Literacy in Individuals With Severe Disabilities

Emergent Literacy

Emergent literacy begins at birth whether or not a child has a disability. Emergent literacy describes the level of understanding and use of print/braille observed as learners begin the process of becoming literate. Becoming literate involves developing phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and important receptive and expressive language skills—such as vocabulary, syntax, and

Signs that individuals are moving toward more conventional understandings of literacy include increasing

  • attention and interaction during book sharing,
  • attention to print/Braille,
  • recognition of letters/braille as different from other symbolic representations,
  • awareness of rhyme and other phonologic aspects of language.

Bottom Line: 

Emergent literacy begins at birth. It is not restricted by age or disability and develops as a result of opportunity and experience. 

Reading and Writing

The opportunity to learn to read and write should be afforded to all, regardless of spoken communication ability. The benefits of being able to read and write for individuals with severe disabilities are numerous. Perhaps most importantly, the ability to spell, even at very beginning levels, gives individuals with severe communication impairments the ability to communicate anything they want. In addition, the ability to read and write 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 participation. Education, self-determination, employment, quality of life, and enjoyment all may hinge on an individual's ability to read and/or to write.

Bottom Line: 

A variety of research and development efforts over the past two decades confirm that individuals with severe disabilities can learn to read and write.

Conventional Literacy Assessment and Instruction 

Intervention begins with opportunity to learn and is informed by ongoing assessment of oral and written language. This assessment should include measures of receptive and expressive language skills and examination of comprehension and use of language on multiple levels (e.g., phonological, semantic, morphosyntactic, and pragmatic). However, there are currently limited tools that are accessible to individuals with severe expressive communication disorders. The type and form of assessments may vary with the age and experience of the individual and his or her language and cognitive abilities.

Effective reading and writing instruction for any individual must be comprehensive. It is more than the sequential mastery of skills. Comprehensive instruction provides individuals with access to instruction each day that supports their ability to read words (phonemic awareness, phonics, and word identification) and read text with comprehension (fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension). This should be combined with instruction aimed at improving their ability to write text to improve their own thinking and their ability to communicate with others.

When readers and writers have had enough instructional opportunity to develop a profile of strengths and weaknesses assessment can help identify areas in need of additional targeted instruction.  

Bottom Line: 

When individuals with severe disabilities are provided with access to comprehensive instruction, they can develop conventional reading and writing skills.


Barton-Hulsey, A., Sevcik, R. A., & Romski, M. (2018). The relationship between speech, language, and phonological awareness in preschool-age children with developmental disabilities. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology27(2), 616–632.

Erickson, K. A. (2017). Comprehensive literacy instruction, interprofessional collaborative practice, and students with severe disabilities. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 26, 193–205. doi:10.1044/2017_AJSLP-15-0067

Center for Literacy & Disability Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

Perkins School for the Blind Paths To Literacy for students who are blind or visually impaired 

National Center on Deaf-Blindness

More Information

Example instructional programs can be found at:

Other Instructional Resources and Supports


Return to the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons With Severe Disabilities (NJC) topic areas list.

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