News & Events
Our Project
Our Biographies














5 Currents of Literacy

Children with significant developmental disabilities develop skills with the social tools of literacy in environments that support the following fluid currents.

a)  Making sense of the stories of others: Basic to literacy development is understanding that others have meaningful stories or ideas to tell. Children with significant disabilities must be in environments where they participate and are supported in interpreting the stories and ideas of others through: books, conversation, pretend play, structured and informal play and academic activities, group times, etc.

b)  Finding and expressing meaning in one’s own experience. Also basic to literacy development is the need for a child to understand that her or his own experiences, ideas, and emotions are worthy of expression and can be conveyed in ways that are decipherable to others. Children with significant developmental disabilities must be understood as full and valued citizens of the classroom with rich experiences, ideas, and stories to share.

c)  Communicating thought through graphic symbol. Participating in the stories of others’ or in the expression of one’s own experience is always a process of shared communication made increasingly clear and efficient through the use of symbols and symbol systems. These symbols and symbol systems must be understood across community members. Young children with significant developmental disabilities must be in environments that foster developing sophistication with their construction and use of shared graphic symbols for communication.

d)   Interpreting others’ graphic symbols. While children with significant developmental disabilities develop their capacities to convey meaning through shared graphic symbols and symbol systems [(c) above], they are also growing in their skills with understanding the graphic symbols others use for expression. In essence, our research supports the developing understanding that writing [e.g., expression through symbols] begets reading [e.g., interpreting the symbols of others] every bit as much as the traditional understanding that reading begets writing.

e)  Deriving joy from critical, reflective engagement with printed language and other graphic symbol systems. Developing sophistication with graphic symbols and symbol systems  for children with significant developmental disabilities is most effective when the children experience the tremendous intellectual and emotional thrill that occurs when discovering the ideas and stories of others and in sharing and connecting their own stories. For nondisabled children and adults, the emotions associated with getting lost in literature are recognized. This must be a part of  all children’s experience.

Children with significant developmental disabilities are commonly presumed to be unable to participate within theses currents, yet, successful scenarios have been observed in particular inclusive classrooms.  These 5 currents are interactional and interdependent and the child with significant developmental disabilities may grow in sophistication within each current and across all 5. Literate sophistication involves a tension between conforming to conventions and imaginatively straying from direct conventions in original, albeit meaningful and connected, ways.


The contents of this site were developed under grants from the U.S. Department of Education (nos. H324D010031 & H324C040213).  However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and no endorsement by the Federal Government should be assumed.  For further information, please contact the project Directors Dr. Christopher Kliewer at christopher.kliewer@uni.edu or Dr. Christi Kasa-Hendrickson at christi.hendrickson@uccs.edu.