Author

Dr. Jaumeiko Coleman and Dr. Angela Labrie Blackwell

The road to becoming literate is paved with many teachers, like those in schools, after-care, and home (family members help hone reading skills too!). Occupational therapists (OTs) and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are teachers of early childhood literacy skills (i.e., reading and writing) who may be less familiar to you.

Occupational therapists support children who can benefit from the development of underlying skills, identification of motivating factors, and environmental modifications that enhance their access to learning and classroom materials.

Speech-language pathologists help children who struggle to accurately produce speech sounds in words and sentences as well as children who have a hard time verbally communicating their thoughts or understanding messages spoken by others.

Some OTs and SLPs work directly on reading and/or writing skills, which are considered to be “written language skills.” According to the National Reading Panel (2000) there are five critical components for developing reading skills known as the Big 5:

  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonics
  • Vocabulary
  • Reading fluency
  • Reading comprehension

To achieve those skills, students need to be strong in the areas of focus for OTs and SLPs such as spoken language, print awareness, handwriting, sensory processing, and self-regulation.

The techniques OTs and SLPs use to help children learn the Big 5 and related literacy skills can be used by classroom teachers to help all children achieve strong reading and writing abilities. Below are tips and how-to examples for weaving those techniques into classroom instruction:

1. Phonological Awareness

To enhance phonological awareness, help children learn to use their bodies to identify sounds and syllables in spoken words:

  • Show students that placing a hand under the chin while saying a word helps to identify syllables in words. For additional sensory input, let children toss a bean bag for each syllable.
  • Clap or march out sounds in words of interest to students (e.g., pet name).

2. Print Awareness

To raise print awareness, show children the connection between their spoken words and printed words as a bridge to understanding the concept of words written in a book.

Ask students to draw a picture and then tell you about the drawing. Write down what each student shared and then read it aloud. Point to the words read to highlight the speech-to-print connection.

3. Phonics

To boost phonics, use pictures and manipulatives to help children solidify their understanding of letter-sound associations.

  • Have students paste pictures and photos on a page and then label each image in writing or with letters they can paste.
  • Ask students to build words using letter manipulatives and then change one or more letters in each word to represent different objects you display.

4. Vocabulary

To promote vocabulary growth, incorporate tactile and kinesthetic activities to facilitate memorization of word meanings.

  • Ask students to use available resources to build an obstacle course. They should determine the order of the course and label the “obstacles.” Have them describe movements through the obstacle course (e.g., Go through the dark cave).
    • Go through the dark cave (cardboard box)
    • Crawl over the bumpy hill (pillows)
    • Creep under the hot laser beams (streams)
  • Ask students to verbally retell a story you read aloud and then create a collage of a scene in the story using textured objects (e.g., cotton balls). Students can write associated vocabulary words beneath the scene.

5. Writing Content

To encourage meaningful writing, embed practice into the daily routine.

  • Provide different writing tools (e.g., pencils, crayons), paper textures, and decorations (e.g., stickers, stencils) for student journaling routines. Offer an alphabet strip but also allow inventive spelling and imaginary letters.
  • Create a “message center” in your classroom where students can write and leave each other messages or pictures. Keep the area stocked with slips of paper and writing tools. Model use of the message center consistently.

6. Handwriting

To help with handwriting, use multisensory media to promote underlying skills like letter alignment and mature writing grasp.

  • Help students sense the line boundaries on writing paper by putting a glue strip on the writing baseline. Have students use letter manipulatives to construct words. Instruct students to write those words without going below the writing baseline (glue strip).
     
  • Write words on paper. Tape the paper to cardboard. Encourage students to “trace” the words by pushing a golf tee through the paper for extra sensory input.

7. Reading Comprehension

To foster reading comprehension, leverage and build students’ listening comprehension abilities.

  • Have students act out activities or scenes after they read a book. For example, after reading a book about cookies, you can make cookies with your class. Ask them questions that connect the book content to the activity they completed after they read the book.
  • Have students draw or write what they think will come next in a book after you have read aloud the first few pages. Students can share whether their picture aligns with what happens next after they read the remainder of the book.

Incorporation of the above tips into classroom literacy practices creates an opportunity for all students to acquire and practice reading and writing skills in different ways. A complement to hands-on reading acquisition efforts is the use of student-centered early literacy programs like WORD Force, a free digital resource geared to K-2 students that provides practice in skills such as phonological awareness, phonics, spelling, vocabulary use, and reading comprehension.

Remember that the proverb about “it takes a village to raise a child” applies to supporting students’ learning. Reach out to other educators, including OTs and SLPs, for new ways to help all children learn sophisticated skills like literacy. We all understand the importance of early childhood literacy, now it’s time for us to take action. Everyone benefits, students and educators alike, when instructional collaboration takes place. So, go find your people!

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References

Asher, A., & Nichols, J. D. (2016). Collaboration around facilitating emergent literacy: Role of occupational therapy. Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, and Early Intervention, 9, 51–73.

Bazyk, S., Michaud, P., Goodman, G., Papp, P., Hawkins, E., & Welch, M. A. (2009). Integrating occupational therapy services in a kindergarten curriculum: A look at the outcomes. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63(2), 160-171.

Hanser, G. (2010). Emergent literacy for children with disabilities. OT Practice, 15(3), 16-20.

Hanser, G. (2010). Making simple books. OT Practice, 15(21), 7-8

Grajo, L.C. (2019).  Best practices in literacy: Reading to enhance participation. In G.F. Clark, J.E. Fioux, B.E. Chandler, & J. Cashman (Eds.), Best practices for occupational therapy in schools (pp.421-428). AOTA Press.

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.).(2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read : an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Dr. Jaumeiko Coleman is the Vice President of Early Literacy Impact at EVERFI. In her role she enjoys collaborating with colleagues across units as well as external stakeholders on early literacy projects as a subject matter expert. Dr. Coleman’s career focus on spoken language and literacy has been infused in her work in public and private schools, public and private universities, and a not-for-profit association. She is a speech-language pathologist and a board member of the Learning Disabilities Association of Georgia and Learning Disabilities Association of America.


Dr. Angela Labrie Blackwell is Associate Professor and Doctoral Coordinator at the University of St. Augustine-Austin Campus. Her clinical experience includes a variety of systems, such as early intervention settings, school-based settings, pediatric hospitals, and community pediatric settings. Her service focuses on promoting participation in important childhood occupations in authentic environments. Dr. Blackwell’s research interests include early literacy, self-regulation, sensory processing, occupational justice, strengths-based approach, resilience, and interprofessional collaboration in the classroom.