Literacy Instruction for
Students with Significant Disabilities

“Students can start exploring and experimenting with alternate pencils BEFORE they know letter names or sounds,
and well before they have control of the choice making required to choose specific letters.
Over time, you begin to see evidence that students are learning letters.”
The Center for Literacy and Disability Studies

What is an alternative pencil?

In order to develop literacy skills, all students need a way to write using the full alphabet no matter what level of understanding they appear to have about print.

Developed by Hanser (2009) at the Centre for Literacy and Disability Studies (CLDS), an alternative pencil is defined as anything that provides a student with access to all 26 letters of the alphabet.

How can students benefit from using an alternative pencil?

Writing is an essential component of literacy instruction for students without disabilities and a part of their daily instruction. In order for students with significant disabilities to develop as readers and writers, daily writing is equally, if not, more important. However, this becomes a challenge when most students with significant disabilities are unable to hold a pencil.

Which students would benefit from using an alternative pencil?

For students with physical, cognitive or linguistic challenges, an alternative pencil can offer a way to write and/or explore the alphabet while focusing the majority of their cognitive energy on text production.

Alternative “pencils” were created for students unable to hold a traditional pencil or physically manipulate a standard keyboard. As well, if a student can hold a pen or a pencil but struggles to form letters with it, especially if they have already been practicing for years, then we need to look at an alternative pencil for the majority of their writing.

Alternative pencils can be used with writers of varying abilities and ages including students who are emerging writers and those who are able to write more conventionally (Browder & Spooner, 2011).

But what about…

There are no exclusion criteria for students to use an alternative pencil. Students learn to write by writing, regardless of perceived ability or skill set. A student does not need to be a proficient speller or have consistent letter-sound correspondence skills to begin to explore the act of writing.
(From Alternative Pencils

It is especially important to note that students DO NOT need to know how to independently read or spell words in order to use an alternative pencil.  Alternative pencils can be used with students who have a range of understandings about writing, all the way from random, emergent “scribbling” to more conventional writing with recognizable words.

How do we get a student started with an alternative pencil?

Each student needs the pencil that is the easiest for them to use and offers the greatest potential over time.

  • Pick an alternative pencil that has the most potential for students to easily use.
  • Students do not need to know their letters in order to write with an alternative pencil.
  • Students need access to the full alphabet in order to learn about the alphabet.
  • All students, regardless of their ability, learn about writing and alternative pencils, by writing.
  • There are no prerequisites to writing.  Don’t wait!  Students don’t need to be ready to write.  No one is “too…anything” to begin writing with an alternative pencil.
  • Pick an alternative pencil and get started.

Alternative pencils that might be considered, include: portable word processors, iPads, tablets, alternative keyboards, onscreen keyboards, word prediction software, or speech recognition.


pencil grip

Pencil grips

magnetic letters3

Magnetic letters


Alphabet stamps

alphabet intellikeys overlays

Alphabet Intellikeys Overlays

word predictionWord prediction


Alphabet letters that can be cut out for the student to arrange to make words or sentences.

To address the needs of students who are not successful with commercially available solutions, other alternative pencils might be considered such as an Alphabet Eye Gaze Frame or a Alphabet Flip Chart.

The Color-Coded Alphabet Eye Gaze Frame is an alternative pencil intended for students who have very limited motor skills and are unable to access switches.

Students write with the alphabet frame by eye gazing at particular letters on the frame.  This alternative pencil is used with a partner who interprets the student’s eye gaze and then records the student’s selection.

While students must have some vision and hearing to use this alternative pencil, knowledge of the alphabet and colours are not requirements. Students will learn these through the use of the eye gaze frame.


Make your own Alphabet Eye Gaze Frame

Alphabet Eye Gaze Guide
Upper Case Make Color Letter Frame
Upper Case Make Colour Card Frame
Partner Assisted Scanning Tips
Lower Case Make Colour Letter Frame
Lower Case Make Colour Card Frame
Eye Gaze

Print Alphabet Flip Chart is an alternative pencil intended for students with multiple significant physical, vision and hearing impairments, including those with unknown cognitive skills.

Students write with the flip chart using a partner assisted scanning technique to select letters.  The partner scans through the letter choices and the student uses a device or physical response to indicate the letter they want.

The Print Alphabet Flip Chart is made out of laminated cardstock and printed letters. The whole alphabet is divided up into five letter strips that are bound together. On the large space below the letters is a pad of paper where the partner writes the letters as the student selects them. A Braille version of the flip chart could be made for students who are blind and have difficulty physically exploring a Braille keyboard or using a 6-key Braille writer.


Make your own Alphabet Flip Chart

Alpahbet Flip Chart Directions
Alternative Pencil Making Print Chart
Alphabet Flip Chart Pages
Alphabet 36 Caps
Alphabet 36

Some alternative pencils such as the Alphabet Eye Gaze Frame and the Alphabet Flip Chart require that the student have a partner to assist in the writing.

Partner Assisted Scanning is a way for communication “partners” to “assist” students by listing or “scanning” through possible choices. Below is a quick strategy to use when a communication device is not available or the student does not have the needed vocabulary.

  • Partner scans through choices for student
  • Simply state/list choices. Do not ask a lot of questions
  • Pauses between choices- give the student time to process
  • Student indicates a choice
    • No tech: gesture, vocalization, eye movement, expression
    • Light tech: single message device, switch
  • If no selection is made‐list is repeated in same order

To learn more about Partner Assisted Scanning, see the documents below.

Where can I learn more?

Alternative Pencils
What are they? What does the research say? Alternative pencils in action! There is an abundance of information about alternative pencils available on this web site created by Toby Scott, an assistive technology consultant in Edmonton, Alberta.

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Writing with Alternate Pencils
This module describes ways to get students started with writing when they cannot use a traditional pencil, pen, or computer keyboard. The content of this module applies to students at all levels of literacy understanding including students who do not yet know letter names or sounds.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Learning Technologies: Information for Teachers
The information on this Alberta web site is for teachers, learning coaches, and others who want to know more about how educational and assistive technologies can support students in their classrooms. Technologies considered include text-to-speech, word prediction, speech recognition, and visual thinking tools.

Print Flip Chart Guide, Center for Literacy and Disability Studies

Students with Significant Disabilities, Including Deaf-Blindnes Getting Started with Emergent Writing,  Gretchen Hanser Ph.D., 2007.

Top 10 Tips for Partner Assisted Scanning, Gretchen Hanser, Ph.D., Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, 2007.

Write From the Start with an Alternativre Pencil, Gretchen Hanser Ph.D., The Center for Literacy & Disability Studies, UNC – Chapel Hill, 2009.