An Overview of “Teaching Literacy to Students with Significant Disabilities”

Students enrolled in the spring 2011 section of READ 6323 worked together in small groups to read and discuss a professional book related to struggling readers. As part of their project, they wrote a post for our blog.

By Yadira Gonzalez, Maryela Garcia, Noelia Romero, Rosa Reyes, Audrey Nuques

Effectively teaching students who have severe, profound, and even multiple disabilities can be challenging. Imagination and creativity are essential. Sometimes one teacher’s idea will spark several adaptations for new ideas. Therefore, the purpose of the text Teaching Literacy to Students with Significant Disabilities by author June E. Downing was to suggest some realistic ideas for teaching literacy to students with severe disabilities.

Students of all ages and abilities benefit from daily, sustained opportunities to participate in literacy. In recent years many individuals who were presumed incapable of learning to read because of their disabilities, have learned and demonstrated unexpected literacy skills. In order to ensure that these students reach their potential, they must have access to quality literacy instruction throughout their schooling, and with the initiation of NCLB this is now a reality.

Chapter two emphasizes the value of communication as a bridge to literacy learning.  Developing trusting relationships with the students can aid in increasing the opportunities to use interactions in reading and writing activities.  I find that this is very important, not only with students with significant disabilities, but with every child.  I thought the examples for documentation of shared experiences were beneficial for both parents and educators.  The examples the author gave were, drawings, photograph books, and tactile books. 

The book’s description on how to plan literacy skills for the student was very useful.   The book explained with great detail about how to set goals for a student which can be a great way to plan lessons. Teachers must set goals that are specific for the child and not in a passive way.  It explained the goals must not read “the student will listen to a book” because then the student is really not partaking in anything.  The author was explicit to mention that it takes a team to work with students with disabilities.  I agreed with the author’s suggestion that they must all plan together to help teach these important literacy skills. The book also mentions the integration of technology as a learning tool.  Other ideas mentioned in the book are the tools that schools can use to help the child communicate.  Some of these examples were: drawing, computers, AAC devices, or signing.

In chapter four of Teaching Literacy Skills, the author provides the reader with the different ways of making literacy learning appropriate for students with significant disabilities such as providing choices of materials, taking student interests’ into consideration, offering a variety of meaningful opportunities and having material needed available. I liked the way in which Downing displays the different options of writing, ways to increase literacy experiences and a list of reading choices with the use of tables making it accessible to the reader.  In addition, the author also provides his audience with different samples of pictorial representation of numerous accommodated literacy activities in which the student is engaged in.  These samples give general and special educators an idea of how to prepare with the most appropriate and effective adaptations for a student with significant disabilities.

Chapter 5 has excellent information for educators. After reviewing and reading the chapter, I added just a few ideas that are not mentioned.  June E. Downing wrote about the different alternative methods of assessing students with significant disabilities: Observations while the students are in an engagement activity during reading, writing, and language skills, review of past records which is previous knowledge, interviews to parents, teachers, speech pathologists and portfolios. Page 103 mentions that some of the persons that can be interviewed about a student are paraprofessionals. This is contrary to the instructions we receive from the Principal and Special Ed director. The previous assessment methods are good alternatives, but teacher-made tests are not mentioned. Teacher-made tests may be done reflecting student’s IEP’s with a minimum of 70% accuracy. Miscue analysis is another good way to assess students in reading besides the multiple choices with pictures.

Families, as well as educators, must keep the ultimate goal, which is to “help students be as competent and literate as possible.”


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