Back-to-school with the disability triangle

by Maureen Donnelly M.Ed July 17, 2018

back-to-school with the disability triangle

The big question 

Are you settling into the new routines and expectations of the school year? Once that happens, do you find that you begin to ask the next big question? And that is, how do we make sure that all kids develop literacy skills? 

The answer

It’s a big question. As a teacher, I found an answer in a simple framework I developed called the Disability Triangle.  This framework helped me convert this big question into a series of smaller actions. The Disability Triangle encouraged me to focus my attention on the things that typically prevent success. Let’s start with the first corner of the triangle: Engagement 

Kids respond to academic struggle in one of two ways: they either act out or check out. When I see either behavior at play in the classroom, my thoughts go immediately to engagement. Engagement means tapping what interests them while also respecting the limits of their attention span. When human beings are engaged, we tend to learn new things and that learning sticks. For one studentwho patently refused to participate in any kind of literacy experience, I met her where she was.  embedded her favorite cartoon characters onto the pages of a few ABC books. This got her giggling and engaging in shared reading. In time, we began to explore Tar Heel Reader, where she voraciously searched for and read every book about her favorite character. Later, she began writing her own books about the character and now finally, she’s reading and writing about all sorts of topics. When we start with what interests our kids, we cultivate real engagement. And engagement is the foundation of literacy success. 

Let’s consider the next corner of the triangle: Access. 

I would like to learn to knit. I could watch YouTube videos about knitting but ultimately, watching is too passive an activity to make me a knitter. The same principle holds for reading and writing. Children with disabilities need lots of exploratory access to the traditional materials that support literacy learning, like words, books, and pencils. Yet providing access has historically required a decent amount of thought, intention, and planning on our part. That’s the sad news; the happy news is that there are many new ways to solve this problem. From low-tech solutions like page puffers and pencil grips, to high-tech solutions like eye-gaze technology and adapted keyboards, we can ensure that every child can turn pages, select letters, and otherwise engage with the literate world. Our kids need access. Our job is to provide it.  

Finally, let’s look at the last corner of the triangle: Time. 

It’s long been established that typically developing children need at least a thousand hours of literacy-related experiences before entering school if they are to one day develop into conventional readers and writers. We don’t know precisely how to extrapolate this number to kids with disabilities but we don’t really have to. What we do know is that all children need a deep and rich foundation in literacy if they are to develop conventional skills and our kids rarely get this. So, when beginning literacy learners walk through our classroom doors, we have a clear mandate: we’ve got to provide that foundation. And the foundation is based on exploration and practice. How do little kids develop literacy? Through songs, finger plays, books, conversations, scribbling, and sharing meaning with adults. This is what we’ve got to provide our students, regardless of age. They won’t become readers one day without it.   

So that’s it. This year, use the Disability Triangle to guide your literacy instruction. Then, be prepared to watch those learners bloom. 

Maureen Donnelly M.Ed
Maureen Donnelly M.Ed

Maureen Donnelly, M.Ed, is an early childhood educator who currently holds the position of Curriculum Manager at Tobii Dynavox. Before this, Maureen contributed to the creation of numerous products that support emergent readers of diverse abilities and ages. Maureen lives and works in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in an office stuffed with children’s books.

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