently learned I did many things right. On reading with my child and to help with reading comprehension I used a home made felt board (old game board) I planned ahead and only gave her felt pieces that matched the story – as the story progressed she created the picture. ex: story about a garden – flowers, bees, watering can, hose, rake, she would create ……… bee visited the flower, hose used to fill watering can, bee visits flower etc. my goal was to help her visualize what she was hearing.
    As she got older – on her own – she started “writing” stories using her felt board and taking pictures with an old phone – she loved reading her stories back to me.
    Today (she is 9) she has a Kindle and reads her audio books while reading the words. She also writes stories using her computer.
    Unfortunately, her school has not supported any of this.
    She is entering a new school in the Fall – Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsborough, MA . Any suggestions on how to get them to work with me? I have given them linc to CVI teacher etc. my PTSD on this subject is giving me anxiety. I currently have her IEP to sign, how do I include the stuff I know she needs – she is not cognitively delayed she has CVI. HELP!!!!

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    1. Hi Elaine, well done on supporting your daughter. She is fortunate to have you as an advocate and teacher (yes, teacher). The confusion of ‘cognition’ with lack of visual access for kids with CVI, is all too common. You are actually in one of the most progressive states when it comes to CVI. For the educational team, I would refer them to Perkins, who works with school teams to train them in CVI:

      http://www.perkinselearning.org/cvi/school-districts

      Also there is a blog post on IEPs for CVI that I hope will be helpful:

      https://startseeingcvi.com/2017/10/10/what-to-include-in-an-iep-for-a-student-who-has-cvi/

      Feel free to email with other questions, StartSeeingCVI@gmail.com.

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