Literacy is a crucial component of individual development and eventual successful incorporation into one’s community. The modern view on literacy presents it as a “multifaceted product of psycho-socio-linguistic factors, tied to language, cognitive development, and to socio-cultural influences” (Hetzroni, 2004, p. 1305). All these factors are of relatively equal importance: it is equally possible for an individual with great intellectual potential to develop literacy poorly if not given the opportunity to do so as it is for an intellectually challenged individual to fail to acquire it despite favorable socio-cultural and economic circumstances. In light of this, developing literacy from infancy – practically from birth – has become a factor of increased importance, particularly for children who, due to a certain disability, have more difficulty than others acquiring it. Depending on the disability (in case of this work, deafness is such a disability), literacy might quite possibly be the primary channel of language, knowledge, and communication with the outside world for individual afflicted with it.
Despite this obvious need, our society’s standard approaches to fostering literacy on the young often put children with special needs at a disadvantage (Hetzroni, 2004). The more recent developments in carrying literacy to children with special needs have been encouraging, however, with various approaches tried and tested. The majority of these approaches can be grouped under the category of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) – “the supplementation of natural speech using aided and/or unaided symbols and the related means of selection and transmission of such symbols” (Hetzroni, 2004, p. 1306). These symbols include graphics, gestures, sign language, images, and objects, and the means of transmission occupy a wide range from physical interaction to using music, dancing, and mathematical signs.
Of vital importance for the educator of children with special needs is to remember that every child possesses a unique set of learning abilities and skills, and that an effective approach to fostering literacy cannot be pegged into just one category of learning. Among the most optimal tools for understanding this is Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory (cited in Truax, Foo, & Whitesell, 2004), which, in its complete form, posits that each human being possesses nine different types of intelligence: linguistic, mathematical-logical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. These intelligences, individually or in conjunction with one another, are responsible for unique mental processes that people use in solving problems and creating cultural products – language being one of them – to communicate with others.
Thus the effective approach to promoting literacy, according to Truax et al. (2004), begins with the educator determining, by way of interaction, observation, and subsequent reasonable conclusion, in which of these intelligences lies the child’s highest potential for successful learning. The educator must become “an active, risk-taking learner” (Truax et al., 2004, p. 321) to discover what the child knows, likes and dislikes, is able or unable to do, and ways in which the child communicates with the world around him/her. Doing so would allow the creation a broad range of instructional activities that can be then applied – in different combinations, if necessary – to the process of increasing literacy. It is important, Truax et al. (2004) stress, that these approaches cover all three areas of literacy learning, specifically language use, content, and form.
Of no less importance, according to Truax et al. (2004), is to have a clear set of objectives regarding what each learning approach is aimed to achieve. Learning approaches may and usually will change as the child progresses in the process of acquiring literacy. Yet, due to his or her set of special needs, there are likely to be certain aspects of literacy that the student will never be able to utilize without outside help, and this is another thing that the educator must firmly keep in mind.
Since children with special needs are habitually serviced by a number of professionals in different areas of specialty, Truax et al. (2004) underscore the importance of all “team members” involved in the process of literacy acquisition to communicate with each frequently and effectively. Without such communication, it would be impossible to undertake the necessary revisions to the educational approaches. All the parties involved must be committed to this goal in order to maintain and assess the approaches being used and thus keep the overall literacy program at the height of effectiveness.
One perceivable weakness of this approach is the extreme dilution of effort due to the need to search for a unique approach to every student. It would behoove the educational specialist planning to utilize this approach to search for as many universal elements in their approach as possible so as to increase effectiveness.
While AAC has proven to be an effective tool for acquiring one element of literacy learning, namely semantics (content), it appears to be of limited use in learning pragmatics (language use) and form (phonology, morphology, syntax, and genre) among students who are deaf or hard of hearing (Hetzroni, 2004). This is due mostly to the fact that this specific disability limits the user’s mastery of the spoken language, which includes not only the inability to pronounce the words correctly, but also the inability to add the necessary voice inflections or to hear them from one’s interlocutors, thus limiting the dimensionality of interpersonal communication. Hetzroni (2004) explores the effectiveness of AAC in acquiring literacy proficiency in all three of the aforementioned categories and concludes that it is more effective for some and less effective for others. For example, it is highly effective in graphic symbol acquisition, and reading and writing acquisition (not counting reading out loud), while leaving something to be desired in terms of syntax acquisition and pragmatic and semantic acquisition. This perceivable weakness of the heavy use of AAC indicates that educators cannot rely on AAC solely in devising their approaches to fostering literacy among students with special needs. At the same time AAC should not be left out completely since it has proven to be a useful tool.
Equally important compared to the tools to be used in the process of developing literacy among students with special needs is the issue of the learning environment. To this extent, Most, Aram, and Andorn (2006) explore the two approaches: individual inclusion, in which a student with special needs (again, in this case, a student who is deaf or hard of hearing) is placed in a classroom with children who have no hearing difficulties; and group inclusion, in which a small group of deaf children – no more than eight persons large – is placed in a classroom with children who do not experience hearing problems. The results of their experiment have shown deaf children in an individual inclusion setting doing better at phonological awareness, letter identification, general knowledge, and vocabulary than afflicted children in a group inclusion setting. No significant difficulties between groups have emerged in terms of reading, writing, or orthographic awareness. These findings show that the folly of a presumption that students with special needs do better in a group consisting of peers with similar special needs; when all children are treated the same, it appears that the negative psychological impact of being “different” and “an outcast” does not enter into equation, and children with special needs tend to respond well to regular classroom instructions.
In terms of personal development as an educator of children with special needs, this review shows me how important it is to keep the learning process two-sided, with the teacher learning about the student while the student is learning from the teacher. It also shows that collaborating with other professionals is essential to developing effective educational approaches. Finally, it eliminates my reservations about placing students with special needs among their unaffected peers. The reviewed research shows that doing so is beneficial rather than detrimental to the afflicted student’s overall success in acquiring literacy.
Hetzroni, O. E. (2004). AAC and literacy. Disability and Rehabilitation, 26, 1305-1312.
Most, T., Aram, D., & Andorn, T. (2006). Early literacy in children with hearing loss: A comparison between two educational systems. The Volta Review, 106, 5-28.
Truax, R. R., Foo, S. F., & Whitesell, K. (2004). Literacy learning: Meeting the needs of children who are deaf or hard of hearing with additional special needs. The Volta Review, 104, 307-326.