January 16, 2023

On my Christmas list in 2019 there were two things; a sherpa vest and the book Comprehensive Literacy for All: Teaching Students with Significant Disabilities to Read and Write (David Koppenhaver and Karen Erickson). Oddly, no one scooped up buying me a “work book”, so I ordered it for myself and stalked the mailbox every day until it arrived. For the record, I’ve used it way more than the vest!

Comprehensive Literacy for All speaks to the core belief that “literacy improves lives–and with the right instruction and support, all students can learn to read and write.” It is teacher-, SLP-, and parent-friendly. In this book, you learn the theory behind the teaching principles, but also the concrete strategies, step-by-step guidance, and specific activities to use in your practice.

As SLPs, the core of our work is developing speech and language (all communication) for the learners with whom we work. Another primary role we adopt is being a coach/collaborator for teachers as we work to enhance reading and writing for our most complex communicators. This is where having a great working knowledge of comprehensive literacy theory and strategies, as outlined in the book, makes us a wealth of information for the teachers and parents with whom we partner.

After digging into core understandings of all children’s ability to learn to read and write as well as establishing the environment for successful literacy learning, the book gets right into how to build a foundation for literacy. This book is for all learners, and that includes our most complex communicators. When students are literate, we get to hear their full stories, even if they are traditionally non-speaking.

This blog post is the first of a two-post series on comprehensive literacy. In this post, we will dig deep into emergent literacy. Of course, the book dives significantly deeper into each area. In an upcoming post early next year, we will take a deeper dive into conventional literacy. The elements listed above apply to all learners.

The first questions that should be asked when deciding if a learner is considered “emergent” or “conventional” are pictured below:

If you are able to answer “yes” to all four questions, you will move to daily conventional intervention. If you have answered “no” to any, you will engage in daily emergent interventions. The following offers an overview of each emergent practice.

Emergent Readers:

Shared reading for emergent readers should happen for 20-30 minutes daily. The focus is on positive interaction with attention drawn to print concepts (title, author, individual words, capital letters, spaces, punctuation, etc). Here the adult emphasizes the principles of dialogic reading, such as CAR (Comment, Ask, Respond) that we are already well versed in as Speech-Language Pathologists. During these shared reading experiences, it’s important to utilize repetition with variety. This means the adult will read the text all week, but with different focuses. The first time the book is read the focus may be on asking the question who, the next time the focus may be on what, then where, etc. We want to maximize participation page-by-page and encourage a love of reading.

Shared reading gives us the opportunity to reinforce print referencing using nonverbal and verbal cues to direct the learner’s attention to forms, features, and functions of written language. We can point out how words are different from pictures, how to read from left to right, how words are different from sentences, letters vs words, punctuation, letters vs sounds, etc.

Predictable chart writing is a way to engage all learners in shared writing. This is a routine that can be integrated into daily literacy time. In this style of writing, the teacher writes and provides the sentence stem and the learners fill in the final word. Generally, this is based on a common classroom theme or the topics from the current shared reading. It is important to use high-frequency vocabulary in the core sentence stem. This allows students who are AAC users to fully participate and engage in locating and functionally using core words in context.

On the first day, the adult determines and writes the sentence stem. The topic is introduced with an example provided. The adult models and talks as they write the first line on the chart. For example, you may write “I love cake. (Mrs. K).” Give the learners some processing time, which may mean facilitating getting to the right spot on devices for AAC users. Then the adult will continue to model writing each sentence stem with each learner’s response and name until everyone has gotten to participate. Finally, the chart will be reread.

The next day, the adults rereads the chart, focusing on text features and reading the sentences together. The adult points to each word as it is read. The adult reminds students this is a great opportunity to use their “inner voices” to read, as well as use their eyes to follow along. You can use this time to work with sentences to focus on certain parts of print like core words, specific letters, upper/lower case letters, first letters, or other concepts of print.

Day three consists of working with cut-up sentences. Again, the adult and learners read the chart together. Next, the adult models a think-aloud about cutting up the sentences that were generated. It’s important to focus on the words, not the space between them. Students will cut apart the sentences from the strip with their own sentences. This may be a good time to make sure the classroom has adaptive scissors for anyone who would benefit from this assistive technology. The goal of this task is to support learners in understanding that sentences are made from left to right. Have tape on hand so you can help explain why a word isn’t split right down the middle.

On the fourth day, the students get to “be” the sentence. This involves giving students a word (or punctuation) and letting them physically line up in the order the sentence should be. Students can certainly access their AAC (or a single word output button) for oral participation here. You then compare the model sentence to what the students have arranged. If it is not accurate on the first try, you can ask who needs to move and work toward accuracy, which is a great teaching moment!

Finally, on the fifth day, the learners get to make a book with the sentences for your classroom library. Students can draw pictures, use stampers, etc. You can do this in a “light tech” way using paper, or jump to a program like TarHeel Reader, PowerPoint, slides, or any online story creator to go make it digital. Students love to see the work they were so integral in creating and it gives power to their voice as the author/illustrator.

Alphabet and Phonological Awareness is the way we engage our emergent literacy learners in word work. This consists of both alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness. Keeping in mind that no one is “too anything” (too low, too severe, or other judgemental qualifiers) to read, all of our learners need to be explicitly taught these skills.

There are several ways to engage in embedded alphabet knowledge instruction:

       ● Read alphabet books

       ● Point out letters and print in the environment

       ● Talk about letters and their sounds

       ● Provide opportunities for play with letter shapes and sounds

       ● Explicitly refer to letter names and sounds in sharing reading and writing

       ● Use student names to sign in, sign up, and label

It is important to also engage in an alphabet knowledge routine. This article outlines the seven-step approach to structured alphabet instruction outlined in Comprehensive Literacy for All. The third page details the routine. The alphabet is taught, one letter per day, to allow rapid cycling for multiple cycles per year. The order of the letters presented is varied each cycle. This article dives deep into the recommended cycle, as well as the “why” behind it.

Phonological awareness skills can be broken down into both shallow skills and deep skills. Shallow skills consist of skills like recognizing rhyme and alliteration, while deeper skills get into blending and segmenting sounds in words. With our emergent learners, we stick mostly to shallow phonological awareness skills that should be provided in brief segments throughout the day.

This can be accomplished by teaching syllabification, after which rhyme can be introduced. As soon as you see success with rhyming, you can jump into alliteration. Look for times to explicitly teach phonological awareness, but do know that you can also embed this practice into your literacy work. This would look like using nursery rhymes, raps, or poetry. During shared reading, you can use books with common sentence patterns or rhyming words. During predictable chart writing, emphasize words, syllables, etc, as they occur.

Independent writing allows students to creatively explore the writing process. This may mean drawing, scribbling, or using letter writing. Our emergent writers also need opportunities to write for a variety of authentic purposes. To do this, we need to make sure there are various tools and media available. All writing attempts should be celebrated without correction. The goal of independent writing is production and familiarity with the writing process more than the content itself. All writing should be published. This affirms that we write in order to communicate with others and that writing has a purpose.

Self-directed reading is critical for ALL students! The goal is to work toward 15 minutes of students looking at, reading, or engaging with books by themselves. To start, this may include having adults read to the students. The most critical aspect is that these books are chosen by the student. If motor access is a consideration, it is important to offer two choices and a system by which the student can make a choice. For students who require position changes, this may be a good time to include independent reading. Keep in mind, digital books and magazines are a great way to include this.

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.

Here is the next post on conventional literacy instruction. And, get your hands on the book!

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.