Teaching Literacy to Students with Significant Disabilities: Strategies for the K–12 Inclusive Classroom


June E. Downing

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    To children and youth with significant disabilities who would so like to be considered literate.


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    Literacy Is Liberty

    This book would not have been written just 10 years ago. If it had been written, it certainly would not have been published. As June Downing points out in this unique book, literacy considerations for students with significant disabilities are new, novel, and still not commonplace.

    You see, students with disabilities have been systematically excused from literacy instruction. Early in the history of special education, students with significant disabilities did not even attend school. When they did, they were educated in segregated schools and classrooms, and their curriculum and instruction were not based on the core curriculum of the school. In fact, students with significant disabilities spent a great deal of their instruction day engaged in isolated skills instruction.

    Over the years, and with lots of advocacy from parents and some educators, students with significant disabilities began to spend increasing amounts of time in regular classrooms. Even so, the field did not focus on literacy instruction. As Downing points out, this is likely due to the expectations people had for students who experienced significant disabilities. The field focused on gaining access to general education classrooms, with supports and services. This required significant attention to answering the question of why students with disabilities should be educated with peers without disabilities. Over time and as students with significant disabilities accessed the core curriculum, we began to notice that students were exceeding our expectations. In fact, they were displaying reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills (e.g., Kliewer, 1998; Ryndak, Morrison, & Sommerstein, 1999).

    Today the research is clear: Inclusion works. As Downing notes, access to general education classrooms and the core curriculum has become a given in the education of students with significant disabilities. As a result, the field stands prepared to address a most pressing issue: literacy.

    June Downing is the perfect person to tackle this pressing need. She has a wealth of knowledge and has been involved with the field of special education as a teacher, researcher, and leader. She is known for her ability to translate complex issues into common practice. She understands the needs, wants, and desires of people with significant disabilities. But most important, she knows that literacy brings liberty. Without providing students with significant disabilities access to the written word, we deny them the world. Said another way, literacy is power—power to control your own life and influence the world around you.

    Teaching Literacy to Students With Significant Disabilities: Strategies for the K–12 Inclusive Classroom makes an important contribution. First, Downing challenges the accepted definition of literacy. She extends the work of Gallego and Hollingsworth (2000), who challenged the classroom standard of literacy and suggested that there are multiple literacies that students use both in and out of school. Downing extends their conceptualization and the common definition of literacy even further by exploring the various ways that students can and do use information to make meaning of the world.

    Second, Downing explores the changes that must be made in the educational system if we are to ensure that “no child is left behind” and that every student really does have access to highly qualified teachers who believe that they can learn. This is no short order. Downing understands that every member of the educational community has a role to play if we are to accomplish this goal. She also provides specific guidelines for us to follow as we begin to provide students with significant disabilities access to literacy instruction.

    Literacy instruction is the third area in which Downing makes a substantial contribution. While this book challenges accepted theories and explores the research base, it does so much more than that. This book is practical. Readers—from family members to teachers to related services staff to administrators—will develop and extend their understanding of quality literacy instruction for all students, including those who have historically been left behind. Strategic teaching is important, as we know that “teachers matter and what they do matters most” (Fisher & Frey, 2004, p. 1). In other words, the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of the teachers—general and special education—are likely to be the most important predictors of the success a student has in learning literacy. Again, Downing demonstrates her understanding of this and provides a wealth of information regarding the ways that students can become literate.

    The final area in which Teaching Literacy to Students With Significant Disabilities: Strategies for the K–12 Inclusive Classroom meets a unique need is in evaluating progress. Too often, general and special educators do not know what to do when students fail to make progress. This book articulates a system of support for teachers and students as we implement instructional plans. This system is clear and will likely result in a laserlike focus on ensuring that students with and without disabilities become literate thinkers who contribute to our society.

    In sum, I invite you to read between the lines and infer that this book is unique and important. June Downing has challenged our assumptions about and expectations for students with significant disabilities. She has also provided direction for meeting these new expectations. June clearly believes that all students must participate in regular classrooms with their peers without disabilities and that students with significant disabilities must have access to quality literacy instruction. In fact, nothing less than the freedom and liberty for all of our students depends on it.

    DouglasFisherProfessor of Literacy and Language Education San Diego State University


    I am very grateful for the individuals who gave of themselves to make this book come to fruition. I would certainly like to thank Dr. Doug Fisher for agreeing so willingly and quickly to read this book and write the foreword. His knowledge of literacy is well-known in the field, and I was quite thrilled and honored when he said he could do this. I value his work greatly, and his thoughts in the foreword are a very special gift to me. Thank you, Doug.

    Photographs always add a great deal to any written work, and I am grateful for those who helped me with the photographs for this book. First, I would like to thank the parents of the children pictured in this text. Showing their children in literacy activities really highlighted what I was trying to say. I appreciate their willingness to share their children with the readers of this book. Second, I would not be able to include the photographs if I hadn't had the support of the photographers. I owe a debt of gratitude to Lauren Etting for taking the pictures of some elementary school-aged children who appear in this text. These children attend a fully inclusive elementary school where Lauren works as a paraeducator. Her photographs are great and really capture early literacy skills as well as the natural support of an inclusive environment. Thank you, Lauren. I also must thank Ben Adams, a friend, colleague, and parent of a child with severe and multiple disabilities, who is also a professional photographer. His photographs of children are a delightful gift to this book. I so value his support and willingness to share this gift.

    Other photographs in the book picture adapted materials that can be used to support literacy involvement for students with significant challenges. These photographs were taken by a friend and colleague, Dr. Lavada Minor. Despite her busy schedule, Lavada was always ready to bring her camera from home and work with me to capture images that were explained in the text. Her photographs definitely help clarify what I was trying so hard to describe. I so appreciate her willingness to do this for me.

    I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to all of the experts in the field of literacy whose work has helped so many students and their teachers. Their work has added considerably to the information presented in the following pages. I would also like to thank the reviewers of the first draft of this text, even though I have never met them. Their time and careful reading of this manuscript contributed to a much clearer and more detailed version, and I am very grateful for the time and effort they expended. Their comments were very helpful and encouraging.

    Many of my students have contributed to the making of this book either directly or indirectly. Their questions in my classes have served as a catalyst for me to explore the area of literacy and address it as well as I could in this book. I hope I challenge them as much as they challenge me. I have asked a few students (who are also teachers) if I could describe some of their accommodations that they have made in this book. I hope they didn't feel as if they had to, but still, their contributions in the form of examples really added to the content. I believe that these examples will help other teachers as well.

    I definitely want to acknowledge the support of my clerical assistant during the writing of this book. Nadine Thomas helped me a great deal with most of the figures that appear in this text. She was always eager and willing to track down anything I might need to make the work progress quickly. Her support was certainly welcomed and greatly appreciated.

    Finally, I would like to thank the many individuals at Corwin Press who have been involved in the development of this product from its inception. Their efforts to produce materials that support students with disabilities are greatly needed and much appreciated by those of us in the field.

    Corwin Press gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Robin Greenfield


    University of Idaho, Boise Center

    Boise, ID

    Victoria Wells, NBCT

    Exceptional Needs Specialist

    Suwannee Elementary School

    Algona, WI

    Julie Van Den Brandt

    LD Teacher

    Edison Elementary School

    Appleton, WI

    Mary Novak

    LD Teacher

    Algona Elementary School

    Algona, WI

    Joan L. Erickson

    Associate Professor

    College of Education and Human Sciences

    University of Nebraska, Lincoln

    Lincoln, NE

    Carrie Carpenter


    Oregon's 2003 Teacher of the Year

    Hugh Hartman Middle School

    Redmond, OR

    Martha J. Larkin

    Author, Professor

    Department of Special Education/SLPA

    State University of West Georgia

    Carrollton, GA

    About the Author

    June E. Downing, PhD, is a professor at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), in the Department of Special Education, where she prepares teachers to work in the area of moderate and severe disabilities. She is a national leader in the field of special education that targets the needs of students with severe disabilities, especially with regard to inclusive education. She has published several articles, chapters, and monographs and three books on students having severe and multiple disabilities. She has received awards in her field, including the Robert Gaylord-Ross Scholarship Award from CalTASH in 1997 and was honored to be named CSUN's Outstanding Professor for 2000. She is currently on the executive board of TASH, an international advocacy organization for individuals with severe disabilities. She is an associate editor of Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities and serves on other professional editorial boards.


    Students with the most severe types of disabilities often are prejudged as incapable of participating and certainly benefiting from a number of fairly common life activities. The more severe the disability, the more typical is the reaction. Others around these individuals may predetermine that due to physical limitations, sensory impairments, limited cognitive abilities, and minimal communication skills, going places and doing things may not be enjoyed. For instance, it may be assumed that taking a child who is totally deaf and blind with significant other disabilities to the local zoo would not be beneficial to the child. The question, “What is he going to get out of this?” is raised. As a result, the student may miss out on a number of meaningful experiences or miss experiences that could have been meaningful. One of those experiences and the focus of this book is the range of experiences that equate with literacy. Students with severe disabilities have limited access to literacy activities and instruction. They may have had limited access to the many experiences that lay a foundation for literacy activities as well. Given the critical importance of literacy for students' learning, the situation cannot continue to exist.

    This book is written specifically for special educators and paraeducators who are responsible for teaching students with severe disabilities, aged preschool through adulthood. Since a basic premise of this book is that students with severe disabilities will be educated in general education classrooms with their peers with no disabilities, the intended audience for this book also includes general educators who will have such students as members of their classes. To fully accept ownership of their students with severe disabilities, general educators, regardless of the grade level they teach, will need to understand how these students can benefit from various literacy activities. The intent of this book is to provide teachers with this information. Of equal importance, this book hopes to support the efforts of parents and family members as they strive to obtain the most effective and meaningful educational program for their children. The information in the following pages is designed to encourage family members to continue their literacy activities with their children and to serve as a catalyst for new activities and experiences that might support their children's learning. Having this information may support them in their advocacy efforts for their children.

    Although not the main objective of the text, the information provided strongly supports the movement toward educating students with their same-age peers without disabilities. For the purpose of this text, inclusive education is considered full-time placement in the age-appropriate classroom(s) that the student would attend if not disabled. Physical placement alone is not the goal, but rather the curriculum is adapted and modified to meet the unique needs of each student having a severe disability. Support is provided through highly qualified special educators, trained paraeducators, adapted materials, modified expectations, and a philosophy of acceptance of human differences. This preference for an inclusive educational environment is based on research supporting the benefits for all children (Downing, Spencer, & Cavallaro, 2004; Fisher & Meyer, 2002) and the dearth of research supporting a separate educational system based on ability. In fact, a comprehensive search of the literature for research that demonstrated the effectiveness of a segregated placement as compared with an inclusive placement for students with severe disabilities yielded no such documentation (Falvey, Blair, Dingle, & Franklin, 2000). Therefore one basic assumption of this text is that students of all ages and ability levels are learning together in supported inclusive environments.

    In general, the purpose of this text is to highlight literacy instruction for students with severe disabilities and demonstrate the many ways that these students can gain access to literacy activities. To do so, adherence to a strict definition of literacy is not conducive, and a much broader and all-encompassing definition will be used. This book will attempt to offer some suggestions for broadening perceptions of literacy to be more inclusive of all students. Specific strategies and examples are provided throughout the book, which may prove helpful to a number of students. However, each student is unique and will require individualized intervention to be most effective. While just an initial effort, it is hoped that the ideas presented in the following pages will serve to further the literacy movement.

    The target population for this book includes those students of all ages who have so frequently been excluded from most literacy experiences. These students typically have a moderate to profound level of intellectual impairment and may have very severe and complex communication challenges. In addition, students are likely to have visual, hearing, and/or physical disabilities. They may have health impairments and behavioral challenges as well. These additional disabilities may be mild or severe. The result of these multiple and complex disorders can make learning quite challenging, although certainly not impossible.

    Although the book primarily addresses the needs of this population of students, suggestions for literacy activities and literacy skill development may be equally applicable to a much broader range of students. Furthermore, the examples and strategies suggested in this book target the school day. However, many of these suggestions have application to the home environments and should be implemented there as well. Ideally the ideas presented in this text will encourage the reader to experiment with different literacy experiences and activities with a large number of students who struggle to access and understand their world.

  • Resources


    This Web site provides information on augmentative and alternative communication products as well as activities related to intervention. Information is provided with regard to creating literacy-based communication boards. Literacy sources are provided as well as presentations being offered and links to other related sites.

    AAC Literacy Project

    Collier Center/University of Texas at Dallas


    This project is a resource for parents and teachers interested in facilitating literacy skills in children who use augmentative and alternative communication.

    Bloom, Y., & Bhargava, D. (2003). Let's read together. Parts 1 & 2: Using commercially available books to promote literacy. Beecroft, Australia: Innovative Programming Options.


    61-2-9876 3568


    This package of materials (manual and CD) provides many creative ways of making reading accessible for students who are not verbal and communicate via alternative modes. Materials are specifically designed for working with students who have multiple sensory impairments.



    This Web site provides numerous titles of books that can be downloaded. Universal design for achieving literacy is the premise, with digitalized text and voice output available for students who need to listen to books read. Copies can be obtained in braille versions as needed.

    Center for Literacy and Disability Studies (CLDS)

    CB #7335, TR #48, UNC-CH

    Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7335


    Dr. Karen Erickson


    CLDS promotes literacy learning and use for individuals of all ages with disabilities. There is a stated belief in the right of all individuals to learn to read and write. The center helps develop research-based strategies, tools, and curricula in literacy. Trainings are provided to families and professionals. There are links to other literacy sites as well as resources, projects, and trainings provided.

    CLAS Institute (Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services Early Childhood Research Institute)


    CLAS has more than 2,000 materials on various subjects, including several disabilities and emergent literacy. Summaries of materials are provided as well as intended audiences and the available format (video, audiotape, print, poster).

    Clicker 4 and Clicker Animations

    Crick Software, Inc.

    50 116th Ave SE

    Suite 211

    Bellevue, WA 98004



    Clicker is a supportive writing tool with a graphic library of more than 1,000 pictures. Custom-made pictures can be easily imported to personalize work. Clicker animations add movement to the graphics that support the written text.

    Greenhouse Publications

    Interactive Reading Books

    P.O. Box 802742

    Santa Clarita, CA 91380-2742



    Interactive Reading Books are designed to help children associate pictures with words. Children actively engage in reading and writing the books by moving Velcro-backed, colorful pictures into a particular sequence. Children match, label, identify, and sequence pictures to create sentences.

    IntelliTools Reading: Balanced Literacy

    1720 Corporate Circle

    Petaluma, CA 94954-6924




    Balanced Literacy is a theme-based, balanced approach to literacy incorporating, guided reading, self-selected reading, explicit phonics, and writing-skill units. This program is research based and accessible.

    Kelly, J., & Friend, T. (1993). Hands-on reading. Solana Beach, CA: Mayer-Johnson.

    This book provides examples of many different reading activities for students with severe disabilities, especially those using augmentative communication devices.

    Kelly, J., & Friend, T. (1995). More hands-on reading. Solana Beach, CA: Mayer-Johnson.

    This later edition adds to the examples of active learning opportunities to help support literacy learning for students with severe disabilities.

    Kuster, J. M. (2003). Picture it! Free art for therapy materials. Retrieved from http://www.mnsu.edu/dept/comdis/kuster4/part49.html, September 11, 2003.

    This Web site article offers practical suggestions for locating free graphic art to use in the development of literacy materials. Numerous Web sites with specific information of how to download are provided for teachers and family members to access.

    Mayer-Johnson Co.

    P.O. Box 1579

    Solana Beach, CA 92075



    This company offers tips, tutorials and materials to share. Research on assistive technology is available. Many different products are advertised that support literacy learning at many different levels of ability, such as Writing with Symbols 2000 and Speaking Dynamically Pro with Boardmaker symbols.

    Mervine, P., Mark, M., & Burton, M. (1995). I can cook, too! Solana Beach, CA: Mayer-Johnson.

    This book is full of recipes using pictorial symbols from Mayer-Johnson.

    Musselwhite, C. R. (1993). RAPS: Reading activities project for older students. Phoenix, AZ: Southwest Human Development.

    RAPS specifically targets literacy activities for the older student who has severe disabilities.

    Musselwhite, C., & King De-Baun, P. (1997). Emerging literacy success: Merging whole language and technology for students with disabilities. Park City, UT: Creative Communicating.

    This book provides a number of creative activities for emergent literacy learners of all ages.


    P.O. Box 550

    Huron, OH 44839




    News-2-You is a symbol-based newspaper for students who need graphic support to read. This can be downloaded from the Internet weekly and contains the latest current events, jokes, activity pages, and a great deal more to make it a very useful educational tool.

    Quill, K. A. (2000). Do, watch, listen, say. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

    This book gives excellent strategies for working with children having autism. It targets the need to provide visual information as well as other modes of input to support learning.

    Tack-Tiles Braille Systems

    P.O. Box 475

    Plaistow, NH 03865




    Tack-Tiles are Lego sets with raised braille dots on the top surface of each piece to represent the alphabet and various contractions inherent in the system. The large, durable surface may make it a useful adaptation for students with multiple disabilities who are learning braille.

    The Thinking Reader Project


    Universal Design for Learning

    39 Cross Street

    Peabody, MA 01960




    The Thinking Reader Project is an interactive digital learning environment to support the development of beginning reading skills and comprehension strategies for students with intellectual impairments.

    UKanDu Little Books

    Don Johnston Incorporated

    26799 W. Commerce Dr.

    Volo, IL 60073



    Designed for young readers, this switch-activated software allows students to create their own stories and learn beginning literacy skills.


    • Alternative assessment—a process of obtaining information on an individual's progress without using standardized forms or procedures. Alternative assessment typically involves observation, checklists, and portfolio assessment.
    • Assistive technology—any item or piece of equipment (commercial or handmade) that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. This also includes any service that assists the individual with disabilities in the selection, acquisition, or use of assistive technology.
    • Augmentative and alternative communication—a system of communication supports and services for individuals who do not rely on speech for the majority of their communicative interactions.
    • Braille—a tactile system of reading and writing for individuals who are blind. This system of embossed characters formed by using combinations of six dots, consisting of two vertical columns of three dots each, provides a means of reading and writing through the sense of touch.
    • Collaborative teaming—the process by which all team members work cooperatively together to meet the needs of individual students.
    • Core curriculum—standard grade-level curriculum typically covering areas of language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.
    • Ecological inventories—an alternative assessment process that is observational in nature and delineates the skill demands of different environments (ecologies) for individuals.
    • Emergent literacy—initial skills in literacy that signal understanding related to literacy, such as proper orientation of reading materials, turning pages to find more information, identifying pictorial information, and understanding that print has meaning.
    • Facilitated communication—alternative means of expression for a person who cannot speak or whose speech is highly limited and who cannot point reliably. Method used to communicate for individuals having severe disabilities.
    • Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—1997 reauthorization of the federal law to provide education and related services to all children and youth with disabilities mandates that each student receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
    • Integrative service delivery—related services professionals provide services and supports within the general education environment to facilitate student learning within ongoing activities.
    • Joint attention—an early-developing social communicative skill in which two individuals mutually focus on the same object, event, or person.
    • Mutual tactile attention—joint attention and sharing an activity or object through noncontrolling mutual touch.
    • No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—2001 federal law designed to ensure accountability in the schools with set standards in reading, mathematics, and other subjects.
    • Page fluffers—handmade adaptations that affix to pages to separate them, making it easier to turn pages and bypassing the need for fine motor control of the fingers.
    • Person-centered planning—an individualized and personal approach to supporting a person's plan for the future. Significant people in the person's life play supportive roles, and an action plan is the result of listening to the person's dreams.
    • Personnel preparation—the process of teaching professionals and paraprofessionals to acquire the skills and knowledge needed in the educational system.
    • Portfolio assessment—a form of alternative assessment that is highly individualized and reflects the progress of individual students through selection of representative samples of work (e.g., written sample of a book report, videotaped lesson of a task being performed, math homework sheet).
    • Positioning—the support of an individual with severe physical disabilities into a specific position for therapeutic and functional reasons. Support can be provided by an individual or by equipment designed to maintain the individual in a given position.
    • Speech-generating device—an augmentative communication device that produces speech as part of its communicative output.
    • Standard—curricular benchmark that indicates mastery of specific content.
    • Standardized assessment—norm-referenced tests that compare individual performance with the overall group tested.
    • Tactile strategies—the use of touch, objects, tangible symbols, and sign to convey information.
    • Voice output communication aid—an augmentative communication device containing messages with synthesized or digital recording of a voice that an individual would use to make needs known to others. The device also can be used to support an individual's receptive communication skills.


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    List of Tables

    • Table 2.1 Supporting the Child With Significant Disabilities in Literacy Activities 20
    • Table 3.1 Ecological Inventory of Literacy Skills 43

      Student: Second grader with severe autism, nonverbal

    • Table 3.2 Ecological Inventory of Literacy Skills 44

      Student: Tenth grader with Rett syndrome and severe intellectual disability

    • Table 3.3 IEP/Activity Matrix for Literacy Skills of a Seventh Grader 45
    • Table 3.4 Gathering Pictorial and Tactile Materials for Literacy Activities 49
    • Table 4.1 Practical Writing Options Using Photographs, Pictures, and Parts of Items 69
    • Table 4.2 Creating Opportunities for Literacy 72
    • Table 4.3 Practical Reading Options Using Adapted Material 76
    • Table 4.4 Opportunities for Using Within-Task Written Directions 79
    • Table 5.1 Interpreting State Standards 106
    • Table 5.2 A Comparison of Passive Versus Active Goals and Objectives 108
    • Table 5.3 Linking Core Literacy Standards to IEP Objectives 109
    • Table 5.4 Sample Data Collection Sheet for Words on Schedule 112
    • Table 5.5 Task Analysis of Handling a Book Used as a Data Sheet 113
    • Table 5.6 Task Analysis Data Sheet of Signing One's Name 115
    • Table 5.7 Sample Data Sheet 116

    List of Figures

    • Figure 2.1 Sample Overlay of an Eight-Message Augmentative Communication Device (Tech Talk), Which Shows the Relationship Between Stating a Message and Reading/Writing 23
    • Figure 3.1 Sample of Adapted Spelling Test 50
    • Figure 3.2 Homemade Page Fluffers Using Chunks of Dried Sponge to Separate Pages 53
    • Figure 3.3 Commercially Produced Adapted Grippers 54
    • Figure 3.4 Sample Page From a Student's Tactile Book About His Weekend Camping Trip 56
    • Figure 3.5 Comparison of a Regular-Sized Braille Letter “J” to a Jumbo-Sized Tack-Tile of the Same Letter 58
    • Figure 3.6 Sample Writing Overlay to Support the Writing of Creative Sentences 62
    • Figure 4.1 Sample Pages from a Tactile Alphabet Book Used in Kindergarten 74
    • Figure 4.2 Sample Daily Schedules—One is Pictorial, One Shows Tactile Representation for a Blind Student 77
    • Figure 4.3 Within-Task Directions for a Third-Grade Science Class 80
    • Figure 4.4 Pictorial/Written Clean-Up Checklist 81
    • Figure 4.5 Sample Self-Monitoring Tool Used by a Student 82
    • Figure 4.6 Three Fourth-Grade Students Sharing a Book 85
    • Figure 4.7 Adapted Pictorial Comprehension Check for the Story of Harry Potter91
    • Figure 4.8 Pictorial/Written Test for Comprehension of the Story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow92
    • Figure 4.9 Example of Fading Pictorial Information to Shift Focus to the Text for the Words Orange and Tree95

    Corwin Press

    The Corwin Press logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin Press is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of K–12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin Press continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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