Literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities
“Being a reader is a highly valued social role. Acquiring even basic literacy skills can create opportunities to participate more fully in one’s community, to be less dependent on others, and to make individual choices about what one wants to do or learn.” Susan R. Copeland
In typically developing children, oral language provides an essential foundation for the development of literacy. “However, for many students with severe disabilities, language skills develop concurrently and interrelatedly with literacy skills (Hanser & Erickson, 2007). In fact, some students with severe disabilities begin demonstrating literacy skills and understanding before developing other consistent means of symbolic communication (Koppenhaver & Erickson, 2003).” Erickson, 2017.
To effectively address the literacy learning needs of students with significant disabilities, the collaboration between professionals from different backgrounds is essential. Each can bring their expertise. "For example, families bring critical knowledge of students’ interests and experiences. SLPs (speech and language pathologists) bring expertise in the development of expressive and receptive language, educators bring expertise in the development of written language, and occupational therapists and assistive technology specialists bring expertise in access to the tools required for literacy (e.g., books, pencils, computers, AAC). The students themselves play an active role in choosing books to read, topics for writing, and ideas to share with others. Together, these individuals and potentially many others must collaborate in delivering high-quality literacy and communication intervention if students with severe disabilities are going to learn to read and write as a means of supporting their participation and success in school and beyond.” Erickson, 2017.
Dr. Caroline Musselwhite tells us that good literacy instruction is good for all students, and students with significant disabilities should not be excluded from or denied literacy instruction because one believes students with significant disabilities can't learn to read and write.
Literacy skills have a direct impact on self-esteem, self-determination, independence, information gathering, the ability to learn, facilitate relationships, and enjoyment, and can significantly enhance the quality of life of students with significant disabilities.The following will cover recent research and helpful suggestions for teachers to consider when teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities.
Dr. Caroline Musselwhite tells us that good literacy instruction is good for all students, and students with significant disabilities should not be excluded from or denied literacy instruction because one believes students with significant disabilities can't learn to read and write. The following will cover recent research and helpful suggestions for teachers to consider when teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities.
“The great barriers that persons with disabilities have to overcome are not steps or curbs, it’s expectations.”
“An intervention strategy designed to support the communication efforts of individuals who are essentially nonverbal with limited unaided communication (Biklen, 1993; Crossley, 1994). Characteristics of FC include physical support/resistance at the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, upper arm, or shoulder; emotional support to encourage attempts by the individual; and the expectation that the individual can and will communicate using some type of communication device (e.g., alphabet/word board, computer with keyboard, picture board)” Downing, 2005.
Recognizing and addressing barriers that hinder the acquisition of literacy skills by students with significant disabilities allow teachers and professionals to focus on bringing literacy to the students who have been most deprived of it. Downing, 2005.
Believing that some students are too disabled to benefit from literacy instruction is among the most persistent barrier. “Instead of believing that these individuals cannot learn and cannot benefit from literacy activities, we must affirm the opposite and then determine ways to make this possible.” Downing, 2005. Facilitated Communication (FC) is an intervention strategy that supports the communication efforts of nonverbal individuals which support the acquisition of literacy skills and allows students with significant disabilities to demonstrate their literacy skills.
Students with significant disabilities are not expected to learn how to read or write and most often, these are not goals found in their IEPs (Individualized Education Plan) because the student’s physical needs and daily living skills might take precedence. “Students with significant disabilities certainly will not acquire literacy skills (and other academic skills) if [teachers and professionals] do not expect them to or provide them with opportunities to do so.” Downing, 2005.
“When children have significant disabilities that may involve the multiple impacts of physical, cognitive, and sensory impairments, the ability to explore and learn from this exploration could be even more hampered. To compound the problem, experiences can become limited as care providers question the value of these experiences. […] The decision may be made to keep the child at home […and] such a decision further handicaps the child, making it more difficult to acquire and understand basic concepts.” Downing, 2005. Research shows that teachers believe that students with significant disabilities are not capable of benefiting from literacy activities and tend to emphasize teaching isolated skills such as letter naming and letter-sound association before having them participate in meaningful literacy activities.
Limited Means of Accessing Literacy
Students need the means to demonstrate what they know and the opportunities to engage in meaningful literacy activities.
Teachers don't always have time to adapt and create appropriate materials for their students. A considerable amount of time is needed to adapt the necessary materials to meet the individual needs of their students.
The Age Factor
Some believe that if a student hasn’t acquired literacy skills by a certain age, there is little benefit in providing them with literacy instruction. Research has demonstrated the contrary and shows that it is never too late to provide literacy instruction for any individual including students with significant disabilities. “Determining what to teach and how to do this in a manner that is relevant and interesting to the learner should be the focus and not the age of the individual.” Downing, 2005.
Balanced Literacy Approach
Students with significant disabilities most often receive literacy instruction which focuses mainly on the acquisition of basic skills such as alphabet recognition and phonological awareness. Literacy instruction should also include share reading and writing, guided reading and writing, and independent reading and writing. “Furthermore, instead of teaching word study skills in isolation, this teaching can occur within a larger and more meaningful context of reading and writing.” June E. Downing, 2005. Teaching isolated skills in a hierarchical approach such as letter identification and letter-sound associations has minimal success and students do not have access to meaningful literacy activities.
Using communication as the bridge to literacy learning
Providing students with opportunities to experience quality social interactions supports the learning of basic concepts. “People, actions, and things all have names or symbols, which can be heard, understood, written down and read. This essential relationship between communication and literacy is relevant whether or not a disability is present.” Downing, 2005.
Students who don’t use speech as a form of communication can use alternative forms such as pictures, icons, objects, and/or AAC to communicate not only their needs but their thoughts. Downing explains that an alternative form of communication can serve as a connecting bridge to the development of language and literacy.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices
AAC devices are considered tools of literacy whether they are low technology or high technology. “Print should always be added to any symbol in a clear, bold, and easily readable font whether the student is reading the print or not. By repeating the student’s message, the teacher points to the words and draws the student’s attention to the symbolic representation of his/her message, and models the desired behaviour.” Downing, 2005. The student will learn that the symbols on his/her device have meaning.
Limitations of AAC
If the device is not changing and growing with the student’s needs and abilities, the student risks being restricted to using only a few messages and will feel discouraged with the inability to communicate his/her thoughts.
The AAC device provided to a student must allow him/her to go beyond making requests. The device should allow him/her to make comments, request help, ask questions, share thoughts and experiences.
Explicit, Systematic Reading Instruction
Explicit, systematic reading instruction teaches students “to apply skills across contexts and make connections among related skills (Browder et al., 2007). Students with ID [intellectual disability] benefit from routine language that is repeated across lessons and contexts.” Lemons, Allor, Al Otaiba, and LeJeune, 2016
Research has shown that it’s best to use an “evidence-based program that provides explicit models, corrective feedback, scaffolding, reinforcement, a cumulative view, and a focus on systematic instruction in phonological awareness and phonics (Bradford et al., 2006; Browder et al., 2012; Browder et al., 2009; Conners, Rosenquist, Sligh, Atwell, & Kiser, 2006).” Lemons, Allor, Al Otaiba, and LeJeune, 2016. Recommendations are provided in the 'Teacher’s Corner.’
Word Recognition Instruction
Phonological awareness is the ability to perceive that sentences are made up of words, words of syllables and syllables of individual sounds or phonemes.
Research has shown that students with significant disabilities can learn word identification strategies beyond word recognition. When a student can apply phonic knowledge to read, they significantly increase their literacy skills and leading to a more meaningful literacy experience. “Although not all students with moderate to severe disabilities will master all phonics generalizations, educators should know how to provide appropriate phonics instruction so that students are at least given an opportunity to learn these valuable skills.
Phonological awareness is the ability to perceive that sentences are made up of words, words of syllables and syllables of individual sounds or phonemes.
Do students with moderate or severe disabilities develop phonological awareness and is it related to their becoming more successful readers? Yes, just as with typically developing children, better developed phonological awareness is associated with higher levels of reading skill in children with intellectual and/or other severe disabilities (e.g., Cupples & Iacono, 2000; Kennedy & Flynn, 2003).” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Teachers must remember that explicit instruction in how to use phonological awareness skills is necessary when teaching students with significant disabilities. Another point to remember is that students with significant disabilities may not be developmentally ready to acquire phonological awareness skills at the same time as same-age peers without disabilities. It’s important to be aware that these skills should be taught beyond the pre-school and first-grade level.
“Reading instruction helps students make the connections between sound (phoneme) and letters (grapheme). Phonics instruction teaches various letter combinations that represent spoken sounds in words (decoding). Once phonics knowledge is acquired, students can apply their knowledge to unfamiliar words to identify them or spell words when creating a written text.
However, being able to decode, or sound out a word involves more than simply knowing which sound each letter or letter combination represents, it also involves memory and the ability to manipulate sounds. To correctly decode a word, a student must first segment the word into individual sounds represented by the word’s letters, hold these in memory, and then blend these sounds to gather to pronounce the word. Blending places a demand on the auditory memory, making decoding difficult (but not impossible) for many students with moderate to severe disabilities whose auditory memory may be compromised (Cupples & Iacono, 2000). Blending also requires some skill in the articulation of sounds, which may be another area of difficulty for students with moderate or severe disabilities who have accompanying speech problems (Johnson et al., 1999).” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Sight Word Instruction
“Students with moderate or severe disabilities who [do] not acquire sufficient phonics skills [will not benefit from decoding] and [will not have] a practical strategy for identifying all novel words. Some students who begin formal literacy instruction by learning sight words may be able to build upon these skills and learn phonics skills that will expand their reading abilities. For these reasons, it is critical that teachers and other practitioners become skilled at providing effective sight word instruction in addition to implementing effective phonics instruction.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Reading fluency depends on a number of factors that go beyond the speed of reading. They include accuracy, proper expression, and text phrasing.
“Speed of reading depends on the ability to recognize words accurately and with automaticity;
Accuracy depends on the ability to recognize and decode words correctly;
Proper expression depends on the ability to modulate pitch and stress of one’s voice, on the ability to understand grammar and punctuation, and is closely related to comprehension of text;
Text phrasing depends on the ability to understand grammar and punctuation and is closely related to comprehension of text.
All the elements of reading fluency described above are dependent on basic physical and sensory abilities such as the ability of the eyes to see and track print and symbols. We cannot assume that students with significant disabilities have these capacities. As a result, some students may have difficulty reading fluently for reasons that are not related to their potential reading ability. Physical, sensory, and linguistic challenges present obstacles in the area of reading fluency, [but] these challenges are not insurmountable.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
“Vocabulary development is of great importance for students with moderate or severe disabilities. Best practices for students without disabilities lend themselves particularly well to differentiation and modifications for diverse learners.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
There are four types of vocabulary, and they are all important in developing literacy skills for students with and without moderate or severe disabilities.
Listening vocabulary is the largest because it includes the words that are heard and understood by an individual even if he/she cannot use them when they speak. “Listening vocabulary functions as an information receiver and is categorized as receptive vocabulary (Cooter & Flynt, 1996).” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Speaking vocabulary’s “function is to produce vocabulary. […] It includes all the words an individual can hear, understand, and use when speaking. For students with sensory, physical, speech, and language impairments, this could also include words that the individual can understand and use in sign or through the use of alternative augmentative communication (AAC).” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Reading vocabulary includes all the words a student can read and understand. “Like listening to vocabulary, reading vocabulary functions as an information receiver and is categorized as receptive vocabulary.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Writing vocabulary includes all the words that a student understands and reproduces when he/she writes.
“For typically developing students, the four types of vocabulary described above are considered subsets of one another. Speaking vocabulary is a subset of listening vocabulary, reading vocabulary is a subset of speaking and listening vocabularies, and writing vocabulary is a subset of speaking, listening, and reading vocabularies. This hierarchical conception does not work for students with sensory, physical, speech, and/or language impairments. We must be careful not to deny access to instruction in reading and writing vocabularies because some individuals with moderate or severe disabilities cannot demonstrate their true knowledge and ability through speaking or signing vocabulary.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Students should have opportunities to write on a daily basis. When students read and write, one activity will enhance the development of the other.
The process of writing is complex, and students with moderate or severe disabilities may have difficulty putting their thoughts or ideas in writing. “Despite the difficulties that students with cognitive or severe disabilities may experience with [writing], engaging in the writing process offers unique opportunities to these individuals to develop literacy skills.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Teaching literacy to secondary students
Literacy instruction changes as the student moves from elementary to high school. Browder et al. remind teachers that all students should have access to age-appropriate materials and that literacy instruction should change as students move from elementary to high school. Elementary literacy instruction should focus on learning on “how to read” and gradually move to “functional reading” as they enter middle and high school.
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