January 30, 2023

Welcome to part two of this mini series about Comprehensive Literacy. Check out the first post that gives a basis for understanding the core beliefs of Comprehensive Literacy for All. Last time we covered what to do if you answer “yes” to the key four questions listed below:

If you are able to answer “yes” to all four questions, you will move to daily conventional intervention.

Conventional Readers:

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension becomes the focus of conventional literacy. In order to understand text, learners need to understand words, engage in processing, remember words, and then construct meaning. Our job, as adults, is to teach students how to read and listen in order to find meaning. It is also important to teach learners how to ASK questions, instead of focusing on answering questions. Anchor, Read, Apply is one strategy that teaches students how to look to their background knowledge (or build new background knowledge) to connect information to the text. So what does this look like?

Anchor (before reading) is used to activate or build prior knowledge. This involves a short activity before reading the book to help learners connect what they already know to the purpose of the reading. After connecting to background knowledge or establishing a connection, adults should explicitly outline the purpose for reading. All texts can be read for various purposes. If your prior knowledge building centered on feelings, the purpose for reading may be to identify the feelings of the characters within the text.

Read (during) happens when the adult (or student) reads the text aloud without interruption. Make sure the chosen text aligns with the purpose of reading. You can stop once or twice to remind learners of the purpose, but avoid getting into a discussion about content at this time. This allows students to hear fluent reading of the text.

Apply (after reading) is a final short activity that happens after completing the read aloud. It, too, is directly related to the purpose of reading. The teacher can record all answers provided by the students. In our above example of feelings, perhaps the group lists various feelings they noticed characters experienced. Go back to the text to align learner answers with text support.

The following additional activities can be done with anchor-read-apply depending on text-type:

       - Making predictions and then confirming or changing based on what has been learned when reading

       - Making a list of facts to be gleaned from an informational text. Predict whether they are factual or not. After reading, check to see which predictions were accurate        -Using a KWL (know, want to know, learned) chart

Word Study

Word study includes both phonics and word identification. Another way to describe these activities is to use the vocabulary of analog and sorting activities. These activities access the word wall and letter tiles. It is important that words are embedded in context. There is an emphasis on learning words through sight, as well as by making words through spelling by sound.

A word wall is a large display to which words are added slowly and systematically during a school year or intervention period. The book cites seeing Cunningham, 2016 for a comprehensive explanation.

Use of a word wall may look like this:

1: Introduce new words (no more than 5 each week)

       - This could be 2-3 high frequency words you can’t decode and 2-3 works from a key word list or words that are personally meaningful for the class

       - Words should be placed alphabetically by first letter

       - Do not color code words, but you can color code letters to note differences in words that may look similar

       - Say the word and present the word

       - Students read the words in their heads

       - Students say the word, chant the word, stomp the word, snap the word, write the word (remember to consider AAC and alternate pencils here)

       - Place a word in the pocket chart

       - Say the word and use it in a sentence

       - Students write the word

       - Repeat

       - Practice new words Mon-Wed and use Thurs and Fri to review

2: Visual Word Sorts (helps students attend to what the word looks like)

       - Select two key words with a common spelling pattern

       - Make sure students can read the two words selected

       - Introduce the key words

       - Show students a word with the same spelling pattern as one of the key words

       - Ask students to select which word has the same spelling pattern as the new word

       - Compare and contrast the new word and selected word

       - Show and sort multiple words

3: Auditory Word Sorts (students should be successful at visual word sorts before moving to auditory)

       - Select two key words students know with a common spelling pattern

       - Introduce the key words

       - Write each word and say the name of each letter

       - Let the students know the word has the same spelling pattern as one of the key words

       - Let the students indicate which word they think ends like the new word

       - Compare and contrast the new word with the selected word

       - Show and sort multiple words

4: Spelling Word Sorts (students should be successful at auditory word sorts before moving to spelling)

       - Select two key words students know with a common spelling pattern

       - Introduce the key words

       - Say a word that has the same spelling as one of the key words

       - Ask the students to identify the key word that has the same ending sound or spelling pattern as the new word

       - Work with students to correct any errors in selections

       - Ask students to try to use the key word to spell the new word

       - Compare and contract spelling attempts

Multiple other options are described in the book to take word sort experiences beyond those listed above.

The second critical part of word study is Making Words. This system is based on Patricia Cunningham’s Systematic and Sequential Phonics They Use, but is done at a slower pace. It engages students by having them manipulate their own set of letters. Students are not required to say individual letters, sounds, or words making this practice accessible to many. A great sample, the Making Words Lesson, is found on pages 170-171 of Comprehensive Literacy for All.


Writing for conventional learners happens for the same purpose as for emergent learners. All writers need opportunities to write for a variety of authentic purposes. According to Koppenhaver and Erickson, the only necessary prerequisites for writing are paper, pencil, time, and encouragement. Keep in mind, pencil means whatever writing tool the learner uses to form or select letters. Paper, likewise, may have alternative means as well.

In writing, just as we discussed in the emergent independent writing process, it is critical to affirm the importance of the writing process. As students continue to produce content, clarifying the conventions of writing can be a focus. To start, all writing is accepted and celebrated. If we jump in too early teaching conventions of spelling, grammar, etc., we can make it difficult for the author to communicate their thoughts effectively.

There are multiple ways to support topic selection to support independent writing. A few described in the book are listed below. Try to avoid assigning topics. This can unintentionally support prompt dependence.

       1. Photo collections and categories - give students a way to take pictures (an inexpensive digital camera, an iPad, etc). Tour the school or take pictures on an outing. Allow them to choose what they take pictures of. When finished, transfer the pictures to a computer or iPad to use for future writing prompts.

       2. Drawing - give learners space to draw before writing. Then use their generation (artistic talent not required) to prompt their writing.

       3. Gimme 5 - Give topics such as “5 favorite foods” or “5 favorite things to do” and let the students generate a list. Use these lists to share with peers. This can teach learners about shared interests. Save their lists and offer these for future writing topics.

       4. Can’t-Stop-Writing - Direct the students to write non-stop for 2-3 minutes, even if they can’t think of anything they want to write.

       5. Class experience lists - Keep a running list of experiences students in the class enjoyed on large chart paper. Save these lists for future writing topics.

It is important that all writing serves a purpose. These writings should be “published” and shared with classmates and families/visitors to the classroom. Ask for feedback from peers and from the student about the writing process. As the students demonstrate progress with idea generation and include more text within their writing, teachers can work toward encouraging revision, peer editing, and starting to work through spelling and grammar lessons.

Self-directed Reading

Self-directed reading is critical for ALL students, including both emergent and conventional learners. In order to encourage self-directed reading, classrooms need to have robust classroom libraries. This should include various reading materials, including not only books, but magazines, newspapers, computers, musical lyrics, peer compositions, etc.

One key component to consider when building your library is to include characters with a variety of disabilities where the central plot does NOT focus on the character’s disability. The disability should just be one part of the character’s life. You don’t need to break the bank building a library, but instead access your local resources including libraries, mini-grants, and free online resources (tarheelreader.org is a great one!) Don’t forget your local Goodwill or “Buy Nothing” Facebook groups.

Students with significant disabilities have lives full of challenges. We need to be careful not to make reading one more. Keep in mind, texts can easily be too hard, but hardly be too easy. Our learners need interesting, engaging, and easy reading experiences. This may include:

       - Using simplified or wordless texts

       - Using predictable texts

       - Teaching students a “different rule of thumb” for gauging text difficulty (this means students stick up their thumb then fingers one by one when they encounter a word they do not know. If they get to the end of the page with only their thumb up, they are good to go. If they end with more fingers up, it may be too tough.)

       - Facilitating students’ reading of “just right”

       - Conducting read-alouds

Have fun creating an environment that supports the love of reading. Be creative, make students comfortable, and change it up! Remember, all bodies may relax differently so keep your students’ unique bodies in mind when choosing what is most comfortable to “curl up” and read.

Symbol-Based Communication

Symbol-based communication, while listed last in the emergent routines is actually all-encompassing for literacy at this stage. Learners with significant disabilities need a way to communicate and interact throughout all literacy activities (and life!).

In these literacy interactions, we are seeking to teach how to spell, read, and write. This will take over symbol-based communication ultimately, but in the meantime, communication needs to be assured. Your learners may have dedicated communication devices (and yea! That’s great!), but if they don’t yet have access to their own device, be sure to have core boards (www.project-core.com is one option) or varied symbol-based communication readily available for modeling and production.

Keep in mind, alternative pencils and paper, and always remember the intent of the lesson when making modifications and accommodations to support your learner. The sooner we, as educators, presume potential and truly teach our most complex learners literacy, the more we are assuring the best outcome for ALL learners. When students can share their full stories, the world gets an opportunity to meet some pretty incredible humans.

Enjoy Comprehensive Literacy for All and all of the resources included. Your learners will thank you!

First post in this series:

Comprehensive Literacy for ALL: Emergent Literacy

About the Author


Abbie Keibler is a Speech-Language Pathologist at Mississippi Bend AEA in Bettendorf, Iowa. She is a non-traditional SLP graduate with undergraduate degrees in German and Psychology and taught preschool prior to (and during!) the acquisition of her Masters of Arts in SLP at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Currently, Abbie is in her 14th year working in the schools where she serves the preschool and elementary population and is a member of the Assistive Technology Department. Abbie is an adjunct instructor at St Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, and has a special interest in comprehensive literacy for complex communicators. When not “speech-ing,” you’ll find Abbie taxi-ing her children from activity to activity or reading. She reads over 80 fiction books a year as a necessary escape.