Changing Perspectives

There is no doubt about the importance of literacy in our society. Among other things, being literate increases one’s ability to learn independently, to gain and maintain employment, and to care for oneself. Access to literacy instruction, therefore, is imperative. Too often, however, educators and other adults in the lives of students with ID and DD have assumed that these students would not be able to benefit from literacy instruction because they view the tasks involved to be too complicated or unnecessary for students with ID and DD to understand or perform. This view has led many educators to forego literacy instruction for the children or to address it in superficial ways.

Presuming Competence

The first step in helping a child with ID or DD to become literate is to presume competence (Biklen & Burke, 2006) in his or her abilities to gain such knowledge and skills. This means to put aside doubts and preconceived notions about what a student may be able to accomplish based on a student’s label of disability, estimates of IQ, or assumed limitations and instead, teach as if the child will learn. Put another way, to presume competence in students is to act on the belief “that all individuals can acquire valued skills if given appropriate structures and supports” (Copeland & Keefe, 2007, p. 2).

Literacy Initiations and Access to Instruction

While many students with ID and DD interact with texts in traditional ways, some students with such disabilities may interact with texts in ways that seem unusual or different than how students without such disabilities interact with texts. For example, some students, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), may be interested in a book’s texture or fascinated by how a book looks when it is spun around. Other students may be interested in and insist on reading books on one specific topic for a substantial period of time. Take for example the ways in which Steven, a boy with ASD and an intellectual disability, reads for information:

He had with him, as always, several different public library books, all related to butterflies and insects. He laid three of the books, opened, on the floor, then centered himself among them, glancing at each of the exposed pages. He then flipped to the next page of each book and repeated the process. (Kliewer & Biklen, 2001, p. 5)

Students like Steven are sometimes dismissed as readers because their teachers misinterpret their unique ways of interacting with texts as indications that they are not attending to and/or are not ready for instruction involving the written word. Others feel compelled to restrict students’ access to texts that they worry might be topics of overfocus, insisting that the student read something other than books about their favorite subjects. However, students’ interactions with texts should be welcomed despite differences. A child’s spinning of a book or investigation of the book’s texture should never be taken as a sign that the child is not ready for literacy instruction. Nor should we avoid inviting them to use texts in more conventional ways. On the contrary, students will benefit from learning to use texts in the intended fashion. An important understanding, though, is that there is nothing wrong with interacting with texts in unusual ways. As long as a child is interested in texts, teachers should use the child’s interactions as a starting point for further invitations to literacy growth and also encourage the child to interact with texts in ways that are pleasing to them.

Students with ID and DD can learn literacy skills, but a pitfall of many educators in helping the students attain literacy is to focus only on early or basic literacy skills in the absence of other more meaningful, generative, and socially-based forms of literacy. For example, a student who has not mastered the alphabet might not be invited to respond to read-alouds through discussion, drama, or art, and may be excluded from story time altogether. This is because it is often thought that students will not be able to benefit from other literacy activities until early skills are mastered. This assumption is incorrect, however, and can be detrimental to student learning. One does not need to be able to read words or even identify letters to be able to take part in classroom read-alouds and response activities, and much can be learned about literacy through taking part in such activities. Through read-alouds, for instance, students are provided with a model of fluent reading, how a story is structured, and what the purposes are for various kinds of texts. While the teaching of skills is important and should not be denied to students with disabilities, reading must also not be construed as a linear and rigid process for which only some students are able to participate (Kliewer & Biklen, 2001).

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

Many students who have ID or DD also have complex communication needs (CCN). Some students may not use speech to communicate. Others may not have reliable speech, that is, speech that consistently and accurately reflects the message the speaker wishes to convey (Broderick & Kasa-Hendrickson, 2001). Some students may have reliable speech, but their speech may be difficult for others to understand. Teaching literacy skills to a student who is not verbal or who has unreliable speech can seem daunting. As teachers, we often expect students to communicate their knowledge through speaking, particularly as students learn to read. Think about how you would work with a typically-developing kindergartener on letter sounds. You would likely show the child a letter on the chalkboard or on a flashcard and ask the child to respond orally with the sound of the letter. Similarly, when meeting with a student to assess his or her reading ability, you would likely want to hear the child read a passage so you could make note of his or her strengths and struggles during oral reading. How then, can a teacher approach such important learning activities and assessments when working with a child who does not speak? How could the child show a teacher his or her competence in reading? How can a teacher determine a child’s understanding as new skills are taught?

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) refers to the techniques and supports used by individuals with limitations in spoken language to enhance their ability to communicate. While these supports are often bundled under the term AAC, there are important differences in augmentative versus alternative communication. Augmentative communication refers to the techniques and supports used in addition to speech, spoken sounds, or gestures, while alternative communication refers to techniques or supports used in place of speech and gestures (Copeland & Keefe, 2007). Numerous options for AAC exist, including “manual sign language, as well as non-electronic and electronic communication devices and software options” (p. 132), which vary in complexity (e.g., high-tech, low-tech) and expense. A common high-tech AAC device used by students is the Dynavox, which is a computerized touchscreen that allows users to select words and symbols indicating what they would like to communicate. The device, in turn, speaks out these choices digitally. Lower-tech supports might include teacher-created boards with letters, numbers, and/or pictures made with clip art to which students can point to communicate their needs and responses.

Students with ID and DD can often benefit from AAC in literacy learning. In deciding which AAC supports to use, a teacher must consider the particular needs of each student. Not all supports or devices will be appropriate for all students with disabilities. It would not be appropriate, for example, to require a student to use a particular support simply because it is less expensive or already on hand. In addition, some students with limited speech may already be making use of certain AAC devices in their daily lives. If this is the case for a particular student, finding a way to incorporate that device into the child’s literacy learning will be of utmost importance. For students who have difficulty with reliable speech or producing speech that is readily understood by others, finding a way for the students to communicate their knowledge without the need to speak can be beneficial. The ways in which AAC can be used to supplement and enhance a student’s literacy learning are innumerable. Several examples will be given throughout the next section on comprehensive literacy instruction for students with ID and DD.