•      students with physical and other developmental disabilities have fewer opportunities to learn literacy than their non-disabled peers.


•      Up to 90% of children with cerebral palsy either cannot read, or read below grade level even if they have average IQ levels. (1)


•      A strong correlation has been found between phoneme and phonological awareness and the successful attainments of literacy. (2)


•      students who are able to use a speech output communication aid have an advantage over those who do not when trying to acquire literacy. (3)


Karen Erickson has examined the problems that students who rely on AAC face when they are acquiring literacy.

These include:


•      Difficulty with inner speech. That’s being able to hear words and sounds in your head. (4)


•      Difficulty with visual scanning.


•      Lack of rehearsal.


•      Difficulty in reading silently with comprehension.


The acquisition of literacy presents a challenge to many students who have complex needs including those who have normal or even high intelligence. This is partly because the connection between IQ and performance in the curriculum is not so correlated as was once thought. This is particularly so if the student has complex physical and communication needs. A number of factors come into play which can make the acquisition of literacy difficult including:

  • Inability to produce sounds using your own voice impedes the acquisition of phonics.
  • Many students who have complex needs are visual learners rather than auditory learners. This can result in them trying to memorise whole words by sight which is not the most efficient way to acquire literacy.
  • Working memory, the scratch pad in the mind where we store information for short periods of time, is inevitably affected by access difficulty. If a student is having to use a communication device to record their work some of their working memory will be directed at the physical issue of accessing the device thus detracting from the learning.
  • Some students will have difficulty with some or all of the following: multi-tasking, coping with change, rigidity of thought, initiating interaction, empathy and focus. This may well be simply as a result of the extra effort that they have to put in to participate or there can be specific, underlying issues that are associated with an impairment.
  • Some students may appear to lack motivation. It is often the case that there are underlying reasons for this which need to be addressed such as: difficulty coping with change, sensory issues (such as difficulty coping with background noise), dis-inhibition (which means that the slightest movement or sound involuntarily creates a distraction).

It is essential that these issues are given direct attention. It is not enough to simply repeat literacy teaching over and again in one style. If it isn't working another approach should be tried. Over learning is not, in itself, enough. It may be that a student needs to repeat a piece of learning several times but it may also be that the teaching style needs to be repeated.


(1)                Machaliecek et al (2010), “Literacy Intervention for students with physical and developmental disabilities who use aided AAC devices: A systematic review.” In Journal of development and physical disability (2010) Vol. 22:219-240.


(2)               Larsson et al, (2009) “Reading and Spelling in children with severe speech and physical impairments” in The Journal of Development and Physical Disabilities (2010) Vol 21: 369-392.


(3)                Ibid p 374


(4)               Erikson, K.  (2003, June 24th). Reading Comprehension in AAC. The ASHA Leader North Carolina, p67