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Building Communication through Literacy for Students with Intensive Disabilities—The inspiring story of Carter School

“Meaningful, purposeful communication is at the heart of learning to read and write. Students who learn that they can use reading and writing to investigate areas of interest, share their ideas, thoughts, and feelings, or interact with new people, understand that the primary purpose of literacy is communication.” -Dr. Caroline Musslewhite, assistive technology specialist and one of the key designers of Readtopia
A teacher at The Carter School reads to a student at a desk, in a classroom.
Mario, a student at the William E. Carter School in Boston, doesn’t say much. In fact, he’s completely nonverbal. But the fact that Mario doesn’t use his voice to communicate certainly does not mean that he doesn’t have anything to say. In fact, thanks to Mario’s hard work with the dedicated staff at his school, he is now able to communicate his opinions and preferences and needs with a smile. Literally.
The Carter School primarily serves nonspeaking students with complex needs. “Most come to us with no formal language system at around the age of twelve,” says Sarah Wakabayashi, M.S., CCC-SLP, who, in addition to her role as speech-language pathologist for the Carter School also serves on Boston Public Schools’ assistive technology team. In order to encourage a student’s ability to communicate effectively, staff at the Carter School use a system of communication based on each student’s most reliable, intentional response to answer yes and no questions. This often involves movement. Some students, like a young man named Carlos, hit a switch with their heads to indicate their yes answers. Some use eye movement or eye blinks. And then there’s Mario, who communicates his yes with a smile-like gesture that resembles a “beautiful Elvis lip movement,” Sarah says.
Two teachers at The Carter School read to students in a special education classroom.

Everyone who works with the Carter School is involved in prompting students to use their yes answers. “For the last several years we have worked as a community of teachers, nurses, paraprofessionals, physical therapists, occupational therapists, lunch ladies, office staff, and [even] the principal, who all collaborate to cue all of our students’ communication skills so that we can generalize them across the context of their day,” says Sarah.

“We love teaching our students,” says Kim Kulasekaran, M.S., the Carter School’s lead teacher, “We believe they deserve to access and connect to the world around them, and communication is essential to making those connections.”
That’s why Sarah and Kim and the rest of the Carter School Team chose to center communication as their whole school instructional focus. And to do so, they put literacy at the forefront. “Experience has taught us that a rich curriculum centered on literacy is the best vehicle for increasing communication in our students,” Kim says.
A teacher works with a student with complex learning needs in a classroom.
To further their students’ communication skills, the Carter School aims to provide their “beautifully complex” students with instruction that is cognitively demanding. To achieve this, the team developed a tool called the Cognitively Demanding Task Matrix, or CDTM for short. “It builds off of an intentional response of a student,” says Sarah. In other words, the Carter School works really hard to systematically challenge their students to advance and generalize communication skills across a variety of novel stimuli, settings, situations, and people.

Literacy + Communication

“Literacy is a perfect context to target increasing communication and language skills,” Sarah says, “and it teaches so many other aspects of communication.”

Since the Carter School made the decision to center on communication and literacy, books have fast become many students’ preferred leisure activity. “They give us a tangible routine where that physical book that students get to hold and touch is a context for a communicative interaction, a routine between the reader and listener, and the book and the story within,” she says. Sarah loves how the stories they share with their students transcend multiple languages and cultures, targets skills like “joint attention,” turn-taking, listening and waiting, and word comprehension.

Non-verbal communication board with a yellow "yes" smiley face and a red "no" X over an aqua blue background with text overlay that reads, "Yes or no - Bees work together to make honey"
“Literacy teaches our students the concept that words in books have meaning and give them an opportunity to show their interest and opinions about a character in a story, or a problem a character is having,” Sarah says, and with the communication skills gained through the Cognitively Demanding Task Matrix, “they can share that opinion with classmates and teachers.”
Nonverbal communication board with a yellow "yes" smiley face next to an image of two bees working together to make honey.
And it’s working. “After three years of focusing on more cognitively demanding tasks in a variety of contexts, including literacy, Mario was not only able to listen to a story, but to use that yes smile to authentically participate, to respond to content questions, and use his yes/no answers to comment about a character or to ask questions about what he’d just learned,” says Sarah.

The Missing Piece

Though the Carter School made great strides forward since first implementing their focus on communication and literacy, they still lacked a curriculum that supported their work. “We teach using simpler vocabulary and less complex sentence forms, but we want books that are age-appropriate [for older students],” Kim says. With Carter’s student population falling between the ages of 12-22, those age-appropriate books for very beginning readers were nearly impossible to come by. There were children’s books written in the kind of simpler language the Carter School requires, but they were all based on topics that failed to engage adolescent and young adult interests and align with state standards.
Collage of early reader books and a picture of a student in classroom, all over a blue background.
An age-appropriateness gap is common between middle and high school students’ interests and text written for beginning readers.
“We had to make up the curriculum on our own, and it was time-consuming,” Kim says, “You have to make it age-appropriate—you have to adapt it—and it’s a lot of work.” At the time, they weren’t aware of any curriculum that would work for all of their students, who differ widely in levels of comprehension, abilities, and interests. They remained on the lookout for a literacy program that was comprehensive, cognitively demanding, and engaging across all disciplines and abilities. And it wasn’t until they attended the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in January of 2020 that they found it.

Readtopia was the answer

Sarah and Kim pose with Dr. Erickson at the ATIA conference.

At AITA, they attended a session on Readtopia taught by Dr. Karen Erickson, author of Comprehensive Literacy for All, and Dr. Caroline Musslewhite, assistive technology specialist. Dr. Erickson and Dr. Musslewhite are founding members of Readtopia, Building Wings’ literacy curriculum designed for students with complex needs. As the presentation went on, the more Sarah and Kim learned about Readtopia, the more excited they became.

Readtopia was an ideal fit for Sarah and Kim’s students because the materials are adapted for a range of older elementary, middle school, and high school students, ranging in reading levels from emergent (beginning) to transitional to conventional. Building on a comprehensive reading curriculum that aligns with state standards, the content pairs both literature and standards-based content areas across ELA, math, science, social studies, and life skills topics.
Nine pages out of Readtopia's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" graphic novel.
Each multi-disciplinary, thematic unit includes age-appropriate multi-level graphic novels (up to seven levels), videos, phonics and word study instruction, informational texts, and the very same classic literature their peers are studying in conventional classes—from Anne of Green Gables to Journey to the Center of the Earth—only carefully leveled and supported with illustrations and images.
Better is always possible, Allison believes. “I would like to see students with disabilities break through artificial limits and realize their full capabilities. How can we get there? By providing teachers with the right resources to reach those expectations,” she says. Readtopia is making it possible every day.
Cover of Readtopia "Upper Elementary Values and Responsibilities Black Beauty" with image of a black horse grazing on grass.
Cover of Readtopia "Marine Life 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (All Emergent)" with underwater picture of a submarine explorer.
Cover of World War II The Story of Anne Frank, with black and white image of Anne Frank.
“I never imagined I could share these works of literature with my students. It’s quite a gift,” says Sarah.
Readtopia was the piece of the communication/literacy/cognitive challenge puzzle they’d been missing all along. By the end of the ATIA session, Kim says that she and Sarah were begging their principal Mark O’Connor “Please please please can you get this for us?” But Mark didn’t need convincing; Kim says that he was just as impressed and excited as they were.

Readtopia Fosters Communication

Just as the Carter School was gearing up to roll out their new curriculum, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and they, like so many other schools, moved to fully remote instruction. The Carter School got to work delivering Readtopia, along with the CDTM, to a virtual format. Some of their students have since returned to in-person learning, but one thing has remained consistent: throughout a pandemic, Readtopia, along with the amazing adaptability of the Carter School’s staff and students, played an important role in fostering communication during an unpredictable school year.
Open laptop with Readtopia Thematic Units website open to Marine Life Teacher Guide page.
All of Readtopia’s materials are accessible through a centralized website and can be printed out, displayed on an interactive whiteboard, presented through an online meeting platform of your choice, and downloaded and pushed out electronically to student devices
Which of Readtopia’s components are most helpful in facilitating student communication, whether on a Chromebook or in the classroom? Here’s what Kim and Sarah say:

Video lessons:

Student wearing a red shirt in a classroom watching a Readtopia video lesson on a smart board.
Kim typically kicks off a new unit with the introduction video. This vivid audio visual content serves to engage student’s attention and spark interest by providing context for the coming story line by introducing the characters and setting. Additional videos add multi-sensory context and provide additional reinforcement throughout the unit.
After the class has viewed the video together, Kim or Sarah present yes and no questions about the information the videos provided. The students use their individual yes and no responses to answer, a strategy that’s useful both remotely and in-person. By combining the video content with the CDTM, “we’re able to have a real conversation with students over Zoom about the lesson!” Sarah says.
Lesson page from Readtopia Thematic Unit "Working Together Anchored by The Gold Bug"

Teacher Guide:

Cover of Readtopia Teacher Guide "Working Together Anchored by The Gold Bug" with page of lesson 5.
“The teacher guide is almost like a whole grad course within these units because they teach you so many skills & strategies in how to better teach your students. Strategies that you can use even outside of the Readtopia curriculum,” Kim says.
Kim points to how the teacher guide imparts Readtopia’s Shared Reading Lessons and CAR (Comment-Ask-Respond) shared reading strategies work to encourage receptive and expressive communication skills

The CAR strategy:

Readtopia CAR strategy on white background with black text that reads, "C - Comment, A - Ask, R - Respond."

Comment: the reader comments on the material they’ve just read aloud and waits five or more seconds for the student to respond

Ask: the reader asks the student a question about the material, and waits five or more seconds for the student to respond

Respond: the reader watches the student carefully and attributes meaning to any communicative act, and adds a little more relevant information

“CAR shared reading strategy provides a structure of engagement and interaction with a story while building communication skills.”

Literacy Comprehension:

“There are a great deal of literature comprehension lessons in the Readtopia teacher’s guide,” Sarah says. “As a Speech-Language Pathologist, of course I want to work on comprehensive questions involving the characters, setting, and events of a story.”
Teacher created Jamboard lesson with get to know you elements on a blue background.

Life Skills lessons:

Readtopia Functional Life Skills Framework Lesson in "Empathy, Grit, and Kindness Anchored by Anne of Green Gables" with Real Life Experience Activity.
The Life Skills lessons included in the Readtopia curriculum implement the storyline and characters to teach social-emotional skills. For example, Carter School students were particularly engaged with a lesson from Anne of Green Gables about behavior and consequences, using the notoriously troublesome but well-intentioned main character as an example.
“The students loved it,” Sarah says. “They loved every single time Ann got in trouble and there was a consequence. Talking about all of that was a hoot, to be honest.”
Seven pages from the Readtopia Anne of Green Gables graphic novel with life skills lessons.
Graphic novels at up to seven levels of difficulty help differentiate reading levels.
Following the lesson, Sarah asked her students questions like: What are the consequences of Ann’s behavior? What made Ann so angry? Have you ever felt this angry before?
Readtopia Lesson page with Anchor Activity and Life Skills Lesson
“Using Readtopia and this lesson was a great way for students to work on that communicative function of sharing information,” Sarah says.

A winning combination

Even though they’ve been navigating a new curriculum through a pandemic, Carter School students and staff are thrilled with Readtopia’s contribution to their school community.
“I personally still can’t get enough of this curriculum,” says Sarah. “Readtopia has given us the curriculum and the context to teach and generalize so many important communication functions,” Sarah says, “I’m so grateful that we have an engaging and rich content so that our students are excited to share information they learned in Zoom breakout rooms with their peers, teachers and families.”
Kim shares that Carlos, the young man who communicates by hitting a switch, is thriving under Readoptia’s instruction. For example, stories like the Swiss Family Robinson, and their dreams about crossing an ocean, create the desire in Carlos to express what he, in turn, dreams about.
“I dream about going to the beach with my family,” was a sentence he shared with other students in a breakout room, and Kim then assisted in emailing to his family, creating a web of communication that extends far beyond classroom walls.
Student created animated graphic of themself in a bed with text overlay that reads, "I dream about going to the beach with my family."


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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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