Colin Griffiths reports on a workshop held in Cologne on literacy & intellectual disability


This is a report of the proceeding of a workshop that was held over two days in March 2013 in the Department of Education of the Faculty of Health Sciences in the University of Cologne.

Professor Barbara Fornefeld was host to a group of 12 researchers whose common interest was literacy, its relationship with communication and how a deeper understanding of these subjects might enhance the lives of people with intellectual disability, but in particular those with severe, profound and multiple intellectual disability. I have synopsised one or two of the presentations that are perhaps most interesting.

1. Teaching of literacy to pupils with severe and profound intellectual disability
Professor Juliet Goldbart from Manchester Metropolitan University and Hazel Lawson (University of Exeter) discussed how literacy can be made real for pupils with severe and profound intellectual disability. They explained how a research project they had been engaged in sought to explore through observation, interviews and the analysis of documents how teachers promote literacy for those who do not read in the conventional sense. The researchers observed 122 lessons in 35 schools for children with severe learning disability across the United Kingdom. They went to schools that had been reported as having a high standard of literacy teaching. They also interviewed 61 teachers and examined policy documents that related to literacy.

The researchers found that most teachers thought that literacy and communication were related. Many teachers said they used books, poems and stories to promote literacy; a small number of others talked of using drama, rhyme and incorporating phonics into these approaches. Teachers mentioned using symbols to explore literacy. They used PECS, pictures and photos and augmentative and alternative technologies. They identified that they taught at a slow pace and used multisensory approaches. Literacy was seen as being developed in partnership between the pupil and the teacher, using approaches that require little or no reading. It was suggested that literate practice involves a pupil making intentional use of an item to make an enduring representation in order to convey meaning in a purposeful way (Lawson et al 2012). The researchers suggested that important communication practices that contributed to the development of literacy for pupils with severe and profound and multiple intellectual disability included establishing joint attention to literacy events and having a balanced exchange between teacher and pupil using real objects or items that are meaningful to the pupil, all of which is quite reminiscent of the methods used in intensive interaction (Nind and Hewitt 2001).

2. The nature of literacy for those with severe intellectual disability
Nicola Grove explored what is the essence of literacy. She suggested that the purpose of both reading and writing is to communicate things, record things and commit things to memory. Nicola explored how useful pictures and symbols are to indicate meaning to people with severe intellectual disability. She concluded that often pictures work less well than symbols because symbols retain an inherent essence of the concept that they communicate, whereas pictures often do not. As there are several ways of communicating a concept or an idea to another, it was suggested that each child should be assessed to ascertain which type of representational form works best for the child—whether an object, a picture or a symbol. The presentation emphasised the importance of telling stories with people with more severe intellectual disability and she noted that different communication forms worked with different individuals and it was important to explore these with each person.

3. The Next Chapter Book Club
Tom Fish, a retired academic from Ohio, described the ‘Next Chapter Book Club’ which meets weekly for people with and without disabilities to talk about books. There are numerous book clubs across the USA and in some European countries. Each club consists of 6 to 8 members and two facilitators who meet once a week for an hour in a local coffee shop. Anyone can become a member regardless of their age, disability or reading level. The facilitators are usually college students, professionals, retired people and people with disabilities. They commit to supporting one book club meeting each week. People meet for a coffee or tea, chat, read over or discuss a book and generally have a relaxed hour of chat and friendship. The book clubs support social connectness and encourage members to develop their creativity, their literacy and their confidence. It is not necessary to be able to read to participate, simply to be interested in what happens. The book clubs appear to be very popular with both facilitators and members. (Book club organisers who are willing to support the growth of new book clubs can be contacted at

Other presentations at the workshop included a discussion of how people with profound intellectual disability communicate and how people with severe intellectual disability grieve and deal with bereavement.

Coming away from the meeting I felt that I had learnt that literacy is for all people; it may involve reading, being read to, or other more unconventional approaches to communication. In short, literacy is a bridge that can foster understanding for people with intellectual disability at any level.


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