Literacy Instruction for
Students with Significant Disabilities

“All students must have access to the full alphabet to make progress in learning to read and write.”
Caroline Musselwhite


What does writing look like at an emergent level?

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).

For the very emergent writer or the student not yet attending to task, provide access to all 26 letters. If the student is using an alternative pencil, the task is to help them figure out how to use their particular pencil and expose them to the function of writing. Create a regular time each day to write with the communication partner attributing meaning. If the alternate pencil is partner dependent, it is important to be patient and wait for some type of response (e.g.,a glance, a reach) and attribute meaning to that response to create an intentional letter selection.

Which students would benefit from independent writing with access to the full alphabet?

Opportunities for independent writing supports both emergent and conventional writers, but is especially important for students who:
  •  are in the process of learning that text makes meaning
  • do not yet understand the concept of translating thoughts to paper
  • do not yet understand that writing involves letters and words
  • have limited skills in written text creation

How can students benefit from independent writing?

Independent writing allows students to see writing as:
  • a way  to communicate and tell people things
  • an active way to learn about print
  • communication

Supporting emergent writers

Research has shown that typically developing children in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms received an average of 85 opportunities during the school year to learn how to make meaning through writing. Students with significant disabilities who are at this emergent writing stage require just as many if not more opportunities to write about things that matter to them. The goal is for students with significant disabilities is to write and then write more.

Using photos or pictures that are meaningful to students as ‘prompts’ for writing creates a context for what otherwise may be interpreted as random scribbles, marks, or letters. These photos or pictures help the teacher attribute meaning to the student’s writing.

Scribbling will look different when using an alternative pencil. The focus should be on how the student is interacting with the pencil and their attention to the task. Do not cue a student to write specific letters. During independent writing, the student makes the marks or letters they want. The teacher provides feedback and helps to create the meaning using the student’s chosen photo or picture as a guide.

Indicators of success could be noted in subtle changes over time:
  • refusing to engage or sleeping; banging, mouthing, throwing or running hands over keyboard to
  • slowing or stilling; picking higher letters in a flipbook for instance; pausing more, changes in attention to writing or auditory feedback to
  • picking the same letters, skipping certain letters and then picking.
Indicators of success might also include:
  • use of letters from name
  • playing with adding spaces
  • letter patters
  • word like groupings
  • letter preferences
  • very early phonetic spelling.
The role of the communication partner might include:
  • attributing meaning to less intentional behaviours (reflexive) in order to build intentionality
  • providing consistent daily opportunities to scribble
  • allowing students to write without standards
  • providing a way for the student to select a writing topic (remnant book , photo book, scrap book)
  • modeling the process using the students’ pencil
  • reading written text back
  • helping the student SHARE their writing with others
  • incorporating supplemental communication (Turn the page, finished)
  • facilitating group instruction
  • encouraging peer-peer interactions
  • collecting data.
Emergent writing example over time

Emergent writing example over time

Instructional feedback tips make writing meaningful and enjoyable (Erickson & Hanser, 2010):
  • You’ve written a lot of letters—let’s see if we can count them.
  • Point to one of your letters-let’s see if it is in your name.
  • You have a lot of “c’s in your writing. Let’s find all of them. (or other letters)
  • Pick a letter and let’s find something in the room that starts with that letter.
  • Pick a letter and let’s write a letter book with it.
  • Pick some letters & write a tongue twister.
  • Pick 3 letters and see if they are in someone’s name.
  • Find some letters that are up on the word wall.

scribbling2Some important things to keep in mind when supporting emergent writers:

  • No one has to be ‘ready’ to write. Provide students with daily opportunities to write using all 26 letters of the alphabet.
  • Scribbling is an important form of writing for all students, including students with significant disabilities.
  • Writing is NOT copying and tracing.
  • Focus on content, not form!
  • Write for real purposes and audiences. Writing needs to be authentic and meaningful to the student. A guiding principle for writing is that students need to select their own topics and forms in order to improve their writing skills as well as their interest in and use of writing outside of the classroom.
  • Model, model, model writing and model some more!
  • Embed writing opportunities throughout the day.
  • Have high expectations!
  • Every student needs a way to write. Alternative pencils provide students with a means of interacting with letters and overcoming barriers as they learn important skills. It is important to reduce the physical and cognitive difficulties associated with writing so that students can focus on communicating meaning. Make sure students are using a pencil or alternative pencil that allows them to focus on the cognitive aspects of writing (e.g., keyboard, word prediction, alphabet board, flip chart, keyboard, eye gaze system, pen or pencil). Alternative pencils provide students with a means of interacting with letters and overcoming barriers as they learn important skills.
  • Students need the opportunity to write without standards. This means no judgement or correction of students’ work. After they have finished writing you can provide feedback.
  • Be sure to respond to students’ writing as meaningful, even when the meaning may not be obvious. Attribute meaning. For example, students may scribble, combine letters in apparently random ways, or spell words unconventionally. If students are using a picture, photo, or artifact that they have chosen to write about, you will have something to respond to in their writing!
  • Provide honest, but supportive, feedback.
    • Be genuine. Be specific, not ambiguous. Praise consistently and sparingly – don’t overdo it!
    • Say something positive (e.g. I like how you…)
    • Ask a question (e.g. I’m not quite sure, can you tell me what this means?)
    • Make a suggestion (e.g. Tell me more!)
  • Celebrate and publish student writing! Build in time for students to share their writing with peers. Put writing onto a speech generated device for non-verbal students to read their writing out loud.
  • Provide MORE opportunities to write!

Where can I learn more?

Adult-Student Emergent Writing Interaction Inventory
Emergent literacy learning is grounded in the rich interactions that students have with others during meaningful literacy activities. Students’ success and engagement in emergent writing is highly dependent on the quality of this interaction. This inventory has the key elements that adults need to do in order for their students to learn how to write using an alternative pencil. The inventory can be used to train teachers, teaching assistants, parents, administrators, literacy coaches, OTRs, SLPs, PTs and after school caregivers. This inventory has been specifically designed for students with significant disabilities, including deaf-blindness.

Getting Started with Emergent Writing and Writing Activities (Hanser, 2007)
The Center for Literacy and Disability Studies