Inclusive Early Literacy: From Research Into Practice

This post summarizes a segment of a conference program I presented at Children: The Heart of the Matter, 2013 in Surrey, BC.

History of Disability 

History reveals the mistreatment of people with disabilities over the centuries. Many people with disabilities were neglected, abused and even killed up until our very recent past, and children with disabilities were routinely institutionalized in settings where they had little chance to learn. Children who are labelled with disabilities today are living in somewhat more accepting cultures. Western children with disabilities are, for the most part, included in their family’s lives, and it is this family inclusion that forms the basis of what the inclusion model is really all about. The inclusion model in education began with families (a group of mothers) who demanded better education for their children – children they refused to institutionalize, and children whom they believed to be capable of learning. The move towards full inclusion is still underway. Everything we do as practitioners and researchers to welcome and support families whose children have disability labels into our inclusive settings will further inclusion ideals and help ensure that all children reach their potential.

Inclusion in Early Childhood: A Definition

Early childhood inclusion embodies the values, policies, and practices that support the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society. The desired results of inclusive experiences for children with and without disabilities and their families include a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential. The defining features of inclusion that can be used to identify high quality early childhood programs and services are access, participation, and supports. (DEC/NAEYC, 2009)

Approaches to Early Literacy

Emergent literacy theory was built on Piagetian theory that children learn, or construct their knowledge of, written language naturally when provided with the appropriate “opportunities, environments and models”  In this paradigm, direct instruction of basic literacy skills is de-emphasized in favour of “opportunities and activities that foster active engagement and experimentation with spoken and written language”. The reading readiness (or decoding readiness) paradigm contrasts with the emergent literacy paradigm in that it emphasizes systematic direct instruction in “alphabetics” (phonemic awareness, phonics etc.) in order to build children’s decoding skills. In this paradigm, reading and writing are thought to be wholly non-intrinsic (unlike spoken language) and therefore require direct instruction. Both of these somewhat conflicting paradigms of early literacy focus on the importance of spoken language as a precursor to literacy skill development. Additionally, a lot of current research in early literacy is concerned with the reading readiness paradigm, with a great deal dedicated to phonological skills development research (Kliewer, 2008).


A Sociocultural View of Early Literacy

Other literacy researchers and practitioners view early literacy as much more than a collection of sub-skills where early literacy is seen as more than the sum of its parts.  Early literacy from this sociocultural standpoint is conceptualized like this:

The experiences, practices, attitudes and knowledge encountered in the early years across a range of settings which contribute to children understanding, enjoying, engaging with, and using oral,visual, and written language and symbols of their own and other cultures to express their individual identity and allow them to become active participants in a literate society (Hamer, 2005).

When we adopt this sociocultural perspective, literacy is viewed as deeply entrenched within human culture, enacted by and within human relationships as “social practice”  Building on sociocultural theory, early literacy develops (or emerges) and is intricately enmeshed in a child’s sphere of social relationships. Families and others enact early literacy in myriad and culturally specific ways to help develop young children into “literate” persons who use a variety of symbol systems in their social interactions, whatever they may be. Lev Vygotsky, who developed the well-known concept of the zone of proximal development, considered the primary problem with disability to be neither a sensory nor a neurological impairment. Rather, he emphasized the social implications of impairment – the expectations, conditions, and attitudes created by society that influence “the access of a child with a disability to sociocultural knowledge, experiences, and opportunity to acquire psychological tools” (Gindis,1999). Alongside his more famous notion of the zone of proximal development, this understanding points out that the educational outcomes achieved by children with disabilities are influenced by the society in which they live.  Children with disabilities should therefore be afforded the same kinds of opportunities to build their skills, via scaffolding and other strategies that are offered to their non-disabled peers (Vygotsky, 1978).

Research Summary: Early literacy in the Lives of Children with Disabilities

Much of the research in early literacy and children with disabilities reveals that barriers have been inadvertently constructed by the early literacy movement itself in its emphasis on skills that are commonly disrupted in children with disabilities (e.g., speech, spoken language, and hearing). We know that both the emergent literacy and reading/decoding readiness paradigms emphasize the importance of spoken language as a precursor to literacy skill development in typical children. However, since many (not all) children with significant disabilities have related speech and language difficulties, they have historically been excluded from literacy learning opportunities based on either the emergent literacy or reading/decoding paradigms, since both presume speech skills as a prerequisite for reading. The research also suggests that since many children with significant disabilities demonstrate related speech and language difficulties they have historically been excluded from literacy learning opportunities as the traditional approaches (whether from emergent or decoding paradigms) that build on speech skills are usually not successful for them.  Also, deeply entrenched attitudes and assumptions about nonverbal (or less verbal) children with disabilities contribute to the reality that many are simply not given the opportunities to learn and experience literacy in ways that build on the capacities they already have (such as using picture symbols or adaptive technologies) for making meaning.  Finally, as many of you are aware, children with disabilities are frequently involved in time-consuming therapies that seek to build other “functional” skills. These and other factors tend to cast children who are labelled with developmental disabilities on less successful literacy trajectories than their typical peers might travel on.

Barriers to Early Literacy Development

The existing research concerning early literacy in the lives of children with disabilities frequently reveals the influence of history on how children with disability labels have been provided with literacy learning opportunities. Due to the historical educational segregation of children with disabilities, many people (including teachers) have limited experience with people who have disabilities. However, those who work with these children and their families need to be aware of and, if necessary, confront their own assumptions and biases about disability.  In the article “He’s not really a reader”, Mirenda (2003) describes six-year-old Stanley’s problem. Stanley’s interactions with books were interpreted by his teachers as “stimming” (repetitive action and behaviour ) because of his autism diagnosis; thus, he was cast as “not really a reader,” even though he frequently demonstrated interest in books about trucks. In this way, it seems that Stanley’s disability label clouded the evidence of his actual literacy development, as his interest in books was misinterpreted as a symptom of his autism rather than “real” reading. Stanley, like many other students with disabilities, was at great risk of being deprived of opportunities to develop more sophisticated literacy skills alongside his age peers.  


Within multimodal learning theories and sociocultural views of literacy, we are encouraged to assume children’s actions around and within literacy learning are both intentional and meaningful. If it looks like a nonverbal child is paying close attention to a story, assume that she is, because she is engrossed in the story, just like her age peers. Assuming she just happens to be staring and quiet at that time does nothing to advance her meaning-making or literacy development. We need to assume that something is going on within these inclusive environments and more importantly, build on what we see and understand as meaningful communication, nonverbal, verbal, gestural, gaze or anything else. Also, the practitioners in these case studies celebrated the children’s contributions as valuable contributions to the overall learning of their settings. In this regard, literacy is viewed as a valuable social practice rather than a collection of “skills” required for “reading and writing”.

Original puppy dogs

Key Sources on Inclusive Early Literacy

DEC/NAEYC. (2009). Early childhood inclusion: A joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children(NAEYC).Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina,FPG Child Development Institute. Retrieved from

Flewitt, R., Nind, M. & Payler, J. (2009). “If she’s left with books she’ll just eat them”:Considering inclusive multimodal literacy practices.                      Journal of Early ChildhoodLiteracy, 9(2), 211-233.

Gindis, B. (1999). Vygotsky’s vision: Reshaping the practice of special education for the 21stcentury. Remedial and Special Education, 20(6),         333-340.

Hamer, J. (2005). Exploring literacy with infants from a sociocultural perspective. New ZealandJournal of Teacher’s Work, 2(2), 70-75.

Kliewer, C. (2008). Seeing all kids as readers: A new vision for literacy in the inclusive early childhood classroom. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes     Publishing.

Kliewer, C. (2008). Joining the literacy flow: Fostering symbol and written language learning in young children with significant developmental             disabilities through the four currents of literacy. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 33(3), 103-121.

Mirenda, P. (2003). “He’s not really a reader …”: Perspectives on supporting literacy development in individuals with autism. Topics in Language Disorders, 23(4), 271-282.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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