Life Skills & Literacy

Proven Research Based Strategies

LIST 5373: Foundations of Literacy Learning in EC-6 Classrooms

Amy Degioanni

Life Skills ELA/SS Teacher (Grades K-5)

Professional Development Handout

May 12, 2016

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The Impact

The ability to read influences a person in every setting of their daily life. It can affect job opportunity, independent living skills, and overall happiness. Therefore, it is imperative that teachers take a proactive, systematic, and scientifically proven approach to educating all of their students. Unfortunately, students who are identified as having a cognitive disability and have been placed in the LIFE Skills setting have been historically excluded from such instruction and have been bombarded with functional and daily living skill tasks (Browder et. al., 2012; Mechling & Gast, 2003). This form of functional instruction, while positive in some ways, does not lead to an independent and literate person.

Recent legislature now requires that students with significant disabilities are given the opportunity to access the general education curriculum and demands systematic and effective instruction (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Political leaders, policy makers, and special educators have a responsibility to identify the elements of effective instruction for all students, including those identified as having a Cognitive Disability. In identifying instructional tips and “big five” strategies for the LIFE skills classroom, both teachers and students will benefit from research based practices.

10 Tips for Life Skills Teachers

Instructional Tips

Tip 1 - High Teacher Expectations & Positive Perceptions:

There has been a recent shift in the focus of Life Skills education to include research based strategies and more than just daily functional skills. Research has shown that if the teachers are open to this change, hold positive perceptions about the classroom, and hold high expectations for their students than the students typically perform significantly better then if their teachers hold fast to the old stances on Life Skills education (Taylor et al., 2010).

Tip 2 - Print Rich Environments & Student Choices:

Research suggests that students as young as preschool benefit from print rich environments and choices when it comes to what they are reading. A typical classroom library was revamped to include student interest, genre choices, and independent book exploration. Almost instantly, student participation and reading skills increased dramatically in the classroom (Koppenhaver & Erickson, 2003). Therefore, all teachers need to take a second look at their classroom library and make sure they are accounting for student interest and choices.

Tip 3 - Active Communication & Assistive Technology:

If a student is unable to successfully communicate in the classroom, then no choices are being made and the student has no control over his/her environment. This means that wants and needs are not being addressed, the student is not an active participant in their own surroundings, and the student is not an active learner in the classroom. For students with communication impairments, multiple impairments, or who have trouble in choice making, assistive technology is a great way to get them actively involved in the classroom. For example, if a student is nonverbal then they can respond using picture or word symbols, a voice output device, or even a pre-programmed single step message device (Quinn et al., 2009). All students should be active communicators and participants in the classroom and assistive technology is one way to achieve this goal.

Tip 4 - Classroom Visuals:

While the general education population benefits greatly from a written schedule, exposure to words and labels around the room, and written communication from the teacher throughout the day, it seems that Life Skills students seem to benefit from a combination of written words and visuals. Research suggests that student understanding and participation is boosted when written word is paired with symbols, real life photos, and visual forms of communication (Koppenhaver & Erickson, 2003).

Tip 5 - Consistent Classroom Routines & Procedures:

Consistency in the Life Skills classroom when it comes to routines and procedures is imperative. Research suggests that students who receive Life Skill services need significantly more repetitions to master a task in comparison to their non-disabled peers (Coyne et. al., 2012). This includes daily routines such as transitions, following the schedule, feeding, dressing, bathrooming, etc. In mastering these daily tasks, the day will progress more smoothly and learning will become easier and more natural.

"Big Five" Tips

Tip 6 - Phonemic Awareness Strategies:

Phonological awareness has long been excluded from Life Skills instruction because of the obvious benefits of sight word repetition with this population. While sight word repetition has proven successful, research has shown that a combination of the "big five" (including phonemic awareness strategies) and sight word repetition has significantly boosted reading performance within the Life Skills population (Coyne et al, 2012). Activities which have proven successful with both the general and special education populations include oral rhyming, working with syllables, onset and rime, and identifying individual phonemes (Armbruster et al., 2009; Coyne et al., 2012).

Tip 7 - Phonics Strategies:

There are several different approaches to phonics instruction including synthetic phonics, analytic phonics, and onset-rime phonics instruction. Research suggests that students with cognitive disabilities benefit from a combination of these strategies rather than one strategy in isolation (Browder et al., 2012). Browder and his team found that phonics instruction which included letter sounds in isolation and blended into words, segmenting sounds in previously learned words, and manipulating onset and rime all boosted phonics acquisition and instruction.

Tip 8 - Fluency Strategies:

Literacy by Design: A Universal Design for Learning Approach for Students with Significant Intellectual Disabilities (2012) found that fluency was boosted with the use of repetitive and monitored reading. Students read and reread books and phrases with feedback from the teacher and fluency scores dramatically increased (Coyne et al., 2012). The teachers who monitored the reading and stressed reading with expression had the most success with reading fluency.

Tip 9 - Vocabulary Strategies:

Vocabulary strategies for students with severe disabilities requires direct instruction. While the general education population seems to benefit from indirect exposure, students with disabilities have a hard time learning from indirect instruction. Research suggests that direct instruction, in the context of learning, and paired with visuals is the most beneficial strategy (Allor et al., 2010). For example, teaching verbs would be paired with the action or a picture of the action or nouns would be paired with the picture or actual person, place, or thing.

Tip 10 - Comprehension Strategies:

Reading comprehension is typically one of the hardest reading skills for Life Skills students to engage in and display. Research suggests that the use of visual strategies such as graphic organizers, visual answer choices in an array, and the use of assistive technology boost comprehension (Koppenhaver & Erickson, 2003). For example, after reading a book or passage the student would be given an array of 3 answer choices to choose from instead of having to answer verbally. Assistive technology or filling out a graphic organizer with an array of answer choices can also be used.

Tips for Parents


This interactive and fun literacy resource is great for beginning and early readers and it can be used at home or in the classroom. It includes many free activities including letter identification, sounds, poems, online books, and much more. For access to the entire website, there is a fee but it is paid for by many school districts.

Have Fun Teaching creates fun and hip YouTube videos for young students. It raps the letters of the alphabet, sounds of the alphabet, blends, word endings, and much more. Students love these videos and they are so catchy that they unknowingly learn the content. It is not just for the literacy classroom as they also have math and science resources. The majority of the content is free and can be used at school or in the home.

This website is a great resource for the classroom teacher or homeschooling parent. It compiles online books, running records, and assessments. The website ranges from alphabet principle to literacy circle ideas and lesson plans and is great for beginning or experienced readers. There are endless resources which are constantly updated. There is a fee to use this website, but they have a free trial so that parents and teachers can check it out before purchasing.

This free and public website is great for the home setting as it combines learning and fun! It includes interactive games, books, videos, and apps for devices. The website also has activities and lessons plans for parents and teachers to incorporate learning into the school or home.

Recommended Reading

Literacy in Life Skills by Sally Gati is a great tool for teaching numbers, the alphabet, student personal information, and communication skills such as introductions. It can be purchased online and would be a great read for parents, teachers, or family members of persons with disabilities. Picture Souce: []

This article, Functional Literacy in a Life Skills Curriculum, covers functional literacy which aligns to research based practices in the LIFE Skills classroom. It is a very interesting article because it not only includes strategies to help with teaching literacy to students with severe disabilities but also includes how to make it meaningful and functional for any student. This is great for classroom teachers or parents trying to create consistency between the school and home environments.

Augmentative and Alternate Communication by David Beukelman and Pat Mirenda is a great resource for both teachers and parents. As stated earlier, without a form of communication our children and students can not be active learners in the home or classroom. This book provides different information for parents and teachers to give control and choice making opportunities to the student. In doing so, the student will be more actively engaged in their environment and this will enhance learning opportunities in all academic and social areas.


Allor, J.H., Mathes, P.G., Roberts, J.K., Cheatham, J.P., & Champlin, T.M. (2010).

Comprehensive reading instruction for students with intellectual disabilities: Findings from the first three years of a longitudinal study. Psychology in the Schools, 47(5), 445-466.

Armbruster, B. B., Lehr, F., Osborn, J., Adler, C. R., & National Institute for Literacy (U.S.).

(2009). Put reading first: The research building blocks of reading instruction: kindergarten through grade 3 (3rd Ed.). USA: National Institute for Literacy.

Browder, D., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., Flowers, C., & Baker, J. (2012). An evaluation of a

multicomponent early literacy program for students with severe developmental disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 33(4), 237-246.

Coyne, P., Pisha, B., Dalton, B., Zeph, L.A., & Smith, N.C. (2012). Literacy by design: a

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Mechling, L.C., & Gast D.L. (2003). Multi-media instruction to teach grocery store word

associations and store location: A study of generalization. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 38(1), 62-76.

Quinn, B.S., Behrmann, M., Mastropieri, M., & Chung, Y. (2009). Who is using assistive technology in schools? Journal of Special Education Technology, 24(1), 1-13.

Taylor, D.B., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., & Flowers, C. (2010). A qualitative study of teacher

perceptions on using an explicit instruction curriculum to teach early reading skills to students with significant developmental disabilities. Reading Psychology, 31, 524-545.

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004. Available from