Conventional Literacy Instruction for Students with Significant Disabilities and Complex Communication Needs

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.

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

* If your students are not yet conventional literacy learners, Emergent Literacy Instruction for Students with Significant Disabilities and Complex Communication Needs may better fit your needs.

Evidence Base

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.

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

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.

Get Notified About Future Events

If you would like to be notified when registration is open the next time a statewide event is scheduled, please provide us with your email address.

Implementation Stories

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

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. 

Theresa Augustyniak
Augmentative and Alternative Communication Consultant
Muskegon ISD
Laura Tubbs
Special Education Teacher
Walled Lake Consolidated Schools

Additional Information

Emergent Literacy Instruction for Students with Significant Disabilities and Complex Communication Needs

Emergent literacy logo

Alt+Shift partners with intermediate school districts (ISDs) to provide training and implementation support for literacy for emergent learners. The Emergent Literacy course focuses on getting meaningful literacy and communication instruction started. Participants learn five instructional routines to use with all students. These routines teach communication and build engagement and early literacy understandings. This session is appropriate for anyone who works with students who do not have a successful means of communication; cannot identify letters, sounds, and words; and/or do not understand the printed word carries meaning.

Visit the Emergent Literacy Page