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Language and Literacy

Mary reading a book on the floor.Until recently literacy was viewed as a set of skills learned as a result of direct and sequenced instruction in school settings. Therefore children learned to read in school only after they learned to speak and listen in their preschool years. Similarly, they learned to write only after learning to read. That traditional model of literacy has changed substantially. The current/emergent model of literacy is seen today as a social, psychological, and linguistic process. Studies of young children clearly demonstrate that written and oral language are learned best when used in purposeful contexts (e.g., hearing bedtime stories, composing wish lists for Santa) and when children have opportunities to observe and interact with others who read and write.

What Do We Know About Literacy Learning in Children with Developmental Disabilities?

When we interview parents and professionals, we find that many of them are understandably preoccupied with health and medical issues surrounding children with developmental disabilities. When we observe in homes, clinics, classrooms, and the community, we find that this preoccupation leads to life experiences often lacking in the rich variety of print experiences available to nondisabled children. Children with developmental disabilities often do not own their own books, cannot hold a pencil, lack the speech or communication abilities to request print materials or to interact with others during literacy experiences, and often are considered too severely impaired to learn to read and write. Even parents and teachers who want to teach their children to read and write find it difficult to do since there exists little guidance in how to compensate for or circumvent the learning difficulties evidenced by such children. Consequently between 70 and 90 percent of such individuals cannot read or write on par with individuals of the same age who are nondisabled.

Why Shoud We Care?

The consequences of poor reading or writing abilities are negative and long-lasting. Children with disabilities who experience early literacy learning difficulties in school settings tend to remain poor readers and writers throughout their school years and beyond. Poor readers and writers are less likely to be accepted by their peers in school and as adults are likely to be severely restricted in their vocational options. That is, literacy difficulties ultimately are socially and economically expensive. On the other hand, the consequences of literacy success are equally powerful and long-lasting. Literacy provides a powerful face-to-face communication tool for individuals who are unable to speak, enables more complete control over a host of technology designed to compensate for disabilities, and increases the likelihood of successful employment. Literacy is linked to general achievement in school settings and students' decisions to complete high school. Individuals with disabilities who complete high school are twice as likely to find employment as those who do not.

(From the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies)

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP)  in collaboration with the Center for Literacy and Disabilities (CLD)  at Duke University.   NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by CLD, NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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