Learning is inextricably linked to reading and writing, but many students with disabilities lack the foundational literacy building blocks required for academic and lifelong success (Clendon & Erickson, 2009; Light & McNaughton, 2007). For decades students with disabilities have demonstratedtheir capacity to succeed in the general curriculum when provided with appropriate supports to meet their unique learning needs (CEC, 2011; Hanser& Erickson, 2007; Fallon, Light, McNaughton, Drager, & Hammer, 2004). Yet thousands of learners continue to be excluded from meaningful literacy opportunities and there is insufficient educational content that applies assistive technology (AT) and research-supported instructional strategies to meet the needs of diverse learners (Erickson, Hatch & Clendon, 2010).
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and related education reform movements are suitably raising the bar on the expectations we hold for students with disabilities, including those with the most significant challenges, as well as the professionals and administrators who support them. The CCSS provide a shared understanding of the big picture of what students should learn and be able to apply. School districts around the country are committing to meeting the needs of all students by ensuring opportunity to succeed as readers andwriters across the general education curriculum. If students are to succeed, teachers must be well-informed about effective strategies for teaching literacy to students with disabilities, including those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, and related developmental delays (CEC, 2011).
The instructional scope and sequence of a new program from DynaVox Mayer-Johnson, called Literacy Lab, is informed by research in literacy instruction for learners with disabilities, aligned to all 6 strands of the English Language Arts (ELA) Common Core Standards, designed to support both professionals who are new to literacy instruction and those who are senior-level experts, and an example of innovative application of the principles of universal design for learning (UDL).
Successful approaches to building literacy are comprehensive and integrated. Cunningham’s (1993) Whole-to-Part Model of Silent Reading Comprehension highlights the reading and language-based constructs that underlie successful silent reading comprehension and comprise comprehensive, integrated instruction. The model is consistent with findings of the National Reading Panel (2000) and the National Early Literacy Panel (2009) while offering an important framework for organizing and understanding all of the critical components of comprehensive beginning literacy instruction. The primary constructs represented in the Whole-to-Part Model are word identification, language comprehension, and print processing (see Cunningham, 1993 or Erickson, Koppenhaver, & Cunningham, 2006 for a detailed description).
Historically, literacy programs designed for individuals with disabilities have tended to focus on only one or two constructs at a time. For many years there was a prevailing belief that individuals with developmental disabilities could be taught to read sight words, but that they could not learn to decode words using phonics-based strategies. As a result, instruction tended to focus on whole-word recognition with limited attention placed on the internal make-up of words or comprehending words in connected text. Consequently, these students had limited knowledge of phoneme-grapheme relationships and were unable to figure out unfamiliar words when reading. Various researchers (e.g., Fallon, Light, McNaughton, Drager, & Hammer, 2004; Hanser & Erickson, 2007) have now demonstrated that this belief was unfounded and individuals with developmental disabilities can respond positively to analytic reading instruction.
Successfully implementing decoding or phonics intervention is only one component of the comprehensive instruction beginning readers require. Intervention must also address comprehension, fluency, and myriad other skills and understandings. Isolated word reading deficits only account for a small portion of the difficulties identified across all poor readers (Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin, 1999; Nation, Clark, Wright, & Williams, 2006).
Comprehensive literacy intervention addresses all three components of the Whole-to-Part model: word identification (including phonemic awareness, phonics, and word identification); language comprehension (including vocabulary and text comprehension); and print processing (including fluency, the development of inner speech, and prosody). At the same time, comprehensive instruction supports learners in applying or generalizing the knowledge and skills they are acquiring to novel and self-selected contexts. The ability to generalize or apply knowledge and skills is often particularly difficult for students with disabilities and yet it is the thing that helps readers and writers develop and experience increasing success across reading and writing contexts.
Comprehensive approaches also provide students with a balance of directed, interactive, skill-building instruction, guidance in applying those skills in meaningful contexts, and opportunities to independently apply newly acquired knowledge and skills through practice with self-directed reading and writing. Literacy learning, by its nature, requires learners to problem-solve across a variety of skill sets in order to read with comprehension and write with purpose and meaning. While opportunities to explore new content are critical to reading and writing development so too is the opportunity to practice and refine knowledge that may have been previously gained. Beginning readers and writers require multiple opportunities to revisit content as a way to refine newly acquired skills and understandings.
Background on the development of Literacy Lab
In 2010, a team of experienced educators, speech-language pathologists, and AT developers came together to define a comprehensive literacy program that would address the literacy learning needs of a broad range of students, including those with the most significant physical and intellectual challenges. This team enlisted expert guidance from Karen Erickson, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, UNC-Chapel Hill Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Through a review of the literature and thousands of hours of iteration on design, this collaborative team created Literacy Lab v1.0. The following key design principles were maintained throughout the design and development process:
- The program must drive towards learner outcomes in reading silently with comprehension and writing meaningful texts independently.
- Deep understanding and application of skills requires thousands of opportunities to practice and be an active participant in constructing one’s own knowledge.
- Instruction must be comprehensive and address all of the constructs involved in reading, including writing.
Literacy Lab overview
Literacy Lab is software comprised of 8 thematic units, with nearly 1000 unique instructional activities focused on reading comprehension, guided and independent readings, vocabulary, phonological awareness, word identification, and writing. Communication supports are built-in to enhance interactions and support learners who require or benefit from augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Practitioners can either follow a preset instructional sequence or they can customize instruction based on student development and need. In each session of the preset sequence, students complete 1-3 new instructional activities and then select familiar activities for additional, self-directed practice. Literacy Lab includes 120 universally accessible, incredibly engaging, electronic books that relate to a theme.
Literacy Lab addresses a range of beginning instructional needs by offering preset activity plans at three levels of complexity. Activity Plan Level 1 addresses the needs of students who are just learning important concepts about print, developing alphabetic and phonological knowledge, and beginning to make connections between written and oral language. Activity Plan Level 2 targets students who have acquired these skills but are not yet using written language in a meaningful way. Activity Plan Level 3 provides meaningful learning opportunities for students who are having some success with written language, but require continued support in decoding words, reading with comprehension and fluency, and writing to communicate effectively with others. All three levels offer built-in supports for communication and, together, the three levels provide a single approach to address a broad range of beginning reading and writing needs.
Literacy Lab has been successfully piloted in a variety of classrooms and additional research projects with partner classrooms will be getting underway soon.
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