All Means All: Supporting Language and Literacy Development for Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities*

*Before you decide maybe this blog post isn’t for you, like I might have done a year ago, please read through this preface.

Our blogs this year have focused mostly on how to design systems for effective literacy instruction. I have written those posts partly because they are much-needed topics, but also because I was following my instinct as a writer to, “Write what you know.” And systems for literacy is what I know.

Even though “writing what we know” may enhance our own writing, it can also create and perpetuate inequities. When we collectively as a society write and say what “we” know, but that “we” only represents some, we raise the voices of the powerful and privileged and ignore the quiet roar of others who do not have the same access to the platform. I, like many of you, am learning of the many ways I have let my voice be heard while allowing others’ voices to be silenced. One of the ways I have done so has been by supporting improvements in literacy instruction for most students, without even realizing I was leaving some students behind.

This year, in my new role as SST, I have engaged in ongoing professional learning with Shawna Benson, Program Director for Teaching Diverse Learners Center at OCALI (Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence). She has opened my eyes to a group of students who often go unnoticed in public education, students with low incidence disabilities. Today, I am taking on writing about students I didn’t learn about in my last 20 years in education with the hope that I can spread the word to others like me. Because I still don’t know enough to write on this topic solo, I reached out to Shawna for help with this post, which she graciously agreed to. (Thank you, Shawna, for all of the learning and support.) I hope some of you may have reconsidered whether this post is for you, because this post is for all of us in education.


Today, we are zooming in to ensure language and literacy achievement for each and every student, specifically those with low incidence disabilities. Just as for any other student, we can ensure growth and achievement for students with disabilities through the science of language, reading, and writing.

What are Low-Incidence Disabilities exactly?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines low-incidence disabilities as:

  • a visual or hearing impairment, or simultaneous visual and hearing impairments;
  • a significant cognitive impairment; or
  • any impairment for which a small number of personnel with highly specialized skills and knowledge are needed in order for children with that impairment to receive early intervention services or a free appropriate public education.

Typically, less than 1% of a state’s student population will have a low-incidence disability. The State of Ohio has several disability categories that could be considered low-incidence:

  • Autism (ASD)
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-Blindness (DB)
  • Hearing Impairment (HI)
  • Intellectual Disability (ID)
  • Multiple Disabilities (MD)
  • Orthopedic Impairment (OI)
  • Other Health Impairment (OHI)
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
  • Visual Impairment (VI)

Why the focus on language and literacy?

As humans, we are innately social beings. Our complex system of communication is central to our ability to connect socially, as well as learn from each other. Language and literacy are, simply put, means of communication. Communicating through language and literacy typically requires the use many parts of the body, including the lips, tongue, teeth, facial muscles, throat, lungs, diaphragm, eyes, ears, arms, shoulders, hands, and of course, the brain. When a student has a disability that affects the function of one or more of these, we as educators must find alternative routes to ensure effective two-way communication. Ensuring effective two-way communication forms the basis of all effective accommodations and modifications to evidence-based language and literacy instruction.

What is the difference between communication and language and literacy?

Communication is an exchange of ideas; language is the system we use to exchange ideas. By language, we are not referring only to verbal expressions, although they are by far the most common way humans communicate. Language also encompasses non-verbal (e.g., gestures, expressions), written, and visual (e.g., pictures, charts, signed languages) representations of meaning. For our purposes here, we define literacy as written language, namely reading and writing.

The Non-Negotiable: Two-Way Communication

If you are like me a year ago, you may feel completely clueless about how to support communication with students who do not communicate like you do. But there are at least two contexts in which I bet you have already had practice quite naturally supporting two-way communication with others who did not communicate like you.

For anyone, anywhere, we enable communication by ensuring comprehensible input and output. Two contexts in which we very naturally use comprehensible input and output are when interacting with babies and toddlers, or with speakers of another language. However, these concepts apply to anyone at any age who is learning how to communicate in any form.

Comprehensible input is simply communication that the hearer/receiver understands (Krashen, 1982). For example, most caregivers very naturally adapt their language to make it comprehensible to young children. Imagine a mother caring for her 2-year-old son. While reading a book, she will likely point to pictures to show the meaning of words, explain unknown words or concepts with her own child-friendly language, and make connections between the book and the child’s own life. The mother does this intuitively (usually without training), based on two simple truths: (1) she sees the purpose of reading as meaning-making, and (2) she has a keen sense of what meaning her son can make / is making during the reading, and what is going to be confusing to him. Therefore, she says and does other things around reading the book itself to ensure the child understands the confusing stuff. That’s making comprehensible input!

Comprehensible output is the opposite—it is enabling a speaker to respond and interact, in ways that are received and understood (Swain & Lapkin, 19951). One context in which we may naturally seek comprehensible output is when communicating with someone who speaks a different language. For example, imagine you are in a store in a foreign country, and you are trying to make a purchase from a store owner who speaks very little English. You might ask the question, “How much?” in English, while holding up a scarf and pointing to your money (making comprehensible input). By posing a (comprehensible) question directly to the owner, you have also sought comprehensible output. Now, the store owner knows you speak English, and may respond “Three”, while holding up 3 fingers and pointing to the scarf. And so on. You both are able to complete the transaction using layers of language (words, phrases, gestures, objects), albeit without the same language complexity you would use with an English speaker, but communicating effectively nonetheless. This transaction would not be possible without seeking comprehensible output.

These two concepts, comprehensible input and output, can be applied to anyone who is learning to communicate in any form, and thus should be considered foundational to supporting students with a wide range of low incidence disabilities. When we speak or read in ways that ensure each child understands, and then seek and support communication in ways that others understand, we are enabling and developing communication skills, the very heart of language and literacy.

What does this look like in practice?

Below are beginner’s guides for Language, Reading, and Writing instruction for students with low incidence disabilities. These guides are focused on beginning reading and writing acquisition (aka early and conventional literacy), or the language and literacy skills that would typically develop in preschool through 5th grade. However, these considerations are appropriate for any student who is acquiring language and literacy skills in this range, regardless of age or grade.

Each guide is organized in three parts:

  • The Science – Focal components of instruction
  • Evidence-based Tier 1/Core Instruction – Evidence-based instruction is effective for all students, because it is based on two relatively stable things: (1) how our language works, and (2) how our brains work
  • Accommodations – ways to ensure comprehensible input and output in all instructional contexts, to enable true access to core instruction for each student.


The Science: For our purposes here, we focus on language as communication, including the components of receptive and expressive language. These recommendations are foundational to supporting two-way communication through comprehensible input and output, and thus should be included in every context across the day.


The Science: The guide for Reading is based on the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) and the Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001). These models divide reading into two factors, language comprehension (focused on the meaning) and word recognition (focused on the code), each of which is comprised of several components. The guide below is organized according to the components you see in the Reading Rope graphic. These recommendations are in addition to the supports for Language that will be necessary in any instructional context.


The Science: The guide for Writing is based on the Writing Rope (Sedita, 2019). Just like the reading rope, this model divides writing into two factors, composition (focused on the meaning) and transcription (focused on the code), each of which is comprised of several components. The guide below is organized according to the components you see in the Writing Rope graphic. The recommendations below are to be provided in addition to supports for the Language and Reading demands of the Writing task.


Each and every student must be able to communicate to connect with and learn with others. Language and literacy are our richest forms of communication, and thus we should teach in order that all students acquire the ability to read and write. The first step in doing so is ensuring comprehensible input and output in effective, evidence-based core instruction for all students, including students with low-incidence disabilities.




1 The way in which I am using this term differs a bit from the focus of the theory in second language acquisition. My intent here is simply to highlight the importance of seeking output that can be understood.

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