Planning Literacy Activities
Identifying Literacy Goals
Students with significant disabilities don’t necessarily follow the same literacy developmental stages as students without a disability and may be incapable of acquiring certain basic skills which are considered essential to learning how to read or write. The focus should be on what skills will be most useful, practical and enjoyable for the student to learn. However, knowing what the student can do in regards to literacy is important since they relate to the goal(s) set for the students. Here are a few questions that should be asked.
What present skills does the student have?
What are his/her physical abilities?
Can he/she see? Can he/she hear?
What is his/her level of communicative competence? Experience?
Does the student know how to handle a book? Orientation of the book for example.
Can he/she grasp a pencil/pen?
Can he/she write letters? Scribble? Draw?
Does he/she use a non-conventional writing tool?
The person-centered approach allows teachers and professionals to identify appropriate goals by assessing the student based on the goals set for and expectations of the student instead of assessing the student based on age. The objective is to determine what is needed to teach effectively to reach the goal(s) set for the student.
When to teach literacy skills?
Literacy naturally occurs throughout the student’s day. “An IEP/Activity Matrix is recommended as a means of identifying when a given student’s unique literacy needs can be addressed during the school day. Using this format, activities of the day are written across the top the matrix, and the targeted skills, in this case literacy skills, are listed in the vertical column. In the resulting boxes under each activity of the day, the team can determine how each skill will be addressed.” Downing, 2005. An example of an activity matrix is given in figure 1.
IEP/Activity Matrix Literacy Skills of a Cycle I High School Student
In an Inclusive Setting
Materials should respect the student’s chronological age. There is a risk when always introducing or using the same materials if we select materials based on the student’s developmental age. “As students age, they should experience different materials that reflect this growth and development. Otherwise, students will not have the opportunity to learn about different things and may become overly dependent on the material that is considerably younger than they are.” Downing, 2005. Overly juvenile material risks lowering teacher expectations and has a negative effect on the student’s self-esteem. If one is not sure what is age appropriate or not, one just simply asks themselves if they would give or offer these materials to a student without a disability of the same age group.
Approaches and practices to consider
No single approach will answer the needs of all students. However, strategies should be considered that make literacy accessible and meaningful to students.
The following strategies are taken from Teaching Literacy to Students With Significant Disabilities written by June E. Downing.
Offer students different choices during literacy activities such as:
self-select books during silent reading (comic books, books created by the student, commercial book, image or memory book)
select a reading partner
choose a location to read or write
choose a reading or writing position
select topics to write about
how to write (magnetic words or letters,pictures, cloze-type sentences, drawing, pictures, pictorial software programs, rubber stamps)
Know their interests
Using topics of interest to the students as topics either for reading or writing will be more successful in having the student participate in activities than selecting a topic and imposing it on the student.
Offer plenty of opportunities for students to participate in literacy-related activities, to practice new skills and reinforce acquired skills.
Here are some examples of creating opportunities for students:
read their schedule before each activity or class
keep track of work by checking off what is accomplished
read steps to complete a given task
write the names to participate in a given activity center
read names on folders to find his/her own
read messages created on an AAC board
read self-monitoring behavioural checklist
document one's own progress
keep score during a game
Accommodations whether physical or cognitive are needed when a student doesn’t have access to materials the same way as students with disabilities. Also, students should have access to a literacy-rich environment. Classrooms should have word walls, poems, daily schedule, class rules, students’ work displayed, alphabet (elementary level) on the wall and an individualized alphabet on desks (high school level), posters of novels and posters of inspirational sayings.
The most appropriate and effective adaptations are those that are preplanned. Sometimes, teachers and educators need to act quickly and on the spot to provide accommodations. Because these situations occur more often than we like, some materials should be readily accessible.
portable files of pictures organized by category
Meaningful literacy experiences
Make literacy activities meaningful and relevant to the students.
Use a daily planner
A daily planner is a practical and meaningful reading tool for students with significant disabilities. Organizing and managing your day is a lifelong skill used on a daily basis. Daily planners need to be adapted to make them accessible to the student. They can
contain photographic materials
objects or parts of objects
but should always contain print or braille.
Following step-by-step directions for any given task offers meaningful and in context literacy practice.
“Meaningful reading and writing practice can occur as students learn to self-monitor their behavior at school. Reading and writing instruction using self-monitoring checklists also teaches students self-management skills and makes them more accountable for their own behavior (Agran, King-Sears, Wehmeyer, & Copeland, 2003). Motivation to read and write using specially adapted checklists is increased if the student can see a tangible reward for demonstrating desired behavior.” Downing, 2005
Language experience stories
“[A] meaningful form of literacy for students with significant disabilities is the development of stories based on their own life experiences.” Downing, 2005. Materials must be made accessible and meaningful for the student. Having students participate in the creation or production of materials ensures that these will have meaning for the student.
Interactive and fun
As often as possible, make materials interactive and entertaining. “Literacy is not a passive undertaking of being read to. Literacy learning for students with significant disabilities will require meaningful interactions between student and instructor and with reading materials so that the student can construct meaning (Beaukelman et al., 1998; Koppenhaver, Erickson, & Stotko, 2001).” Downing, 2005.
Clear literacy goal
Teaching students with significant disabilities is challenging enough, and the lack of clear goals and objectives could lead the teacher or professionals to teach the same acquired skills repeatedly and have little or no gain in the acquisition of more sophisticated literacy skills.
Instructional strategies to consider
The following instructional strategies are suggested strategies when working with students “who are just beginning to learn about their world and how to represent it.” Downing, 2005
Draw attention to the stimulus and shape response
Students need to be made aware of symbolic representation (print, pictorial, tactile objects, braille). “Depending on the student’s abilities, verbally directly, pointing to the symbol, tapping it, adding highlighter or colour, adding reflective tape and shining a light on it, and/or bringing the symbol under the student’s hands can be effective strategies.” Downing, 2005
Model the behaviours of reading and writing
“Once the student’s attention is on the representative symbol, then telling the student the word clearly and distinctly and repeating the information while pointing to the word (or mutually touching the item) can help support the student’s efforts to associate specific content with its representation. […] The instructor is modelling the skill of reading for the student. Emphasizing the initial-letter sound while pointing to that letter of the word and using this as a cue to the student to read the word helps strengthen the acquisition of this basic skill.” Downing, 2005
Check for comprehension
It’s important to offer the student options as to how he/she can demonstrate understanding. The student can look at, point to, touch, or sign to show comprehension. Checking for understanding is critical in all subjects. Verifying if the student understands, reduces the chances of him/her from passively sitting in class and learning to be “passive recipients of information.” Downing, 2005
Waiting for a response
Time delay gives the opportunity for the student to process the information (request), find an answer (solution), and respond. Some students might need longer wait times. Knowing the amount of time a student usually takes to respond will help determine how much time should be given when the student is processing new information. The key is that wait time can’t be too long because there is a risk that the student might forget what was asked and not too short where we risk not giving the student the opportunity to respond which will increase the frustration level.
Corrective Feedback and praise
Mistakes are a great opportunity to support and help students learn the correct response. “If a student points to the wrong picture/word or touches the wrong object, the teacher needs to tell the student why the response is incorrect and guide the student’s hand (or other body part) to the correct option.” Downing, 2005
Planning the necessary supports for students to acquire literacy skills is needed just as much as planning the eventual fading of these supports put in place to allow the student to be as independent as possible. “Fading may involve waiting longer for a response, providing fewer cues, and fading pictorial information.” Downing, 2005
Examples of fading support
Using wax paper over pictures or photographs until the visual information is too difficult to see
reducing graphic information until there is only text
Instructional supports should not be removed too quickly. Careful observations of the student’s progress will indicate when fading should occur.
Explicit, Systematic Reading Instruction
The recommendations in the link to the right have been shown to be effective when teaching students with moderate or severe intellectual disabilities. “The base programs will need some adaptations [to meet the individual needs] and supplemental content may be necessary to meet the instructional needs of the students.” Lemons, Allor, Al Otaiba, and LeJeune, 2016
These recommendations are take from Lemons, Allor, Al Otaiba, and LeJeune, 2016, 10 Research-Based Tips for Enhancing Literacy Instruction for Students With Intellectual Disability.
Word Recognition Instruction
Phonological awareness instruction should take place within an already existing reading program, and students should be provided with visual letters to accomplish the effective learning. Instruction should be explicit and not longer than 10 to 20 minutes per day.
Some Recommendations to be implemented:
small group settings (allows for students to learn by watching peers model skills)
focus on one or two skills at a time
explicit instruction in segmenting and blending (enhances reading skills)
setting can be in an informal setting (games, singing, wordplay activities)
active responses and instruction that involves manipulation of objects (i.e. sorting objects or images by rhyme units, clap stomp or tap to represent each word in a sequence, or each syllable)
Scaffolding Working Memory is necessary to support students who experience deficits in working memory. Sounding out words can be demanding for a student with a moderate or severe intellectual disability because they could forget the first sound of a given word while they are trying to figure out the sound of the middle and end sounds, making blending extremely difficult.
Teach a limited number of highly imageable, decodable words (example: dog) - student matches the word to the picture - when the student can identify the word automatically, then this word can be used to teach phonological awareness and alphabetic principle activities.
There are two general approaches to teaching phonics; implicit/analytic phonics or whole-part phonics and explicit/synthetic phonics.
Implicit/analytic phonics or whole-part phonics focuses on “teaching students letter-sound relationships by analyzing sounds within familiar words instead of first isolating and then blending letter sounds. Students first look at the whole word and then analyze the letter sounds found in that word. For example, the student has learned the sound of the letters by examining the word sat and recognizing that its beginning sound is /s/. Some experts argue that his approach is especially suited for students with moderate or severe disabilities because phonics knowledge is taught within a meaningful context that makes it less abstract for these learners. (e.g. Katims, 2000).” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Explicit/synthetic phonics “involves a part-whole approach. Students are first taught isolated letter-sound relationships and then taught to synthesize the parts (sounds) into a whole (the word). For example, a student learning the sound for s might be taught the individual sound for the letter s /s/ and then taught to blend this sound with the sounds for a /ã/, and
t/t/ to read the word sat. This instructional method has been shown to be especially successful with students who have significant reading problems, including those with poor phonological awareness.
However, students with auditory memory problems may struggle using this approach with longer words because of the memory load involved in blending. Isolating individual sounds also alters the sounds of some letters, especially stop consonants (those speech sounds in which the air flow is stopped such as /d/, /b/, /p/, /t/, /k/, and /g/, so students may not be able to recognize the word they are blending.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Published Phonological Awareness Assessments and Instructional Programs
The method will depend on the focus of the lesson, the individual needs of the students, and for whom the lesson is intended for.A published phonics curriculum provides a systematic sequence of instruction that teachers can use to plan instruction. “Regardless of the phonics program followed, however, lessons for students with moderate or severe disabilities should include dynamic participation using game-like activities, manipulatives, and other instructional formats that involve active student participation (Mirenda, 2003).” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.The following tables are taken from Effective Literacy Instruction for Students with Moderate or Severe Disabilities written by Susan Copeland & Elizabeth Keefe, 2007
There are many instructional programs to choose from. Here are a few suggestions.
Sight Word Instruction
There are many vocabulary words, especially irregular spellings, which are easier for the student to learn by memorizing them (sight word or automatic recognition). “Every comprehensive literacy program for beginning readers (with or without disabilities) includes instruction in both phonics and sight word recognition.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
The words selected to be taught by this method should be meaningful and useful for the student, especially if he/she will learn a very limited amount of words. A teacher should consider:
the student’s written environment and future written environment (i.e. words often seen in the community)
the student’s age and language spoken at home
words of interest to the student
words that will increase class and community participation
names of friends and family
when creating a list of vocabulary words. Focusing on high frequency words is best for students who are developing conventional reading and writing skills because they help students become better readers.
Teachers can teach selected sight words by
pairing pictures with words, keeping in mind this visual support should be gradually faded over time;
copying, covering and comparing
response prompts - verbal, gestures, modelling, or physical assistance
Response prompts can be done simultaneously or by giving feedback after a student responds. “Simultaneously prompting is a form of errorless learning. […] the teacher presents the word, names the words, and tells the student to say the word. Errorless learning is an effective strategy for some students, especially those who get upset when they make a mistake (Browder, 2001).” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Stimulus shaping is a strategy used for students who require intensive support. The teacher presents the word with at least two distracter words. In the beginning, the distracter words are very different than the target word. As the student gains experience and identifies the word easily, the distracter words become more and more similar to the target word. This technique forces the student to rely on finer and finer differences between the distracter words and the target word. This strategy should be completed with opportunities for the student to read newly learned words in a variety of texts.
Effective Reading Fluency Instruction
Reading fluency is developed when students actively participate and can be improved by shared and guided reading, repeated reading and silent reading. Instruction can be provided with many degrees of student support, and “naturally overlaps with oral language, word recognition, and comprehension, making it easy to meet different objectives with the same basic instructional activity.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Reading aloud to students regardless of school age improves literacy skills and motivation to read. It contributes to reading fluency by providing a model of a fluent reader. “This modelling is particularly important for students with moderate or severe disabilities who may not have had a lot of exposure to literature at home or school.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007.
Shared reading involves a proficient reader paired with a less proficient reader. The proficient reader provides the needed scaffolding or support to the student so he/she can improve either their fluency or general literacy skills.
“Choral reading involves large or small groups of students reading the text in unison. Students can read all or parts of the text in unison,” (Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007), build on text together until the student can read the whole text, read repeated lines of a book together, have different groups read different sections in unison, reading lyrics, sing-alongs. The imagination of the teacher is limitless.
Repeated reading is “a major research-based reading strategy that improves reading fluency. Students with moderate or severe disabilities often need more repetition than students without disabilities to master and retain skills (Ryndak & Alper, 2003). The challenge for teachers is making repeated reading of text motivating and meaningful for students.” Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007. Incorporating some performance can provide motivation especially if the student is expected to perform for someone or an audience. Reader’s theatre, scripts, puppet show, and poetry readings are some examples that involve performance reading.
If students have great difficulty with reading comprehension, “begin instruction using only a short sentence (two or three words) and gradually build to longer sentences or to several sentences with a passage as the student gains skills and confidence” (Copeland, S. & Calhoon, J, 2007). Using even one short sentence at a time offers numerous possibilities for a student to develop comprehension skills. Using question words facilitates comprehension development. It’s also important to consider students’ interests when selecting texts. Keeping in mind students’ interests makes reading not only meaningful but enjoyable for the students.
Instruction pertaining to word recognition and reading are recommended strategies to increase students’ vocabulary.
When teaching writing to students with moderate or severe disabilities,
have high expectations because all students have something to say whether they have a disability or not;
provide meaningful opportunities to write every day;
make writing activities accessible and provide the necessary supports needed for the student to participate in writing activities;
provide effective instruction by using evidence-based instruction.
From scribbles to conventional writing
Providing quality writing instruction begins with a proper assessment of students. The Developmental Writing Scale (DWS) is an assessment tool that quantifies the smallest of gains in writing of students with moderate or severe disabilities. Once a student’s level is identified, teachers can target instructional goals that promote progress and help the student move to the next level.
The following Developmental Writing Scale is taken from
Sturm, J.M., Cali, K., Nelson, W. and Stakoski M. (2012) The Developmental Writing Scale-A new Progress Monitoring Tool for Beginning Writers. Topic in Language Disorders. Vol. 32, No. 4. pp. 297-318.
Developmental Writing Scale
Practical Writing Strategies
Predictable Writing Chart
Write the chart
Reread/work with chart
Work with cutup sentences
Be the sentence
Make the book
I want to see penguins.
I want to see lions.
I want see polar bears.
I want to see leopards.
Use images, photos, or objects to write about
Offer authentic and meaningful writing tasks
rewriting predictable story
customized digital books
thank you cards
Publish students’ work
Offer structured writing activities depending on complexity and demands of the test type.
labels (write word(s) to talk about a picture)
lists (things to remember, things they want, things to do, things about themselves/about other people)
opinions (how I think, believe, feel, like/not like,)
descriptive writing (describe an object, “I see…”)
personal stories (creative fictional stories, memories, diaries, anecdotes, fables, fantasies)
informational writing (factual information, report, explain, compare/contrast, problem/solution)
Evaluation is key to keeping track of a student’s progress. Students with significant disabilities progress slowly, and assessing any progress made by students is essential. Ongoing assessment allows teachers to identify the strategies that are successful and those that are less effective. Using standardized forms of assessment do not provide teachers with meaningful information that can be either used to evaluate or plan instruction.
Using alternative forms of assessment allows teachers to have a clearer picture of student’s gains and strengths. The following are suggestions of alternative assessments.
Speaking with people who know the student can provide valuable information concerning their skills and their interests. This information can help determine and plan the skills and goals. Family members can tell teachers how their child expresses themselves at home, what helps the child to express themselves, and what motivates him/her to interact with others. Talking with family members can also provide the teacher with an overview of what literacy means to them and what they hope their child will learn at school.
Teachers can speak with the student’s past teachers and other professionals to gather information about student’s learning profile. They can provide information such as how the student interacts with literacy materials, supports put in place that were successful, and what types of activities were done in previous years.
“Information from structured and unstructured activities provides authentic assessment of a student’s actual performance under varying conditions. Observations can be made in real time as the activity occurs or from previously recorded lessons, which can be viewed by multiple teams at their convenience. Observations can occur across different literacy activities and settings to obtain the most accurate assessment of the student’s abilities in language skills, reading, and writing. Observations also can happen when a student is being supported by a competent partner who can facilitate the student’s active involvement.” Downing, 2005. This kind of assessment can provide information concerning what kind of supports are given.
Past records and IEP progress reports can provide information concerning student’s progress concerning his/her literacy skills. If there is no mention of the student’s literacy skills, this absence should be addressed. Information can provide direction on what should be taught next and what supports and strategies need to be put in place for the student to continue progressing.
Getting Started with Emergent Writing
Literacy Continuum K to 6:
The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide
Literacy Continuum K to 6:
Literacy Teaching Guide: Phonemic Awareness
Literacy Continuum K to 6:
An Introduction to Quality Literacy Teaching
Websites of Interest:
Alnahdi, G.H. (2015). Teaching Reading for Students with Intellectual Disabilities: A Systematic Review. International Education Studies, 8(9). URL:
Annandale, K., Bindon, R., Handley, K., Johnston, A., Lockett, L., & Lynch P. New First Steps in Literacy: Reading Map of Development. Canadian Edition. Pearson, 2013.
Browder, D.M., Gibbs, S., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., Courtade, G.R., Mraz, M., & Flowers, C. (September/October 2009). Literacy for Students With Severe Developmental Disabilities - What Should We Teach and What Should We Hope to Achieve? Remedial and Special Education, 30(5), 269-282.
Browder, D. M., Trela, K., & Jimenez, B. (2007). Training teachers to follow a task analysis to engage middle school students with moderate and severe developmental disabilities in grade-appropriate literature. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 22(4), 206-219.
Browder, D.M. & Spooner, F. (2006). Teaching Language Arts, Math & Science to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities. Baltimore, Brooks Ed.
Broun, L. & Olwein, P. (2007). Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs,. New York, Dude Publishing.
Colasent, R. & Griffith, P.L., (1998). Autism and Literacy: Looking into the classroom with rabbit stories. Reading Teacher, 51 (5), 414-20.
Cooper-Duffy, K., Szedia, P., & Hyer, G. (2010). Teaching Literacy to Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 42(3), 30-39.
Copeland, S. & Keefe, E., (2007). Effective Literacy Instruction for Students with Moderate or Severe Disabilities. Baltimore, Brooks.
Courtade, G., Spooner, F., Browder, D., & Jimenez, B. (2012). Seven Reasons to Promote Standards-Based Instruction for Students with Severe Disabilities: A Reply to Ayres, Lowrey, Douglas, & Sievers (2011). Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 47(1), 3-13.
Downing, J.E., (2005). Teaching Literacy to Students With Significant Disabilities: strategies for the K-12 inclusive classroom. California, Corwin Press.
Erickson, K.A. (2000). All Children are Ready to Learn: An Emergent Versus ReadinessPerspective in Early Literacy. Seminars in Speech and Language, 21(3).
Erickson, K.A. (May, 2017). Comprehensive Literacy Instruction, Interprofessional Collaborative Practice, and Students With Severe Disabilities. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, (26) 193–205.
Erickson, K.A., Hatch, P. & Clendon, S. (January 2010). Literacy, Assistive Technology, and Students with Significant Disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 42(5).
Hudson, M.E., Browder, D. & Wakeman, S. (2013). Helping Students With Moderate and Severe Intellectual Disability Access Grade-Level Text. Teaching Exceptional Children, 45(3), 14-23.
Jimenez, B. & Kemmery, M. (2013). Story-based Lessons for Students with Severe Intellectual Disability: Implications for Research-To-Practice. Education Matters, 1(1), 80-96.
Koppenhaver, D.A., & Erickson, K.A. (October/December 2003). Natural Emergent Literacy Supports for Preschoolers with Autism and Severe Communication Impairments. Topics in Language Disorders, 23(4), 283-292.
Lemons, C.J., Allor, J. H., Al Otaiba, S. & Le Jeune, L. M. (2016). 10 Research-Based Tips for Enhancing Literacy Instruction for Students With Intellectual Disability. Teaching Exceptional Children, 49(1), 18-30.
Mirenda, P. (2003). “He’s Not Really a Reader…”: Perspectives on Supporting Literacy Development in Individuals with Autism. Topics in Language Disorders, 23(4), 271-282.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1998). Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children - A position statement of the International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Young Children, 53(4), 30–46.
Orlando, A., & Ruppar, A. (2016). Literacy instruction for students with multiple and severe disabilities who use augmentative/alternative communication (Document No. IC-16). Retrieved from University of Florida, Collaboration for Effective Educator, Development, Accountability, and Reform Center website:
Smith, D.D., DeMarco, J.F., & Worley, M. (2009). Literacy Beyond Picture Books - Teaching Secondary Students with Moderate to Severe Disabilities. California, Corwin Press.