Teaching reading and writing to students with complex needs can seem like an insurmountable task amongst all of the other areas of focus, but literacy is a crucial aspect of their education and well-being.  While it may be tempting to focus solely on “functional skills,” literacy is the most important functional skill that our students can acquire.  Reading and writing are essential in every aspect of a person’s life.  Furthermore, literacy has a direct impact on safety; for instance, in the real life-example of a non-speaking man who used his literacy skills to type words and sentences into his AAC device to advocate for himself and report mistreatment.  At the very least, our students need to be able to communicate what is happening to them or around them. 

“No line needs to be drawn between so-called functional skills and literacy.  Literacy IS functional, and literacy instruction can help students learn all of those skills that have traditionally been placed on the other side of the imaginary line.” (Erickson & Koppenhaver, 2020)

The first step for teachers who are ready to prioritize literacy instruction for their students with special needs is to believe in their students’ potential and hold high expectations for them.  This means assuming that students can learn and providing them with every opportunity to do so.  To make the most impact, we have to educate ourselves and our teams on best practices in literacy instruction.  We must first establish the mindset that it is important for students with disabilities to have rich, meaningful experiences with reading and writing.   Then, we need to create a plan to maximize the instructional time we have amongst all of the skills and therapies we are trying to fit into the day.

Research on how to teach students with significant disabilities is ongoing, with organizations such as the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies at UNC Chapel Hill and authors like Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver providing valuable research.   Projects such as the DLM (Dynamic Learning Maps), Project Core, and Tar Heel Reader originated from the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies.   Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver, researchers from UNC, wrote a book that was released in 2020 called Comprehensive Literacy for All: Teaching Students with Significant Disabilities to Read and Write.   Much of the content from the series I created “Literacy Instruction for Students with Complex Needs” is anchored in this text and is incredibly helpful in building a comprehensive framework that supports the literacy development of students with complex needs.

While recording a podcast about this series, I looked over and saw a quote on a Learning A-Z bag that said “Literacy Empowers Limitless Possibilities.”  The unsettling fact remains that more than 80% of students with significant intellectual disabilities can read only basic sight words or are emergent in their understanding of print.  While it is true that significant disabilities can affect literacy learning, it is important to remember that living a literate life does not have to be impossible for these individuals.  Naoki Higashida was diagnosed with severe autism when he was five.  He learned to communicate using a handmade alphabet grid and began to write poems and short stories. At the age of thirteen, he wrote The Reason I Jump, which has now been published in more than thirty languages and is an award winning documentary.  This is one powerful example of how learning to read and write opened up a world of possibilities for a non-speaking individual.

Too many students with significant disabilities only receive instruction that targets the few goals in their IEPs or other narrowly defined skills that relate to literacy in some way.  We need to make a shift away from focusing exclusively on IEP goals, or at the very least, create meaningful IEP goals that align to a comprehensive literacy program.  We need to reflect on our approaches and practices and ask:  

  • Are we instilling a love of reading in our students?  
  • Are we giving them the tools to communicate whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want?  
  • Are we giving them opportunities to learn from and to engage with others outside of the bubble of their classroom?  
  • Are we getting kids excited about reading and writing and showing them the richness of literacy in the context of the real world so they can generalize to life outside of school?  

Some of our students might not develop the skill to read proficiently or pass a standardized assessment, but what if through our efforts, they develop a love for literacy?   By believing in our students’ potential and providing them with comprehensive literacy instruction, we can empower them to communicate and connect beyond the classroom doors, leading them to a more fulfilling and independent life.


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