The importance of literacy skills
Can you imagine living your life without your literacy skills? Let’s consider how you used them this morning. Upon waking, you probably checked your email, texted a friend, and perhaps even read the news, all before breakfast. This handful of behaviours, as well as many others, would be challenging and frustrating without the ability to listen and read with comprehension and compose text independently. Beyond literacy’s inherent pleasures and purposes, the ability to read and write is the predicate for participating in all realms of society, from personal to public. Further, literacy development underlies the central organising goal of K-12 education around the world, which is to create knowledgeable, engaged, and informed citizens.
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Therefore, it’s worrisome that approximately 70% to 90% of students with significant disabilities lag signiﬁcantly behind same-age, nondisabled peers in measures of reading. These statistics are particularly concerning for individuals with physical and language impairments in that reading and writing are the primary methodologies upon which these individuals communicate their wants, needs, thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
Literacy and SEND
While this rate of literacy achievement for people with significant disabilities has remained constant for decades, there is reason for optimism. Research from the last two and half decades in literacy and disability tells us that all students, including those with the most significant disabilities, can learn to read and write. Further, more effective and evidence-based practices have emerged that overturn the idea that student must demonstrate pre-requisite skills to be ‘ready’ to learn to read. As Karen Erickson, the director for the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, said recently: “If a student is alive, then he or she is ready to learn to read.” Beyond advances in research that challenge both today’s instructional practices and the status quo, the advancement and proliferation of personal technologies present immediate and future opportunities for students with disabilities and their teachers.
At the forefront of these technological advances is eye tracking, or gaze interaction, a technology that allows us to see where a person is looking on a computer screen and equally importantly, allows individuals to control a computer with eye movements. Eye-tracking is a key component in providing individuals with significant physical disabilities with a means of independence that is heretofore unprecedented. Learning is an active process; a person must interact with and manipulate the materials that support learning. Imagine learning to knit without opportunities to hold knitting needs and yarn in your hands. The same goes for literacy – you must turn pages, manipulate letters, sounds, and words, and develop the means to write with an alternative pencil. Eye-gaze technology is not new, but we are increasingly recognising its role as an essential tool for supporting the literacy growth and development of students with significant disabilities.
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Speech generating devices
Speech-generating devices (SGD) can also play an integral role in providing individuals with language impairments with easy and intuitive ways to expand and grow their communicative repertoire. Where we once believed that students must demonstrate certain pre-requisite skills to qualify for an SGD, today we recognize that learners develop increased communication competency by using these devices or software. Individually and together, they offer robust language systems that one can easily customise to conform to need, age, or even development. Communication devices and software also provide alternative ways to select letters, words, and messages which bears directly on literacy potential since literacy and language develop concurrently, and in mutually reinforcing ways.
Additionally, individual software features offer direct support to literacy and language development. Some examples are word prediction, which provides writers and communicators with faster ways to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas while simultaneously reinforcing conventions in spelling. Text-to-speech leverages receptive language skills which typically precede expressive language so that individuals engage with texts beyond their ability to decode. Display controls allow us to control how text is displayed. One can change the font, font size, colour, and spacing of text, which may provide direct benefit to students with visual impairments and beyond.
Today’s technologies are leveling the curricular playing field for all learners who struggle, including those with the most significant disabilities. Beyond access, technology facilitates learner engagement; many who struggle to attend to paper-based learning find success and engagement with interactive learning experiences. Technology allows parents, clinicians, and teachers to easily customise instruction; providing these key accommodations allow us to deliver best practices rather than build a new curricular map around every student. Technology provides seamless connections between learning environments, which research demonstrates leads to increased learning outcomes. Most importantly, the successful integration of technology as it supports access to literacy instruction demonstrates to both teachers and learners that everyone can develop independent and conventional literacy skills. As students demonstrate increasing ability, beliefs about student potential begin to shift. And it is this shift, beyond all the other identified values of technology, that encourages us to chart a new course, one with high expectations, for the literacy outcomes of individuals with significant disabilities.