Special education is an ever-changing landscape. As such, we’ve seen a lot of instructional shifts throughout the years due to legislative changes and mindset. There has also been way more research in the area of literacy for students with significant disabilities than ever before. When we know better, we do better. Of course, we are all still learning and growing in our understanding of how to best educate students with complex needs. But it is an exciting time where we are seeing shifts in mindset around educating students with disabilities.
In place of a sole focus on functional skills, we should presume competence and hold high expectations for students with disabilities to learn challenging academic content. Instead of students with disabilities just accessing general education by being a bystander in the classroom, we should strive for meaningful engagement and participation alongside their peers with appropriate supports in place to do so. Teaching students with complex needs is not always an easy task, but research on literacy practices for students with significant disabilities confirms that this population of students benefits from the same literacy practices and approaches as typically developing youngsters (Erickson & Koppenhaver, 2007; Schnorr & Fenlon, 2008).
All students need explicit and systematic instruction in five essential elements of literacy to achieve reading success:
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In the first course of this series, we cover alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and phonics in depth. In the next course, we focus more on reading/language comprehension, vocabulary, word study, and writing. Our cornerstone is how to teach these essential components in an adapted way for students with complex needs through the integration of meaningful literacy experiences. We discuss how to create a comprehensive literacy framework and how to identify whether student(s) would benefit from emergent literacy strategies or conventional literacy strategies.
There is no prerequisite to begin to learn to read and write. Literacy instruction can be tailored to two different levels of readiness- emergent and conventional. Emergent literacy is the platform for conventional literacy and includes four areas of interacting knowledge: 1) print concepts and functions 2) writing 3) letter, sound, and word knowledge, and 4) language comprehension. No one area of skill or knowledge must precede any others; this is what makes emergent literacy a particularly resilient learning model for students with complex needs. The emergent platform must be strong before moving to conventional literacy, and we must be careful not to over-scaffold learning to make it look like students are achieving in replacement of building strong emergent literacy skills.
Regardless of a student’s level, literacy skills should not be taught in isolation. If reading instruction is focused on isolated skills like picture matching, worksheets, responding to questions, flashcard drills, or reading words in isolation, there is an absence of comprehensive instruction that is required to read conventionally with comprehension. These activities may have a time and a place, but when planning instruction, the goal is for emergent readers to understand that words have meaning and to develop an interest in constructing their own meaning from text. Students with cognitive disabilities remain emerging in their understanding of print when they are taught skills in isolation.
All students need to learn that print is a code for speech. They must be engaged in exploring and using reading and writing in real-world contexts from the beginning and have opportunities to observe how others integrate literacy into their daily lives. We have to help students see the relevance of reading and writing to their own lives, too. The function of literacy is just as important as its forms.
“Students who learn that they can use reading and writing to investigate areas of interest, share their ideas, thoughts, and feelings, or interact with new people understand that the primary purpose of literacy is communication.” (Quick-Guides to Inclusion, page 184)
Reading and writing are fostered by experiences that promote meaningful interaction with oral and written language. Students with complex needs are often held back from writing instruction because they have not yet developed the motor based skills to “handwrite.” The reality is that all of us use “alternative pencils” all the time. As with a lot of assistive technology, what started out as a tool for individuals with disabilities eventually became the norm for all. We all use multiple writing tools each day, and handwriting is a minimal part of that mix. There are many options for Alternative Pencils for students with disabilities. Occupational Therapists and Assistive Technology specialists are great resources to help you identify the best “tool” for students to write, which may involve a process for selecting letters rather than writing with a pencil. Most importantly, students must receive explicit, systematic phonics instruction and have access to many forms of the alphabet. Learning to communicate with our alphabet is more important than learning to handwrite and allows students to have precision in their communication.
Students with significant disabilities deserve the right to read and the power of communication through writing. They can only achieve this if provided with comprehensive literacy instruction that is tailored to their unique learning needs. To learn more, join this learning series to discover how to build a framework for teaching reading and writing to students with complex needs. Unlock your students’ potential and empower them to communicate and connect with the world around them through literacy.