Literacy Instruction for
Students with Significant Disabilities

“A book isn’t a book, nor a pencil a pencil, if a student isn’t able to use it.
We need to adapt or create tools for literacy learning that students with physical impairments can hold, students with sensory impairments can see or hear, students with intellectual impairments can understand, and all students are motivated to use.”

Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver

What do we mean by ‘access to books’?

Physical access to books can be a barrier for some students with significant disabilities. For some learners, physically holding a book and turning its pages may be difficult or impossible as might hearing and/or seeing books.  Some learners may require page fluffers to turn pages, digital books on a device that allow the user to touch to turn the page or use a switch to turn pages.

For learners with vision loss, being able to see the print and illustrations may be a barrier. They may require tactile illustrations, magnified text, brailled or audio books to access content.

Which students would benefit from alternative access to books?

Students who:
  • have difficulty holding a book or turning the pages
  • use switch access
  • are blind or visually impaired

How can we create alternative access to books for students?

As we consider the ways in which to create or adapt tools, we need to keep in mind why the student is reading the book. Is the primary goal to access content or is it to develop print awareness and reading fluency? For example, an audio book without an accessible print or Braille version provides important access to the story itself for a student who has visual impairments, but doesn’t provide the opportunity to develop print awareness or reading fluency.

Books can be adapted in a variety of ways to increase access for students with disabilities and to allow them to explore text more independently. Common adaptations include:

Increased durability

When students read on their own, their books sometimes require protection from over-handling.

Board book makeover
There are an increasing variety of titles available as board books,board book makeover but the content is seldom age-respectful for older students. One possible solution to this is to make your own board boards for or with your students. Repurpose ‘old’ board books by replacing illustrations with relevant photos and adding and text that would be more appropriate and of interest to your students.

Laminate pages of paper books
Tear apart a commercial book and laminate each page. After each page is laminated, lay the first page against the second and use wide clear strapping tape to secure them together. Turn the second page and lay the third against it, taping where the pages meet. Continue until all pages are taped. Place the covers face down, leaving a slight gap between them, and tape. Now lay the taped pages inside the covers and tape at the binding. Use clear contact paper to cover the outside of the book and strengthen the binding.

Use page protectors
Cut apart books (or make your own) and insert them into plastic page protectors. To make pages even more secure and protected, seal the open end with clear strapping tape.

Facilitate page turning

Sometimes books need to accommodate for fine motor challenges in order to be more accessible.

Page Fluffers
Page fluffers are simple adaptations made to books or other reading page fluffer glenda2material that make pages more accessible to turn. A ‘fluffer’ is glued, taped, or clipped to the corner of each page. The fluffer puts spaces between each page allowing those with limited fine motor skills to get their fingers between each page. Page fluffers are helpful in fostering independent literacy skills.

Page fluffers are placed on the top of the first page, a little bit lower on the second page, lower on the third page and so on. When you reach the bottom of the page you start over at the top of the next page.

You may want to make permanent page fluffers or temporary fluffers depending on your students’ needs and who owns the book:

Permanent Page Fluffers
• Peel and stick Velcro
• Rubber weather stripping with peel and stick adhesive back
• Picture frame peel and stick dots
• Beads of dried fun foam
• Beads of dried puff paint
• Hot glue dots
• Foam of any type cut in 1 inch squares and hot glued
• Pieces of sponge
• Packaging peanuts
• Popsicle sticks applied so that one end sticks out beyond the pages like tabs
• Peel and stick furniture protectors
• Bottle caps
• Rubber weather stripping
• Round felt furniture leg or tabletop protectors
• Paper clips with beads threaded through to add more bulk
• A magnet attached to a glove, sweat band, or head stick to grab metal paper clips attached to each page

Removable page fluffers
1. Clip a paper clip on a small piece (1”x1”) of sturdy tag board or card stock.
2. Glue a fluffer (e.g., foam, felt or any of the permanent page fluffer items) to one side of the tag board.
3. Clip the material on the page for an easy non-permanent solution.

Tactual books

To foster literacy learning for students who are blind or who are deaf-blind, add texture to book pages. Add soft fabric to pictures of clothing people are wearing or faux fur to animals. Puffy paint or glue can outline objects so students can feel their shape. You can also add miniature objects or charms with glue. There are many craft items available that are replications of objects that can be used to provide tactile information.

Tactual book kit directions
The books described in the resource below have been brailled and adapted with tactuals. The books in this resource are appropriate for all students, but have been specifically adapted for students with the most significant disabilities, including deaf-blindness. This resource contains a materials shopping list and a page-by-page description for making your own.

let's do plants

Telling Stories Through Touch
Telling Stories Through Touch is designed to help you consider the best way in which to communicate ideas and stories through touch. Simple examples and illustrations are provided, which will offer some inspiration and ideas for you to expand upon.

telling stories through touch

Tactile Books Advancement Group (TBAG)
Making tactile books for children is not as challenging as you may think, and to make it even easier this site has collected lots of information and resources to help you in your task.

tactile picture books

Switch access

There are many switches available that can be used to provide access to individuals who are unable to hold a book or turn pages. When an appropriate switch, switch site and set up (which may or may not include specialized mounting equipment, seating and multiple switches) is identified, a student will be able, at a minimum, turn the pages of a book on his or her own.

If a student is able to access more than one switch, some digital books like those found on Tarheel Reader, will allow individuals to perform multiple functions like selecting their own books, turning pages forward and back, and rating books via switch scanning. An occupational therapist and/or an assistive technology specialist can assist in determining where to start with switch access for an individual student.

Tar Heel Reader
Tar Heel Reader is a collection of free, easy-to-read, and accessible books on a wide range of topics. Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces, including touch screens, the IntelliKeys with custom overlays, and 1 to 3 switches. With registration, students can also write their own books.


tar heel reader2




Examples of switch access

Basic switch set up for iPad.

Basic switch set up for iPad.

This is a basic set up with a simple switch and a switch interface for a computer.

This is a basic set up with a simple switch and a switch interface for a computer.


Switch example


Switch example


Switch example

Digital books

Please see Self-Selected Reading under the Emergent or Conventional Literacy tabs.