Literacy Instruction for
Students with Significant Disabilities

“Phonemic awareness and alphabet learning should be interactive, authentic, and FUN!”
Caroline Musselwhite


What is alphabet and phonological awareness?

During the emergent literacy phase, children are busy developing their oral language, their understandings of how and why to use print, and their early phonemic and syntactic awareness (Senechal, LeFerve, Smith-Chant, & Colton, 2001).

An important component of beginning reading instruction is effectively teaching letters and sounds. Related to letter and sound knowledge are phonological awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in oral language(, and phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units of sound in oral language). It can be tempting to teach these skills in isolation since they can be easily parsed, but they are very difficult to apply and generalize when they are taught in isolation. (from Quick Guides to Inclusion, page 185)

Alphabet knowledge is the knowledge of individual letter names, sounds, and shapes. The alphabetic principle is the idea that letters and groups of letters represent the sounds of spoken language. Readers apply the alphabetic principle through phonics when they use their knowledge of the relationships between sounds and letters to read both familiar and unfamiliar words.

The goal of instruction in the alphabetic principle is to teach students to apply their knowledge of letters and letter sounds rather than targeting identification, matching, and mastery through direct instruction and repeated trials. There is no evidence to support that isolated instruction of alphabet knowledge has any impact on important reading-related outcomes. (from Research Based Practices for Creating Access to the General Curriculum in Reading and Literacy for Students with Significant Intellectual Disabilities)

Which students would benefit from alphabet and phonological awareness?

Students who:
  • know some of the letters of the alphabet, some of the time
  • do not yet know the letters of the alphabet
  • are beginning to develop letter-sound connections
  • have not yet developed letter-sound connections
  • are developing print awareness and are scribbling

How can students benefit from alphabet and phonological awareness?

Students who are at the emergent reading and writing level need explicit instruction around the alphabet and sounds to improve their alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness.

Hall and Williams (2000) list “letters and sounds” as one of the primary blocks that needs to be focused on in emergent literacy instruction. Letters and sounds are often listed together because as well as learning the letters, students also need to develop the alphabetic principle.  They need to understand the different sounds that individual letters and groups of letters can make – and use this alphabetic principle to begin to spell words and to decode words. (from Jane Farrall)

Practice in manipulating sounds in words is a necessary preliminary ability to the systematic study of phonics, which takes the next step to connect these sounds to letters and words in print (word identification and decoding).

How do we teach alphabet and phonological awareness?

Students who are at the emergent reading and writing level need explicit instruction around the alphabet and sounds to improve their alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness. Using words to teach letters and sounds integrates the skills and teaches their application from the beginning.

At an emergent level, word work will focus on phonemic awareness with activities created to bring attention to rhyme (word endings), rhythm (memory), repetition, alliteration (word onsets), and predictability. Use words that are meaningful to the student, beginning with first names and other words that they are likely to see often.

When teaching letter and sound knowledge, use a variety of approaches that encourage generalized understanding from the beginning rather than rote learning, such as:
  • read alphabet books
  • point out letters and print in the environment
  • talk about letters and their sounds when you encounter them in every day activities
  • provide opportunities to play with letter shapes and sounds
  • explicitly reference letter names and sounds in shared reading and writing activities
  • use mnemonics and actions
  • use student names!
Some key ideas to keep in mind:
  • explicitly teach, model and emphasize sounds and letters throughout the day in meaningful contexts
  • teach phonological skills during regular activities (e.g. read alouds, telling stories, writing activities, word work, predictable chart writing, guided reading)
  • sound matching and sorting activities can be done with devices, PODD, eye gaze frames and with low tech paper solutions.

Following are suggestions for teaching alphabet and phonological awareness from Caroline Musselwhite:

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Alphabet Action Man Game – Caroline Musselwhite
Too often, students with significant disabilities are taught the alphabet through flip cards and other boring, inauthentic tasks. The Alphabet Action Man Game is a quick activity for making alphabet instruction fun and meaningful.

Phoneme Isolation – Caroline Musselwhite
To support the development of phoneme isolation, which requires recognizing individual sounds.

Phonemic Sound Substitution – Caroline Musselwhite
To support the development of sound substitution, which requires listening to words, then substituting the initial sound to create a rhyming word.

Tar Heel Reader Alphabet Books

Where can I learn more about alphabet and phonological awareness?


The ABCs of Alphabet Knowledge and Phonological Awareness
Alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness are foundational components of emergent literacy. This 92-page book provides a rationale, brief research overview, and suggestions for interactive instructional tasks based on evidence based practice. While all of the activities in this book are appropriate for any emergent learners, the focus is on providing access to activities for learners with significant disabilities, including individuals with physical impairments and people who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). The strategies suggested focus on supporting ALL learners at home and in classrooms. This book should be informative and helpful for teachers, therapists, and family members. Use this book to explore best practice in alphabet knowledge AND engage in fun learning opportunities with a wide range of learners.


Word Wall, Word Activities and Extension into Writing
This presentation highlights the importance of meaningful, purposeful communication in learning to read and write and connecting oral language to phonological awareness. Many interactive and engaging word wall and word activity examples are provided.




Working with Words
Alberta teachers demonstrate how they use word walls and related making word activities to build literacy skills of all students in their classroom, including students with significant disabilities. (Length: 7 minutes 2 seconds)

Learning Guide: Working with Words PDF