Creating inclusive literacy learning experiences

Rudyard Kipling famously said that, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind”. Words can heal, hurt, excite, sadden – or just help with basic, everyday tasks and communications. So much human interaction is based on words; written, spoken, signed, or even tweeted! It is little wonder then that literacy learning is of such great importance.

Being literate leads to so many experiences, not least to so many aspects of education. Think about how many times today you will read something, write or type something or communicate with others in some way using language – just in one day!

Given how strongly literacy is valued and privileged in our society, it is unsurprising that there is such an emphasis on literacy experiences from the very earliest years onwards. Unfortunately though, many people do not receive the literacy learning opportunities that they need. There are various reasons for this, based on location, time and individual situations. However, regardless of context, people who experience disability are particularly at risk of being excluded from literacy learning opportunities.

9780195524123As I have written in my new book, there are many unnecessary barriers to literacy development for children who experience disability. These barriers include a paucity of literacy learning opportunities (often direct exclusion from literacy experiences, particularly in segregated educational settings), the promotion of narrow concepts of literacy for children who experience disability, a lack of accessible or appropriate literacy materials and experiences, and low expectations.

However, literacy is for everyone. No one, regardless of impairment or (dis)ability, should be excluded from literacy learning opportunities. While the lack of literacy learning opportunities, historical misunderstandings, and low expectations have formed significant barriers to literacy learning for many people who experience disability, people who experience disability have shown time and time again the capacity for literacy learning. But we all need the opportunities to make this learning possible!

There are many ways to increase inclusivity and accessibility of literacy experiences. Principles of universal design for learning are essential to inclusive literacy practice. This involves providing multiple forms for responding, engaging and participating within literacy experiences.

Storybooks are important for all children in their literacy learning. Reading to children regularly is highly beneficial, and is thus strongly recommended. Making storybook reading, amongst other literacy experiences, accessible for all children is essential. As researcher and children’s book author Amanda Niland writes, “Picture books enable children to experience the worlds of others, through engaging with fictional characters and narratives. These vicarious imaginary experiences play a part in forming children’s understandings of social values”.

Building on a range of literature in this area (see: chapter 18), the following are some ideas for making storybook reading more accessible:

  • Combining auditory, visual and kinaesthetic materials to enable children to engage variously through sight, sound and touch;
  • Incorporating signs, gestures, movements and facial expressions to increase participation and understanding;
  • Adding Braille and using sign language to enhance inclusivity;
  • Within group literacy experiences, considering the positioning of children in relation to each other, teachers, and materials to maximise engagement;
  • Building in fun and naturalistic repetition; for example, engaging in stories with repeating patterns;
  • Engaging in literacy materials within small groups, retelling and recreating stories in multiple forms. This enables each child to take on a role that builds on their strengths and enables them to contribute to the experience while learning and further developing their confidence;
  • Enhancing illustrations by adding texture or creating tactile books. This can facilitate engagement and access for many children;
  • Making quick and easy adaptations to books. For example, craft sticks, elastic bands or Velcro dots can be added to the corner of each page to provide separators that make turning pages easier.
  • Where needed for independent engagement with books, taping pages together to form an ‘accordion’ shape. This allows the book to stand alone without the need for page turning;
  • Creating options for adaptation by providing access to e-books and electronic tablets (such as iPads), as well as to other supports for augmentative and alternative communication;
  • Providing supports for sitting or standing or adjustable chairs and tables;
  • Using Velcro strips, nonslip placemats or clamps to stabilise books or other materials;
  • Holding a book, or other materials, at an appropriate height to increase visibility;
  • Placing books and other materials on slanted surfaces or easels to facilitate independent reading;
  • Using or recording audio books;
  • Using large print.

Sometimes it takes a little creativity to be inclusive, but it is always possible. The most critical thing is to remember that literacy learning experiences are for everyone!

Dr Kathy CologanDr Kathy Cologon is a Senior Lecturer and researcher at the Institute of Early Childhood, Macquarie University.

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