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College of Education > News and Publications > News: 2009 > New Online Resource Helps Teachers Support Reading and Communication for Children with Special Needs

New Online Resource Helps Teachers Support Reading and Communication for Children with Special Needs

David McNaughton and Janice Light and their work with children with disabilities

by Joe Savrock (February 2009)

David McNaughton.jpgStudents who have complex physical and communication needs often experience frustration when trying to learn to read. For teachers, it can be challenging to find techniques that enable children with severe disabilities to participate in reading activities.

A new online resource developed by two Penn State researchers provides teachers with strategies for teaching literacy skills to learners with special needs, especially learners with complex communication needs.

David McNaughton, associate professor of special education in the College of Education, and Janice Light, distinguished professor of communication sciences and disorders in the College of Health and Human Development, recently launched a Web site titled Literacy Instruction 
for Individuals with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome 
and Other Disabilities.

“Our Web site provides information on evidence-supported instructional activities that teachers can use with  students who have difficulty speaking,” said McNaughton. “This site will be useful not only for special education teachers, but for any general education teacher who has a child with special needs enrolled in their class.”

The new Web site is the result of extensive research that both McNaughton and Light have conducted aimed at facilitating the classroom participation of children with special needs. Both researchers have published numerous articles on educational techniques for individuals with severe disabilities.

Much of McNaughton’s research focuses on the effective use of technology by individuals who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Some of these communication techniques include computer-based voice output aids, sign language, and word boards.

The new Web site introduces instructional activities that teachers can use when teaching reading to children with a variety of conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and developmental apraxia. The teaching activities address both basic skills such as sound blending, phoneme segregation, and letter-sound correspondences, while supporting the use of these skills in personalized and motivating reading and writing activities.

The site features videos of the instructional techniques used by the researchers in teaching children with disabilities to read. For many of these children, prior to instruction, the expectations for reading had been extremely low. However, all of the children made significant progress as a result of the instructional activities.

McNaughton points to the progress of one of the students, named Jackson, who has Down syndrome. “After a little over one year of instruction, typically provided just once a week, Jackson demonstrated reading skills that were ahead of his classmates in his mainstream kindergarten classroom,” said McNaughton. “While getting instruction just once a week was less than ideal, he mastered a sight word vocabulary and also learned to sound out words. He used these skills to read short books about topics, like Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog, that were exciting to him.

“For some students with special needs, whose skills are not quite as advanced, teachers can support partial participation by the student,” continued McNaughton. For example, in a shared reading activity, the instructor reads the words a student cannot yet read, and then, in order to demonstrate their understanding, the student points to a pictorial representation, or uses a sign, for the word that he or she can read.

The researchers used this technique in their work with Krista, who has a hearing impairment, a visual impairment, and a motor impairment. “She first mastered basic skills such as sound blending and letter-sound correspondences, and quickly moved on to reading words within a sentence, using the shared reading strategy,” said McNaughton. “She can now read short sentences and stories all by herself.”

The Web site includes a link to a new commercially available resource, ALL Reading Curriculum, which McNaughton and Light developed. The ALL Reading Curriculum is a seven-volume set of instructional materials for teaching reading skills to students who have a wide range of disabilities, especially those with complex communication needs.

The site also links to a free Webcast that discusses effective evidence-based practices to maximize the literacy skills of individuals who require AAC.

McNaughton and Light, with the help of graduate students in the Special Education and the Communication Sciences and Disorders programs at Penn State, are continuing to develop new strategies to support the literacy development of students with complex communication needs.

“In some ways, literacy is even more important for students with complex communication needs than it is for the ‘typical’ student,” stated McNaughton. “We are excited by the impact of this instruction both for their enjoyment of reading right now, but also what it means for their ability to communicate and participate in the future.”