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Reading, Writing, and Literacy for Children and Adults With Severe Disabilties

Communication Services and Supports for Individuals With Severe Disabilities: FAQs

Can children with severe disabilities learn to read or write?

Recent federal legislative efforts have focused on mandates in education that include reading development and achievement for all school age children. These programs include all children: children with and children without disabilities.

Literacy opens a critical path to the acquisition of, and access to, many forms of knowledge and experience within our contemporary society. From early school experiences through adult employment, literacy skills are needed to maximize one's functional participation. Education, self-determination, employment, quality of life, and enjoyment as a fully participating member of society all may hinge on an individual's ability to read and/or to write.

Many educational methods and materials may be employed to develop and enhance literacy. Far too often, an emphasis on daily living and/or vocational skills has excluded the incorporation of literacy instruction. In general, research has demonstrated that neither IQ, nor perceptual motor skills predict reading success; it is a child's knowledge of letters and phonemic awareness that evidences a strong relationship. How is that knowledge gained?

Children must be given opportunities to learn about print. Reading is not a single skill; rather it is composed of a smoothly integrated system of skills coupled with a backdrop of world knowledge and experience. Reading is about extracting meaning. For young children, immersion in, and attention to, examples of the use of print - on cereal boxes, on signs, in books and magazines and games, and on television programs like Sesame Street - are everywhere.

Children with severe disabilities must have access to the full complement of literacy experiences in order to support the development of reading and writing skills. These skills may range from experiences that foster emergent literacy to those that support fluent sophisticated writing skills. These literacy instructional supports may include technological supports such as software and computers that support written expression. The use of AAC systems may serve not only as to literacy development. See, for example, reports from The Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at www.med.unc.edu/ahs/clds/. Recently, some eloquent examples of writing by persons who use AAC to communicate have been published (e.g., Erickson, Yoder, & Koppenhaver, 2002; Fried-Oken & Bersani, 2000; Williams & Krezman, 2000).

For more information:

Erickson, K.,Yoder, D., & Koppenhaver, D. (2002). Waves of words: Augmented communicators read and write . Toronto: ISAAC.

Fried-Oken, M., & Bersani, H. (2000). Speaking out and spelling it out . Baltimore: Brookes.

Williams, M.B., & Krezman, C. (2000). Beneath the surface . Toronto: ISAAC.

When should I start reading to my child?

It is never too soon nor is your child too young to begin learning about print.

Marilyn Adams (1994), author of Beginning to Read , describes how she read to her son since the time he was 6 weeks old. Daily reading, especially when the child is engaged at a level that is slightly above his or her expected level of performance is essential to offering wide experience with print. Playing word games, using magnetic letters, identifying letters and words in different environments are other ways in which to make children aware of the links between oral and written language. For children with significant disabilities, the development of reading skills sometimes can be neglected since parents and professionals may believe that other types of language skills should be in place before teaching the child about print.

For more information:

Adams, M.J. (1995). Beginning to read . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

If a student is nonspeaking, and so can't read out loud, how can I assess his or her reading skills?

A complete assessment of a child's language abilities in both the spoken and written modalities is needed. This assessment should include measures of receptive and expressive language skills examining the child's comprehension and use of language on multiple levels, e.g., phonological, semantic, morphosyntactic, and pragmatic levels. For children who use AAC, a challenge for practitioners is that few tools are available for assessment. Some research is underway to design such tools (e.g., www.med.unc.edu/ahs/clds/). Currently, adaptations of existing instruments devised for use with children without disabilities and creation of informal measures are used. The type and form of assessments may vary with the age and experience of the individual child and his or her language and cognitive abilities.

Many reading assessment measures require an oral response. Use of speech-generating devices can allow children to provide an oral response. Some alternative tasks have been used that employ judgment tasks and the use of graphic and/or text symbols.

For more information:

Foley, B. E. (2003). Language, literacy, and AAC: Translating theory into practice. Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication , 12 , 5-8.

What are signs of "emergent literacy" in a child with severe disabilities?

Emergent literacy is made up several behaviors that range from the child knowing a few letters of the alphabet to recognizing some icons or signs or identifying his or her own name in print. The child also may be able to match words with pictures or with objects. Interest in looking at books or magazines can denote a child's growing awareness of print. Following and comprehending a story are illustrations of a child's developing interest in print as well.

Just like the typically developing child, the child with disabilities may not know that the letters of the alphabet represent sounds in speech. Comprehension of spoken language will set the stage for reading comprehension. Children's vocabularies expand when adults and others read to them.

What strategies can I use to teach reading and writing to an individual with severe disabilities?

Effective instruction must provide a match between an individual's profile of skills, (strengths and weaknesses in spoken and written language) and the instructional content. Careful and specific analyses of the tasks and skills needed in the development of reading are required. Children, for example, who can decode, but have difficulty with comprehending text, would have instruction tailored to their need. For individuals who communicate using graphic symbols on AAC systems, printed words can be incorporated into the symbol display. In turn, storybooks can be modified by inserting communication symbols into the text. Innovative applications of software have been developed for instruction in both reading and writing. They include interactive books in different media. All function to increase individuals' experience with print. Families, teachers, and other professionals must collaborate to identify and design instructional plans that allow children to progress in their school's literacy curricula.

Language and literacy instruction is not limited only to elementary school age children. The fundamental skills should be integrated into the curriculum across all ages and in all contexts and activities.

For more information:

For descriptions of instructional software, see: www.med.unc.edu/ahs/clds/

Glennen, S.L., & DeCoste, D.C. (1997). Handbook of augmentative and alternative communication . San Diego: Singular.

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