Literacy in Individuals With Severe Disabilities

Emergent Literacy

Unless the child is demonstrating conventional understandings of letters, sounds, words, and the meaning of written language, the term emergent literacy applies. Individuals who are emerging in their understandings of literacy are working to understand the functions of print and print conventions: developing phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and important receptive and expressive language skills—such as vocabulary, syntax, and narrative—that will eventually allow them to use reading and writing to interact with others. Each language, print, or other symbolic interaction individuals have with more literate others contributes to their understanding of literacy over time. Signs that individuals are moving toward more conventional understandings of literacy include increasing

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

Bottom Line: Emergent literacy begins at birth whether or not a child has a disability. Emergent literacy describes the level of understanding and use of print observed in the vast majority of children with significant disabilities.


Reading and Writing

The benefits of this understanding for individuals with significant disabilities are numerous. Perhaps most importantly, the ability to spell, even at very beginning levels, gives individuals with significant communication impairments the ability to "say" 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 confirms that individuals with the most significant disabilities can learn to read and write.


  • Erickson, K., Yoder, D., & Koppenhaver, D. (2002). Waves of words: Augmented communicators read and write. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: ISAAC.
  • Fried-Oken, M., & Bersani, H. (2000). Speaking out and spelling it out. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
  • Williams, M.B., & Krezman, C. (2000). Beneath the surface. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: ISAAC.

Assessing Literacy

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 and examination of the child's comprehension and use of language on multiple levels (e.g., phonological, semantic, morphosyntactic, and pragmatic).

For individuals who use AAC, a challenge for practitioners is that few tools are available for assessment. Some research is under way to design such tools (see, for example, Center for Literacy and Disability Studies). Currently, adaptations of existing instruments devised for use with individuals 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 individuals to provide an oral response. Some alternative tasks have been used that employ judgment tasks and the use of graphic and/or text symbols.

Bottom Line: Assessment is critical to begin the process of exposure and instruction in receptive and expressive communication and language skills.

Literacy Instruction

For individuals with disabilities, the development of reading is sometimes neglected in favor of other types of language skills. However, the benefits of reading and literacy are just as important for those individuals as for individuals without disabilities.

Effective reading and writing instruction for any individual must be comprehensive. This means that individuals must have 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), combined with instruction aimed at improving their ability to write text to improve their thinking and communicate with others. Instruction cannot focus only on sight words, phonemic awareness, or phonics. Certainly, readers and writers who have had enough instructional opportunity to develop a profile of strengths and weaknesses benefit from instruction that targets particular areas of need; however, beginning reading and writing instruction must be comprehensive. When students with significant intellectual disabilities are provided with access to comprehensive instruction, they can develop conventional reading and writing skills (Erickson, Koppenhaver, Yoder, & Nance, 1997; Hedrick, Katims, & Carr, 1999; Ryndak, Morrison, & Sommerstein, 1999; Hogan & Wolf, 2002; Wershing & Hughes, 2002).

With federal education legislation mandating that all students, including those with the most significant disabilities, make progress in reading, writing, and mathematics, an increasing array of instructional programs targeting students with significant disabilities are available. There are also two large consortia charged with creating alternative assessments for students with the most significant disabilities: the National Center and State Collaborative and Dynamic Learning Maps. Both consortia are developing extensive systems of professional development and instructional support targeting reading and writing instruction for students with the most significant disabilities.

Bottom Line: Exposure to print and literacy is critical to development and should occur as early as possible for all children, including those with disabilities. A child is never too young to begin learning about print, whether or not she/he has a disability.


  • Erickson, K. A., Koppenhaver, D.A., Yoder, D. E., and Nance, J. (1997). Integrated Communication and Literacy Instruction for a Child with Multiple Disabilities. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 12(3), 142–150.
  • Hedrick, W., Katims, D. & Carr, N.  (1999). Implementing a multimethod, multilevel literacy program for students with mental retardation. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disorders, 14(4), 231–239.
  • Hogan, N., & Wolf, L. (2002). "I am a writer": Literacy, strategic thinking and metacognitive awareness. In K. Erickson, D. Koppenhaver, & D. Yoder (Eds.), Waves of words: Augmentative communicators read and write (pp. 21–40). Toronto: ISAAC Press.
  • Ryndak, D., Morrison, A., & Sommerstein, L. (1999). Literacy before and after inclusion in general education settings: A case study. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 24, 5–22.
  • Wershing, A., & Hughes, C. (2002). Just give me words. In K. Erickson, D. Koppenhaver, & D. Yoder (Eds.), Waves of words: Augmentative communicators read and write (pp. 45–56). Toronto, Canada: ISAAC.

More Information

Example instructional programs can be found at:

Other Instructional Resources and Supports