2004 Conference Proceedings

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Mary Sagstetter
AbleNet, Inc.
1081 Tenth Ave S.E
Minneapolis, MN 55414-1312
Phone: 800.322.0956
Fax: 612-379-9143
Email: mary_sagstetter@ablenetinc.com

It is well known that students with significant disabilities do not receive the same literacy learning opportunities as their typical peers. Compare the countless hours typical peers spend reading and exploring the text in a variety of literacy materials to the number of interactions that students with significant disabilities have with those same materials. For students with disabilities the hours spent in these activities are significantly less. Several reasons exist for this and creative solutions are needed to address the lack of literacy opportunities for these students.

Traditional thinking held that unless students were ready to read, it was a waste of time to address literacy (Koppenhaver, Coleman, Kalman and Yoder, 1991). Students were assessed against a set of prerequisite skills to determine if they were ready for reading instruction. Some of these prerequisite skills included: discriminating among symbols, understanding cause and effect and being able to match to sample. Good speaking skills were also held as a criterion for providing reading instruction (Koppenhaver and Yoder, 1990). Based on these prerequisite skills, students with significant disabilities were often excluded from literacy activities.

Koppenhaver (2001) states, "If you do not teach a child to read, then he will never read." Many of students with disabilities have not been taught literacy skills and therefore, we have no idea what they could have accomplished if they had been provided this instruction. As we move into the future with additional technology and resources available it is critical to offer literacy learning opportunities for students with disabilities so they have a chance to learn literacy (Hanser, 2003).

Although there is a lack of research evidence regarding the literacy learning of students with cognitive disabilities in the moderate to serve/profound range, the existing evidence does suggest that these students can learn. Research shows that they can learn to read and understand words and experience success when they receive systemic instruction that integrates reading, writing, speaking and listening (Erickson, 2003). Balanced literacy is a term that refers to instruction that systematically merges many of the components believed to be most critical in empowering students to become literate. One systematic instruction that integrates reading, writing, speaking and listening is the Four-Block Model. Pat Cunningham and her colleagues developed this reading approach in the 1990's.

The Four-Block Model includes instructional areas of Guided Reading, Working with Words, Writing and Self-Guided Reading. Each of these areas has a separate focus and, when taught in combination provides valuable instruction in learning how to read, write, speak and listen.

Guided Reading - Teaching students to read for meaning and understanding.

Working with Words- Teaching sight words and phonics/decoding.

Writing - Teaching students to represent their thoughts and ideas in print or symbolic form to compose meaningful text.

Self-Guided Reading - Building motivation to read, improved self-direction, and choice making.

In this type of literacy instructional approach, it is recommended that a half-hour a day is spent teaching in each area. That totals two hours a day of literacy instruction for typically developing students.

Now, the question is… What amount of time would be appropriate for students with disabilities? The answer is a half-hour a day spent teaching in each area. That totals two hours a day of literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities. That is right. The same amount of time is needed, if not more to ensure quality literacy instruction (Erickson, 2003). It is common knowledge among those in the field of special education that, for students whose instructional day typically focuses on self-care and functional activities, this amount of time is not typically spent on literacy activities. Still there exists the need to engage these students in good teaching practices to provide them with opportunities for learning how to read, write, speak and listen.

When viewing literacy instruction with the Four-Block model in mind there are several strategies that educators can implement to provide successful instruction for their students with more significant disabilities. Each of the areas of the Four Block model can be accessible for all students by implementing a technology solution approach.

During the Guided Reading Block, educators could use the following technology solution strategy, recommended by Koppenhaver, (personal communication, April 21, 2003), of recording a repetitive line from a book to empower the student to be an active member of the reading experience. When students are more actively engaged in the activity there exists a potential to learn more about reading, print and the social interaction process.

Another solution he considers is to program a communication device to request print materials or to have a turn in the activity. Imagine reading with your students and each having a way to comment, give a direction or ask a question during the activity. Messages like, "Can you show me the picture?" "Can you repeat that?" or "Turn the page.", all represent a way that students can be involved in activities where oral and written language support each other and where the learning opportunities are embedded.

The Working with Words Block provides endless opportunities for students to be active participants and learners. One such opportunity can be found in the activity, Be A Mind Reader. This involves the teacher guiding students to look locate a word on the word wall to find the one that matches a succession of increasingly specific clues (Erickson, 2002). Recording the clues ("I am thinking of a word on the word wall.", "It ends with the letter 'd'.", " It has two vowels.", "It has more than four letters.", "It begins with the sound 'fr'.") into an augmentative communication device provides the student with disabilities the role of delivering the clues. In this activity the student practices activating the device once and waiting for a verbal cue to move on to the next clue while being seen as an integral part of the activity.

Another one of many examples that displays how technology can support students with disabilities to communicate, participate in print activities and promote literacy can be found in the Writing Block. Educators could use the following solution strategy of programming a message into an augmentative communication device to provide students with comments and questions regarding the print-based experience. Imagine a student participating in a drawing activity with a single message communication aid programmed to say, " Come see what I drew." A sequenced message device messages can also be programmed with messages about drawing, scribbling or writing.

During the Self-Selected Block one focus is to have students choose books and spend time independently reading. Technology supports for independent reading are available in a variety of formats. Many books are now available in software formats and are supported with audio to read the story. The typical literacy experience, for a student with significant disabilities, is sitting at a computer screen and activating a switch to independently turn the page. Another option is to use the regular classroom books or library books with the Bookworm Literacy Tool from AbleNet, Inc. to read almost any book. This technology provides a real book experience. This literacy experience incorporates a real book, and empowers a student with disabilities and his/her peer(s) to engage in reading a story together. Shared reading experiences are what reading is all about and this is made possible for students through technology supports.

Children who are non-verbal and/or who have disabilities usually have limited opportunities to learn to read, have little interaction with others during literacy activities and may be given fewer opportunities to read and write. Technology-based literacy activities can provide modifications and adaptations that support children who have disabilities to be successful in their curriculum and instruction. All students are ready to experience literacy-based learning experiences to gain the enjoyment of reading.


AbleNet, Inc., 1081 Tenth Ave S.E. Mpls, MN 55414-1312.

Beck, J. (2002). Emerging Literacy Through Assistive Technology. Council for Exceptional Children- Teaching Exceptional Children. Vol.35 NO.2 Nov/Dec 2002. p.44

Cunningham, P., Hall, P., and Sigmon, C. (1991). The Teacher's Guide to the Four Blocks. Carson-Dellosa Publishing Company, Inc., Greensboro NC.

Erickson, K. (2002).The Literacy Experience Issue 2- Writing : Newsletter from AbleNet, Inc.

Erickson, K. (2002). The Literacy Experience Issue 3- Working with Words: Newsletter from AbleNet, Inc.

Erickson, K. (2003). The Power of Vision. Volume III No.1: The Power of Literacy. Email newsletter from AbleNet, Inc

D'Arcangelo, M. (2003). Educational Leadership. On the Mind. A Conversation with Sally Shawywitz. April 2003. p.9

Hanser, G. (2003). Literacy Tips & Tricks for AAC User: What Can I Do On Monday? SpeakUp! Quarterly Newsletter of the United States Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, p.4-6.

Kliewer, C., & Landis, D. (1999). Individualizing literary instruction for young children with moderate to severe disabilities. Exceptional Children. Vol. 66 Issue 1, p85.

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. and Erickson, K. (2001). 9th Summer Seminar on Literacy in AAC, Gustavaus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN.

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

Locke, P. (2000). Who Says Johnny Can't Read! Southeast Augmentive Communication Conference Proceedings. p. 81-84.

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

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