Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Influences on Teachers' Decisions about Literacy for Secondary Students with Severe Disabilities

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Influences on Teachers' Decisions about Literacy for Secondary Students with Severe Disabilities

Article excerpt

Special education teachers' work is a complex endeavor. A special education teacher of a student with a severe disability is often responsible for coordinating and designing instruction in a range of curricular areas and facilitating a variety of accommodations and supports across environments. According to Rainforth and Kugelmass (2003), "the choices teachers make about where and how students with severe disabilities will be educated have self-fulfilling and far-reaching implications for these students' lives" (p. 244). Understanding how teachers think about curriculum, and literacy in particular, is important because teachers' conceptualizations about disability, the nature of learning, and the purpose of teaching reading, writing, and communication result in teaching practices that can expand or contract the future quality of life of students. Despite the potential consequences of special education teachers' decisions, not much is known about how teachers of students with severe disabilities make curricular decisions.

Historical trends in curriculum identification for students with severe disabilities have evolved from a developmental approach (Guess & Noonan, 1982) to a functional approach (Brown, Nietupski, & Hamre-Nietupski, 1976) to a focus on instruction in general education schools and classrooms (Brown et al., 1989; Nietupski, Hamre-Nietupski, Curtin, & Shikranth, 1997). With the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997, educators were required to facilitate the progress of students with disabilities in the general curriculum. This mandate has had a significant impact on research and practice in special education (McDonnell, 2010).

Although efforts to design and disseminate research-based interventions are an important component of developing a technology for providing access to general curriculum content, these interventions cannot account for the totality of decisions teachers must make in local contexts. We need to understand how teachers use their professional knowledge within the contexts of their schools as they implement standards-based instruction for students with severe disabilities.

Literacy for Students With Severe Disabilities

With the requirement for standards-based instruction, increased attention has been given to conceptualizing approaches to literacy. Compared to their peers, individuals with severe disabilities experience poorer outcomes in employment, independence, social life, and well-being (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza, & Levine, 2005). Scholars have proposed that literacy addresses these disparities by offering increased opportunities to gain knowledge, be employed, communicate, participate in social activities, and enhance safety, health, and well-being (Copeland & Keefe, 2007; Keefe & Copeland, 2011). Moreover, Copeland and Keefe (2007) asserted that literacy is one of the skills valued by and required in society, and being a reader is a valued social role. Holding a valued social role can lead to improved social status, resulting in increased opportunities for inclusion and engagement in everyday activities for individuals with disabilities (Wolfensberger, 1983).

The consequences of various approaches to literacy on outcomes for students with severe disabilities are unknown, because literacy instruction for this population has historically been neglected (Kliewer, Biklen, & Kasa-Hendrickson, 2006) or limited to isolated sight word instruction (Browder, Wakeman, Spooner, Ahlgrim-Delzell, & Algozzine, 2006). Copeland and Keefe (2007) proposed that this lack of access has been due to the pervasive belief that students with severe disabilities were not capable of acquiring literacy skills. "The belief that individuals with extensive needs for support cannot acquire literacy skills often results in a lack of opportunity to learn these skills and therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy" (Keefe & Copeland, 2011, p. …

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