Special education

People used to assume that kids with significant cognitive/language disabilities couldn’t learn to sound out words or spell, so at school, they often just worked on memorising high-frequency and key environmental words like “toilet” and “exit”, and using picture-based written materials like recipes and shopping lists.

However, kids with significant language disorders and mild-moderate intellectual disabilities often can and do learn to read and spell reasonably well, if taught using a finely-graded linguistic/synthetic phonics approach, targeting phonemic awareness and phonics plus the other key skills of vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

I’ve even worked with kids whose official Full Scale IQs were 49, but our team was a bit doubtful about how valid the scores were, since they were recent refugees. We had a go at teaching them, and found that after intensive, daily intervention at school they were able to learn to read and spell well enough to participate in mainstream secondary school classes with support.

As a very general rule of thumb, students who can speak in sentences and have conversations can usually learn to read and write, at least to some extent. Yes, they need to do a lot more work than other students, but it’s time and effort well spent. Once they can read and write, this has benefits for their speaking and listening as well as their ability to tackle academic work, their confidence and their independence.

I hope that there are teaching resources on this website – both in the shop and on the resource lists – which you find effective with your students.

Non-speaking students

For several years I worked with clients with little or no speech, and my role was to design Augmentative and Alternative Communication and text production systems (scanning arrays, expanded keyboards etc) for them. It was always a relief to work with a client who could spell, because they weren’t limited to a restricted vocabulary, and could type whatever they liked.

However, a lot of non-speaking people end up with poor literacy skills for a range of reasons, one being that they weren’t taught in the right way, or given enough opportunities to practice.

Nowadays many adults with disabilities want to be able to text, use social media and go on the internet, and many are frustrated by not being literate enough to do this independently.

I’m not sure what’s being taught in Special Education faculties nowadays about literacy, but I know that key suppliers of special education technology still tend to take more of a Whole Language approach to literacy teaching, and not to emphasise synthetic phonics, as also happens in mainstream schools.

Janice Light is a US professor who has a curriculum specifically designed for teaching students who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication. I haven’t tried it out but its description looks great, and I’ve always admired her work, so if anyone in Melbourne gets it, I’d love to take a look at it. It will need some adapting to Australian English if it is to be used here, since it’s in American English.

My workbooks and other resources are being used by some Special Educators, and I’d love to adapt the workbooks for switch and other alternative access, so that people with significant physical disabilities can use them. However, I’m not going to find time to adapt them any time soon. If there is a Speech Pathology or Occupational Therapy or Special Education student out there who’s interested in taking this on, I have the original Boardmaker files, and am all ears.

2 thoughts on “Special education

  1. Sarah Kane-Lewis

    Hi I’m very excited to have found your posts and would be interested in learning what type of resources you have available for students with severe communication disorders. I am tutoring a 13 year old boy with cerebral palsy who is an AAC user. He has had limited experience with sounds and decoding and basically sadly has been written on from learning to read.
    I’m hopeful that your resources will be of great benefit to him. A

    Thanks kindly
    PS I am currently enrolled in phonetics ( just starting) studying my prerequisites for masters in SLP. Your site is extremely helpful for a novice like me!

    1. alison Post author

      Sarah, hi, how great that you find my website helpful, and how interesting that you’re working with an AAC user on his literacy. Janice Light from the US had what looked to me like a very good curriculum that was designed to be adaptable for AAC use, but I never managed to get my hands on a copy of it. You can find out about it at http://aacliteracy.psu.edu/index.php/page/show/id/15. I used to work in AAC and think Janice Light is pretty much a genius, I have bought the new Boardmaker hoping that at some stage I will be able to make my workbooks and other materials accessible via switch and modified keyboard, but haven’t found time to adapt them yet. If you have any suggestions/ideas on this I’d love to hear them! I agree that we can do a lot better in teaching AAC users to read and especially spell. Alison C


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