Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs - Autism Awareness
Literacy Skill Development for Students With Special Learning Needs: A Strengths-Based Approach

Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs

Author: Leslie Broun and Patricia Oelwein
Publishing Info: Paperback / 2007
Reviewed by Maureen Bennie: Director, Autism Awareness Centre Inc.

Author Leslie Broun has been presenting Visual Strategies for Teaching Reading and Math for the Autism Awareness Centre across Canada for the past 3 years. Leslie has teamed with Patricia Oelwein, author of Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome, to write Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs: A Strength-Based Approach.

This excellent book, designed to assist special learners with reading, comprehension and composition, is the product of 30 years of experience the authors have working with students who have special needs. Those who have seen Leslie’s reading presentation will see her workshop has been expanded upon in this book with an emphasis on teaching to the strengths of the student.

In this book, the framework for the Oelwein method of literacy development in students with special needs is based on the principals of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL’s key features are:

  • Learning is an active process and is personal because it begins with individuals therefore chose materials that are meaningful and relevant to the child.
  • Instruction is engaging – lessons are structured to involve the students’ natural thinking processes and interests. In the case of autism spectrum disorder, Down Syndrome and learning disabilities, this means employing a visual teaching approach.
  • Instruction is individualized. Using personal content that is meaningful to the students encourages participation.

The subject content and skill work is accessible to the learner. Using motivating content, materials and an accessible method for learning will minimize behavioral problems when the student wants to engage and frustration levels are minimal.

It is these principals that govern all of the literacy curriculum content in this book and how to teach it.

Broun and Oelwein tell us the problems learners with certain special needs have and why we have to think about using a non-phonics based approach or top-down approach. This involves initially teaching recognition of whole words then moving backwards to letter sounds. Letter sounds are too abstract to begin with. When visual learning is the strength, does it not make sense to teach sight recognition of words first rather than sounds when auditory processing is not a strength?

The second chapter of this book focuses on what the strength-based approach is. The 6 main elements of the learning process are discussed, the stages of learning, and integration of literacy skills into functional domains which are self-management, social interaction, communication, leisure and vocational skills. Teachers are never given ideas or suggestions in this book without guidance. They are guided through on how to design a lesson plan, implementation of that lesson in point form steps, evaluation of student learning and a list of do’s and don’ts when teaching. Quotes appear throughout the book to support why we have to teach these students in a different manner.

There is an entire chapter devoted to the creation of materials, all of which are inexpensive and simple to create. Don’t have time to make your own materials? Broun and Oelwein give suggestions on how to get others involved in material making in your community such as the Girl Guides or parent volunteers. Completed teaching materials are organized in baggies, with binder rings and bins.

Teaching of the top down approach of the Oelwein method begins with teaching whole words using the match, select and name sequence. The 4 stages of learning discussed earlier in the book are now put into practice with this concept. There are many suggestions provided complete with photos and materials to use. It feels like Ms. Broun is beside you giving guidance on what to try next.

Once meaningful sight words are in place, the next step is to create sentences. The use of the sentence board and its variations are illustrated for us. The simplicity of these materials empowers teachers and we are supported with a sequence of skills for sentence building using this tool. Now we move to books that are especially created for the child. In the age of computers, this is a relatively easy task. There is a host of ideas for adapting commercial books, creating communication boards to accompany books and using those popular characters that our kids love such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora or Arthur. Comprehension and writing composition round out this section of the book.

The last section of this book tackles phonics beginning with alphabet and the sound/symbol associations of consonants and vowels. Now that the student has a sight word vocabulary, returning to phonics is possible because the student realizes that letters are no longer abstract isolated symbols but rather building blocks for words. Word families are introduced and a child can now see that changing the initial letter of a word family creates a new word. Spelling, an important skill for all learners, is addressed with a variety of teaching strategies.

The book rounds out with how we will use this strength-based approach to reading in all curriculum areas. Now that the literacy skills methods are in place and the student is familiar with this approach, this methodology can be used when new theme- based units are introduced in other subjects such as a weather unit in science. The appendix provides black line masters that can be photocopied and used for development of materials. There are several pages of references for resources that support the why and how of teaching students with special needs.

On a personal note, it was through this top down approach and Leslie Broun’s reading presentation and constant guidance that my own 10 year old son, Marc, reads. Marc began the Oelwein method 3 years ago after no success with the traditional phonics-based approach to reading.  Because he was lower functioning with limited verbal skills, no one thought reading was worth pursuing with him even though it was a critical skill for Marc to have if he was to succeed in school and daily life. My mother, a retired grade one teacher, thought differently and after attending Leslie’s reading presentation, she used her methods. Today, Marc reads only 6 months below grade level. He reads with fluency and can now sound out most words. He insists on having reading time every night before bed and reads aloud to himself. He also spends time reading to other children in his special needs classroom who have not acquired this skill yet.

Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs: A Strength-Based Approach is a book no teacher or school should be without. The methodology makes sense based on the learning differences of students with special needs. It is also logical and beneficial to teach to the student’s strength. Keen parents who want to work on reading at home will also find this book very accessible to them. Reading is one of the most important skills we can give to our children and this book gives us a way to teach reading and develop literacy skills effectively.

Visit Autism Awareness Centre’s Bookstore to purchase Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs: A Strength-Based Approach.


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