Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

Let’s Make Science Instruction Available To All Students

Let's Make Science Instruction Available To All Students
By Debbie Taub

Recently, I have been struck by the number of stories in my newsfeeds about many science-related topics: the amazing new scientific discoveries being made, “anti-vaxxers,” science deniers, and concerns that an almost single-minded focus on assessment has turned schools into dreary factories that impede students’ creative and critical thinking skills. All of these thoughts have been bouncing around in my head where they meld with my focus on students with extensive learning needs (SELN), bringing me to the conclusion that science education is more important than ever for all students, especially SELN.

Self-Contained Special Education Classrooms Get Very Little Science

Yet, we have research that shows SELN get very little science (both in terms of time and content), with one study showing that there were only eleven research articles on how to teach science to this population, and ten of those articles had “science” examples that focused only on personal and social perspectives of science, such as hand washing as germ theory and recycling . Many teachers of SELN, who teach in segregated settings, have told me that they only “really” teach science in the three grades that are assessed by large-scale assessments! We would be horrified to walk into a general education classroom and find that the students only have one opportunity every 3-4 years to learn about science. How much are they missing out on, and how can we ever expect them to build on previous skills?

Students in segregated settings tend to have very limited opportunities to learn deep or even broad science content because science instruction is so often reduced to such general topics, like self care and recycling. How many lost opportunities to spark the interest of a student! We could be asking engaging and essential questions, such as “Is diversity important?” and “How does information move?” There are so many branches of science and so many exciting questions that could engage students, and yet we are limiting most SELN to infinitesimal components of it because those are perceived as the “most functional.”

What About Functional Skills?

I have trained thousands of teachers across the country, and I hear about functional skills a lot. So, let’s talk about “functional skills.” Functional skills were originally conceptualized as those skills that were necessary for daily living. I am in no way arguing that hand washing and recycling aren’t important parts of daily living. However, we are thinking way too small! I don’t know about you, but my daily life is filled with cause and effect questions and problem solving opportunities. Each of these requires that I take what I know already, consider what I don’t know, and then make a prediction about what should happen. And, as much as I hate to admit it, my days are all too often filled with mistakes. Science is all about inquiry, critical thinking, and learning from your mistakes! What could be more functional than that? Science is about taking all of the information you have already, making a prediction about “what if,” and then testing that prediction over and over to see what happens. It is about using your results to rethink your prediction and then trying again. Science is about knowing what questions to ask as much as it is about looking for answers, and when you think about it, isn’t that one of the most functional skills we could provide our students—especially those who struggle?

Other functional skills that are already embedded in science instruction are various self-determination skills. Some important self-determination skills include goal setting, decision making, problem solving, knowing when to ask for help, knowing how and where to get help, and evaluating one’s own learning. Michael Wehmeyer and Susan Palmer showed that students with special needs who had more self-determination skills had better employment, financial independence, access to health and other benefits, and were more independent than their peers with fewer self-determination skills . But guess what? David T. Conley has identified these skills as important to college and career readiness for all students, not just students with special needs . Conley identifies four key areas needed for individuals to be ready for college and careers post-secondary school: cognitive strategies, content, academic behaviors, and contextual skills and awareness. It is important to note that college and career readiness does not mean that a student, any student, is ready to independently function on a job; rather, these individuals have the skills, knowledge, and habits to participate in career training or to begin a post-secondary program without needing remedial courses. Jacqui Kearns, Harold Kleinert, Beth Harrison, Kathy Sheppard-Jones, Meada Hall, and Melissa Jones wrote a paper about what “college and career ready” means for SELN and compared it to the Conley research . Here is a screenshot of a slide that sums up their findings:

Taub Screenshot
It is clear that there are very similar skills and concepts that all students need in order to be successful after high school. These skills are most effectively addressed in inclusive settings, and many of them are most effectively taught using inclusive cooperative learning and inquiry-based instruction. Think about the lack of opportunities for practicing social skills in lecture-based classes or in classes where the only strong communication model comes from the teacher. Now imagine those same opportunities in an inclusive, inquiry-based, cooperative learning classroom. There‘s a big difference, not only in opportunities but also in the motivation, content, and performance expectations between the two. Science is active. It requires people to ask questions, do experiments, and then learn from those experiments. The process of “doing” science has countless opportunities to practice those functional skills.

Self-Determination and Science Instruction Don’t Have To Be Mutually Exclusive

While self-determination skills can be taught in any content area, the essential understandings that are the foundation of all science fields are critical thinking and problem solving. Additionally, asking questions and inquiry-based instruction are absolutely geared toward cooperative learning. Making science instruction an ideal context for weaving academic and self-determination skills is vital for post-secondary success. Plus, who doesn’t want to explore the role of diversity in organisms or even ideas? All students are excited to examine all the different ways information can move, whether through nerves, electrons, computers, phones, etc. There are questions and opportunities to explore everywhere. There are opportunities to include all students everywhere. And there is a universe out there that needs discovering.

Let’s not limit students’ opportunities by reducing science to hand washing and recycling. Let’s provide inquiry-based, inclusive science instruction that builds critical thinking and self-determination skills. And then let’s see how far students go.

Photo Credit: Evan Leeson/Flickr

Debbie TaubDr. Deborah Taub is the Director of Research and Programs at Keystone Assessment. In this role, she provides research and professional development assistance for states, territories, and other entities working to develop and sustain best practice. She has assisted states in building and evaluating systemic programs, especially around issues of inclusive practice for students with complex instructional needs, such as those with low incidence disabilities or who are dually identified as having a disability and ELL. Dr. Taub has designed, implemented, and evaluated alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities, developed UDL and standards-based curricula and instruction, and conducted validity and alignment evaluations. This work is informed by her experiences as a classroom teacher and school reform specialist. She has experience building curriculum that is universally designed and accessible for all students, helping schools and district meet state and federal requirements through teacher and student centered reform, and supporting educators as they make grade level content accessible for students with complex needs. She has contributed journal articles, book chapters, and numerous professional development trainings to the field of educating children with complex needs, and has presented internationally on working with students who have autism. She believes strongly that all students deserve equal opportunities and is an advisory member of the Council to Promote Self-Determination education and workforce committee, National Center for Universal Design for Learning’s UDL Taskforce, and an active member of the TASH inclusive education committee. In addition, she is a member of the Council for Exceptional Children’s CCSS Advisory Group.

Why I Am Still A Self-Contained Teacher

Why I Am Still A Self-Contained TeacherFor the last ten years of my career, I go to work every day with a mild case of cognitive dissonance.

This is because while I am a promoter of inclusive education (even for those students with the most significant disabilities) I continue to be a self-contained classroom teacher. This means that in my head, I understand that the setting I teach in is not necessarily the most ideal placement for my students. Yet I continue to teach in this setting because I love the students I work with and desire to give them access to the general curriculum in an authentic and meaningful way.

Why I Fall Short

Unfortunately, I fall short all the time. If you are familiar with any of my previous writings, I don’t sugar coat the fact that the majority of schools in the United States are not ready for the full and authentic inclusion of students in general education. I don’t believe inclusion advocates do themselves any favors by repeating the mantra “All Means All” without also wielding an even larger banner that points the way to “how we do it”. The truth is that there are many schools who ARE doing it. How we disseminate that information is the constant struggle of the proponent of inclusive education.

Why I Don’t Quit

Perhaps you are like me, an inclusion-minded self-contained teacher, who wants desperately to break the mold of your classroom but doesn’t know where to start. So, while I mull around in my dissonance, I’d like to share with you 5 reasons why I have not quit my job yet for a teaching position in a more inclusive school system or environment.

1. There are very few options

Like I touched on in the above paragraphs, I simply love working with students with the most significant disabilities. In the area that I live (the Atlanta Metro Area), there are very few options for someone like me. So rather than move from the school and community where we have already planted roots, I have decided to live out inclusive practices the best that I can in the context that I am. As inclusion advocates we want want change…yesterday! We can only change what we directly have control over and in the words of Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

2. We need good self-contained classrooms

Perhaps you would prefer if I used “segregated classrooms”, which I don’t mind at all. Let’s tell it like it is. My classroom by its very nature segregates students from the school community because we are educating students separately.

While some of you may be outraged that this still takes place in the United States, it is my responsibility to give my students access to the general curriculum…not be their babysitter. Since there are many classrooms that still function in the “medical model” of special education we have a long way to go in reforming that practice. As we wait for inclusion to permeate the education reform movement we need teachers who are willing have high expectations for their students and create ways that even in a segregated classroom can provide inclusive opportunities.

3. My students’ parents

There are some parents who read about inclusive education and they experience a bit of cognitive dissonance themselves. They know that they want inclusive education for their children but it is not accessible to them. What do they do? Some families move, some file for due process but some stay put because they know that there are no other feasible options. Should those parents feel guilty for not pursuing an inclusive agenda for their child? I know that part of my job is to support my families and sometimes that is listening to those who I am advocating for…which for them is to stay in self-contained placements.

4. Self-contained classrooms are not the only places students are segregated

A colleague of mine made a very good point the other day while discussing inclusive education with me. There are plenty of examples of students in general education that are segregated (albeit in a more invisible way) due to bullying, religious prejudice, or lack of differentiated instruction. The students in my classroom may be separated from their peers but I can create an accepting classroom environment that may not be available in general education.

5. Who says I need to run my classroom like a typical self-contained classroom?

I’ll give you a brief example. Something that I started recently was to link up with general education classroom to do a co-teaching lesson in my classroom. This way I get the opportunity to collaborate with my general education colleague and provide differentiated instruction on grade-level standards in my very own room.

This benefits everyone! In addition, we work with other classrooms to include my students for a portion of the day in an academic segment. This process is certainly not without its hiccups but allowing myself to have to flexibility has been a more inclusive way to go (all without extra staff or funding). I’ll drop another quote from one of my favorite educators, Paula Kluth, “over, under, around or through find a way, or make a way”. Making a way sometimes means making it make sense for your own context.

Don’t misunderstand me

There is over 30 years of research that says inclusive education is better for everyone. My point is that admitting that inclusion is not available to everyone is not the same thing as saying that is not possible or the right thing to do. I suppose this is why I continue to be the best self-contained classroom teacher I can be. I hope that you can live out inclusive practices in your context.

This article originally appeared on The Friendship Circle blog.

The Role of Special Education in a Democracy

The Role of Special Education in a Democracy

Photo Credit: Sara/Flickr

Reflections on Ravitch’s Reign of Error from a Special Ed Teacher

By Beth Brady

The past few years I’ve been wondering: When did being a teacher make me such an awful, greedy person in the eyes of our country? Thanks to being active on Twitter, I finally got a better understanding of what has been going on recently in education policy and how Obama’s Race to the Top has led to the proliferation of charters, even more high-stakes testing and the Common Core Learning Standards. It wasn’t just in my head; there was really something going on, a systematic pushback against public education. Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error put the current policy problems that educators face together in one place with research and solutions. For educators, it has always been important to be educated advocates for our students. For our students, we are models of what it means to be engaged citizens, and in order to fulfill that role, we need works like Reign of Error to keep us informed.

The problems that Ravitch identifies and solutions she offers are not new, but it is refreshing to be reminded of why education policy matters so much in this country. Our education system is the bedrock of our democratic society. There’s a reason why when the rest of the world seems to be erupting right now, we continue to have civil protests and dialogue; although Congress can’t seem to get along, we are not a nation that rushes to take up arms.

This year, in the race to improve my students’ performance and demonstrate that I truly am a highly effective teacher, I had forgotten why I chose to be a public school teacher in the first place. I’m grateful to Ravitch for the reminder of John Dewey’s work:

The public schools have taught us how to be one society, not a collection of separate enclaves, divided by race, language and culture. They have contributed directly to the growth of a large middle class and a dynamic society. Our nation’s public schools have been a mighty engine of opportunity and equality. They still are.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

As a teacher of students with multiple disabilities, I had a light bulb moment when I remembered that school is not just about reading, math and showing that my students can access the Common Core, but about being citizens. Schools prepare students to become contributors to society, not just academic scholars.

I’m sad to admit I had been sucked into the accountability vortex. With New York’s new teacher evaluation system in place, part of which uses the Danielson’s Framework, I was focused on using this framework to prove how meaningful my work is and that my students can learn.

You see, since most of my students are non-verbal, use wheelchairs, are dependent for all their care needs, and have health impairments, I am often asked, “Well, what do you teach them?” Often the root of the question comes from the thinking that if they’re not learning academics, why are we paying taxes for them to go to school?  Wouldn’t these needy (and expensive) children best be served in a cheaper setting (i.e., minus teacher salary), such as daycare or a hospital?

It makes me frustrated that people don’t naturally value the important place that children with multiple disabilities have in our society of diverse human beings. But instead of trying to explain that, my best answer in the past had been to explain how my students are learning, although it might not look like traditional learning, and that we are accessing the same general education curriculum that “typical” students are learning, but in a different way.  We are focusing on the essential skills they need to learn, such as communication, choice-making, cause & effect, and joint attention.

But I have to admit that the question made me question what I knew was right. I became fixated on proving my students’ worth with data collection sheets and Common Core activities, which distracted me from the 1:1 instruction I knew my students needed in their individual, developmentally appropriate goals. (I say Common Core, because before this push I never felt such pressure to consistently show achievement that was aligned to the NY State Standards besides completing annual Alternate Assessments.)

So as I spend my summer days reflecting on my classroom last year and thinking about improvements for next year, it was a welcome reminder from Ravitch that I should stop running myself ragged just because my students aren’t valued by high-stakes tests and they don’t fit in a mold where I can have them pump out projects that show they understand the Common Core standards.

The reason my students deserve to be in school as much as traditional students who are learning to read, do algebra, and explain historic events, is because its not about the content, its about what all students are learning by doing these learning activities together in a common space. There is a reason we have public schools in this country.

…They have enabled people from different walks of life to learn from one another, to study together, play together, plan together, and recognize their common humanity. More than any other institution in our society, the public schools enable the rising generation to exchange ideas, to debate, to disagree, and to take into account the view of others in making decisions.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

This is what I teach my students. By working with them to communicate, interact with peers, identify their wants and needs, my goals are no different from a general education teacher.

The essential mission of the public schools are not merely to prepare workers for the global workforce but to prepare citizens with the minds, hearts, and characters to sustain our democracy into the future.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.325)

In our drive to create college- and career-ready graduates, let us not forget that public schools were founded to create an educated citizenry, not just workers. Just because not all students will have a job one day or even be able to live independently does not mean that they are not an important part of our society.

Additionally, students with special needs bring diversity to schools that accurately reflect the world outside of schools. What better space than a classroom of students who have such a different experience of life than a “typical” child to help students learn “to take into account the view of others?”

As communities grew, parents and concerned citizens realized that educating children was a shared public responsibility, not a private one…For many years, the public schools were known as common schools, because they were part of the public commons. Like parks, libraries, roads and the police, they were institutions that belonged to the whole people…But most people understood that paying for the education of the community’s children was a civic duty, an investment in the future, in citizens who would grow up and become voters and take their place in society.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.322)

At the end of the day, schools are in the business of making better people for a better world.  Whether we teach math or communication, as educators we serve a valuable role in our democratic society. I know that a large part of my pride in our society comes from the strong public education that I received. So, for this special educator, there is no more renewing feeling than realizing that my specialized teaching skill helps me and my students, support staff, and families become stronger, educated citizens of our American democratic society.

List of Works Cited

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error. New York, NY: Knopf.

What do you think the role of special education is in the United States? Share with us in the comments section below!
Beth BradyBeth Brady is currently a middle school special education teacher in the New York City Public Schools, after beginning her career in Boston. She works with learners who have an array of multiple disabilities and her particular interests are in the area of communication, alternate assessment, deafblindness, and teacher preparation. Connect with her on Twitter @bradylobeth.

Why Bother Giving Access To Curriculum For Students With Significant Disabilities?

Robson Square pic-K
Why should we bother giving access to curriculum for students with the most significant disabilities?

I’ve spent 30+ years in the educational field working with students who have a label of significant intellectual disabilities. I have seen a number of practices and philosophies come and go in that time. What I have seen as a constant is that students rise to the level of expectation if given the opportunity.

There is a new emphasis on providing instruction for students that allows them to access to curriculum and the same standards as their grade level peers. Some argue that “these students” don’t NEED academic skills. Thirty years ago they told us ‘these students’ did not need to be in school. Yet our students rose to the level of expectation.

There is a focus in general education on differentiated instruction and active student participation as well as higher order thinking. I am not seeing the same strategies used as much by teachers of more significantly involved students. Many teachers argue that by focusing on academics we are not providing the life skills that students need as adults. Why do we think they are mutually exclusive? Why can’t we do both? I believe strongly that all students have the right to be exposed to the curriculum. Our job as teachers is to provide the materials and scaffolding they need to participate and progress. Isn’t that what special education means?

One of the arguments I often hear from teachers is “Why are we wasting our time teaching Romeo & Juliet when they need to learn basic life skills?” Don’t all students have the right to learn about the world around them and find their place in it? I have seen remarkable things happen once we started exposing our students to general education curriculum – better communication, interest in the world around them, more acceptance by peers, and participation in the general education program. In other words, becoming a full member of the educational community instead of someone in a totally different curriculum housed in an educational building.

The key is providing the curriculum in a meaningful way. This may mean it looks different. It means doing activities that involve the content of the curriculum in meaningful ways. It means not doing worksheets all day. It means allowing students to be involved with their peers.

The key to successfully adapting materials is starting with the skills the student has already. When I am working with a new teacher, the first thing I do is ask them to tell me about their students. They almost always begin by telling me about the deficits or what they cannot do. Until we change the thought process to what they CAN do, we can’t successfully support students. It is difficult to move forward with what the student CANNOT do. For example, the student cannot use his/her hands but they CAN track objects visually or turn toward sound. In this case we have to create materials that allow visual choices or provide auditory input to help the student participate.

The teacher has to approach every lesson thinking “What do I need to do to allow this student to participate and succeed?” Some simple strategies are providing manipulatives so the student has a concrete connection to the lesson, use photos or graphics with the words for non-readers, provide picture/symbol vocabulary sheet or communication board even for verbal communicators, provide tactile supports on materials, adapt written text for understanding and participation, pre-teach vocabulary and/or basic concepts and involve the family and other support systems. The most important strategy is expect success.

In working with many teachers over the years, I have found two common characteristics of teachers who are successful in working with students that have severe disabilities. The first characteristic is that they approach instruction with a positive mind set. “How do I make sure this happens?” instead of “They can’t do that.” I call this thinking outside the box. Our students don’t fit in the gen ed box neatly so our solutions will have to be found outside that box. The second characteristic is they do their job with joy and create a fun learning environment. If the student and teacher are having fun, then learning will definitely take place.

Photo Credit: Karen Pedersen-Bayus

What do you think? How should we approach teaching students with the most significant needs grade-level aligned curriculum? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

What Does Writing for Students with Significant Disabilities Look Like?

Just Write

By Monica Braat

A version of this article was originally published on the blog: Eliminating the Box. Monica has given us permission to publish it again here.

What does writing for students with significant disabilities look like? How can we engage them in the process of writing?

It is important not to mistake tasks that develop matching, memorizing, copying or fine motor skills with the learning process of writing. Students with disabilities need to experience the same processes as those without when developing writing. They need to scribble and explore and progress from being emergent to conventional writers.

Whole to Part

Writing also supports the development of reading skills. Above is a diagram of the “Whole to Part Literacy Framework” which outlines the need to develop skills in word identification, language comprehension and print processing in order to achieve the goal of silent reading with comprehension. Guided reading, writing and developing communication system skills all fall under the “language comprehension” umbrella. The writing tasks that we do with the students that I work with cross between developing communication skills, communication system skills and engaging in and learning the writing process.

Below is an outline of some of the things are now embedded in to writing programs for students, some things that we are developing as part of their writing programs and a couple of things that I am looking to add to writing programs this fall. Some of these things are done in general education classes drawing on content from those subjects, some fit right in to the literacy structures that exist in classrooms as all students have choice in their writing and some are done in a one-on-one or small group direct instruction setting. Many have only been added in the past two years after I had attended workshops and courses by Linda Burkhart, Karen Erickson, David Koppenhaver and Caroline Musselwhite. Before that the “writing” we were doing was the practice on matching, memorizing, copying and fine motor skills I referenced a the beginning of this post.

Alternate Pencils

Many students with complex needs either cannot or have significant difficulty using a pencil. Alternate pencils offer the opportunity for students to do letter-by-letter generative writing.


One no-tech Alternate Pencil is an eye gaze board (example above). To use this system, the student first gazes to one of the five clusters of letters. Once the student has picked the cluster they want, they then do a second gaze to one of the five areas and use the color coding system to say which color of letter they would like to write from the initial cluster. That process generates one letter that the person working with the student would write down.

For example, a student might gaze to the cluster of letters in the top right hand corner. This means he/she wants to write the letter P, Q, R, S or T. The student then gazes to the top left hand corner which means that he/she is choosing the yellow letter from the first cluster of letters indicated. The letter the partner writes down is “Q”.


Another no-tech option is a flip chart. An example of this is included above. The top of the chart contains clusters of letters. This process requires that the student that is doing the writing has a definitive yes and no response. This could be using switches or any body action. We try to encourage head movement sideways for no and up or down for yes as that is generally universally understood but if that is not possible then we find whatever is going to work. In the letter-by-letter approach we would ask a continuous string of questions starting with “A?”. If the answer is no, we ask the next letter. If the answer is yes, we write it down. Once we write a letter down we continue by asking that letter again and keep moving through. The process can also be done in clusters – asking the student if he/she wants one of the letters on the first page and if he/she says yes then go through the letters one at a time. This is partner-assisted step scanning process is one that is familiar to our students that we use this method of writing with as we use it for choice making and when communicating with P.O.D.D. books (have written about these before but will be adding a new post about these again soon).


A couple of less complex alternate pencils that can be used with student who have more functional use of their hands but still struggle with the fine motor aspect of printing include options like letter stamps, magnetic letters, letter cards, letter stickers, keyboards…etc. There are several options for keyboards for those with fine motor challenges. The example above is the “Big Keys” keyboard. IntelliKeys is another option that offers a lot of versatility including making tactile representations.

The point of using alternate pencils is to allow student access to a way to generate letter-by-letter writing right from the “scribbling stage” of writing. A student does not have to be able to generate what we call “real words” to use an alternate keyboard just as a student doesn’t need be able to write whole words before they start using a pencil. In fact, a child will use a pencil for a long time before they generate conventional words. Alternate pencils create the same opportunities for exploration or students who cannot hold a pencil. When we use alternate pencils, we always work with the student to pick something that we are going to write about through some of the approaches outlined below (Weekend Words, Experience Books, Photo or Picture Captions, Remnant Books) or we pick a topic with the student related to something that he/she is reading or studying. Once we have a topic, we start writing and let them generate whatever series of letters they are going to generate. We do not direct or interfere and when the student is done we “read” what they have written about (make the letter sounds) and then talk about their topic with them.

Writing is one part of a student’s comprehensive literacy program. At the same time as a student is working on writing, they are also spending time doing word work and self-selected and guided reading. As they develop skills in these areas, they will move towards more conventional writing in a similar process as a scribbling child moves towards it. By allowing “scribbling” we are setting a student up for autonomous, generative writing rather than just copying.

The Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies offers further information and resources on Alternative Pencils.

Using Remnant Books for Writing Topics

A remnant book is very similar to a scrapbook. The book contains tactile items, short explanations and/or pictures that represent experiences, activities, places, people, etc. that make up a student’s narrative. Remnants might include things like souvenir that were bought, an item from nature, a receipt from going somewhere, packaging from a toy. The remnant is placed in the book along with a picture (if possible) and a short explanation on a sticky note. The short explanation is just so the communication partner would have something to talk about. It is not meant to be “perfect writing”.


A remnant book is meant to be used to facilitate and encourage social interactions and conversations. The items in the book give a focus for the conversation and allows for the same type of “what I did last night” or “remember when” conversations that other students have regularly.

Using remnant books requires commitment from home and school as the idea is to ensure that a student’s stories are recorded so that they can be talked about at different times. Ultimately a remnant book should travel between home and school and be added to anytime there is a story worth sharing. Although it is nice to have a an actual physical article, it is not necessary every time.


The remnant book can be used either as a way to facilitate conversations or as a resource to pick topics to write about. When using it for writing, the student would choose a story that he/she wants to write about and then alternate pencils would be used to create a picture of writing related to that object. The advantage of having the topic is that when the student is done writing we are able to have a conversation about what they wrote the same way as we would have conversations with other emergent writers who came to us with a picture they drew and emergent writing (scribbling) under the picture and wanted to tell us what they “wrote”. In this way, students come to understand the process of writing in the context that makes sense because there is a purpose of writing – to tell a story.

We watch closely for signs of connection during this process. If we see word approximations or even single letters related to the topic emerge, we talk about these with the student. At the same time, we do not interfere too much as we do not want to disrupt he process of writing. We do also at times demonstrate using the alternate pencil for our own writing – so we pick a topic and go through the process as a demonstration so that the student can see what we are doing in generating words.

Note: We also add to the remnant books ourselves when an activity happens at school that would be something that can be a story to share at another time. This opens up opportunities for “how was your day at school” conversations at home.

Picture of Photo Captions

Pictures and photographs can be used a topics for writing in the same way as the pages and topics from a student’s remnant book can be used. Photographs have the added motivational factor of being personalized. Pictures can be tied to any topic or just pictures of things that a student likes or enjoys. For a student who is included, topics the pictures or photos could be linked to vocabulary of the topic that is being studied in that class. Again, students are allowed to generate their own writing using their alternate pencil and what they write is added as a caption. If these are topic books for curriculum areas, we do also put the typed word in and sometimes include a PEC representation, a written definition and/or put the pictures in a talking photo album (like the one pictured at the right) and record the word or the definition of the word. For personal choice topics that are more related to a student just writing a story of their choosing, we do not add in all of these things and let the final piece of writing stand as the student’s writing.


We can also do this activity online by using Quizlet and making cards with images on and then having the student use an alternative pencil to caption those images.

Weekend Words

This one that we have not yet tried. I was introduced to it through the Literacy for All Community of Practice that we have been involved in for the past two years. The idea is for parents to send a list of 5-10 Weekend Words to school each Monday morning. The words are meant to represent the student’s weekend activities, interactions, feelings…etc. When it is time to write, the words are used just like the Remnant Book items or the Photos and Picture Captions outlined above.

On a side note, there is an excellent opportunity for communication here too as the words could start a conversation using the students communication system and there may perhaps be a need for messages to go back and forth to get more clarity. We use step-by-step communicators with some of the students I work with for messages to go back and forth between home and school. We are currently working on ensuring that the messages that go home on these are more student-driven and this might be a good step in to that as in the conversation to figure out the weekend words we might discover together some more questions that we need to ask and then can work to figure out the details of those questions and record it so that the conversation can continue at home.

Writing Book for Tar Heel Reader

Tar Heel Reader is a “collection of free, easy-to-read, and accessible books on a wide range of topics. Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces, including touch screens, IntelliKeys with custom overlays and 1 to 3 switches.” Students may also write and publish their own books using picture from the huge collection at Flickr or pictures they upload. The books can be on any topic and are very easy to write.

When writing books for Tar Heel Reader we move away from using Alternative Pencils and use the student’s communication system instead. This means we are generating either sentences word by word or the student is giving general ideas and we are putting them in to words or sentences. This is because whatever books we finish should go up in the public library although you do have the option to just permanently leave them in draft form.

Because books are so easy to produce on Tar Heel Reader it is a great place to make accessible reading-level appropriate books for students on any topic of their choice so books can be made related to curriculum content of general education classes. It is often hard to find the time to do this but if it is being done as a writing activity, the book then is stored publicly for any future students taking that same class to access as they need it.

Make Your Own Class Newspaper with news-2-you

We have been using news-2-you for three years now. I’ve posted about it several times on this blog before. This past year they added a new feature that allows you to interactively create your own symbol supported class newspaper that mirrors the format of the current events paper that you get each week if you subscribe. It uses a series of interactive screens with questions about what will go in to the news story. The process involves a lot of communicating, choice making, and thinking as to construct the news story you need to be able to come up with the details of the event you are writing about. Once you are finished answering the questions on the interactive pages, it prints off in newspaper format.


This is a great process as you can embed listening comprehension in to the process. We have started with the city newspaper, found a story that is interesting, read the story and then answered the questions, picking out the key details of the story, using the students communication system through the whole process.

Writing Cards Using P.O.D.D. Books (Could use any communication system or partner assisted scanning process)

Authentic writing tasks are always a hit… particularly if you send something out and something comes back! This is something we did very extensively three years ago when we were in a fully self-contained setting. Parents sent in a list of important dates throughout the year and we would spend time every couple of weeks making and writing cards and then mailing them out. It was embedded in to a personal calendar learning process. At that point we did not yet have P.O.D.D. communication books. Our communication approaches were much more restrictive and so we relied on students agreeing or disagreeing with what we believed should be on the cards.


The P.O.D.D. book offers a lot more extensive vocabulary and allows the student to be a lot more autonomous in generating the message. Again, because this is a card that will be sent to someone, we do, for the most part fill in the blanks between the words the student picks using his/her P.O.D.D. book. We also have moved towards buying a pack of multi-purpose cards and using them rather than making the cards so that we are focusing on the writing and communication processes rather than the arts and crafts component. This becomes one of several options that the student has to choose from when it comes time to work on writing.

Mad Libs – Using P.O.D.D. Books (Could use any communication system or partner assisted scanning process)

This one is probably more a communication activity than a writing activity as there are a lot of opportunities to move through the P.O.D.D. book to choose different words that fall in to categories. I’m not sure how much explaining Mad Libs need but the basic idea is that you start with a page where you generate words that fall in to different categories – noun, name of a person, description word, action, adjective…etc. and then once the list of words is generated, it gets transferred to the Mad Lib story (an example to the left) and then you can read the story with the words that were put in to it.


In the reading process there are again opportunities to work on both comprehension and communication and the Mad Lib itself could become a remnant for a students Remnant Book if it is particularly funny.

My Story Maker and Read-Write-Think

My Story Maker is an interactive story making website from Carnegie Library. Students are able to make many choices. A note that the visuals for the choices are relatively small and the choices could not be hooked up to a scanning system so choices have to be done through partner assisted scanning if a student cannot access the mouse of a computer.


The student has any number of choices during the process of writing the story. Each time a choice is made, both the element in the picture an a line of text explaining what is happening are added to the story. A student can create a whole story without ever writing anything but they can also go in and edit or add to any of the text that comes up when elements are added.

When the story is done, it can be read online or it can be printed off and made in to a personal little book. This is an activity that works well with a whole class as it is pretty naturally scaffolded and works great for student who are not sure what to write about. Younger kids really liked the way the books came out looking like real stories and every student comes out with a similar looking books that can be shared. For students working on partner assisted scanning there are countless opportunities for that throughout the creation of the story.


If using this for story writing, it is worth thinking about adding in a “planning” stage that is not so visually stimulating before writing the story. There are a lot of great interactive planning tools to do this on the Read-Write-Think Website. This website has many other ideas for writing and communication. For example: Bio-cubes, Essay Map, or Trading Card Creator.

First Author Writing Software

This is a new product and I have just started exploring the trial version that I got. It looks promising particularly as a way to have student doing work on content-specific curriculum with minimal time needed for set up. Because the video does such a great job of explaining it, I’m just going to include an outline form the website and the video…

From the Don Johnson Website: First Author is a software tools that supports beginning writes, especially those with special needs, across all phases of the writing process. as a computer-based writing environment it operates in parallel with exemplary models of writing instruction. First Author provides the writer with essential accommodations such as picture prompts, word banks, on-screen keyboard, auditory feedback and other tools to ensure a successful writing experience. It is accessible to all students, including those with severe speech and physical impairments.”

Exploring the website I also found a document on First Author Writing Measures that hold a lot of potential as a writing assessment tool for this population of students.

Monica Braat is an Inclusion Facilitator for k-12 students with multiple complex needs. She also is a mom to an amazing Wii-loving 14 year old who, along with her students, reminds her of what really matters in life every single day. She is currently completing her Masters with a focus area of Neuroscience and Inclusive Education through the University of Lethbridge. You can follow her on Twitter or on her blog.

Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee

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