Literacy Instruction for
Students with Significant Disabilities

“Writing challenges students to think about print.”
International Reading Association & Association for Education of Young Children, 1998


What does writing look like at an early conventional level?

Writing is a complex task, involving ideas, language, words, spelling and transcribing or selecting letters. We need to teach all of these skills – and eventually students need to be able to do all of these, within the one task, to become writers.

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).

Students with significant disabilities who are early conventional writers are beginning to attend to task, to understand how to use their pencil and that writing carries meaning.

Which students would benefit from structured and independent writng?

Students who:
  • are interested and engaged during shared reading interactions
  • know most of the letters (name or sound) on most of the days
  • understand that print has meaning
  • are starting to select letters specifically when writing (e.g. ‘d’ for dad)
  • are using invented spelling
  • are writing individual words
  • are writing with a pencil or alternative pencil and
  • have a means of communication and use it to initiate exchanges and interact with others.

How can students benefit from writing?

Writing allows students to:
  • attend closely to letters and letter/sound relationships
  • slow down the process of message construction and examine how ideas relate to each other
  • learn to read through writing
  • learn to speak by writing
  • gain fluency in recording and revising their ideas
  • gain confidence in communicating ideas to others
  • develop skills to independently write a wide variety of texts for real purposes on topics of interest

How can we teach writing?

For students who are writing at an early conventional level, instruction includes three key components: 10 minute mini-lesson, 20 minutes of independent writing during which time the teacher would conference with individual students, and sharing time through Author’s Chair.

Keep in mind that students with significant disabilities:
  • need as much if not more time for writing as their peers without disabilities
  • often compose at a slower rate
  • need opportunities to apply what has been taught in the context of their own writing.

10-Minute Mini-Lesson

The purpose of the mini-lesson is to provide students with explicit instruction. Lessons could be repeated with variety to help build student skills and foster independent performance and generalization.

During this time, the teacher:
  • provides instruction on a single a skill or aspect of the writing process (e.g., brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, publishing, using the word wall, using capitals, using punctuation, thinking of ideas, thinking of your audience in planning writing, using different sorts of vocabulary) and teaches it in a variety of ways so that all students can learn it.
  • uses one or more of the students’ writing tools to model during the mini-lesson and for the thinking process of composition.
  • integrates the use of the Word Wall, spelling prediction software, communication symbols, adapted keyboards, and other environmental and technological supports for writing ideas and spelling assistance.

blair fIndependent Writing Time and Teacher Conferencing

After the mini-lesson, students spend the next 20 minutes working on their own writing. Writing time offers students an opportunity to write about a self-selected topic and create a writing topic that can be shared.

  • As students are writing on topics of their own choosing they may require varying levels of teacher, educational assistant, or peer support depending on their abilities and the task at hand.
  • During this writing time, individual revision, editing, and publishing conferences are held with students who select one writing draft from their collection of writing. During the conference, teachers can support students in a variety of ways, including:
    • using the prompt “tell me more about that” to get students to extend their writing
    • use editing checklists as students start self-editing e.g. “do my sentences have capitals and punctuation, do all my sentences relate to the topic”
    • learning a particular aspect of their pencil
    • focusing on a single point of revision prior to sharing
    • exploring possible writing topics and forms for future writings
  • Success may be noted in subtle changes over time including:
    • interest/attention to other modeling
    • ease of topic selection
    • desire to write
    • length of time on task
    • attending to print (visually/physically-Braille)
    • desire to read writing and share with others

Do not worry about non-conventions that have not yet been taught! Instead, consider recording them for possible inclusion in future mini-lessons, or other instructional activities.

authors chairAuthor’s Chair

Use of an Author’s Chair can help to develop a community of writers in the classroom and to support students’ developing interests in writing as a form of communication and thinking. During Author’s Chair, students share drafts, parts of drafts, or completed writing with small peer groups or with the whole class and seek feedback from classmates as well as respond to their questions. Nonspeaking students will need to have their draft imported into a talking word processor or similar device so that the student can have their text read aloud.

Teach others (e.g., parents, classmates, other adults) to respond more to the content and less to the form of the student’s writing during Author’s Chair.


Students’ finished writing can be published and added to the classroom library in a wide variety of forms ranging from paper to PowerPoint to using a book creating app on an iPad to publishing using Tar Heel Reader.

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.

Comprehensive Literacy for All is the long awaited new version of Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four-Blocks Way written by Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver.

“Literacy improves lives—and with the right instruction and supports, all students can learn to read and write. That’s the core belief behind this teacher-friendly handbook, your practical guide to providing comprehensive, high-quality literacy instruction to students with significant disabilities. Drawing on decades of classroom experience, the authors present their own innovative model for teaching students with a wide range of significant disabilities to read and write print in grades preK–12 and beyond. Foundational teaching principles blend with concrete strategies, step-by-step guidance, and specific activities, making this book a complete blueprint for helping students acquire critical literacy skills they’ll use inside and outside the classroom.”
Preview here.

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Writing: Getting Started with Narrative Writing
This module describes narrative writing and explains how to support students in writing about familiar experiences. Participants will identify possible topics for students to write about, as well as examine narrative writing drafts by students with significant cognitive disabilities.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Writing: Getting Started in Writing Arguments
After completing this module, participants will be able to describe the difference between persuasion and arguments, identify ways to use familiar student experiences in instruction, and create mentor texts based on student preferences.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Writing Information and Explanation Texts
This module focuses on approaches that help students learn to select topics and write to share information or explain what they know about them.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Writing: Production and Distribution
This module address the need to provide students with significant cognitive disabilities with access to a means of writing as well as sound and well-balanced instruction in the cognitive acts that writing requires.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Writing: Research and Range of Writing
This module focuses on writing instruction designed to help students with significant cognitive disabilities ultimately develop the capacity to build knowledge on a subject through research and to respond through writing while keeping a focus on a range of purposes and audiences for writing.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Writing: Text Types and Purposes
This module provides a brief overview of writing in the DLM™ Essential Elements with an emphasis on teaching students with significant cognitive disabilities how to use print or braille to communicate to different people for different reasons.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Group

Language Experience and Authentic Writing
The language experience approach is a way of working on reading and writing which draws on a student’s own language and experiences and uses the spoken word as a basis for reading and writing. This presentation explores how the language experience approach might be used with students with significant disabilities to create common learning experience and co-construct stories together.