Comprehensive Literacy for Autonomous Communication

For many students with severe disabilities, language and literacy skills develop both concurrently and interrelatedly.  Literacy instruction for all students must be comprehensive, meaning that everyday instruction must address word reading, written language comprehension, and fluency in an integrated, engaging, and interactive way.  The intervention strategies of comprehensive emergent and comprehensive conventional instruction differ; however, both explicitly address these literacy components on a daily basis.  Within a single classroom, both emergent and conventional literacy learners may be present.  Therefore, it is essential that educational staff have a firm grasp and understanding of both the comprehensive emergent and conventional literacy practices.  

Comprehensive Literacy for Autonomous Communication is a professional learning course that addresses two types of learners: Emergent and Conventional.  Participants may engage in the course in its entirety, or first focus on one type of learner and later complete the instruction on the other type of learner.

This course is offered in Michigan through collaboration with the course authors, Dr. Karen Erickson and Dr. David Koppenhaver, and is designed for educators (i.e. classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, ancillary staff, and administrators) who teach learners with significant disabilities and complex communication needs at any grade level.

Comprehensive Emergent Literacy
Students with significant disabilities can and do learn to read conventionally with supportive print-experiences and interactions. Not unlike students without significant disabilities, this learning begins with emergent literacy. Students who are emergent literacy learners should be provided many frequent learning opportunities. These opportunities should provide instruction and practice with functions of print and print conventions, phonological and alphabet awareness, and expressive and receptive language skills.

Emergent literacy learners may:

  • Not yet know most of the letters of the alphabet most of the time.
  • Not yet actively engage in shared reading activities.
  • Not yet have a consistent means of communicating.
  • Not yet understand that writing involves words and letters.

However, emergent learners do demonstrate the behaviors associated with reading and writing.

In Emergent Literacy, participants will learn the theories and beliefs for literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities. Participants will also learn universal design for learning and core vocabulary. The course provides information and examples for daily literacy interventions for reading and writing.

Interventions include:

  • Shared reading.
  • Predictable chart writing.
  • Alphabetical and phonemic awareness.
  • Independent writing with access to the full alphabet.
  • Independent reading.
  • Symbol-based communication (with few exceptions).

Comprehensive Conventional Literacy

Instructional interventions in this course are for students who are conventional literacy learners with significant disabilities and complex communication needs. These students can:

  • Communicate meaningfully with others.
  • Identify most of the letters of the alphabet.
  • Understand the printed word carries meaning.

Interventions include:

  • Guided reading.
  • Word identification and decoding.
  • Writing.
  • Independent reading.
  • Communication with symbols and spelling.

In conventional literacy, participants learn a framework for organizing comprehensive conventional instruction. This framework can be used to systematically teach students to decode and spell words, read with comprehension and fluency, and write using letters and words. The session introduces participants to a range of training and implementation supports as well as videos and work samples of real teachers and students applying the suggested strategies in both self-contained and inclusive-learning environments.

Partnering with Alt+Shift

ISDs interested in partnering with Alt+Shift to receive this training and implementation support should refer to Building Blocks to Autonomous Communication.  Comprehensive Literacy for Autonomous Communication is embedded in the Building Blocks professional learning opportunity. 


Evidence Base

Comprehensive Literacy Instruction, Interprofessional Collaborative Practice, and Students With Severe Disabilities 

This clinical focus article briefly describes comprehensive emergent and conventional literacy instruction for students with severe disabilities. Specific attention is given to interprofessional collaborative practice and the role of team members in the planning and delivering of instruction. Specific instructional approaches are presented to demonstrate how teams can actively engage students with severe disabilities in instruction that is collaborative, participatory, and interactive.

How to Receive This Training

You can choose to partner with Alt+Shift or attend a scheduled Statewide Event. Read more about each option below. If you’d like to be notified when the next statewide event becomes available, you can request to be notified.

Partner with Alt+Shift

Training is provided to ISD staff as part of an ISD partnership. Training is typically provided to the entire district, building, or program staff. This depends on the specific ISD's implementation plan. Training is one piece of the partnership. Strategic planning, implementation support, and capacity building are also addressed through the partnership.

Attend a Statewide Event

Statewide events are opportunities to receive training, but with limited opportunities for follow up support. Participants can expect to gain ideas and strategies that would be usable immediately in their practice, and to gain a better understanding of the nature of the training as part of an exploration process for sites considering a partnership with Alt+Shift.

There are no upcoming events for this training.

Implementation Stories

Alt+Shift asked partners around the state to share their implementation experiences and the impact on adults and students where they work.

Susan Erickson

MoCI Teacher
Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle ESD

Alt+Shift (AS): In what ways have you implemented ideas and information from the training?

Susan Erickson (SE): The Emergent Literacy elements, shared reading, predictable chart writing, alphabet, independent reading, and independent writing are all being implemented with varying emphasis and fidelity in my teaching. My paraprofessionals and I have worked very diligently to implement all elements daily. However, I believe we have much more to do to improve within each element as well. For instance, shared reading is working well, but I'd still like to see more opportunities for students to respond, comment, and share their ideas. During independent writing, there are still some interventions (i.e. letter stamps, iPads keyboard, partner assisted scanning methods) that need to be explored more fully to find a strategy that works for each student in order for each student to be more successful.

AS: What impact has the training had on you and those you work with (e.g. teachers, students, consultants, administrators, etc.)?

SE: Several of my students have made great gains in their literacy skills throughout this school year, which has included improvements in communication and reading skills. My team of therapists, (occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, and physical therapists) have all worked to create more literacy connections during typical teaching and learning routines in therapy. My fellow teachers and I are still working on implementing all the emergent literacy elements with varying stages of implementation. Some of the teachers are in need of the conventional literacy and will be participating in that training in August. Our two supervisory administrators have been integral during the emergent literacy training and implementation. Our emergent literacy leadership team anticipates working closely with teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators (our classroom teams) throughout the 2019-2020 school year to create more opportunities to expand our knowledge and skills.

AS: Describe one implementation challenge and how you overcame it, or are working to overcome it.

SE: One challenge I'm working on in my classroom is how to provide more opportunities for interaction with print during shared and independent reading while simultaneously providing more opportunities for students to communicate about what they notice and think about their print interactions. We're working to overcome this challenge by providing core vocabulary in varying forms throughout the classroom as well as striving to model its use with fidelity. We've demonstrated much improvement and have developed some new habits for communicating with the core vocabulary, but we could always do more!

AS: Describe one implementation success or highlight.

SE: One of our students is naming all letters of the alphabet, knows many sound/letter connections, has the concept of word and is reading 80 percent of the core vocabulary words without the picture symbol. While this is particularly fun to see, we also have had a student make gains just within the communication aspects of literacy by pointing to symbols to communicate a desire for activities or items. This has been a huge gain for this student and a great increase in his independence. 

AS: What is your next step for expanding the impact of your work/training?

SE: During the Alt+Shift retreat this past June, our Emergent Literacy Leadership Team developed a plan to continue our implementation of literacy interventions by renewing our commitment to the work by entering the second phase of emergent literacy development and training for the first phase of our conventional literacy. We're planning to review the elements in depth to increase our teachers and paraprofessionals skills base and develop strategies to share our work in order to keep the energy for the work alive.

AS: How has Alt+Shift supported your district’s implementation of emergent literacy? 

SE: Our literacy consultant, Megan Zell, has been instrumental to help us move our literacy work forward. She's coached us through the initial phase of training and implementation and helped us to develop our strategic plan. The resources and links available through the wiki page are critical to building knowledge and expanding skills as our strategic plan progresses. Attending the Summer Retreat was very helpful to our team and is moving our work forward with renewed energy.

Continue the conversation with Susan Erickson

Ashley Robinson

Speech-Language Pathologist
Washtenaw ISD

Alt+Shift (AS): In what ways have you implemented ideas and information from the training?

Ashley Robinson (AR): We are in the initial implementation phases of the skills we learned at our Emergent Literacy training. Our team has worked together to address barriers to implementation such as coming up with a time for teacher planning.

AS: What impact has the training had on you and those you work with (e.g. teachers, students, consultants, administrators, etc.)?

AR: The training has helped begin to change everyone's mindsets to include academic rigor and expectations for learning in all students. Our priorities are changing to ensure that what limited time we do have  goes towards bettering ourselves in this area. We are discussing curriculum more and challenging ourselves to try to challenge our students.

As a speech language pathologist (SLP), I find myself stepping out of the SLP role and learning more from other experts on my team, such as teachers, teacher assistants, occupational therapists, etc. I'm also learning a ton about the administrative and systems implementation pieces and how to navigate those challenges. I can be the expert on language when needed, but that's not always the piece that's holding us back.

AS: Describe one implementation challenge and how you overcame it, or are working to overcome it.

AR: Time is our greatest challenge. Time to meet as a team, time to plan, time to create materials to address the needs of different learners.  This has led to changes within our old processes to chip away at that challenge.

AS: Describe one implementation success or highlight.

AR: Our teachers now have a half day once a month for planning. This is a HUGE improvement!

AS: What is your next step for implementing ideas from the training?

AR: As we move forward,continuing to break down implementation challenges, step by step will be beneficial as well as continued support from Alt+Shift.

Continue the conversation with Ashley Robinson

Tomas Arnekrans

Special Education Teacher
Mt. Pleasant Public Schools

Alt+Shift: In what ways have you implemented ideas and information from the training? 

Tomas: During the conventional literacy training I truly took to my heart the idea of having my students write to an audience and publish their books. We have created two books for other classrooms with a purpose. 

Alt+Shift: What impact has the training had on you and those you work with (e.g. teachers, students, consultants, administrators, etc.)? 

Tomas: The process for having my students write with paper and pencil even when they are not able to. Work on building stamina and making the students accountable for their writing. 

Alt+Shift: Describe one implementation challenge and how you overcame it, or are working to overcome it. 

Tomas: A student who is dependent on staff to write while the student dictates. The problem was to get the student to start writing independently (and it) was a big struggle since it was non-legible. I did just keep the instruction from the training in my mind. Build writing stamina. It did work out and goes easier these days for the student to write independently. 

Alt+Shift: Describe one implementation success or highlight. 

Tomas: Students enjoyment when sharing their stories with other students and having a finished product. The class we presented to seemed truly interested in their written work.

Alt+Shift: What is your next step for implementing ideas from the training? 

Tomas:  I will keep having students produce written work with an audience in mind. We created a transition book for a class that is switching schools.

Continue the conversation with Tomas Arnekrans

Bethany Vandenbrand

Autism Spectrum Disorder Program Teacher
Paris Ridge Elementary, part of Caledonia Community Schools

Alt+Shift: In what ways have you implemented ideas and information from the Conventional Literacy for Students with Significant Disabilities Complex Communication Needs training?

Bethany Vandenbrand: I have embedded all components of the conventional literacy model. My favorite new routine is daily journal writing. I am amazed to see what my students are able to say when given the opportunity to choose a topic, when they have an appropriate and efficient writing tool, and when they have someone care about what they have to say.

AS: What impact has the training had on you and those with whom you work?

BV: Since attending the training and Camp ALEC, along with my fabulous speech-language pathologist, we are providing multi-day professional development focusing on conventional literacy for all program teachers, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists. It is amazing to see how each person uses the new strategies. We are seeing the benefits of everyone working on the same thing and working on common activities in student progress and growth.

AS: What is one implementation challenge you have experienced? How did you overcome it?

BV: As much as I like writing with my students, it was a challenge to find an appropriate pencil for all of my students. Collaboration with my paraprofessionals and occupational therapist made finding and creating alternative pencils easier. It just took time, determination, and a little non-traditional thinking.

AS: What is one implementation success you experienced?

BV: In the area of reading, I struggled with finding books that one of my students would be willing to read until I realized he loved to read video covers and video game CD cases. Now we present those to him as a choice, and he is an avid reader. This student provides a reminder to me to think outside the box and to not be afraid to take risks. As Dave (Dr. David Koppenhaver is a co-developer of the Conventional Literacy training) often says, “This is what it looks like today, how can I make it look better tomorrow.”

AS: What is your next step for implementing ideas from the training?

BV: It is an honor and privilege to be training with Karen and Dave (Drs. Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver co-developed the Conventional Literacy training) to be able to provide this training to others in Michigan.

Continue the conversation with Bethany Vandenbrand

What Others are Saying

We asked partnership sites to share their experience related to the training. 

Nichole Howard and Emily Thorpe
Special Education Teachers
Gratiot-Isabella RESD
Theresa Augustyniak
Augmentative and Alternative Communication Consultant
Muskegon ISD
Laura Tubbs
Special Education Teacher
Walled Lake Consolidated Schools