Parents' Corner

April 2010

Robin Hurd

AAC and Literacy Conference Summary:  The Four Blocks™ Literacy Model

By Valerie Maples

This month’s article is from guest writer and parent Valerie Maples.   Valerie attended the AAC and Literacy conference with Dr. Karen Erickson, Director, Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at UNC and Dr. David Koppenhaver, Professor of Reading at Appalachian State University. Below she details what she learned through this experience.  Thanks so much, Valerie, for sharing your experience with us!


've had a while to mull over all the information presented at the AAC and Literacy Conference sponsored by the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and I still can't quite wrap my mind around all of it. Dr. Karen Erickson and Dr. David Koppenhaver, two of the most highly regarded experts on literacy, presented us with valuable information, scientific evidence, and physical proof that students of all abilities benefit from literacy exploration. It is their belief, no, conviction, that all students are capable of reading and writing. The proof was irrefutable and the examples were inspiring.

The conference focused on a structured learning plan - The Four Blocks™ Literacy Model - developed by Dr. Patricia Cunningham,
a professor of education at Wake Forest University and Dorothy Hall, a former curriculum coordinator, who has taught at the elementary and college level. Significant time was spent demonstrating programs developed by the Literacy Center sponsored by Chapel Hill including the Deaf-Blind project, work by Gretchen Hanser, and outreach work students with low socioeconomic status in rural North Carolina. Additional footage and training supporting literacy opportunities for girls with Rett syndrome was discussed and was incredibly informative. At the conclusion of this article, you can get a first-hand look at their work with two participants from the Deaf-Blind classroom.

The Four Blocks™ Literacy Model is based on the premise that students benefit from four, 30 minute learning sessions, one each devoted to self-directed reading, guided reading, working with words, and writing.  They emphasize that writing without standards must be a daily occurrence.

During self-directed reading, the child has an opportunity to choose his own book in a format accessible to him and allows him to read for pleasure with no planned purpose or evaluation. Providing a variety of choices to fit each individual student’s interests is essential. Tar Heel Reader is a free online resource that provides interesting reading material for older learners who read at a very basic level. It also provides an opportunity for students to write their own books and publish them to the web site. 

In guided reading the teacher leads the process, helping the student identify important concepts.  Teachers may focus on a variety of comprehension strategies during this time: activating prior knowledge of the topic, predicting what will happen next, using graphic organizers such as webs and story maps, and encouraging students to ask questions in their mind as they are reading. Working with words focuses on developing a word wall of common words that are central to the writing process.  Students may use word sorts, word hunts, making words, rhymes and other activities to become familiar with word patterns that will help them recognize common words by sight and use this knowledge to de-code similar but unfamiliar words.

Writing without standards is a time when students use whatever means possible to write. The child can use anything from a traditional pencil to a keyboard to single switch or two switch scanning, to write whatever they want, however they want, without any assessment, correction or comment on their writing in either form or substance.  They might select the letter "a" 30 times or scribble random letters, but you simply date and retain samples for down the road.  Samples of this can be seen in the two case stories (Matthew and Jake) in the resources section at the end of this article.


In the resources section of this article you will also find several ideas on accessible tools. They include among other options, alphabet eye gaze frames, print and Braille flip charts, Intellikeys overlays, and switch accessible onscreen keyboards. Exploration of alternate tools for kids who cannot write in traditional ways was demonstrated with even severely handicapped kids who appeared initially to have no awareness of even having a tool, but daily writing with their most effective alternate tool led to emerging literacy in both reading and writing.

To say that their methods represent a paradigm shift would be an understatement. It's basically turned everything I know on its side and forced me to look at things from a new perspective. The nature of reading disabilities goes far beyond the child’s disability, and encompasses issues of ineffective or inappropriate instruction, due to lack of underlying skills. Over and over again the presenters demonstrated how children who had not made progress with one program could benefit from a simple analysis of skills, while continuing to attack literacy with The Four Blocks ™ Literacy Model, supplementing with an additional 30 minutes a day in a target area. This comprehensive approach produced absolutely amazing results.

Dr. Erickson and Dr. Koppenhaver stressed that while participation is important, cognitive engagement is essential.   We need to move away from motivators and reinforcers and move towards cognitive engagement to enhance children’s literacy skills.  One of my favorite mantras, “NOT using device for tell/test/show me” is another cornerstone of AAC and literacy.  We were taught how to use reverse vocabulary - asking our kids to describe words instead of plugging in obscure vocabulary.  This means we have to be very thoughtful about use of symbols and icons.  By building on connections, not definitions, we are scaffolding true learning and will be better able to link new information to known information to make it relevant so they can relate it to real experiences.

I hope I can find time to share more about the process and more tools, but above all, I hope if others have the opportunity to attend a workshop with Dr. Karen Erickson and Dr. David Koppenhaver, that they jump at the chance! 

Wonderful resources are available at:

Books and materials to support The Four Blocks ™ Literacy Model of reading instruction can be found at Carson Dellosa Publishing Company.

AAC ConsumerNet ----- Check it out!

Your feedback is always valued.

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