1998 Conference Proceedings

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David A. Koppenhaver
Karen A. Erickson
Center for Literacy and Disability Studies
PO Box 3888,
Duke University Medical Center
Durham, NC 27710
Voice: (919) 684-3740
FAX: (919) 681-5738
Email: literacy@acpub.duke.edu 
Website: http://www.surgery.mc.duke.edu/commdis/clds/

Reading text with comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction and is a skill that is critical to success across domains of life activity. Across our life span and daily living environments, we choose, or are required, to read texts for understanding, enjoyment, or task completion. Children with disabilities tend to find this an imposing task. Children with autism, for example, are often noted for their relatively well-developed word reading skills but poor text comprehension. Children with cerebral palsy, on the other hand, often demonstrate relatively well-developed listening comprehension for text but poor reading comprehension.

Children with a wide range of disabilities are equally affected by the following literacy issues (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, Koppenhaver, Spadorcia, Harrison, & Baker, 1998). First, the vast majority of children with disabilities experience great difficulties in learning to read. Second, the instructional approaches designed to address these learning difficulties typically focus on the study of words in isolation and are rich in workbook activity and skills practice. These instructional programs seldom include much in the way of strategy instruction, reading comprehension instruction, or student reading of texts of a paragraph or longer. Third, for the most part, children with disabilities are served by teachers, related services personnel, and school systems who believe that their reading and learning needs are different than other students and/or that students with disabilities must be taught separately from nondisabled peers.

Our research (e.g., Erickson, Koppenhaver, Yoder, & Nance, 1997) and experiences at the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies suggest to us that students with disabilities have the same needs and learn in much the same way as other children. That is, if we reduced our research to a single conclusion, it would be, "Good instruction is good instruction." The greatest difference we find to date is that children with disabilities, particularly severe or multiple disabilities, require more conscious and careful consideration than children without disabilities in thinking through how to make good instruction accessible given the nature of their individual differences in communication, cognition, attention, behavior, sensory or physical abilities.

In this paper, we would like to focus on one aspect of literacy instruction, reading comprehension, and outline:

(a) what constitutes good instruction in reading comprehension;

(b) what some of the considerations are in making good instruction accessible to children with a wide array of disabilities; and

(c) how some widely-available or easily-constructed technologies can be employed to address access issues in reading comprehension instruction.

We define reading comprehension as a strategic and interpretive process of making connections between ideas in a text and ideas in the reader's mind. Classroom instruction is designed, then, to address learners' needs for assistance in:

(a) relating what they know to what they are reading;

(b) learning to set purposes for reading;

(c) applying strategies while reading; and

(d) monitoring their comprehension, and fixing it as needed (Barr & Johnson, 1997).

When we talk about technology in this paper, we refer to both the scientific method and the materials used to achieve our instructional objective of improved, independent text comprehension by students with disabilities. The "scientific method" is what research tells us about effective reading comprehension instruction. The "scientific materials" are technologies that are widely-available or easily-made, because we do not believe most teachers or students with disabilities have access to the latest and greatest Wonder Bread technologies that will help build strong reading comprehenders 12 ways. We will focus on a range of technologies that many teachers and students already have available to them, technologies that are currently underused to support and enhance reading comprehension of students with disabilities.

The most comprehensive synthesis of reading comprehension instruction research(Tierney & Cunningham, 1984) found that effective reading comprehension lessons share five steps in common, no matter what else they do:

(a) develop or activate student background knowledge for the text to be read and discussed;

(b) set a purpose for student reading;

(c) have students read for that purpose;

(d) engage in a task that demonstrates successful achievement of the purpose set; and

(e) provide informative feedback to assist students in understanding the strategies and processes engaged in to achieve the purpose and comprehend the task.

To plan background knowledge instruction, teachers must first ask what purpose is to be set for student reading of text. Are students going to read in order to sequence events in the story? To write a new title for story? To list five ways the hero and the villain are different? The nature of the purpose, the difficulty of the text relative to student abilities, and the experiential background of the student then determine which concepts and vocabulary should be taught prior to student reading. One software that supports assessment and instruction of background knowledge is Inspiration (www.inspiration.com). This software supports brainstorming and the construction of free-form semantic webs and concept maps. A particularly helpful feature is the ability of the program to transform a free-form into a structured outline automatically, supporting either student discussion or writing. Inspiration software works well with other technologies such as word prediction programs like Co:Writer (http://donjohnston.com) and augmentative communication devices like the Dynavox (www.sentient-sys.com) and the Liberator (www.prentrom.com). Given the proper computer interface, these spelling support and picture-based systems can be used to enter text directly into maps made on Inspiration.

One way that background knowledge activation and development can be built into the initial reading of texts is the use of the Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (Stauffer, 1969). This three-step lesson involves guiding students to predict what they think will happen based on illustrations and title information, reading to examine the accuracy of their predictions, and then revisiting and revising as necessary their predictions based on the reading. Students with severe speech and/or language impairments can use dynamic display technologies to learn to work through a variety of questioning and predicting behaviors prior to and during reading. Using technology, these and other students may be able to engage in these DR-TA lessons with groups of peers. Small groups gathered at a computer can use the latest in frozen text on talking word processing programs (see www.intellitools.com for details). Using the book with the questions and prompts entered as frozen text in the talking word processor, students can work together to listen to the question, make predictions, and enter the text on screen. These groups can then use their printed responses as a basis for whole group discussion with the teacher.

Other strategies for developing background knowledge prior to reading range from verbal explanations to indirect experiences (e.g., videos, demonstrations, role plays) to direct experiences (e.g., field trips, experiments). These strategies range in depth of learning provided (i.e., direct experience>verbal explanation) and costs (i.e., verbal explanation<direct experience).

Technology opens doors to new, less expensive access to experiences that provide a greater depth of learning. For example, the Internet provides countless photos, video clips, and other interactive experience that can be used to build background. At the same time, the number and quality CD-Rom encyclopedias with speech and video support is increasing. Together these sources can be used to provide cost-effective, indirect learning experiences.

The completion of tasks to demonstrate successful achievement of a purpose can also be supported by technology. Inspiration software, used in background building, provides a powerful tool for creating visual maps of compare/contrast, sequencing, cause/effect, and myriad other tasks. Basic word processing software provides a natural format for selecting, sequencing, and otherwise revising information already entered by the teacher for tasks such as: (a) selecting the five most important details from a list of ten; (b)sequencing events of a story; (c) linking causes with appropriate effects; or (d) selecting the ten most appropriate adjectives to describe a character, setting or event.

Reading is not a linear, additive process of learning letters and sounds, then words and sentences before engaging texts. Children, especially children with disabilities, require repeated and varied opportunities to read text and to talk about that text experience with peers and teachers. We believe that the technology, both methods and materials, exists today to incorporate reading comprehension into the literacy programs of children with disabilities. We have attempted to provide an introduction to that technology here.


Barr, R., & Johnson, B. (1997). Teaching reading and writing in elementary classrooms (2nd ed.). New York: Longman.

Erickson, K. A., Koppenhaver, D. A., Yoder, D. E., & 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. Gersten, R., Fuchs, L., Williams, J., Koppenhaver, D., Spadorcia, S., Harrison, M., & Baker, S. (1998). Reading comprehension instruction for school-aged children with disabilities. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Stauffer, R. G. (1969). Directing reading maturity as a cognitive process. New York: Harper and Row.

Tierney, R. J., & Cunningham, J. W. (1984). In P. D. Pearson, R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 609-655). New York: Longman.

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