Inclusive Literacy Learning
Five Ways to Reach and Support All
Adapted from: P. Kluth & Chandler-Olcott (2007). “A Land We Can Share”: Teaching Literacy to Students with Autism. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
Many teachers pull students with disabilities out of the literacy hour or block because they believe that these learners, as a rule, need special instruction and content. In reality, many students including those with learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities, autism, and other labels can participate quite successfully in the general education classroom with appropriate supports such as adapted materials, individualized goals or objectives, and co-teaching.
In other cases, of course, students need direct and explicit literacy instruction to meet their needs but these learners may not need to leave the general education classroom in order to receive such assistance. With careful and creative planning, literacy instruction can be adapted to meet the needs of every student in the classroom. Five ways teachers can provide a literacy education for all learners are offered here.
1. See All Students as Literacy Learners
In my experiences in classrooms, I have observed that students with disabilities are too often dismissed from the “literate community” (Kliewer, 1998). Some, in fact, are not seen as literate and receive no literacy education at all. Other learners with disabilities receive a literacy education that focuses only on isolated skills and competencies (e.g., identifying letters and sounds) and rarely have opportunities to learn alongside peers without disabilities and participate in such meaningful activities as reading literature, discussing ideas, writing or sharing stories, and creating literacy-related art (e.g., drama).
Kliewer (1998) suggests that in order to provide literacy opportunities for all students, teachers may need to “reconceptualize the literate community”; they may need to reject certain assumptions about disability and adopt an orientation of viewing all students as learners. Further, teachers wanting to include a wider range of students might need to broaden or change their definition of literacy. Instead of understanding literacy as only the ability to read, the demonstration of a set of isolated skills, or the mastery of a set of rules, it could be seen as dynamic and relative and as something that is demonstrated in student communication, social interactions, and problem solving. Students, therefore, may be seen as demonstrating literacy skills and abilities when they learn a new communication system; use literacy materials to explore, socialize, or share information; or follow the literacy “routines” of the classroom (e.g., attend when teacher reads, take turns in discussions).
2. Create an Environment that Welcomes and Challenges Diverse Learners
Researchers have found that the classroom itself can have a powerful effect on learning. Koppenhaver & Erickson (2003) found that young students with autism and significant communication struggles who were educated in a literacy-rich environment increased their understanding of print materials and tools. By simply increasing natural opportunities for engagement with items in the classroom environment (e.g., writing tools, print materials), teachers were able to improve the emergent literacy behaviors of their students.
Every teacher can make changes in the environment that will help the literacy learning of students with disabilities. Ideas for making the classroom environment more literacy-friendly include providing more visual supports (e.g., charts, tables, photographs, illustrations) during lessons; creating mini-libraries on certain classroom topics and interest areas; featuring a “book of the month” that is used for reference or teaching and available to anyone during free time; setting up an interactive bulletin board (e.g., “our favorite words”, “mix and match poetry”) or word wall; arranging shelves or boxes with various levels and types of reading materials including books, magazines, newspapers, comic books, and student-created products; and creating a writing or communication center with different types of writing materials (e.g., paper, pens, pencils, markers, rubber stamps, interesting writing paper, dictionary).
3. Offer a Wide Range of Literacy Materials
Increasing or varying the types of materials available to students is another way to make the classroom more inclusive. For instance, many students need classroom reading material to be adapted for their individual needs. A student who has low vision may need a book with large print and a student who reads below grade level may need some of the text rewritten using language that is less complex. Other adaptations to books or stories include highlighting key portions of the text, adding illustrations, inserting a glossary of unfamiliar terms, creating space for the child to take notes, add pictures, or write questions, and creating an audiotape or PowerPoint version.
Students may also need access to computers and other types of technology as they learn to read, write, speak, and listen. Teachers looking to increase literacy learning might consider giving students with disabilities (or other struggling learners) more access to literacy-based software programs, computerized word and language games, and other devices such as pen scanners that “read” as the user passes the device over text.
Some students may also enjoy experimenting with gadgets in the back of the classroom closet such as typewriters, word processors, film-strip machines, language masters, and simple hand-held electronic language games. Often this type of equipment is given away to make room for new materials but some of these old favorites may actually be preferred by certain learners. For instance, one young man with autism I know likes to use a computer program that is over twenty years old because the text and background is very simple and lacks all of the color and special features of newer programs. Since he is very sensitive to light and color, he prefers the more basic program. Another student who is very tactile loves to create short poems using the tape from an old raised-letter label maker.
4. Use Active Learning
When students with a wide range of literacy skills, abilities, and needs are working together in the same classroom, the teacher will need to use active learning to reach everyone and to assess how they all learn and what they all know. Whether it is in the form of games, small group work, drama, partner work, simulations, or cooperative learning structures, teachers using active learning have greater opportunities to differentiate instruction and meet individual needs.
When a teacher is at the front of a classroom providing all of the instruction, it is hard for him or her to personalize his or her approach or to assess the learning of individual students. Contrast this with an active learning lesson where students are engaged in work on their own or with others. In this model, the teacher is usually free to observe students, engage in informal assessment, deliver different types of instruction to different students, provide mini-lessons to certain learners, and ask and answer individual questions.
While active learning can be beneficial to many students, it may be particularly important for students with certain disabilities. Students with some speech and language problems, for example, may have difficulty expressing the answers to comprehension questions. These same learners, however, may be able to show their understanding of a particular story during a drama exercise.
In order to meet the needs of all students in the diverse classroom, teachers in inclusive schools must consider how they can work together to improve the reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills of all. Collaboration might involve developing co-teaching models, working closely with reading teachers to bring state-of-the-art practice to all learners in the inclusive classroom, talking with students and parents to create goals and to make other instructional decisions, and planning and creating curricula with all team members including occupational therapists, physical therapists, social workers, psychologists, and administrators.
Bringing educators together to brainstorm and plan is one of the best techniques that can be used to support all learners. In one school, a large multi-disciplinary team met often to consider how students with very different abilities and challenges might be educated together successfully. When asked to examine a second grade classroom and share ideas, each member of the team was able to provide suggestions to help some or all of the students. The occupational therapist suggested that all students should have more comfortable seating during the literacy block (which was often ninety minutes); she then helped the teacher create a reading corner complete with pillows, upholstered footstools, and a few inflatable cushions. The social worker suggested that the teachers bring more Mexican and Mexican-American themed literature into the classroom to interest four students who were new immigrants. And the speech therapist gave the teacher a few laptop keyboards to try with students who were reluctant to write their own stories because of difficulties in handwriting and organization. In working together, the team was able to construct a variety of supports that helped all students make impressive gains in their literacy learning.
Kliewer, C. (1998). Schooling children with Down syndrome. New York: Teachers
Koppenhaver, D.A. & Erickson, K.A. (2003). Natural emergent literacy supports for preschoolers with autism and severe communication impairments. Topics in Language Disorders, 23 (4), 283-92.