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Providing Access to Age-appropriate Texts for Individuals with Moderate Intellectual Disabilities

Michelle Spain, M.Ed., a devoted special educator for over a decade, brings knowledge, experience, and current research to teach reading.

The Lack of Current Research

“As students with moderate intellectual disability age and the literature appropriate for their age increases in complexity and content, access to this literature via reading skills often declines (Browder et al., 2009).” (2012, Shurr & Taber-Doughty).

The following literature review attempts to determine best practices for the development of reading comprehension skills for individuals with moderate intellectual disabilities.

In their article, Creating access to the general curriculum with links to grade-level content for students with significant cognitive disabilities, Browder et al, discussed the lack of current research about students who have significant cognitive disabilities and their access to grade-level curriculum. While the National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) identified five components of reading instruction, and the National Council of Teachers of English (1996) identified 12 reading standards, academic research that focuses on students with significant cognitive disabilities only focuses on their attainment of sight words. (Browder, Ahlgrim-Delzell, Courtade-Little, & Snell, 2006). “In a comprehensive review of 128 research studies on teaching reading to students with significant disabilities, Browder, Wakeman, Spooner, et al. (2006) found that nearly all focused on sight words. Thus, there is undue focus on only one (i.e., vocabulary) of the five major components of reading identified by the NRP as being important to overall reading ability” (Browder et al., 2007). The article further discussed the importance of expanding research to include academic skills similar to general education state standards for students with significant cognitive disabilities. While the attainment of life skills was the primary focus of research for this population, it helped to determine effective methods for instruction with these students that can still be applied today.

The Needs of Our Most Vulnerable, Unmet

Unfortunately, given the current Common Core State Standards, the needs of those with cognitive disabilities are difficult to meet considering the pace and complexity of the general education curriculum. Browder et al. expressed that there is a need to teach target skills that have “utility” across the curriculum. They go on to identify and discuss methods for accessing the general curriculum that have been found in current research: pivotal skills, partial participation, and access to age-appropriate materials and settings. While this research did not pertain specifically to teaching grade-level curriculum to students with cognitive disabilities, the data derived from teaching life skills can still be applied to teaching more complex curriculum.

Research suggests educators can target some portion of the grade-level curriculum through partial participation in the general education classroom. Data collected through studies of individuals being taught community skills provides evidence that students with cognitive disabilities need access to grade-level, age-appropriate materials, experiences, and settings (Westling & Floyd, 1990). This research should encourage the use of actual grade-level material, resources, activities, and settings to promote access to the general curriculum.

In an article by Shurr & Taber-Doughty, they discuss Browder et al.’s (2007) four reasons that students with moderate intellectual disabilities should have access to the same age-appropriate texts their typical peers have access to.

1. Improve quality of life

2. Promote high expectations

3. Provide “equitable access” to instruction and materials

4. Increase students’ self-determination

While the importance of access to grade-level, age-appropriate text is important for the above-stated reasons, it also benefits students culturally, socially, and increases their exposure to vocabulary and literacy skills (Shurr & Taber-Doughty, 2012).

Shurr and Taber-Doughty utilized information presented in a multitude of research studies to develop their own study in which they determined the effects of combining visual supports as well as class discussion to age-appropriate read-alouds as a way to increase comprehension skills for students with moderate intellectual disabilities. The results of their study proved very effective. As exhibited through their data, students made repeated gains in reading comprehension once the intervention was in place. The intervention indicated a maintained level, or upward trend for all students involved (Shurr & Taber-Doughty, 2012). Not only was the intervention successful, but social validity interviews confirmed the acceptance, importance, and practicality of the intervention. Students also seemed to respond favorably to the intervention, agreeing that pictures and visuals were helpful, and expressing interest in the stories used.

In discussing their findings, Shurr & Taber-Doughty, go on to conclude that effective strategies and age-appropriate materials are not typically available to middle school students with moderate intellectual disabilities, and that continued research into effective intervention methods for this population is essential (Shurr & Taber-Doughty, 2012).

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The Need for Further Research

The article, Using Read-Alouds of Grade-Level Biographies and Systematic Prompting to Promote Comprehension for Students With Moderate and Severe Developmental Disabilities, discussed Browder, Trela, and Jimenez’s adapted middle school novel in read-alouds format; “To date, this has been the only study to extend read-alouds to older students with moderate and severe developmental disabilities. The need exists for more research to evaluate how read-alouds can promote comprehension of academic content for students with moderate and severe developmental disabilities and how learned skills might generalize to new content” (Browder, Hudson & Mims, 2012). Further explored was the idea that there is limited information about research-based instruction that is linked to grade-level curriculum for teachers that instruct students with intellectual disabilities (Browder, Spooner, Ahlgrim-Delzell, Harris, & Wakeman, 2008; Browder, Wakeman, Spooner, Ahlgrim-Delzell, & Algozzine, 2006).

Browder, Hudson & Mims Carry Out Their Own Study

Browder, Hudson & Mims carried out their own study which investigated the effects of least intrusive prompts on grade-level text that was read aloud to middle school students with intellectual disabilities. The study also looked into students’ abilities to generalize the skills to other texts. The results of their study were promising; students improved their listening comprehension skills, and maintained the ability to provide correct responses two weeks after the intervention. It was also noted that three students generalized these skills to new texts. This intervention was based on a model of literacy that Browder et al. (2009) described in order to provide students with moderate and severe developmental disabilities with opportunities to learn to read through systematic reading instruction, as well as the opportunity to gain understanding of age-appropriate text through listening comprehension skills.

The article discussed that utilizing read-alouds and shared story reading is an effective way to engage beginning and nonreaders in text. This method is an accepted approach to promote young children’s literacy skills, vocabulary development, and receptive word learning; it is also a well-accepted method for teaching students with mild learning disabilities. Through their study they adapted shared story reading of nonfiction biographies to be used with students with moderate and severe disabilities to promote literacy skills. The overall purpose of their study was to build upon Browder et al.’s study of using read alouds with older students with disabilities to promote comprehension. Examination of different techniques such as utilizing the most extensive list of comprehension questions to date and using graphic organizers for teaching reading comprehension were discussed in detail. While it was determined that students with moderate and severe disabilities were able to demonstrate comprehension skills through systematic instruction and adapted grade-level biographies, it is important to observe the implications and questions for further research of this study. Utilization of adapted grade-level material is an implication of this research because it has not been determined, yet, if students could demonstrate similar abilities when the original text is read aloud. Modifying grade-level reading material continues to be one of the most time-consuming requirements of a special educator, and it is questionable if it is even necessary. An alternative instructional method to modifying grade-level text was examined in an article written by Hibbing and Rankin-Erickson.

Illustration to aid in understanding

Illustration to aid in understanding

A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words

Hibbing and Rankin-Erickson discussed the idea that, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Their observations that low-ability readers could not accurately describe images associated with the text being read, led them to investigate the benefits of visuals accompanying text. They further observed that students with low reading comprehension skills often demonstrated limited vocabulary, little background knowledge, and lack of text visualization skills. Through strategic use of visual material, Hibbings and Rankin-Erickson demonstrated improved reading experiences for reluctant and low-ability readers. One strategy stems from Suzuki’s research (1985), on mental imagery, which, says that there is evidence that the utilization of imagery and verbal elaboration aids in students’ abilities to learn and remember material.

The analogy of a television in the mind was created as a way to help students visualize images as they read. Through the use of “television mind” teachers should encourage students to “watch” as they read and to use think-alouds, discussing the mental images produced by the text. Continuous modeling and prompting should be provided within this process. Another strategy discussed by Hibbings and Rankin-Erickson involves student- and teacher-generated drawings. Drawings are another form of visual representation that can provide insight into student learning and understanding, as well as provide clarity to students' understanding of text. According to Snowman & Cunningham, drawing can also assist students in the retention of information. (1975) The suggestion of having students draw a quick sketch on a series of televisions after each read aloud builds upon the television mind analogy, as well as helps students to focus on the main idea of each read aloud. This activity also provides students with visual reminders of the text read prior, as well as serves as a visual aid in making predictions about future events and actions within the text. The next recommendation for visual supports includes illustrations that accompany the text.

Even my own poorly-drawn images aid student understanding of grade-level text

Even my own poorly-drawn images aid student understanding of grade-level text

Picture Books and Movies to Teach Reading?

Prior research found illustrations to be motivational, enjoyable, and encouraging of positive attitudes toward the task of reading. Peeck's (1987). Evidence has also been provided through prior research that pictures help students comprehend text when the image illustrates information directly related to the the text. It was through this use of information that Hibbings and Rankin-Erickson implemented their own use of picture books for teaching reading comprehension to older students. Picture books were used as a method for building background knowledge that was needed in order to understand grade-level novels. Through their own research they found illustrations were an effective tool in providing students with background knowledge they may not have, as well as insight into character emotions they may not have understood. Gombrich’s (1982) idea that images provoke emotions was demonstrated through students’ responses regarding the picture book intervention. Many students responses included specific information about how the images helped them understand the characters’ feelings and emotions. While many students struggle with understanding character emotions and possessing extensive background knowledge, there are some students that simply cannot understand the text until they have a complete visual representation to make sense of it.

In these cases, Hibbings and Rankin-Erickson discuss their last recommendation of using movies to facilitate reading comprehension goals. The motivational factor of utilizing movies was briefly touched upon, but many other benefits were also offered; movies provide details about the setting, time contexts, background knowledge and images. In order to be effective, movies must be used with a specific instructional goal in mind. Movies that provide information about a time period, context, setting, and/or history in relation to a text being read can be used to provide further understanding. Within this instructional method, the movie should not be a visual representation of the book, but should provide information needed to understand the book. In another method discussed, the movie was a visual representation of the book. The method, Watch-Read-Watch-Read (W-R-W-R) cycle of novel reading is recommended when a text is challenging with unfamiliar vocabulary, dialect, setting or time period. In their intervention, a clip of the movie was shown before reading each section, providing visual representation before the text was read. This cycle was to ensure that students were understanding the novel as it was read, as well as to encourage students to visualize, summarize, and make predictions. In discussion of this method, emphasis was placed on the fact that teachers must utilize the movies effectively, which includes leading meaningful discussion, comparing and contrasting similarities and differences between the novel and the movie, and practicing the skills of making predictions and summarizing.

The use of movies to support reading comprehension in a middle school classroom

The use of movies to support reading comprehension in a middle school classroom

Closing Thoughts

While access to age-appropriate texts for students with intellectual disabilities was found to be imperative for their success, there continues to be a lack of resources, information, and research-based methods for implementing grade-level curriculum for this population of students. Through scrutinizing investigation, infantile research-based methods were determined and discussed. Methods, which, include partial participation, visual supports, read alouds, comprehension prompts, picture books, and movies, are all within the beginning stages of research. For decades students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities have not had access to age-appropriate and grade-level material and resources; now that these students have access, educators need work together in determining how to best utilize these tools. Teachers must use and provide their own research-based interventions to contribute to the small amount of information currently available.


Browder, D. M., Wakeman, S. Y., Flowers, C., Rickelman, R. J., Pugalee, D., & Karvonen, M.

(2007). Creating Access to the General Curriculum With Links to Grade-Level Content for Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities. The Journal of Special Education, 41(1), 2-16.

Gombrich, E.H. (1982). The image and the eye: Further studies in the psychology of

pictorial representation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hibbing, A.N., & Rankin-Erickson, J. L. (2003). A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Using

Visual Images to Improve Comprehension for Middle School Struggling Readers: this article discusses teacher and student drawings in the classroom, illustrations in texts, picture books, and movies as external image-based tools that support reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 56 (8), 758.

Mims, P. J., Hudson, M. E., & Browder, D. M. (2012). Using Read-Alouds of Grade-Level

Biographies and Systematic Prompting to Promote Comprehension for Students With Moderate and Severe Developmental Disabilities. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 27(2), 67-80.

Peeck, J. (1987). The role of illustrations in processing and remembering illustrated text. In

D.M. Willows & H.A. Houghton (Eds.), The psychology of illustration: Vol. 1 (pp. 145-155). New York: Springer-Verlag.

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with Moderate Intellectual Disability on Age-Appropriate Texts. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 47(3), 359 –372.

Shurr, J., Taber-Doughty, T., (2017). The Picture Plus Discussion Intervention: Text Access

for High School Students with Moderate Intellectual Disability. Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities, 32(3), 198-208.

Snowman, J., & Cunningham, D.J. (1975). A comparison of pictorial and written adjuncts

in learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 67, 307-311.

Suzuki, N.S. (1985). Imagery research with children: Implications for education. In A.A.

Sheikh & K.S. Sheikh (Eds.), Imagery in education (p 179-198). Farmingdale, NY: Baywood.

© 2021 Michelle Spain

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