2002 Conference Proceedings

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Reading With Struggling Readers: Giving Older Students With Cognitive Deficits The Gift Of Literacy

Lee Ann Beck
Special Education Teacher
El Paso Independent School District
El Paso, Texas

Lou Ann Rosario, M. Ed
Assistive Technology Specialist
Region 19 Education Service Center
El Paso, Texas

Every experience a child has with even one printed word sets the stage for further development. Technology has opened doors to a world otherwise closed to children with significant cognitive deficits. Software such as Boardmaker has given educators the ability to easily pair pictures with text ensuring understanding of the written word. The purpose of this paper is to present some software options along with examples to assist educators working with older students with cognitive deficits who are emergent readers.


Creating your own life stories

When looking at literature for younger children the sky is the limit. Finding books appropriate for middle and high school students with limited cognitive ability is a difficult task. Creating your own stories is a huge undertaking, but well worth it. Following Caroline Musselwhite and Pati King DeBauns model, the stories should have limited text on each page. The stories should be predictable and have a rhythm and rhyme. High interest material guarantees that the students will stay engaged in the story. Icons from a program such as Boardmaker from Mayer Johnson linked with the text on each page ensures comprehension. Including digital pictures of the students acting out different parts of the book keeps the students attention focused on the story. Concepts such as crossing the street, riding the bus or what types of foods can be found in the fruit group can successfully be taught using life stories in conjunction with real life experiences.


News-4-You is an electronic newspaper geared to students who are struggling readers with Boardmaker icons placed under the text. It is downloaded weekly. The subjects are high interest, current events with websites listed at the bottom of the page. There is a recipe page, a knock knock joke and comprehension questions at the end. This year a simplified version of each issue along with a communication board can be downloaded.


Pix Writer

Pix Writer from Slater Software is a talking word processing program that uses color icons. The teacher sets the vocabulary. The student selects a button, the icon and word appear on the screen and they hear the word.

Electronic Word Wall

Using any word processing program and Boardmaker an electronic word wall is easy to set up. Select 5 words from News-4-You, a life story or any one of the many sight words lists. Cut and paste the icons from Boardmaker into the word processing program.

Aa Dd Gg
apple apple    
Bb Ee Hh
ball ball person eating eat  
Cc Ff Ii
fan cool leaves falling fall  

The students type the words next to the icons. Each week a new set of words is added.

Putting It All Together

Life stories, News-4-You, PixWriter and electronic word walls are the main components being utilized to teach literacy in a PLC (Practical Life Curriculum) classroom on a middle school campus. Life stories addressing many aspects of daily living are already in place. A News-4-You issue addressing fall and football will be used as an example. News-4-You is downloaded, printed out and sent down to the bookroom so everyone has his or her own copy. 5 words are selected for use on the electronic word wall. Our words are apple, cool, eat, fall, and football.

Create an electronic word wall template in the word processing program.
* Set the columns. There will be 3.
* Type an upper and lower case letter for each letter of the alphabet. Leave several spaces in between each letter.
* From the black and white Boardmaker library reduce the size to 25% and the line 1 language to hidden.
* Paste the icons for the 5 words under the appropriate letters.
* Print out a list of the 5 words and tape it to the computer to one side of the monitor. This gives the students a reference sheet of correctly spelled words, which they will need.

Introduce fall by reading a life story about fall. Lead the students in a brainstorming session about the weather, holidays, clothing and activities associated with fall.

Distribute and read News-4-You.

The electronic word wall is a 1 to 1 activity with each student needing varying degrees of assistance. The focus is on the beginning letter as well as individual letters in the word while the students learn their way around the keyboard. The correlation between the icons and the words is reinforced during this activity. The electronic word wall is printed out and tacked over each student's desk. In doing, students are creating their own picture dictionary that grows as their literacy emerges.

Using PixWriter with vocabulary already selected by the teacher using a guided writing model the students write 3 to 4 lines about fall. Digital pictures from a program like Picture This, the internet or pictures taken by the teacher or students can be inserted below the sentences created in PixWriter. The pictures provide a visual reference that supports the sentences composed by the students.

Each student places his or her stories in a binder. Worksheets are also placed in the binder. The students are given the opportunity to share the contents of their binders with each other, therapists, parents and other visitors.


Musselwhite, C. The Themes The Thing! Theme-Centered Language, Literacy, and Learning for Middle School Students. Workshop presented at Region 19 ESC Assistive Technology Project, El Paso, Texas, February 2000.

Musselwhite C. & King-DeBaun, P. Emergent Literacy Success: Merging Technology and Whole Language for Students with Disabilities. Creative Communicating, Park City, UT.

Slater, J. Increasing Literacy Skills in Students with Disabilities: A Pictorial Approach. Slater Software, Inc. Research On Pictures and Text Effectiveness.

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