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Inclusive Literacy Instruction:
Defining Comprehensive Literacy “for ALL”

Dr. David Koppenhaver delivered the keynote address at Building Wings’ 2023 Virtual Summer Summit, building upon Dr. Karen Erickson’s keynote from the 2022 Virtual Summer Summit by defining inclusive literacy instruction and providing a framework for educators to use to assure that “ALL” students are considered in curriculum selections.

“What does it mean to actually teach children?” Dr. Koppenhaver, co-author of ‘Comprehensive Literacy for All with Erickson’, asks in the beginning of his presentation. Then he elaborates: “Not some children, but ALL children.”

Said differently: “To what extent do our materials, lessons, methods, and tasks include all of our students at all times?”

These questions ground Dr. Koppenhaver’s address as he worked his way through examples of curriculum and instruction, including a LETRS kindergarten phonics lesson, to show how inclusive lessons vary from lessons that are less inclusive–and therefore less effective. Watch a recording of Dr. Koppenhaver’s presentation which is also summarized below.

What is comprehensive literacy instruction?

Dr. Koppenhaver reviews the definition of comprehensive literacy instruction, which is instruction that “addresses each of the elements that is required for a student to learn to read with comprehension and write to convey thinking [ultimately independently].”
To achieve comprehensive literacy, students first move through emergent literacy, which encompasses all of the reading and writing that individuals do before they read and write in conventional ways.

What is literacy inclusion?

Dr. Koppenhaver defines literacy inclusion as “meeting the learning needs of all the children in your classroom/clinic/school/home/facility all the time. It requires a specific and serious consideration of learning differences, skills, understandings, capabilities, and interests of your particular students.” Most significantly, notes Dr. Koppenhaver, inclusion is an ideal sought but never fully achieved.

While UDL (Universal Design for Learning) can be a useful framework to use, its considerations may need to be specific, says Dr. Koppenhaver, as to who needs those adaptations or when, why, and what we should do if those adaptations don’t work for certain learners.

Dr. Koppenhaver reminds us that “all teaching is a compromise.” That is, every learning opportunity also has a learning cost. It’s the instructor’s job to maximize the opportunity and minimize the cost for all students.

Examples of non-inclusive instruction

Moving on from definitions and pedagogical ideals, Dr. Koppenhaver shows a worksheet that asks students to list three things they recently learned about trash in the ocean. The student who completed this worksheet, Henry, has listed:

  1. you can make things with it
  2. you clean it up
  3. there’s a lot of it.
The teacher’s feedback–circled in red in the image below–doesn’t address the content of Henry’s ideas. Instead, the feedback instructs Henry to “write smaller” and corrects his capitalization.
photograph of writing worksheet with student errors circled in red.
Dr. Koppenhaver draws our attention to the misalignment between the curricular focus and the instructional focus. While the curricular focus is on trash in the ocean, the instructional focus, as seen by the teacher’s feedback, is on Henry’s writing form: the size of his writing and his use of capital letters.
Dr. Koppenhaver argues that the lack of any positive feedback, combined with the lack of any feedback about the content of Henry’s ideas, begins to send Henry the message that writing isn’t about communicating or representing learning. Instead, it’s about conforming to language’s technical standards to avoid being criticized.

In a subsequent example, Dr. Koppenhaver analyzes a LETRS phonics lesson. The purpose of the lesson is to learn the sound and the name of the letter “D,” and the wall behind the teacher is filled with pictures of people’s mouths as they make consonant and vowel sounds.

Dr. Koppenhaver lists the many faulty messages that this lesson sends, which include:

  • Emphasizing “watching” and “listening” as essential to learning how to read
  • Relying on a confusing “sound wall” of mouths saying sounds in isolation, arranged into a “consonant wall” and a “vowel valley” 
  • Identifying the lesson’s purpose for reading as learning a single letter, when a reading purpose should always be centered on meaning/comprehension 
  • Asking students to use their fingers to “tap” out the sounds in the word “dog,” which excludes students who don’t have that motor function

What inclusive instruction looks like

Blue and green infographic titled: Inclusive Literacy Instruction: What it Looks Like with examples of more and less inclusive examples. The more inclusive examples include: Anchor-Read-Apply guided reading. • Facilitating personal written topic choices. • Identifying student learning needs in drafts for follow-up mini-lessons. • Readings inclusive of respectful depictions of characters with disabilities/differences. • Independent and support reading of personally-interesting texts. • Writing daily for diverse audiences and purposes.

Dr. Koppenhaver explains that instruction is inclusive only when it meets the learners’ needs, be they fine motor, speech, cognition, or attention needs. Inclusive instruction builds upon the learners’ existing understandings and experiences, does not distract from real reading or writing in order to gain attention or engagement, and is delivered efficiently, without impeding any students’ progress within or beyond the activity. 

Less inclusive instruction, in contrast, talks about, identifies, or labels language rather than practices language itself. It requires memorization of rules, practices bits of language in isolation without connecting immediately to application in meaningful reading and writing, or requires particular physical or verbal responses.

How to provide inclusive literacy instruction

When designing inclusive instruction, Dr. Koppenhaver encourages educators to:

  1. Strive for learning opportunities that are fair, not equal, across your current students.
  2. Provide students with cognitive clarity.
  3. Stay away from curricula and instruction that emphasize talking about language, identifying aspects of language in isolation, or using rote repetition of rules and examples.
  4. Maximize student application of learning in contextualized reading and writing.
  5. Consider your current students’ specific differences.

When it comes to “literacy for all,” ideas and experiences are more important than convention and form, Dr. Koppenhaver maintains. The purpose is to foster genuine engagement around ideas and language. That’s when literacy truly becomes “for all.”


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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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