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Literacy for Students with Complex Communication Needs

by Susan Berkowitz, M.S.,M.Ed., C.C.C.,SLP
Focus for students with complex communication and cognitive needs has shifted to access to the general curriculum and the need to meet state standards. Like their typical peers, students with disabilities should not be made to master life skills prior to learning to read, and reading instruction should not be discontinued for lack of progress.

Students with disabilities should be able to gain meaning from literature using the same books and text as non-disabled peers, with support, modification, and accommodation. They should have access to age/grade appropriate materials. However, students with complex communication needs typically have fewer opportunities to engage with print and develop pre-reading skills. Teachers and parents should:

  • Read books with rhyming text, with repetitive lines.
  • Use wordless picture books to create stories.
  • Have students participate in making lists, reading logos.
Have the child use the symbols or words on their communication system to recount experiences while you write; then rewrite while editing and enhancing. Provide print everywhere. Reading with students improves communication, comprehension, and world knowledge skills. During reading with students, the reader should plan the reading, preview the book with student(s), use animated reading, stop intermittently to discuss and ask, repeatedly read the same book, and include a writing activity.

Most early literacy experiences are part of social routines between children and adults. Adults read to children, providing them with opportunities to learn (and practice) vocabulary. As adults and children typically talk about stories, verbal children develop their skills in talking about stories, learning about the meaning of text, and learning the discourse skills needed to tell about and retell stories. Children who with complex communication needs tend to have fewer of these experiences according to the research (Light, 2003). Adults tend to dominate the interactions with these children, providing them fewer opportunities to take turns, use vocabulary, learn story telling skills. Rather, adults need to learn to model using the childís communication system during story reading activities. They should pause during stories, waiting for the child to participate. Adults should ask questions in a way that the child can respond using the vocabulary on their system - hopefully using core vocabulary. Maximize use of open-ended questions, rather than yes/no type questions or limited choice questions.

Reading instruction for students with complex communication needs should include:

1. teaching at the studentís level of instruction
2. using studentís grade level literature/text
3. National Reading Panelís identified components of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension. Phonological awareness skills are fundamental to literacy skill development.

Phonological awareness refers to awareness of and access to the sound structure of language. Spoken words are comprised of strings or sequences of phonemes that signal different meanings. Awareness that changes in these sequences result in changes in meaning is crucial in literacy skills development. Children who use aac have limited opportunity to practice speech and the kind of sound blending, segmenting, rhyming, and matching tasks that are part of phonological awareness. Teachers need to adapt phonological awareness intervention activities for nonverbal students.

Teachers also need to use typical comprehension activities. Just like with typical or verbal students, teachers should use the strategies of activating background knowledge, setting a purpose for reading, complete an activity that addresses only that purpose, provide specific feedback.

However, teachers will have to adjust how they present material (adjusting to the child's level of language comprehension), how they ask the student to demonstrate knowledge (adjusting to the child's level of expression and with an emphasis on use of core vocabulary rather than the fringe vocabulary of the specific story), and use models when providing feedback. Simplify story grammar structure for students who are learning basic Wh-questions and provide visual cues for organizing basic story elements. Provide graphic organizers using familiar picture symbol sets, photos, or words. Using age and grade appropriate books promotes access to the general education curriculum, aligns with state standards and allows students to experience the same literature. Books needs to be adapted for students with complex communication needs. Shorten or rewrite the text if the vocabulary is beyond the student's comprehension/instruction level and/or if text length and complexity are beyond the studentís language instruction level and attentional level. Summarize chapter books, providing main ideas and details. Add symbols or pictures to key vocabulary, add definitions to key vocabulary, add explanations to text, use repeated lines to support main ideas.

Susan Berkowitz, M.S.,M.Ed., C.C.C.,SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist and Educational Consultant
Tel: 619-980-0347

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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