About Literacy for All


From 2011 to 2016, dedicated groups of Grades 1–12 teachers from across the province of Alberta collaborated to create successful literacy experiences for their students with significant cognitive disabilities.

The goal of the Literacy for All communities of practice was to enhance teacher capacity to better meet the literacy and communication needs of students with significant cognitive disabilities.

The Literacy for All communities of practice provided an opportunity for teachers to work together, to share ideas, and to find out which resources and what kind of literacy instruction would make a difference for their students. Each year, different teaching resources to support the literacy success of students with significant cognitive disabilities were explored and literacy practices that increased the literacy learning of their students were identified. During each year of the community of practice, these teachers asked tough questions, shifted their perceptions, explored solutions, and shared their experiences and expertise.

Decisions on which resources and strategies to use for the community of practice were made through an evidence-informed approach which integrated professional expertise, characteristics and circumstances of students, and the best research evidence available at that time to inform the instructional planning and educational decision-making process, including research and work being done out of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by Dr. Karen Erickson and her colleagues.

Continuous reflection, use of strategies for robust data collection, and thoughtful data analysis helped teachers identify which specific practices made a positive difference for students, and which did not. As a result of this work together, much of the content on this web site has been co-developed with participants based on the work with their students.

To learn more about the resources and strategies used by teachers, please explore this web site which was built to capture and share learning experiences and stories of success!

Who are students with significant cognitive disabilities?

Students with significant cognitive disabilities are individuals with unique learning needs and interests, who with the right supports at the right time, can participate in learning, benefit from literacy instruction, and contribute to the school community.

“Significant disabilities” describes specific characteristics that impact both cognitive ability and ability and opportunity to participate in and benefit from learning. Traditionally, significant disabilities were described on a continuum from moderate to severe. The following descriptor offers a snapshot of learning characteristics typical of students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Students with a significant cognitive disability:

  • have significant delays in most or all areas of development, as compared to same-age peers
  • can develop limited or basic communication skills and may require an alternate or augmented communication system
  • may be an emergent or early conventional reader/writer working to understand the functions of print and print conventions (the process of learning to read and write is a continuum that begins at birth – there are no prerequisites)
  • require adult guidance around basic routines and increased support when learning new routines or in novel situations
  • may require adult support for personal care and to participate in most activities
  • require modifications to most learning activities in order to participate in meaningful ways
  • may have associated disabilities including physical, sensory, medical and/or behavioural
  • can benefit from literacy and communication instruction and support.



Here is what some participants had to say when asked…

How was your teaching practice affected by participating in this community of practice?”

  • I became more aware of ways that I could teach literacy skills to students in my class beyond teaching the alphabet.
  • Literacy was at the forefront of my planning and it helped me to see the potential in all of my students.
  • It changed the focus of our classroom. It made literacy purposeful and meaningful.
  • I enjoyed all the ideas from my peers and certainly got many ideas for future students.
  • I have created a literacy rich environment for my students.I am much more confident in my ability to teach writing. The tools I have now enable me to assess and deliver a quality program and track progress of all of my students. I have also shared these tools and the information I have received with my colleagues.

What changed in your classroom, as a result of your participation in this community of practice?”

  • Everywhere one looks in the classroom, emergent literacy practices are evident!
  • We all believe that we are writers, everyone can write and use writing as a form of communication to express themselves.
  • I had student confidence increase, student work began to develop, and students showed growth.
  • My students are writing!

Looking back at what you learned about literacy and students with disabilities, what one piece of advice could you share with another teacher?

  • Always assume competency. Never make assumptions!
  • Progress may be slow but it’s still progress.
  • There are many strategies to try and all students can experience success.
  • Find their voice – a working communication system first.
  • Don’t give up, even on the hardest days. Give your kids the tools they need to be successful and they will surprise you.
  • Find really good books, be excited, and share your love of books with the students.

What made participating in this community of practice different from other professional development that you have participated in? Was there value in connecting for a year?

  • I loved it. It became my focus for the year and something I will take with me. Idsft was great to see progress and share that progress over the year.
  • Lots of dialogue and support throughout the entire year and the chance to see progress with students and the things I tried as well as my own teaching practice.
  •  It helped me to feel that I was supported in the ‘risks’ I was taking throughout the project.
  • I loved, loved, loved the extended pd. Coming into a session mid-year and being able to discuss previous ideas and work out similar difficulties is something that single session PD doesn’t allow for. I would join another community of practice in a heartbeat. I want this community of practice to go on for more than a year now that I’ve had the opportunity to go through the material initially. A second year can only make my teaching that much better.
  • I loved that it was a whole year. That way if something was not working, you could ask for feedback or bounce ideas off someone else who is in a similar situation.

Articles and research that informed the 2011-2016 Literacy for All communities of practice:

Erickson, K.A., Clendon, S., Abraham, L., Roy, V. & Van de Carr, H. (2005). Toward Positive Literacy Outcomes for Students with Significant Developmental Disabilities. Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits, 2(1), 45-54.

Erickson, K.A., Hatch, P. & Clendon, S. (2010). Literacy, Assistive Technology, and Students with Significant Disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 42(5), 1–16.

Erickson, K. & King DeBaun, P. Teaching Strategies to Support Inclusive Instruction in Reading and Language Arts, 2006.

Hyer, G. Teaching Literacy to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities: A Review of Literature. Academic Forum 32 (2014–15)

Joseph, L.M. & Konrad, M. Teaching students with intellectual or developmental disabilities to write: A review of the literature. Research in Developmental Disabilities 30 (2009) 1–19

For other articles and research on teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities, please visit Learning for All.