Reading is a complex process that encompasses many different processes working together to unlock our written code and make meaning of it. The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) illustrates that skilled readers must have solid word recognition skills and language comprehension in order to exhibit reading comprehension.  Word recognition includes several key components such as phonological awareness, decoding (and encoding), and sight recognition of familiar words.  Language comprehension includes background knowledge, vocabulary, language structure, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge.  Knowing this, it is important that our approaches to teaching reading consider both parts of this equation.

Reading Gough Tunmer

In the first course of this literacy series, Teaching Foundational Skills of Reading to Students with Limited Verbal Abilities, we discuss how to lay the foundation for literacy with a focus on alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, phonics, and sight word recognition. Students that have limited verbal abilities often have difficulty accessing reading instruction through typical methods, and because of their expressive difficulties, they often have to convey their understanding in unconventional ways.  But it is important to remember that speech is not a prerequisite to reading, and non-speaking individuals can and do learn to read and write.  

There is a tremendous need for reading interventions that specifically address the unique learning needs of this population.  Phonological awareness, for example, is a huge pillar of learning to read and one of the largest predictors of later reading success.  If our students cannot enunciate sounds or verbally manipulate words, we can’t just skip this arena as our students may falter later as words get more complex.  In this course, we discuss how to teach foundational skills in an adapted way for students with complex needs through the integration of meaningful literacy experiences.

Many students with complex needs use symbols to support their communication so you may be wondering why they even need to learn letters and sounds.  Symbols are supportive in face to face communication, but you cannot be precise in your communication with only symbols.   Eric Sanders, a specialist on the topic of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) once said “The most powerful symbol set IS the alphabet.”   Our goal should be for students to be able to say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.  And to do this, we need to teach them letters and sounds so they can spell and be able to write or type to communicate exactly what they want to say.  If we limit students to the symbols that are pre-programmed or chosen by others, we are limiting their autonomy to be independent communicators.

The purpose of this series is to help educators understand the most essential components of reading and writing for students with complex needs.  We discuss how to create a comprehensive literacy framework and how to identify whether students would benefit from emergent literacy strategies or conventional literacy strategies.   Our goal is to build a foundation for literacy with emergent reading instruction, and the hope is, that through our efforts, we’ll be able to move our instruction to more conventional strategies.  I encourage you to join us in this journey of learning more about how to build a framework for teaching reading and writing to students with complex needs, and even if you just start with the implementation of one component, you are already building a foundation for literacy!


This is the second post of a mini-series being presented by Julie Ortlieb.  Check the MCIU Learning Network throughout this year to see more posts from this series.