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.
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.