Teaching Literacy to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

By Cooper-Duffy, Karena; Szedia, Pamela et al. | Teaching Exceptional Children, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

Teaching Literacy to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities


Cooper-Duffy, Karena, Szedia, Pamela, Hyer, Glenda, Teaching Exceptional Children


Albert is a second-grade student with cerebral palsy, seizures, and significant cognitive disabilities. He has controlled movement in his left ami and with his head. For years he received systematic instruction on goals such as ijointing to his name, identifying colors, stamping his name, reading sight words, and recognizing numbers. During many of the one-on-one sessions, he closes his eyes, puts his head on his chest, or just says "NO."

Mrs. Sweeny knows that time delay is ver\' effective in teaching students with significant cognitive disabilities sight words and other discrete skills. However, she noticed low rates of participation from many students including Albert, and she is required to teach more than just sight words. Furthermore, she needs to teach the links to the Standard Course of Study (SCOS) along with additional individualized education program (IEP) goals. Mrs. Sweeny looked for some suggestions. She collaborated with the general education teachers, special education teachers, families, and therapists. Together they blended iheir knowledge of systematic instruction with the thematic unit approach general education teachers use to teach the SCOS. Mrs. Sweeny was excited to be able to teach a larger range of content to multiple students while still using best, practices such as systematic instruction. She reported higher levels of student participation and a higher frequency of correct armvers from many students, including Albert.

In 1997, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandated that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum. Access means more than being exposed to language arts, math, and science; access means academic progress (Spooner & Browder, 2006) . In addition, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 requires that all students have access to language arts, math, and science while showing annual yearly progress. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) ensures that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum and aligns the legislation with the NCLB Act (Westling & Fox, 2009). This ensures that students with disabilities participate in mandated assessment programs that are aligned with state standards (Westling & Fox). Although these laws are exciting opportunities, the requirements are proving to be quite difficult for many special education teachers to implement, especially with students with significant cognitive disabilities. Historically, special education teachers were not required to teach the SCOS to students with significant cognitive disabilities; they taught life skills instead. Many states are now creating extensions to the SCOS to enable students to have access to the general education content (e.g., www.ncpublicschools.org/ curriculum/ncecs; North Carolina Extended Content Standards, 2006).

Problems to Overcome

Special education teachers are struggling with these requirements and are faced with several problems. First, how can they teach academics that link to the SCOS so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can not only understand, but also show yearly progress? Including students with significant cognitive disabilities in the general education classroom with all necessary supports is the ideal way to provide access to the SCOS (Downing, 2005). However, the reality is that many students with significant cognitive disabilities are not fully included in the general education classroom. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2006), only 13.8% of students with mental retardation and 13.0% of students with multiple disabilities were educated within the general education classroom for most of the day. Half of students with mental retardation were educated outside the general education classroom for more than 60% of the day. A total of 45.1 % of students with multiple disabilities and 41.8% of students with autism were also educated outside the general education classroom for more than 60% of the day (U. …

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