I believe that, as special educators, we are responsible for providing students with exposure to skills and content, more than just what is in their IEP. Of course, the IEP should be the main focus, and those goals need to be taught to mastery, but we still must provide every student access to a high-quality, content-rich curriculum. Too often, we get hung up on teaching skills in isolation until mastery, but until those skills are applied, they are meaningless and abstract.
We are providing students with the experiences they have when learning to read, and we can make it a positive, meaningful experience where students are successful. We can have a positive attitude and teach them that reading can be more than three-letter words and choppy sentences. We can assume competence and know that our students can learn new skills, outside of the traditional "functional" skills, that are still applicable in their lives. We have every opportunity in the world to give our students with significant disabilities more. After all, what is more functional than being literate?
Here are a few of my favorite ways to make literacy instruction more meaningful.
1. Incorporate independent, leisure reading.
Provide access to books that the student is interested in that they would be able to read at the library or at home. Teach students that reading can be fun! Independent reading is a leisure skill, and it would be a huge benefit to our students if we could help them love it just a little bit more. In my classroom, we spent 10-20 minutes a day on "independent" reading. For some students, that means looking at pictures. Some students enjoy being read to. Some students can read independently, and some listen to audiobooks or books on Epic. The most important thing was that no assignment or quiz was tied to this. It was just reading for fun.
2. Incorporate language and communication through repeated lines.
When reading aloud, use a repeated line throughout your book. Signal to students when the repeated line should be read. Provide visual supports and communication boards, or program them into a switch or communication device for your limited-expression students. This is a great way to get everyone to participate in the reading.
3. Pull in other subject areas and skills when they are brought up in the book.
When I teach "Winn Dixie" my students learn how to write a party invitation. We learn appropriate social skills and manners for a party. We make egg salad sandwiches and Dump punch. If you have used my Story Based Literacy units, I include multiple cross-content activities to keep students engaged. Create real-life, functional applications whenever possible to increase comprehension and make it meaningful.
4. Don't teach phonics skills in isolation.
I have had many teachers discuss their struggle with getting students to master letter names and sounds. They have been practicing with flashcards for years, and the student still cannot remember what sound each letter makes. When we are teaching these basic skills in isolation, students are just looking at an abstract shape on a flashcard, and we are expecting them to put meaning to it and remember it forever. We limit exposure to meaningful literacy experiences when we get held up on mastery. According to Karen Erickson & David Koppenhaver in their book, Comprehensive Literacy for All (affiliate link), "Students with significant disabilities can develop alphabet knowledge and apply it meaningfully to reading and spelling when it is taught and immediately applied in the context of comprehensive instruction that extends over a period of months and years (e.g., Allor et al., 2010; Fallon, Light, McNaughton, Drager, & Hammer, 2004; Johnston, Buchanan, & Davenport, 2009; Koppenhaver & Erickson, 2003). Of course, our students need to master these essential alphabet skills, but we need to also provide opportunities to apply what they are learning in actual literacy instruction.
5. Focus on comprehension skills.
Reading can be hard for our students, and when we drill and kill wh- questions, we're making it even harder. What if we switched and taught comprehension through other formats? Maybe a student's favorite TV show or a good, sucks-you-in audiobook? Students could learn HOW to answer questions in a motivating way, and then we can work on generalizing that skill to reading.
6. Pick words that are meaningful in the student's life for reading and spelling.
If you're teaching sight words, pick words that the student sees daily in their immediate environment. Guess what? Grocery words are not functional for most 5th graders or even middle schoolers. Road signs are not functional for students who cannot drive. Just because a program has a "functional" label slapped on it doesn't mean it's functional for every student. Want to continue the conversation? Shoot me a message on Instagram, and let's keep chatting!