Literacy Instruction for
Students with Significant Disabilities

“There is no symbol based communication system in the world that will allow kids to say everything they need to say – they need to spell.”
Karen Erickson


What is communication with symbols and spelling?

Communication with symbols and spelling allows an individual to communicate anything they want to say using a combination of symbols, words and spelling. Most high tech devices include a keyboard with word prediction and symbols while low-tech systems will include a letter board and symbols. The combination of symbols and spelling allows users to generate original messages more quickly.

Which students would benefit from communication with symbols and spelling?

Students who:
  • have a means of communication and interaction
  • understand that writing involves letters and words
  • use specific letters with intent (e.g. the letter ‘d’ for dad) or are writing words or sentences
  • use a regular pencil or have an alternative pencil for writing

How can students benefit from communication with symbols and spelling?

The ability to spell, even at very beginning levels, gives students with significant communication challenges the ability to “say” anything they want. In addition, the ability to read and write opens a critical path to the acquisition of, and access to, many forms of knowledge and experience within our contemporary society. From early school experiences through adult employment, literacy skills are needed to maximize participation. Education, self-determination, employment, quality of life, and enjoyment all may hinge on an individual’s ability to read and/or to write. (Excerpt from Literacy in Individuals with Severe Disabilities –

Students who are provided genuine and meaningful opportunities to communicate using communication systems that include symbols and spelling across learning and living environments benefit in a multitude of ways including:
  • development of language skills
  • development of literacy skills
  • having more to say to more people
  • building relationships and connectedness and belonging
  • decreasing frustration/behaviours
  • developing a better understanding of the world around them
  • making personally meaningful requests, choices and decisions
  • increasing participation across environments
  • providing opportunities for creativity and self-expression
  • communicating using systems that include symbols and spelling across living and learning environments

Spelling is the ultimate tool for generating novel messages so it is not surprising that most high and low tech systems include keyboard/alphabet layouts. Speech generating alphabet layouts have the added benefit of allowing students to play with sounds and make the letter-sound connection to begin reading and writing.

Even students who know only initial consonants can make use of spelling layouts to communicate and repair communication breakdowns as long as the communication partner is aware of the context of the conversation. Some AAC users prefer spelling, regardless of efficiency, because they are able to say exactly what they want rather than relying on what has been programmed into a device or app.

With low-tech systems, students might use direct selection, encoding, or partner assisted scanning depending on individual needs. Some students prefer the communication partner to predict as they spell or to wait until they have finished writing their message.

To assist with communication speed and to reduce the number of keystrokes, many high-tech systems incorporate features such as grammar prediction, word prediction, increasing/decreasing the length of the prediction list, flexible abbreviation, automatic spacing and capitalization, and modified keyboard layouts.

How can we teach communication with symbols and spelling?

Teaching students to communicate with symbols and spelling involves aided language input or modelling, as well as direct literacy instruction taught within meaningful contexts including guided reading, independent reading, writing, and word identification and decoding.

Some ways to teach communication with symbols and spelling include modeling by:
  • moving between communication and spelling pages
  • using the keyboard to spell “fringe” vocabulary that may not be programmed on the device
  • using word prediction
  • demonstrating communication repair using a key board or spelling board, “What I want to say starts with a…”

low tech abc board

Low tech abc board

Touch Chat

Touch Chat

Picture Word Power

Picture Word Power

Where can I learn more?

Aided Language Videos

Alternative Pencils
Research on the relationship between language and literacy for students who use AAC.

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Beginning Communicators
This module describes symbolic and non-symbolic forms of communication, the distinction between pre-intentional and pre-symbolic communicators, and identifies additional sources of support for building communication skills.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

DLM™ Core Vocabulary and Communication
This module focuses on the use of core vocabulary as a support for communication for students who cannot use speech to meet their face-to-face communication needs and require augmentative and alternative communication.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Speaking and Listening
This module addresses speaking and listening in the broader context of expressive and receptive communication for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The content in this module is important to understand the DLM Essential Elements in Speaking and Listening and across all of the strands of Essential Elements in English language arts.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Supporting Participating in Discussion
Participants will review the goals of supporting participation in discussion and the need of an expressive means of communication for all students. Participants will also be given 5 strategies to use in supporting students during discussions with teachers and peers.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Symbols
This self-directed module provides an overview of symbols to support communication and interaction. It also describes the use of symbols and photographs in text.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Erickson, K., Yoder, D., & Koppenhaver, D. (2002). Waves of words: Augmented communicators read and write. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: ISAAC.

Fried-Oken, M., & Bersani, H. (2000). Speaking out and spelling it out. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Language Stealers (video 2:52 min)
Language Stealers reveals the real barriers to communication for learners with speech and motor impairments as being no access to language and literacy.

Project Core
The Project Core implementation model is aimed at helping teachers provide students with significant cognitive disabilities and complex communication needs with access to a flexible Universal Core vocabulary and evidence-based instruction to teach them to use core vocabulary via personal augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems.

Teaching with Core Words

Williams, M.B., & Krezman, C. (2000). Beneath the surface. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: ISAAC.