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Students with Significant Support Needs and Literacy Development

Students with Significant Support Needs and Literacy Development

By Guest Authors Amanda Bock, PhD and Karen Erickson, PhD

For years, students with significant support needs (SSN) received little or no literacy instruction as their education programs focused on life skills, social skills, and vocational training. The little literacy instruction they did receive relied on teaching methods that we now know helped them learn simple component skills in isolation. For example, students matched upper and lower case letters or learned a limited set of sight words. Unfortunately, this instruction never helped students with SSN learn how to read or write to gain or convey meaning.

A series of changes in education laws, along with the efforts of students, families, and educators, have raised expectations for academic achievement for students with SSN.

We now expect students to learn to use print or braille in ways that have real-world utility. We also recognize that for students with communication difficulties, reading and writing skills are the best way to interact meaningfully with the world. No matter how many picture symbols we provide, students with SSN and communication difficulties will always be limited by what is available. The ability to spell, even at beginning levels, makes it possible to communicate anything.

Our understandings of the best ways to support the literacy development of students with SSN are evolving, but there are a few major principles that we know create a solid foundation for a lifetime of literacy learning:

Move past readiness skills.

Students with SSN often lose years of instructional time because they cannot master skills considered "pre-reading" skills. Foundational understandings are important, but students learn that print has meaning by actively engaging with print. If your child struggles to communicate, this is all the more reason to teach reading and writing, not a reason to avoid it. Communication supports literacy and literacy supports communication.

Use quality literature.

Too often, literacy instruction features flashcards, worksheets, and apps. Students with SSN have far more to gain from interacting with others while sharing enjoyable, quality literature that lets them explore their interests and relate life experiences to what is in the book. If your child is older and still a beginning reader, check out Tar Heel Reader. Tar Heel Reader is an online, fully accessible library of beginning level books on a vast range of topics. Young children can enjoy Tar Heel Reader also, just make sure that you select the books and avoid those marked "caution."

Set a purpose for each literacy activity.

Everyone - students, teachers, families, service providers - need to know the overall goals of literacy activities. Knowing the purposes of lessons allows everyone involved to focus on what students should be learning, rather than worrying about what students are doing. By shifting focus away from student performance to student cognitive engagement and interaction, teachers and families can support students' thinking, help them make connections, follow students' leads, and allow students to construct understandings in their own ways.

Avoid picture-supported text.

Symbols are important to support communication. They are also useful in visual schedules and to help students understand simple directions including recipes. But symbols make it harder for students to learn to read words. Right now, it is common practice to use special software to pair picture symbols with every, or almost every, word in the text to make it more accessible. For many students, this makes it possible to say each of the words in the text, but there is no evidence that it supports comprehension of the text. More importantly there is plenty of evidence that this practice makes it harder for children to learn to read. The presence of the picture draws children's attention away from the print. If the goal of the instruction is learning to read and write, make sure your child has access to print or braille, and keep the communication symbols nearby to talk about what you are reading.

Make literacy learning a group activity.

Literacy is communication. It is driven by social interactions and connections between people, yet students with SSN are often expected to learn literacy working independently or one-on-one with an adult. Small group instruction increases the opportunities to communicate, explain, understand, collaborate, and build understandings. At home, make literacy interactions such as book sharing interactive by encouraging and making comments and connections, rather than focusing on questions and answers.

Focus on the purpose of writing.

Too often, writing time focuses on handwriting, copying, or tracing letters and words. While the ability to write and select letters accurately is important, it has little meaning if you don't understand why we write. Be sure to give your child plenty of opportunities to learn why we write without worrying about how the final product looks. Going to the grocery store? Ask your child to list the items he/she wants to buy. If your child makes a scribble or randomly selects letters on the keyboard, and tells you it says "chocolate milk," take the list to the grocery store, check it, and buy that chocolate milk. Show your child how meaningful his/her writing is. Did your child receive a gift? Allow your child to write the thank you note. Whether the card arrives with some scribbles inside, a string of letters that your child told you to write, or a printed page full of letters your child pecked out on the keyboard, the genuine thank you is likely to encourage a response from the family member that is directed toward your child.

If your child has physical disabilities, all of this emphasis on writing might seem impossible, but it is not. The key is to find some way for your child to access the 26 letters of the alphabet. One approach that works for many children is called partner assisted scanning. Write the letters in large print on a piece of paper. Then, point to and say each letter of the alphabet. As you say each letter, your child gives you a signal to let you know whether to "write that down" or "tell me the next one." Every time your child gives the signal to "write that down" you write the letter. You can learn more information about alternative pencils at the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. 

Learning to read and write with meaning is a lengthy but highly rewarding process. Most students without disabilities take several years to learn to read and write meaningfully. Students with SSN will likely take even longer, but with plenty of instruction and opportunities to interact with print (or braille), all students can learn to use print meaningfully. Reading and writing skills are essential, functional life skills. These skills are essential to communication, to developing and maintaining self-advocacy, and to maintaining relationships in this world where text messages, tweets, posts, and emails are the means of staying connected with others.

Photo of student writing included with permission. 

Copyright 2014 © by PEAK Parent Center, Inc. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce may be obtained from PEAK Parent Center.