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Teaching Literacy to Students with Severe Disabilities

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  • 0:00 Literacy Instruction for All
  • 0:29 Addressing the…
  • 3:30 Targeting Literacy Needs
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bethany Calderwood

Bethany has taught special education in grades PK-5 and has a master's degree in special education.

It can be challenging to plan instruction that meets the needs of students with severe disabilities. This lesson is designed to jump start your thinking about how to teach literacy to students with severe disabilities.

Literacy Instruction for All

Students with severe disabilities are often significantly behind their same-age peers when it comes to literacy. Since education law requires that all students have access to a general education curriculum, how do you teach literacy to students with significant challenges? Due to the wide variety of needs that can accompany severe disabilities, there is no universal formula. However, let's explore some possibilities and principles.

Addressing the Literacy Curriculum

There are three options for providing severely disabled students with access to a literacy curriculum. These include accommodations at the grade level, access skills, and curricular entry points.

Let's first take a look at accommodations at the grade level. A student who is diagnosed with severe disabilities but who is able to address a literacy curriculum at his or her grade level will need significant accommodations. Some possible accommodations are:

  • Specialized equipment for positioning, such as seating and mobility
  • Amplification devices for hearing-impaired students
  • Communication devices
  • Specialized computer programs, such as speech-to-text software
  • Alternative materials, such as Braille for visually impaired students
  • Alternative methods to demonstrate knowledge for non-verbal students
  • Modified schedule and delivery of instruction for medically fragile students

Literacy instruction using multiple accommodations, like the ones we just looked at, can look very different than instruction that takes place in a general education classroom. As long as accommodations don't alter the content of the curriculum, a severely disabled student is addressing the curriculum at grade level.

Now let's look at access skills. Many students with severe disabilities are unable to master a grade-level literacy curriculum. As such, a small number must address the coursework through access skills. Access skills are communication, motor, or behavioral goals that a student must master in order to gain access to curricular content.

For example, Janine has severe disabilities. Her communication goals include using eye gaze to indicate a choice from an array of three objects or pictures. As an access skill, Janine addresses this goal by choosing a story to read and a peer to partner with during literacy activities.

Now let's consider Keith, who has severe behavioral disabilities. His behavioral goal is to remain seated for the duration of a 10-minute literacy activity without displaying any violent, disruptive, or self-injurious behavior. This goal is a skill that will give him access to the literacy curriculum.

Finally, let's look at entry points. Most students with severe disabilities access a grade-level literacy curriculum using entry points. A curricular entry point is a lower-level skill that needs to be mastered before the grade-level skill.

For instance, in Mona's third grade class, her peers are reading folktales and discussing the elements of the stories. Mona is working on a listening comprehension access skill. After hearing several peers read a folktale aloud, she works with an assistant to answer simple listening comprehension questions about the story using pictures, which are her primary mode of communication. Later, she uses pictures to sequence some of the main events of the story.

Another entry point for Mona is to work on letter recognition, letter/sound association, and basic sight words, all of which are necessary before she can read folktales at the third grade level. She works on these skills using vocabulary from the story she heard with her peers.

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