Literacy Instruction for
Students with Significant Disabilities

“Emergent literacy is not age dependent but is based on experiences with print!”
Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver, Edmonton, July 2015


Who are emergent readers and writers?

Emergent literacy is the term used to describe the reading and writing experiences of young children before they learn to write and read conventionally (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). Emergent literacy begins at birth, regardless of whether or not a child has a disability. For older emergent literacy learners, it is important to keep all activities age respectful.

Emergent literacy is commonly defined as the behaviors of reading and writing that lead to conventional literacy and “comprises all of the actions, understandings and misunderstandings of learners engaged in experiences that involve print creation or use” (Koppenhaver & Erickson, 2003, p. 283), and these experiences are not only necessary but closely related to later literacy outcomes (Justice and Kaderavek, 2004).

Emergent literacy behaviours and understandings are directly related to opportunity and experience. Students with significant disabilities often have the fewest learning opportunities and experiences that lead to literacy.

does the student2

Students who are emerging in their understandings of literacy are working to understand the functions of print and print conventions. Developing phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and important receptive and expressive language skills will eventually allow students to use reading and writing to interact with others. Emergent readers and writers are making discoveries and learning about literacy when they explore literacy materials, observe print within the natural environment, interact with conventional readers and writers, and see models of how and why print is used (Teale & Sulzby, 1992). Examples of emergent literacy behaviors may include interpreting a story through pictures rather than through text, manipulating books in nonconventional ways (e.g., looking at the book from back to front or holding it upside down), scribbling, and the use of invented spelling (Clay, 1993; Koppenhaver, 2000).

An emergent reader is one who is interested in books but can’t yet read them independently or may be able to read some words but requires continued support to make meaning from print. It could also be a student who is not yet interested in reading books. An emergent reader may have not yet developed intentional or symbolic means of communication.

A emergent writer is one who is learning to use written language to express communicative intent, and beginning writing is defined as starting with emergent writing (drawing, scribbling, and writing letters) and ending with conventional writing abilities, usually acquired by second or third grade for typically developing children. (Strum, Cali, Nelson, & Staskowski, 2012)

Regular participation in reading and writing activities plays a central role in supporting typical children’s understandings about print. Research in emergent literacy shows that students with significant disabilities, including those with complex communication needs, can benefit from the same type of literacy activities used with typically developing children but may require more time and opportunity. Regular participation in reading and writing activities plays a central role in supporting understandings about print for ALL students.

Many of the studies and literature surveys the last four decades have a common finding: nothing replaces sound early literacy instruction, even when taking into consideration recent technical advances.

If students with significant disabilities are not exposed to reading and writing materials, how can they learn to use them?


Old assumptions

An emphasis on functional skills, rote memorization, and readiness activities typically take precedence over in-depth literacy instruction (Skotko, Koppenhaver, & Erickson, 2004). Literacy development for 70-90% of students with significant disabilities rarely approached conventional literacy skills expected for typically developing students (Koppenhaver and Yoder, 1992).

  • Literacy is learned in a predetermined, sequential manner that is linear, additive, and unitary.
  • Literacy learning is school-based.
  • Literacy learning requires mastery of certain pre-requisite skills.
  • Some children will never learn to read.

New thinking

Holistic and explicit instructional approaches to balanced literacy that include daily reading, writing, and word study are critical for all learners, including those with significant disabilities (Erickson, Koppenhaver, & Cunningham, 2006; Sturm & Clendon., 2004).

  • Literacy is learned through interaction with and exposure to all aspects of literacy (i.e. listening, speaking, reading, and writing).
  • Literacy is a process that begins at birth – there are no prerequisites.
  • Literacy abilities/skills develop concurrently and interrelatedly.
  • All children can learn to use print meaningfully.

From an emergent literacy perspective, reading and writing develop concurrently and interrelatedly in young children, fostered by experiences that permit and promote meaningful interaction with oral and written language (Sulzby & Teale, 1991), such as following along in a big book as an adult reads aloud or telling a story through a drawing (Hiebert & Papierz, 1989).

Through the concept of emergent literacy, researchers have expanded the purview of research from reading to literacy, based on theories and findings that reading, writing, and oral language develop concurrently and interrelatedly in literate environments (Sulzby & Teale, 1991).


language graphic


Where can I learn more?

Learning for All – This Alberta resource offers information, strategies and references for school leaders and teachers working with students with significant disabilities. This content was collaboratively developed through Learning for All, a one-year community of practice (2014-2015) for district leaders and consultants.

Literacy, Assistive Technology, and Students with Significant Disabilities. Karen A. Erickson, Penelope Hatch, and Sally Clendon, Focus on Exceptional Children, Volume 42, Number 5, 2010.

Quick Guide #13 “Supporting Literacy Learning in All Children” by David A. Koppenhaver and Karen A. Erickson (pp. 181-194) in Quick Guides for Inclusion: Ideas for Educating Students with Disabilities, 2nd edition

Research-Based Practices for Creating Access to the General Curriculum in Reading and Literacy for Students with Significant Intellectual Disabilities. Karen Erickson, Ph.D., Gretchen Hanser, Ph.D., Penelope Hatch, Ph.D., Eric Sanders, M.S./CCC-SLP, 2009.