Lesson 2: Students with Disabilities and the Struggles with Literacy

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Return to Main Page of Course: Using Technology to Promote Literacy in Students with Disabilities


Click here to complete a short worksheet on the 13 disability categories.Activity 2

How well did you do? Were you able to correctly identify the majority of disabilities? If not, don't fret! Although this course is not designed specifically to teach disabilities, additional reading and resources will be included at the end of this lesson.

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Disability Means What Exactly?

Generally speaking, disability means:

  • A physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities
  • A disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by law

However, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) of 1975 and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (P.L. 101-476) provides a more concise definition for use in an educational setting and as you have seen from Activity 2, identify specific categories of disabilities. As defined by IDEA, the term disability refers to a child that has been diagnosed with one or more of the thirteen disability categories. These are: mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, and specific learning disabilities. Children who have been identified as having one or more of these disabilities require and are entitled by law to special education and related services, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and/or counseling services.

Here is a video that provides a brief history and summary of IDEA: Youtubeicon.jpg IDEA:Summary & History

Literacy Struggles for Students with Disabilities

Literacy skills require an individual to possess the ability to think, listen, speak, read, and write effectively. Due to the interrelationship of these skills, students who have difficulties with one element of the language system often exhibit related problems with other areas of literacy. (Thompson, Bakken, Fulk, Peterson-Karlan, 2004)

One of the most common issues faced by students with disabilities is language deficiency; struggles with letters and sounds, limited receptive and expressive vocabulary, and difficulty with oral and written expression. Perceptual issues also pose a problem for students with disabilities when it comes to literacy. Students may have trouble recognizing, and interpreting visual and auditory cues. They may also present problems with motor tasks. In addition, students with disabilities may also exhibit problems with memory, organization, and attention. Clearly, all of the areas of difficulty will have a negative impact on reading and writing, which combine auditory, visual, motor, and conceptual processes. (Thompson et al., 2004) Reading is the most complex component of literacy. According to Harris and Sipay (1990), between 10 and 15 percent of general education students in grades K-12 struggle with reading. Among students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), it is the majority. (Ysseldyke, Algonize, & Thurlow, 2000)

Literacy development includes several stages of learning - emergent literacy, early literacy, fluency, written composition, and oral expression. We know that children develop and learn differently, therefore, they will progress in these stages in different ways and at different speeds. Children often do not follow one sequential path towards development, but rather take many directions to get there. The same holds true for learning literacy. Therefore, reading and writing may not develop evenly; a child may be fluent in one area, but emergent in another. (Thompson et al., 2004)


Dyslexia This video shows students with dyslexia and how they struggle with reading.

Rick Lavoie: Reading and Decoding This video is a snippet from Rick Lavoie's F.A.T City video. Rick Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed. is an educator, author, and motivational speaker who acts as an advocate for children with disabilities. F.A.T City is a program that allows participants to experience the same frustration, and anxiety that children with disabilities experience daily.

Stages of Literacy Development

Emergent Literacy

Emergent literacy describes how young children interact with text, both visual and auditory elements, even though they can not yet read or write by conventional means. During this stage, learners are able to identify parts of a book and can distinguish between letters, words, and punctuation marks. During this stage, children understand that words have meaning, and they will pretend to read stories that they are familiar with. Emergent literacy is a gradual process that takes place from birth up until a child can read and write in a conventional sense. During the emergent stage, phonological awareness which is the recognition that words are made up of sound elements or phonemes, begins to develop. Students with disabilities often lack phonological awareness, and possess difficulty naming rhyming words, counting syllables, or segmenting words into sounds. (Thompson et al., 2004)

Early Literacy

Early literacy is everything that children know about reading and writing before they can actually perform these tasks. In this stage, learners begin to demonstrate understanding of letter-sound relationships by decoding words not recognized by sight. Early literacy is the toddler who wants you to read the same story to them over and over. Early literacy is the preschooler who wants to "read" the story to you and does so from memory. Early literacy starts to develop during a child's first five years. Students with disabilities struggle at this stage because they may not be able to discriminate between similarly shaped letters, such as "b" and "d", or cannot recall the sounds that the letters make. (Thompson et al., 2004) Students who have processing issues or difficulty with memory will also struggle during this stage. Deficits with memory, slow down the symbol-to-sound translation process, which leaves very little memory to construct meaning.


Readingrockets.org defines fluency as the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression. Comprehension cannot take place until children are able to read fluently. During this stage, readers recognize many irregular sight words with automaticity. Students with disabilities are often still struggling with decoding during this stage, therefore making fluency almost impossible. Students who do not possess fluency will sound choppy and awkward when reading. Fluency also builds motivation. If reading becomes to laborious, students may not want to continue. According to Stanovich, (as cited in Thompson et al., 2004) the process of reading may become so painful for struggling readers that they begin to avoid reading whenever possible. Comprehension increases during the fluency stage. Students begin to comprehend a variety of reading materials to gain knowledge. Students with disabilities often exhibit difficulties with metacognition. These students are unable to assess their own comprehension and lack the ability to use repair strategies when problems arise. (Lerner, 1997)

Students who struggle with fluency may say things like:

  • I just seem to get stuck when I try to read a lot of words in this chapter.
  • It takes me way too long to read something.
  • Reading this book is too much work. I don't even understand what it is about.

Written Composition

Written composition requires many skilled elements. A writer must demonstrate comprehension, complex thinking, the ability to develop concepts, and think abstractly. Writing also requires spelling, grammar, and handwriting skills, in addition to the ability to organize thoughts and ideas. Students with disabilities write much differently than typical students. Their writing is often disorganized with poorly developed themes. Writing samples usually include many spelling and grammatical errors. Often times these students are unable to come up with planning and revising strategies which results in less than desirable outcomes. (Thompson et al., 2004)

Oral Expression

Oral expression is the ability to express ones thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas using appropriate syntactic, pragmatic, semantic, and phonological language structures. (Center, 2013) Students with disabilities often have trouble understanding pragmatics (social language) and may not be able to share stories with their peers, express their opinions, communicate with peers, or even ask for help. Oral expression is also a key factor in becoming literate.

Youtubeicon.jpg Oral Expression

This video is about a little girl named Mary. Mary can understand language better than she can speak it. Mary has trouble with oral expression. She can't always say the correct sound. She tries to imitate sounds but has trouble doing so. Mary has childhood speech apraxia. Apraxia is a speech disorder in which a person has trouble saying what he or she wants to say correctly and consistently. (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2010) Mary will have trouble with literacy because of her disorder.

Additional Resources

Promote Literacy


Helping Struggling Readers

Reading Disabilities

Lesson 2 Reflection

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Before moving on to Lesson 3, see how well you can answer the following questions.

  • What does it mean to have a disability under IDEA?
  • What are the stages of literacy development?
  • How might students with disabilities struggle during each stage of literacy development?
  • Do you think that learning about the literacy struggles faced by students with disabilities, will help you to be more aware of these problems when teaching?

Move on to Lesson 3: Available Technology for Literacy Instruction