1999 Conference Proceedings

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Peggy A. Locke, Ph.D.
Director of Sales
AbleNet, Inc.
1081 Tenth Ave. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Roxanne Butterfield
Category Market Manager
Don Johnston, Inc.
1000 N. Rand Road, Bldg. 115
Wauconda, IL 60084

A traditional definition of literacy is the ability to read, write, and understand written language, is a series of skills which begin to develop early in life. As children reach elementary school age, more formal literacy training begins. For decades, teachers have followed specific reading and writing curriculums and children have learned very specific skills.

However, history shows that for individuals with severe disabilities, teachers have never followed a specific reading or writing curriculum. In fact, for many years literacy was simply not considered an option for individuals with severe disabilities. Two philosophies have been prevalent through time which seemed to support this notion. Traditional thinking held that unless children were ready to read, it was a waste of time to address literacy (Koppenhaver, Coleman, Kalman, and Yoder, 1991). Readiness meant discriminating among symbols, understanding cause and effect, being able to match to sample. Also popular was the notion that good speaking skills were a prerequisite for reading instruction (Koppenhaver and Yoder, 1990).

Those that didn't have the ability to use natural speech were eliminated from being taught literacy skills. Both of these beliefs, having readiness skills and the need for good speaking skills, grew 7out of a reading readiness perspective, which suggested that learning to read was a function of biological maturation as well as prerequisite knowledge and the mastery of such skills as knowing the names of letters, colors, and shapes, and demonstrating the ability to engage in visual and auditory discrimination. Because individuals with severe/profound disabilities could not master these skills, they were rarely exposed to any reading and writing experiences (Koppenhaver, et al., 1991).

Over time we began to realize that there were many problems associated with poor literacy skills. Research indicated that individuals who experience early literacy learning difficulties in school tended to remain poor readers and writers throughout their school years (Juel, 1988). In addition, these individuals were less likely to be accepted by their peers in school (Donahue & Prescott, 1988), and as adults, were likely to be severely restricted in their vocational options (Richardson, Koller & Katz, 1988). For individuals with the severe disabilities, the lack of literacy skills only further accentuates their already existing problems of inclusion and acceptance.

In 1993, Pat Mirenda expanded the definition of literacy. She stated that, "Literacy is more than learning to read, write and spell proficiently. It is learning to enjoy words and stories when someone else is reading them. It is learning to love books and all the worlds that can be opened by books. It is a way of achieving social closeness through sharing literary experiences with friends or classmates. It is finding out about the way things are in places we have never visited or in places that have never existed. If we understand that literacy is all of these things and more, we can also understand that everyone can achieve some degree of literacy if given opportunities and exposure.... The notions that children are too physically, too cognitively or too communicatively disabled to benefit from experiences with written language are not supported by current emergent literacy research!" As a result of this new definition of literacy, the phrase "emergent literacy" began to appear in the literature.

Emergent literacy skills begin at birth and are a combination of readiness skills and life experiences. There are no prerequisites to life experiences which incorporate literacy. The belief that emergent literacy should be introduced at an early age to all individuals regardless of the severity of their disability is now the current belief. All individuals can benefit from these experiences though the benefits are different.

The benefits of literacy skills are obvious, for individuals who function within a "typical range." It is also clear in the field that there are numerous benefits when individuals with severe physical but more mild cognitive disabilities begin to develop these skills. For example, literacy skills can enhance face-to-face communication. This may take the form of enabling the use of clarification cards for individuals with severe speech impairments, to enabling an individual who is nonverbal to use a text-to-speech voice output communication aid. Either of these strategies has the power to greatly facilitate an individual's ability to communicate with others.

In addition, emergent literacy skills can provide more complete control over a host of technology for communication, education and environmental control. For example, the ability to recognize numbers and letters may allow an individual to discriminate between the Men's and Women's restroom, or between the hot (H) and cold (C) water faucets. Literacy skills can also impact an individual's likelihood of successful competitive or supported employment (Koppenhaver, Evans, & Yoder, 1991).

For individuals with the most severe physical and cognitive disabilities, the exposure to literacy means they will begin to learn that words correspond to speech and that words are made up of sound. They learn that words are something to pay attention to. They can learn about the world around them by simply listening to stories. Most importantly they will increase their opportunities for social closeness. Reading books with a friend, sharing stories, coloring or telling a sibling a joke are all emergent literacy experiences and all experiences that enrich social closeness. Because of this, the more literacy experience you can give an individual the better. The good news is that literacy is everywhere.

The written word can be found in the newspaper, on food labels, on road signs/billboards, in magazines, on recipes and on bills. Literacy activities include reading birthday cards, making a list for Santa, visiting a bookstore/library, creating a shopping list and reading a magazine. Exposure to literacy is easy, however exposure for individuals with the most severe physical and cognitive disabilities presents more challenges.

During this presentation, the instructors will discuss numerous ways in which professionals can actively facilitate an individual's literacy development regardless of the severity of their disability. During the course of the presentation, the instructors will provide a continuum of intervention strategies which incorporate the use of technology to facilitate an individual's exposure to, and active participation in, literacy activities. The intervention strategies outlined will be appropriate for both children and adults with severe to moderate disabilities.

Also shared will be a general overview of emergent literacy experiences reported in the research with typically developing children. These will be compared and contrasted to the type of literacy experiences individuals with severe and moderate disabilities are exposed to. In addition, the authors will provide a review of several key pieces of emergent literacy research which focus exclusively on individuals with severe to moderate disabilities. Time will be available for participants to ask questions throughout the discussion.


Blackstone, S. (1989). Augmentative Communication News, 2 (1).

Erickson, A. & Koppenhaver. (1995). Developing a literacy program for children with severe disabilities. The Reading Teacher, 48, 8, 676-684.

Kelford-Smith, A., Thurston, S., Light, J., Parnes, P., & O'Keefe, B. (1989). The form and use of written communication produced by physically disabled individuals using microcomputers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 5, 115-124.

Koppenhaver, D. & Yoder, D. (1988). Handout. Literacy and the AAC user. Short course. ISAAC Conference: Anaheim.

Koppenhaver, D.A., Coleman, P.P., Kalman, S.L., & Yoder, D.E. (1991). The implications of Emergent literacy research for children with developmental disabilities. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 1 (1), 38-44.

Koppenhaver, D.A., Evans, D., & Yoder, D.E. (1991). Childhood reading and writing experiences of literate adults with severe speech and motor impairments. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 7, 20-33.

Koppenhaver, D.A., Pierce, P.L., Steelman, J.D., & Yoder, D.E. (1994). Contexts of early literacy intervention for children with developmental disabilities. In M.E. Fey, J. Windsor, & S.F. Warren (Eds.), Language intervention in the early school years (pp. 241-274). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Light, J., & Kelford-Smith, A. (1993) Home literacy experiences of preschoolers who use AAC systems and of their nondisabled peers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 9, 10-25.

Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (1993). Literacy and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC): The expectations and priorities of parents and teachers. Topics in Language Disorders, 13(2), 33-46.

Mirenda, P. (1993). Bonding the uncertain mosaic. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 9, 3-9.

Sulzby, E. and Teale, W.H. (1991). Emergent Literacy. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal & P.D. Pearson, (eds) Handbook of Reading Research. Vol 2, pp727-757. New York: Longman.

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