LITERACY ACQUISITION PROCESS
By the way, you can email me at any time with questions. You’ve got a question, I want to hear it. This is a dialogue that hopefully will go on long after you have left this forum.
So, first off, pretty much everything we’ve ever learned about teaching literacy and reading skills to individuals who are labeled developmentally disabled, or intellectually disabled, is based on urban legend, misinformation, and misconceptions, and these falsehoods are very much prevalent even today.
If you can carry on a two way, give and take, conversation with another human being, even if it is decidedly simple, you can learn how to read. How many of you visiting this site know folks in our population who can carry on a two way, give and take, conversation, and yet they do not know how to read? Un huh. We should all be teaching them to read. The means are indeed available.
Being able to carry on a two way conversation, give and take, is at about a 3 to 3 & 1/2 year old mental age developmental level. It is considered to be just above the Piagetian “Parallel Play” or “Group Monologue” behavioral level. Let me explain: Imagine, if you will, being at a preschool nursery school session with 3 year olds, and there are 3 three year olds sitting on the floor seemingly talking to each other, while playing with their favorite toys. And the first one says, “My daddy is a fireman and yesterday he went to a fire to put it out.” And the second one says, “Last night mommy and I made a chocolate cake and I got to help her mix all the stuff in a bowl,” and the third one says, “This morning I put on my favorite dress with the shoes that match and I did it all by myself.” And the first one says, “The fire was a big one and my daddy helped some kids and a little old lady get out of a building, and he’s a hero.” And the second one says, “And I got to lick the bowl when we were done putting the cake dough into the pan.” And the third one says, “I even got matching barrettes and hair ties to match my dress.” The reason I am relaying this to you is that the developmental levels these hypothetical children are displaying can be seen as very similar perhaps to some of our more conversant adults who may on the surface be able to carry on a conversation, but after a few moments you begin to realize that the conversation is basically one way and they have not heard a word that you’ve said while being only focused on what they have been telling you; not quite like echolalia, but somewhat close: they can talk your ear off and yet have no idea what you’ve said in the process. This is a preliterate developmental stage.
Folks who are below the group monologue behavioral level can experience literacy through being read to in groups where stories, nursery rhymes, song lyrics, newspaper articles, essays, anything with words in print, can be read to them, and then have simple questions and answers either during and/or afterwards, doing this over a long period of time until the give and take of conversation is established as a means of communication.
Folks who are at or just a tad below the group monologue behavioral level can experience literacy through prepared autobiographies, relating to their own personal information and lives.
Folks who are above the group monologue behavioral level can experience literacy through prepared adapted reading materials with a tutor working one-on-one with them to advance and acquire their full literacy skills.
Literacy acquisition is in fact a lifelong vocation and avocation, and is not something that is simply acquired in a few weeks, or months, or years. I am 69 years old, and I have 3 college degrees, and I am still learning how to read.
Maybe the most critical aspect of the process is making the reading materials visually accessible. I suggest size 28 Ariel font, to begin with, and until about maybe a third grade equivalency level of reading is achieved. Please all of you, do take a moment, if you get a chance, to peruse the curriculum materials in this site, as examples of this adaptation.
However, what is entirely necessary, for actually learning how to read, is doing reading: reading of contextually rich conversational, easily anticipated reading material, repetitive, developmentally progressive, using very visually accessible print, while experiencing phonemic awareness, letter sound correspondences, through reading, done orally, out loud, and picking up new visual vocabulary through reading, and by anticipating words in a continuously flowing context. Examples: “Yesterday I drove my car down the………………….” “I am going to the post office to mail some………………..” “Please sit down and tie your………..”
Maybe the best way to achieve this is for someone who is literate to act as a one-on-one literacy tutor for at least a whole continuous hour once a week, same time and place, in a cooperative learning style to mentor, assist, correct, if necessary, and interact socially and conversationally with the student, progressing through the developmentally prepared materials until independent reading skills are achieved, and for as long as that takes.
When doing the reading tutoring, start with the easiest available developmentally prepared materials and simply sit with them, one-on-one and point to the words on the page. Ask them to tell you what they are. If they don’t know, you say the words individually one at a time, and then have them repeat each word after you say each word. It’s that simple. After a few sentences that are very repetitious, see if they can begin to say the words without your assistance. Each trial takes just a few seconds. If they can say a word, immediately praise them for it. And then keep on going. You will generally find out that visual memorization of a few key nouns and verbs is indeed possible; and when, and if, they want to quit at the end of the session, just mark where you left off and start right there the next time you start a new session. If the materials are too tough, repeat the same lessons over and over until proficiency is reasonably acquired. If the materials are too easy skip ahead to where your student is “ever so slightly” struggling with the materials.
As each student is introduced to the visual symbols (printed words) representing the language that he or she regularly uses in conversation, the student begins memorizing maybe three to four to five hundred basic sight words through the repetition of the words in the basic simple stories provided. After a certain number of these basic sight words are absorbed and visually memorized, an unusual process of "phonemic awareness" takes place within the student's observational recording process whereby words like "boy," "book," "be," "by," or "bad," or words like "cup," "car," "cake," "cop," "could," or "can," are all recognized by the student as beginning with the letters "b" or the letter "c," and awareness of what those similar sounds represent at the starts of these memorized words elicits an awareness of the letter/sound correspondences (phonemic awareness). It is a skill that is not taught. It is a skill that is experienced and learned. There is a distinct difference. We have only 26 letters in our alphabet and there are around 400,000 plus words in The Websters Third English Dictionary Unabridged, so those 26 letters repeat everywhere, a lot. And all of the students acquire the written language by recognizing whole words, not parts of words initially, because we all speak in whole words, not single letters or syllables (The current "supposed" war between the Whole Language proponents and the Phonics proponents has led to a stalemate in literacy directions, and the only losers in this war are those students who continue to fail at acquiring literacy skills [when in fact, both opposing factions are wrong in their approaches]. Whole language techniques and phonics techniques are both vital and necessary as complementary and supplementary tools but are not the essential directional approaches, as Doing Reading, actually reading, is the single most important aspect of the process...not hard to figure).
When doing initial assessments, start with the earliest (easiest) available developmentally prepared materials and simply sit with them, one-on-one and point to the words on the page. Ask them to tell you what they are. If they have difficulty recognizing and saying the words, or if they don’t know maybe a fifth of the words or less than that, you start with these materials. If they are relatively competent with these early materials and read them all well, skip to the next hardest level. And repeat the assessment process. You will know when you have reached the optimum reading material level when they exhibit some, or a lot, of reading difficulty deciphering the words on the page. Start at the level where they are comfortable reading most of the words on the pages, but they may not know all of the words presented. If they have a lot of difficulty with the earliest reading materials, that’s where you start.
Doing word puzzles, single question and answer test sheets, flash cards, word searches, cross word puzzles, word games, are all important and good complementary and supplementary tools to enhance reading skills, but actually doing reading is the major key to learning how to read. If you are not reading, but doing only the ancillary skill sets, you are not going to learn how to read. Writing comes later, sometimes way later. Reading and listening are receptive skills. Speaking and writing are expressive skills. Receptive is what is coming in. Expressive is what is going out. Expressive skills are almost always 2-3 years developmentally behind receptive skills. So receptive skills, listening and reading, are the horse that pulls the expressive cart, speaking and writing, so to speak.
Is getting involved in teaching literacy hard work? It depends on how you look at it and define it. It’s as easy as washing dishes, dusting, sweeping the floor, painting a wall, raking leaves. It is tedious, and repetitious, and time consuming, but simple and easy, relatively. It ain’t rocket science, but it may be the most rewarding and powerful intervention for folks who are capable in our population that you may ever experience.
If you can read, you can teach someone else how to read.