Everyone deserves access to literacy and all students have the ability to learn literacy skills, given the right instructional tools and strategies. Presumption of the ability to learn applies to this area as well. Fortunately, there are some amazing clinicians and researchers who are providing us with the tools to make literacy happen. Let’s look at some ways to start reading and writing.
Read fun books together and maximize opportunities for interaction. The aim is to enjoy sharing time together over a book. This means that we are not focused on content questions and demonstration of knowledge. Instead we can comment on what we read. Erickson, Geist, and Koppenhaver, of the University of North Carolina, describe this as Driving the Car.
The CAR stands for:
Comment (on the text or the pictures)
Ask for participation (Don’t demand. Perhaps give an expectant look)
Respond (“Ooh, you like that picture”, or “Wow that tiger is scary…”)
This type of reading should be student led and we should be focused on the conversational dance that arises from sharing a book. Books that have repetition with variation are excellent choices for shared reading. Here is a great list of books to consider:
Erickson & Koppenhaver (2020) advise that we look for certain indicators that it is time to move forward.
When the student is:
- Engaging without getting a reinforcer
- Interacting with the book and the reader
- Commenting on the text
You are now ready to put the CROWD in the CAR!
- Ask for the COMPLETION of a comment
- RECALL a detail: What did the bear do?
- Ask OPEN-ENDED questions
- Ask WH questions
- Engage in DISTANCING: questions that relate the book to the outside world
Reading is integrally related to writing and we want our students to engage in both activities. According to Erickson and Koppenhaver, saying things with your device is NOT writing. It is speaking.
Confused? Don’t worry. Here are some activities to target writing skills.
Learning the Alphabet
Therapy can approach this by breaking learning down into discrete tasks
- Letter Identification
- Letter Sound Identification
- Recognition of the letter in the text
- Producing the letterforms
Producing letterforms can be done with alternative pencils. There are resources describing this concept at Dynamic Learning maps: https://www.dlmpd.com/writing-resources/
For a student with a complex body, you might use an eye gaze frame with groupings of letters. For another child, your tool might be a binder with alphabet letters, or you might use a computer keyboard. You will use the tool that works for that student. Just remember that Erickson & Koppenhaver do not consider using your AAC device to produce the letters writing. That is talking.
Learning to Write
We choose the alternative pencil that works for that child. As they begin to write, we want to reinforce all their attempts. It is similar to reinforcing communication on an AAC device. We assume intention and value the attempt.
What types of writing might we start with? Erickson and Koppenhaver recommend predictable chart writing:
First, create a chart with a repetitive sentence starter: “I put on ______”. You may want to have objects, such as a variety of winter clothing, for the students to choose from. Once the class has filled the chart, you may use their sentences to make sentence strips on smaller pieces of paper. Review their sentences. Then, you can cut them into individual words. Let the student look at the chart to organize the words to recreate their sentences. Ultimately, use sentences and pictures to make a book! Have fun reading the book you made.
Predictable chart writing allows students to write using repetition with variation.
- I put on a red hat
- I put on a blue hat
- I put on a big hat
- I put on sprinkles and whipped cream
- I put on a bathing suit
- I put on a movie
The sentence stem is the predictable part; “I put on a…” Notice how you are using Core Vocabulary to work these sentences. Reading, writing, and communicating are synergistic and cannot be approached as completely separate entities. You can find out more, and get further training, at http://www.project-core.com.
There are some amazing online tools for reading and writing. One that you will surely come to value is Tarheel Reader. This is also a project from the folks at UNC. Tarheel Reader contains thousands of accessible books. You decide the voice, the text and background color. The books can be read aloud by students with complex bodies. Anyone can create an account to write their own books. Go to: http://sharedreader.org.
As of this past school year, they have added a new interface called Shared Tarheel Reader. It contains symbol supports for commenting on what’s happening in the book. The Boardmaker symbols are all core vocabulary words from Project Core. You determine how many symbols are seen on the screen at one time. https://shared.tarheelreader.org.
Also, MakeBeliefsComix.com can be used with students to create their own cartoons. It is a free tool.
This article can only give you the barest overview of teaching literacy skills to students with complex communication needs. We highly recommend getting a copy of Erickson’s and Koppenhaver’s new book: Comprehensive Literacy for All: Teaching Students with Significant Disabilities to Read and Write. The folks at UNC are the rock stars doing the research and creating the frameworks for us to use.