Colleagues from University of Kentucky at the 'Getting in touch with literacy conference 2017

It was with great excitement that I boarded the plane on the 2nd December to fly the 3,000 miles to the Hilton Riverside Hotel, New Orleans, Louisana, to present at the 13th Biennial Getting In Touch With Literacy Conference 2017. The conference was extremely well attended with approximately 400 teachers of VI from across the USA, with a smaller contingency attending from Germany, Sweden and Positive Eye from the United Kingdom.

The conference featured over 70 concurrent sessions across a range of literacy topics focussing on children and young people who are blind and visually impaired. Further features of the conference included an awards brunch, auction and poster sessions. One of those 70 sessions was to be presented by Positive Eye. The theme for my workshop was the ‘Marketness of the Market place’. In honour of the conference I wrote a story and designed a character called Marvin, who would help me to present the rich learning opportunities available within the market place.

Sighted children develop and gain knowledge and experience through incidental learning. During their first few years of life they have exposure to a vast range of visual symbols that convey meaning. This access to the literate environment doesn’t occur naturally for the child with visual impairment.  Our goal is to expose the child systematically and as early as possible and often as possible to a rich variety of concrete experiences, involving many objects, people, places, and activities.
Building this solid foundation of reading readiness skills and fun experiences from infancy is critical. Using a theme-based approach during the emergent stages of literacy development enables us to offer a multitude of rich literacy learning opportunities. ‘Marvin’s Market Adventure and Grandma’s Special Birthday Picnic’ was written to support this theme based approach.

Travelling with two large cases and maxing out the hand luggage enabled transportation of many fun and colourful resources  ready to be presented in a lively, practical session on the first day of the conference.  Marvin, broke the ice, made friends and our workshop was extremely popular. We shared resources and ideas to support numeracy, literacy, science, social and emotional well being, identifying ways in which the child’s emergent literacy skills of fine motor, tactile discrimination, book and story, concept and language skills could be enhanced and developed.
With 70 concurrent sessions to choose between, the decision as to which workshops to attend was a tricky decision! Highlights included Dr Cummins words and thoughts in her opening keynote address “Teachers and the T’s of Today’s Literacy Teaching Practices’, she explored some of the T’s of effective literacy teaching from the perspective of current best practices.
She suggested that the biggest shift in teachers thinking is moving from the 3 R’s of teaching: reading, writing and arithmetic; to a 3 T’s of teaching – Talking, Time and Text:
Talking: facilitates thinking which activates connections, utlilises reading strategies that require talking of retelling stories and of holding grand conversations.
Time:  allowing quality time to engage in the reading process and time to linger to get to grips with issues raised within the texts.
Texts– expose children to a wide variety and types and levels of text.
The speaker’s finishing note reminded us that ‘Thinking’ is common to all three strands of ‘Talk, Time and Text’ and that we must teach the child to think their way through the text.
Another highlight was ‘ABCs and 123s of Early Literacy for Young Children with Visual Impairment.’ This session reinforced my philosophy of breaking down concepts into small steps. It also discussed the need for extensive and repeated experience with real objects and the importance of the hands on approach of that experience occurring as far as possible within a natural context and environment.
‘Communication Strategies for Students with Complex Needs Including Teaching Core Vocabulary’ was a lively enthusiastic presentation that highlighted a range of useful tools and resources for assisting professionals in developing systems of communication emphasising core vocabulary for this population. ‘Tools for Access’ shared included Functional Vision and Learning Media Assessment, Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) Range by Roman-Lantzy (2007), Augmentative Communication Evaluation Simplified (ACES) and ‘Tools for Communication’ included sharing of ‘Every Move Counts,’ ‘Communication Matrix’ and the ‘Functional Communication Profile.’
The abundance of choice was highlighted when Positive Eye was asked to do a second presentation for Teachers of VI from the University of Kentucky VI programme who had been unable to attend the scheduled session. This second outing for Marvin took place in one of the hotel lobbies as a pop up session and proved to be incredibly popular with delegates walking past stopping to join in with the original attendees. At the end of this session many people remained for over an hour discussing ideas, resources and even dressing up as characters from the story for group photos.

To sum up, this conference is a wonderful, vibrant, interactive 3 days spent with like minded professionals, sharing ideas, resources, approaches and most importantly a love of supporting children and young people with vision impairment to experience literacy beyond the written word.

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Gwyn McCormack
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