Literacy Strategies for Students with Disabilities


  • The ability to decode text is a critical skill. However, the ability to accurately decode text does not ensure comprehension of what is read. Scarborough’s reading rope model describes the many strands of skilled reading. Background knowledge is only one strand included in language comprehension and is necessary for readers to make sense of new ideas and situations. It includes all of the knowledge acquired through life experiences and learning. The more background knowledge a child has, the more she can comprehend what is read.

    “If we do not spend large amounts of time reading aloud and discussing challenging material with children – material that is well beyond their ability to decode with understanding, we miss a critical opportunity to increase their knowledge of language and of the world – the kind of knowledge that will prove decisive for reading in later years.” (Hirsch, 2006)

    Without the necessary background knowledge, a reader cannot make sense of what is decoded. A lack of background knowledge especially affects higher order thinking such as inferencing or making connections to other content and experiences.

    The strategies in this section will provide educators with tools to build students’ background knowledge. Strategies will also support students’ ability to recognize when they do not have sufficient background knowledge and what to do about it.

  • Knowledge of individual word meanings account for as much as 50-60% of the variance in reading comprehension (Stahl & Nagy, 2006). Scarborough’s rope model indicates strands in addition to vocabulary are important for language comprehension. However, after a student has learned to decode, vocabulary knowledge is the most important factor influencing comprehension. (Moats, 2009a).

    Vocabulary instruction includes implicit and explicit instruction as well as developing both depth and breadth of word knowledge. From third grade on, students must learn about 2,000-3,000 new words every year (Stahl and Nagy, 2006). Directly and explicitly teaching that many words in a year’s time would not be effective. About 10 words per week is a reasonable amount to teach in-depth. The other words, students will need to learn by implicit means such as listening to new words used in conversation or during read alouds, and reading about a wide variety of topics in varied genres (Biemiller, 2005).

  • An understanding of syntax, how sentences are constructed and semantics, how words and phrases are related, are required skills for students to become proficient readers. The ability to make the text cohere or stick together is not always natural. Readers must be able to make connections between and across words, phrases and sentences. Just because a student can decode all the words on the page does not mean that he will comprehend what he reads.

    Students can get lost when reading complex sentences that contain many ideas or text that contains a lot of pronouns and phrases.

    Syntax is basically the grammar of language. Consider the following example:

    A dog is a mammal.
    If a student understands the syntax of the sentence, even if he cannot decode the word mammal, he knows that the word has to be a noun because it follows an article and is the last word in the sentence. He would be able to answer this literal question without decoding the word mammal: What is a dog?

    Semantics is an understanding of how the meaning of a word or phrase can change depending on the language around it. Consider the following examples:

    We can fish.
    Depending on the other words around this sentence it could have different meanings.

    • We can fish with our new fishing poles at the river this afternoon.
    • We can fish to store in the cellar so we have fish to eat in the winter.

    Visiting strangers is dangerous.                                                                                                                                     Are the strangers that are visiting us dangerous or does the sentence mean, the act of visiting strangers is dangerous?

    Students must know how to use the surrounding language to clarify the meaning.

    John is a snake in the grass.
    Does the author mean this literally – John is the name of a pet snake, or metaphorically – John is a deceitful person?

    After work, Trisha and Claudia went to the store to get supplies for Ed’s birthday party. Although it was just down the street, they decided to drive because the celebration was less than an hour away.                             What does it refer to? What is the celebration? When did Trisha and Claudia go to the store? Who are they? What role does the word although play in the sentence?

    It is easy for students to get lost in the phrases and references included in sentences. They have to understand that words do no work in isolation and are always connected to other words in some way.

  • The joy of reading comes from the ability to understand an author’s message; to laugh, to cry, to get angry, to be in awe of the knowledge learned, to put yourself in the situation the author is describing. To do that, readers have to be skilled at decoding and understanding language at many levels. Too many students do not enjoy reading because they struggle with understanding what is not explicitly explained. They cannot make inferences or understand ambiguous language due to the lack of background knowledge and grasping the nuances of the English language. There are three levels or models of text comprehension, all of which must be held in memory as students build their understanding of what they read.

    These are three ways that readers build and represent their understanding of what they read in memory: surface code, text base and the situational model (Bernaerts, et. al., 2013).

    The surface code refers to the exact language used to express ideas. Students that lack understanding of the vocabulary included in a particular text or lack knowledge of the syntactic features of the language being read could have difficulty with comprehension at the literal level. Students who understand the text base are able to restate the literal message of the text in their own words and can answer literal comprehension questions. These first two levels depend on an understanding of the syntax and semantics of English. You can find more information on these levels in the Language Structures section of this resource.

    To understand text at a deeper level, a student must create a situational model or representation of what is read. In order to do this, she must infer information not directly stated by the author. In other words, a student uses the surface code as a set of cues to build the situational model which involves activating the appropriate background knowledge including general knowledge, memories, and interactions with other texts. (Bernaerts, et. al., 2013) See the Background Knowledge section of this resource for more information.

    Consider the following sentence from the Language Structures section:

    We can fish to store in the cellar so we have fish to eat in the winter.

    As the reader, I have general knowledge of fish and that people eat fish. I understand this specific meaning of the word can (to preserve). I know that a cellar is used to store food and I understand that in some places winter can be very harsh and people cannot go outside. I also understand that eating is necessary for survival. As the reader, I have control of the surface code and text base of this text. As I hold that information in memory, I start to build the situational model of what I am reading. I immediately pull up memories of my grandparent’s cellar and picture the canned food on the shelves. I remember walking down the concrete steps, the musty smell, the spider webs, and the cool feeling of the air. I know that the process of canning food takes time and preserves food for long periods because I have that personal experience. Because of movies I have seen or books I have read, I fill in information that the author did not explicitly explain using my background knowledge – these people are storing food for the winter months because they may not be able to get outside to find food in the winter. I can infer that they live by water because fish live in water and that they catch the fish themselves. I can infer that they are worried about having enough food for the winter because they are canning food and storing it – not eating it right away. I create a situation in my memory based on the words and my background knowledge.

    A student that lacks general knowledge or background knowledge about the words in the text will have a very difficult time understanding what he/she reads beyond a literal level.

  • Learning to read begins long before a child starts school. Print is everywhere in our society and children can’t help but be curious about all the squiggly lines they see. Children begin to understand that certain symbols represent meaning – the golden arches mean McDonald’s. Soon they begin to notice that adults point to those squiggly lines and say words. Some children may even start to “read” those same words.

    Before preschool most children do not understand that those squiggly lines are made up of individual letters and that those letters have a sound that is blended together to create the pronunciation. They have just memorized the shape of that word or its location on the page.

    As adults it is hard for us to remember how many concepts have to be learned to become an effect reader. Many of the very early skills we take for granted. But these very skills are predictors of future reading achievement and “… serve as the very foundation on which orthographic and phonological skills are built.” (Adams, page 338)

    Literacy knowledge includes understanding concepts such as (in an exhaustive list):

    • The words carry the meaning, not the pictures.
    • A word is different from a letter.
    • Words are made up of letters that occur in a specific sequence.
    • It matters which way a letter faces (p, b, d, q)
    • English is read and written left to right and top to bottom.
    • When you get to the end of a line of print you return to the left side of the page to continue reading.
    • Books have parts: front, back, title page, table of contents, index, glossary, chapters, headings, subheading, bold type, etc.
    • Authors write in different genres and media: fiction, non-fiction, mystery, graphic novels, blogs, webpages, newspapers, magazine articles, etc.
  • Phonological awareness is the ability to identify, think about and manipulate the part of words, including syllables, onsets, rimes and phonemes. It is an umbrella term that encompasses other skills such as the ability to identify and produce rhymes, syllables, onset, rimes and individual phonemes or single units of sound.

    Phonological awareness is critical for understanding an alphabetic system like English (Moats, 2009b).

    Phonemic awareness is a related term that refers to the ability to isolate individual phonemes in a word. For example the word, fast, has 4 sounds or phonemes: /f/ /a/ /s/ /t/. Phonemic awareness is an activity that can be done in the dark because it does not involve print. Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of the future reading success of a child. (Moats, 2009; Uhry, 2011; NICHD, 2000).

    The importance of phonemic awareness cannot be overemphasized as it provides the foundation of decoding, enabling the reader to unlock the printed word. (Carreker, 2011)

  • Reading and comprehending text is a complex process especially when interacting with the English language. English is an alphabetic system that has a deep orthography, meaning it does not always have a one to one correspondence between a phoneme (sound) and a grapheme (spelling) and we spell based on meaning. For example, English has 5 vowel letters (a, e, i, o, u) and approximately 18 vowel sounds. Each vowel or a vowel grapheme has more than one sound. Consider the different spellings for the long a sound in the following words: rate, bait, play, steak, baby, weight, vein, hey. We also maintain the spelling of a word based on morphemes (meaningful parts of words). The best example is the spelling of the inflectional ending –ed. It is always spelled –ed even though it represents three different sounds, as in played /d/, twisted /ed/, and hopped /t/. The spelling is maintained to indicate a word is past tense (Moats, 2009b, Moats, 2009c, Moats, 2009d).

    As Scarborough describes in the reading rope model, reading comprehension is the product of language comprehension and word recognition.

    “The reader who has difficulty with decoding will not be able to derive meaning form the text…” (Carreker, 2011, pg. 208).

    If the goal of reading is comprehension of text, then decoding is a necessary skill for students to learn, especially in English which is a complex alphabetic system. Beginning reading curriculum that includes explicit decoding instruction is more effective than programs that do not (Moats, 2009). However, word recognition is only part of reading instruction. Teaching comprehension skills should always be included in a comprehensive reading curriculum.

    A student who can efficiently and effectively decode words has acquired many prerequisites such as an understanding of the concepts of print, phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle (Carreker, 2011).

  • The majority of the words read by an adult are sight words; words their brain recognizes immediately and without conscious effort. Reading instruction for students should result in this same automatic (sight) recognition of words.

    Automaticity refers to the ability to perform complex skills with minimal attention and conscious effort. Automaticity is essential for higher-order thinking, such as skilled reading and writing, because important sub-skills must be performed accurately, quickly, and effortlessly. If reading sub-skills are performed automatically, then higher-order aspects of the task, such as comprehension or metacognitive functions, can be performed effectively at the same time. (Samuels, 1997)

    Automaticity, or how fast we accomplish a task (rate) is one component of reading fluency. The other two components are accuracy and prosody. Pikulski and Chard (2003) define reading fluency as “rapid, efficient, accurate word recognition skills that permit a reader to construct the meaning of text. Fluency is also manifested in accurate, rapid, expressive oral reading and is applied during, and makes possible, silent reading comprehension.” There is a positive correlation between reading fluency and comprehension (Pinnell, et. al., 1995).

    Automaticity of the subskills of reading starts with the beginning of reading instruction and develops over time. Rapid naming (automaticity) of letters, sounds, phonetic elements (syllable types, affixes, etc.) words, phrases, sentences and passages leads to reading fluency and comprehension (Vaughn, 2004).

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  • Cara Wyly
    Project Manager, Progress in the General Curriculum Network
    (210) 370-5413