Guest Post from Susan Berkowitz, SLP from Kidz Learn Language
Literacy As an Attainable Goal for Severely Disabled Students
I work as a speech-language pathologist with students who have significant disabilities. Up until recently, literacy skills for students with severe disabilities didn’t get a lot of attention.
We all agree that literacy skills are important for academic, social, and workplace success. But for many years, nobody agreed on how – or even if – we should teach those skills to students who are nonverbal or have other significant disabilities.
But, fortunately, along with the Common Core State Standards and the battle cry of “Presume Competence” and “the Least Dangerous Assumption,” we are seeing more and more teachers and speech-language pathologists focus on literacy skills for many students previously ignored when it comes to Reading instruction.
One of the ways in which speech-language pathologists have provided support in literacy for students has been in helping to provide and direct literature-based language intervention. Therapists have been using storybooks in intervention for many years with a wide range of students. For students with significant language disabilities, stories provide a great context for building vocabulary. And vocabulary is one of the three necessary skills for reading comprehension. (Decoding fluency and critical thinking/social language/awareness are the other two.)
In classrooms, story-based intervention takes the form of shared reading. The same story is read for 4-5 days, with a different purpose for reading set each day. This provides students with information about what is important to focus on with each reading and keeps them from being overwhelmed.
When I do – or train teachers to do – shared reading this way, I usually focus on some aspect of vocabulary on the first day; generally describing a character or setting, then expanding this vocabulary on the second day; usually by comparing and contrasting. The rest of the week includes sequencing, identifying story elements, and re-telling. Working with words and writing are also included, to round out the language and literacy activities.
I use the Before-During-After framework, which I learned from Karen Erickson, who is an amazing researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill. The ‘Before’ is related to the purpose for reading for that day, and activates students’ knowledge around that skill, while the ‘After’ activity uses the same skill, but is related to the specific story.
For example, if I want to work on describing skills, we might, as a group, practice describing ourselves, each other, our room, or our town before reading the story. Then, I would have them complete an activity for describing a character or the setting after reading the book for the first time.
One example of describing and compare/contrast activities is offered on my blog, where I provide free downloads for the book, Verdi. An example of a sequencing activity is also discussed, and includes a free download for the book, Max and Mo: Let’s Build a Snowman.
Reading to children provides motivation for their wanting to learn to read, teaches them the purposes for reading, provides experiences with books they cannot yet read for themselves, and gives them a sense of meaningfulness of written language. Talking about stories encourages thinking and language skills, which in turn facilitate reading comprehension skills.
I also have some additional posts and free activities for shared reading on my website, Kidz Learn Language, which deals primarily with language and literacy skills for students who do not speak.
Susan Berkowitz, M.S., M.Ed., is currently a SLP in private practice who provides consultation and training for districts in Southern California for students who use Augmentative-Alternative Communication systems. You can find her on Pinterest and Facebook.