ENHANCING LANGUAGE ARTS
FOR SPECIAL POPULATIONS:
by LIZ GOLDFARB AND SHEILA SALMON
Language Arts, Vol. 70, November 1993
(Reprinted with permission)
This special project, implemented in over 100 schools in New York
City, brings together teachers and librarians in a unique effort to work with
Since the advent of Public Law 94-142: Education for All Handicapped
Children Act, which mandates that all children who meet the age eligibility
requirement be provided with a free public education in the least restrictive
environment, schools have struggled to provide an appropriate education for
students regardless of their disability. In 1990-91, some 4,367,630 children
age 6-21 participated in Special Education Programs under Chapter I and Part B
of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Many other children with special
needs are served within general education programs.
While the population of special students grows, however, the supply of
qualified special education teachers does not. It was estimated
that an additional 29,774 special education teachers were needed to fill
vacancies and replace uncertified staff in the United States during 1987-88
(Billingsley & Cross, 1991).
There is also a growing concern among educators that the current
special programs are not providing "the least restrictive environment" or
meeting the needs of special populations. The Regular Education Initiative
supporters urge that special education be restructured so that many more mildly
disabled students would receive all instruction in a general classroom
(Cullinan, Sabomie, & Crossland, 1992; Maheady & Algozzine, 199 1).
Some studies suggest that better service can be given to all children
in an integrated special and general education program (Alper, 1992; Villa
& Thousand, 1992; Wang, Walberg, & Reynolds, 1992). The shortage of
qualified special education teachers may be addressed with more inclusion
programs focusing on the collaboration between special education and general
education teachers (Friend & Cook, 1992). Indeed, a study of 105 experts in
35 states showed that general educators and special educators agreed on
essential teaching practices in 82% of the cases (Cannon, Idol, & West,
1992). Experts urge more research to determine which practices are effective
with which populations (Bacon & Schulz, 1991; Cannon, Idol, & West,
Teachers in both general education and special education express
concern that they have not been adequately trained to meet the needs of the
students under their care (Lee, 1992; Obiakor, 1992; Philips, Allred, Brulle,
& Shank, 1990). Classroom teachers, librarians, and subject specialists
struggle to meet the challenge of populations with increasingly diverse needs:
physical, emotional, social, and intellectual.
The Library Power Project Serves Special Students
What can teachers do to serve better their special students? How can
they identify resources, adapt materials, develop a network of support, and
further their own training? We have observed a variety of successful approaches
in schools that are participating in the Library Power Project. The Fund for
New York City Public Education's Library Power Project, now in its fifth year
of operation, is part of a national initiative funded by the DeWitt
Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. The project renovates and revitalizes elementary
school libraries, provides matching funds for books, and provides staff
development for librarians and teachers. One hundred and forty-two public
elementary schools serving more than 100,000 general education and special
education students in New York City participate in the program.
A few of these schools serve only special needs children from birth to
age 21. Other schools serve special children in satellite programs, and still
others mainstream their special population. A full-time teacher/librarian works
with teachers and children on an as-needed schedule, rather than a fixed one. A
significant part of the program is monthly staff development meetings when
librarians share experiences and develop support networks.
Teachers in both general education and special education express
concern that they have not been adequately trained to meet the needs of the
students under their care.
The Library Power Project stresses the importance of including every
child in the library program, regardless of the handicapping condition. This
policy of inclusion strengthens mainstream efforts within the school and helps
break down barriers between general education students and special students. In
many cases the librarian has become a catalyst for change within the school as
administrators, teachers, parents, and students observe special students
participating in programs, assisting as library helpers, and performing for
other students and parents.
Library Power urges librarians to collaborate with other teachers and
specialists to develop skills to serve special students. Special students,
according to their handicapping condition, may need equipment such as lap-held
communication boards, page turners, and adaptive switches for audio equipment
and toys. These devices are created to adapt to an individual's specific
physical needs. The teacher or librarian works with the physical therapist to
learn how to assist children who use them. Librarians serving special children
may also need to be familiar with fingerspelling, American Sign Language, and
As with teaching all children, teaching methods are directed toward
children's strengths and their individual leaning styles. Opportunities for
touching, hearing, seeing, communicating, and moving are built into each
language arts experience and tailored to the specific needs of the students.
Special students are also given opportunities to socialize, communicate, and
learn with each other as well as with general education students.
After librarians have developed techniques or identified useful
materials, they are encouraged to share what they have learned with other
librarians at staff development meetings. This network of peers has proved
vital for the professional growth of participants. The need for collaboration
to meet the needs of special students is also stressed in the professional
literature (Cosden, 1990). By sharing ideas and experiences, librarians and
teachers support each other and are able to focus on how all students are alike
rather than different. In our work with librarians and teachers in New York
City schools, we have been impressed with the dedication and professionalism of
the teachers we have encountered.
Severely and Profoundly Handicapped in a Special School Setting
Most of the students who come to the Library Media Center in P. S. 79
for storytime come on wheels, according to librarian, Isabel Almonte. P. S. 79
in East Harlem serves children ages 5-21 who have multiple and profound
disabilities. Children must have two or more severely disabling conditions to
participate in this program. For example, a child may be both mobility impaired
and retarded, autistic and visually impaired, or profoundly hearing impaired
and language delayed. The Library Power library has been refurbished to
accommodate motorized wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment. Bookshelves and
tables are at comfortable wheelchair height. Large posters, Big Books, a
listening center, stuffed toys, manipulatives, board books, sound books, and
puppets are part of the leaning environment.
Children come to the library with their own teachers or attendants.
Juan holds one hand of his attendant who also wheels an oxygen canister
attached to the thin tubes of Juan's breathing apparatus. Bernardo gleefully
and expertly operates his own motorized wheelchair, while Lillian relies on an
aide to wheel her. As children and their attendants move into the story circle,
Isabel Almonte and a teddy bear puppet greet each child and attendant by name
in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language. Throughout the library visit,
Almonte, teachers, and attendants encourage children to communicate-with words,
sounds, songs, sign, and lap-held communication boards. As Almonte says:
Each child's strengths and handicapping conditions are so
different; it is important that the language arts activities are multilayered
and multimodal. For instance, I know Renee's vision is very poor. A book or toy
must be held within eight inches of her face, which is why I have the puppet
move so it almost touches her. Juan needs tactile stimulation to keep focused,
see how his teacher strokes his hand and encourages him to touch the puppet or
help turn the pages.
Almonte notes that the stories and themes relating to the children's
personal experiences are most successful.
The program requires a lot of advance preparation. I am aware
of curriculum and the special needs and strengths of each student. I meet
informally with teachers, and I am present at conferences with specialists and
classroom teachers. I'm lucky that this is a small school, so I know most of
the children. In the past, I have served as a mentor to several new teachers,
and I teach a beginning sign course to new staff. Because of Library Power, I
have a flexible schedule so I can get more involved in special projects.
One of these projects started with a story. No More TV,
Sleepy Dog (Ziefert, 1989) is a picture book about a little dog who wants
to watch television instead of going to bed. He doesn't like to have the light
turned off. He wants to sleep with his small red car. Before reading the story,
Almonte introduced a "pound puppy," a stuffed toy which looks very much like
the dog in the story. The dog greeted each child by name, and by moving the dog
into the visual range of each child, Almonte encouraged children to pet, pat,
and hold the puppy. She read the story slowly, holding the book so children
could see and touch the pictures. Almonte repeated the story in Spanish and
American Sign Language. At the appropriate time she held up a red plastic car
and encouraged children to touch and hold it. When the puppy's mother turns off
the light in the story, Almonte had a teaching assistant turn the library
lights off and on until the children made the connection between the words and
Each child's strengths and handicapping conditions are so different,
it is important that the language arts activities are multilayered and
When the story was finished, the children had a chance to react.
Almonte asked, "Do you have a pet?" This time, Max, who according to Almonte
usually just listened to the stories in the library, used his personal
communicating board to participate. He pressed the picture of the cat on his
electronic board, and his machine responded: "I have a cat." Max just beamed.
As a part of the unit, Almonte and the teacher read other books about
pets and animals, and then the children went on a trip to the local American
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Darren, who cannot write,
dictated this book review of My Dog (Taylor, 1989) for the library
My Dog by Judy Taylor
The dog has big ears. It's like this big. The dog eats with
the boy. He has a tail on his back. The dog washes his feet. What is he doing?
I don't know what he is doing. Giddy-up. The dog's mouth has teeth.
After hearing a story in the library, it's time to look for a
book to take back to the classroom. Popular choices include Big Books, because
the large colorful illustrations are easier for the visually impaired; board
books, because pages can be easily turned; sound books; stories on cassette;
and batteryoperated toys,
The children, many of whom are mobility impaired or wheelchair users,
delight in operating and watching the movements of battery-operated toys.
Parents and staff modify the toys, adding large colorful switches that children
can operate with palms, knees, or chins. A toy dinosaur, dump truck, and
airplane move back and forth between the wheels of the wheelchairs as children
grin, The toy actions stimulate spontaneous language: sounds, signs, and
gestures. Teaching assistants encourage children to interact with each other
via the toys.
Another popular library area is the puppet corner. The puppet stage, a
canvas sheet with a square cut out for a stage, is suspended from the ceiling
like a window shade. Children can easily maneuver their wheelchairs behind the
hanging stage. They operate a variety of hand puppets (many collected at flea
markets, according to the librarian) or made from stuffed toys, adapted by
parents and staff.
In a program with older children, Almonte shares a book about a boy who
had cancer: My Book for Kids with Cansur: A Child's Autobiography of
Hope (Gaes & Gaes, 1987). The story recounts the boy's experiences in
and out of the hospital. The medicine makes him lose his hair and gain weight;
the other children laugh at him as he becomes puffy. He doesn't like medication
that makes him feel sick, and he doesn't like the shots and tests. However, at
the end of the story, he is feeling much better, and he is able to go home.
Many of the children at P. S. 79 can relate to the story. Hospitals,
operations, medication, and painful tests are a part of their personal
experiences. At the end of the story, several children want to share their
reaction to the book.
Paul begins to sign and tap on the arms of his wheelchair. Almonte
repeats his comments orally and in sign so that other children can see and
"Your mother went to the hospital, Paul?"
"Yes, but she didn't get better; she died."
"Yes, I know, but this little boy went to the hospital and got better.
See, here he is on the last page of the book."
Carlos laughs, pointing to his own brown hair and the picture of the
little boy in the book who is bald, and quickly signs. Almonte repeats his
comments for the group. "Carlos went to the hospital, but he didn't lose his
hair." Carlos asks to hold the book and skillfully moves his electric
wheelchair closer to his buddy Jose, signing for Jose to find the page in the
book where the little boy is bald. Together they grin and pat their own
A new program called "Inclusion" began recently, according to Almonte.
Children of P. S. 79 and children from a local general education school will
meet for special activities. Story programs, projects, and curriculum-related
activities are jointly planned and presented. "The emphasis will be on how
children are alike, not how they are different," Almonte says.
Almonte encourages parents and teachers to collect and share
information, books, and catalogs useful for parenting and extending the
educational program into the home. She notes that despite the seemingly
insurmountable obstacles, there are ways to stimulate and unlock the language
arts potential of even the most profoundly disabled child.
Language Arts for Special Students in a Satellite Setting
At P. S. 185 in Central Harlem, librarian Sharon Barbour works closely
with special education teachers to extend library services to language-delayed
and language-impaired children ages 6-10. According to their teacher, Diane
Perrone, half of the children in her class were not speaking at the beginning
of the school year. Classified as language-delayed, these children function at
levels which are 2 or more years below their chronological age. Language
deficits may be due to injury, lack of exposure, retardation, emotional trauma,
developmental delay, or other conditions like autism. Most of the children have
social skill deficits or emotional problems as well. "We work hard at building
social skills. In my experience, if they learn how to play, they will learn how
to read," says Perrone. She adds:
The library was the first place within the school that made us
really welcome. Sharon Barbour, the librarian, reached out to our children. She
visited in the classroom, invited children to story programs and special
events, and helped us find materials related to the curriculum. Sharon has
forged a really warm bond with many of our children. General education teachers
and students saw that our children were not so very different. They borrowed
books on their own; they enjoyed stories and puppets and wrote their own books.
Now other teachers are more willing to open up programs and activities to our
children. We're going beyond the library into other general education areas.
We're moving into other parts of the school. Greater contact and participation
will help our children as they move to mainstreaming.
Perrone used materials from the library and the school "toy library"
(Jackson, Robey, Watjus, & Chadwick, 1991) to support the whole language
curriculum she uses with her class. For a recent project on transportation,
children used books and filmstrips on transportation, and then they compiled
their own "transportation" experience chart: who had traveled by tricycle,
bike, car, bus, train, or airplane. Children made a "museum" using wooden
puzzles, Fisher-Price toys from the toy library, and vehicles constructed from
cardboard boxes. Their teacher took pictures of the children riding and using
real and constructed vehicles, and then she solicited experiences from the
children. The children's comments became the text of a Big Book on
transportation. Children delighted in reading aloud "their pages." The book is
now on display in the classroom.
In cooperation with classroom teachers and parents, librarian Sharon
Barbour is creating multisensory Theme Boxes which both general education and
special education classes can use to stimulate language and exploration. "Farm
Animals...... I Spy," "Winter Things," and "Things that Grow" are just a few.
Boxes include books, stories, pictures, filmstrips, cassettes, puzzles,
puppets, and a response journal. Teachers and children can borrow boxes for
classroom exploration or individual activities. Children's writings, drawings,
and taped cassettes will be added to the boxes.
Language Arts for Special Education Students in a Mainstreamed
The library program in Library Power schools also provides special
students with an opportunity for social integration. All children are
encouraged to "take ownership of the library" by helping out. At P. S. 72,
librarian Iona Flamm reports that many students on her Library Squad come from
special education classes. Helping strengthens self-esteem, often improves peer
relationships, and provides opportunities for language arts and communication.
Students shelve materials and help younger children sign out and return books.
Special education students participate in the Storytelling Festival, read
stories on cassette tape for the story center, and participate in the Peer
Reading Program by reading aloud to younger students or listening while younger
students read aloud.
A performance for an invited audience of community leaders, parents,
and district school administrators at the recent formal opening of the Library
Power Library at P. S. 166 demonstrated how students in special education and
general education worked with librarian Lorraine Mollahan, a classroom teacher
and an art teacher. They adapted a folktale, "The People Could Fly," from
The People Could Fly (Hamilton, 1985). Children created
life-sized rod puppets of the characters and performed the story for adults and
children gathered in the library. The puppet drama was followed by an original
dance which children created as another interpretation of the story. The
program was videotaped so children could see their own performance and share it
with parents and other students. "This video, and similar student-made projects
housed in the library, may well become a valued record of student achievements
and a resource for future learning," says Mollahan.
In the Fund for New York City's Library Power Project librarians,
special education teachers and classroom teachers are working together to
provide quality language arts programs. Library Power stresses that every child
needs opportunities to celebrate and share language. When special children are
invited to participate in library programs, it becomes apparent that they are
more alike than different from general education populations.
In many cases, the effective language arts techniques used with general
education students are also effective with special populations. When
modifications are needed, classroom teachers, specialists, Library Power
consultants, and other Library Power school librarians can often assist. This
strong network of peers is vital to strengthen skills and encourage exploration
and risk taking.
In-service educational workshops, mentoring, and collaboration assist
teachers and librarians in acquiring specialized skills, but they also focus on
the largest barrier to service: the fear that special populations are too
different and that familiar language arts techniques and materials will not
work. Library Power librarians have found that quality language arts programs
begin with the conviction that all children need to be included and that
familiar techniques do work.
When special children are invited to participate in library
programs, it becomes apparent that they are more alike than different from
general education populations.
Although the Library Power program has built in a strong mentoring and
staff development component, the model can be applied to every school
situation. Teachers and librarians need to believe that special education
students will respond positively. Educators must reach out and collaborate to
develop strong language arts experiences for special education students.
Alper, S. (1992). Educating students with severe handicaps in regular
classes. The Elementary School Journal, 92, 373-387.
Bacon, E. H., & Schulz, J. B. (I 99 1). A survey of mainstreaming
practices. Teacher Education and Special Education, 12, 144-149.
Billingsley, B. S., & Cross, L. H. (1991). General education
teachers' interest in special education teaching: Deterrents, incentive, and
training needs. Teacher Education and Special Education, 14,
Cannon, G. S., Idol, L., & West, J. F. (1992). Educating students
with mild handicaps in general classrooms: Essential teaching practices for
general and special educators. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25,
Cosden, M. A. (1990). Expanding the role of special education:
Challenges of the next decade. Teaching Exceptional Children, 22,
Cullinan, D., Sabomie, E. J., & Crossland, C. L. (1992). So- Wang,
M. C., Walberg, H., & Reynolds, M. C. (1992). Social mainstreaming of
mildly handicapped students. The Elementary School Journal, 92, 339-35
Friend, M., & Cook, L. (1992). The new mainstreaming.
Instructor, 101, 30-38.
Jackson, S. C., Robey, L., Watjus, M., & Chadwick, E. (1991). Play
for all children: The toy library solution.Childhood Education, 68, 27-3
Lee, C. D. (1992). Literacy, cultural diversity, and instruction.
Education and Urban Society, 24, 279-291.
Maheady, L., & Algozzine, B. (1991). The regular education
initiative- Can we proceed in an orderly and scientific manner? Teacher
Education and Special Education, 14, 66- 73.
Obiakor, F. E. (1992). Self-concept of African-American students: An
operational model for special education. Exceptional Children, 59,
Philips, W., Allred, K., Brulle, A. R., & Shank, K. S.
(1990), The regular education initiative: The will and skill of regular
educators. Teacher Education and Special Education, 13, 182-186.
Villa, R. A., & Thousand, J. S. (1992). How one district integrated
special and general education. Educational Leadership, 50,
Wang, M. C., Walberg, H., & Reynolds, M. C. (1992) A scenario for
better-not separate-special education. Educational Leadership, 50,
Bibliography of Children's Books Cited
Gaes, T, & Gaes, A. (1987). My book for kids with cansur: A
child's autobiography of hope. Aberdeen, SD: Melius and Patterson.
Hamilton, V. (I 985). The people could fly: American black
folktales, New York: Knopf.
Taylor, J. (1989). My dog. New York: Macmillan.
Ziefert, H. (1989). No more tv, sleepy dog. New York:
Liz Goldfarb is a library consultant with the Fund for New York City
Public Education's Library Power Project and formerly the elementary school
librarian and curriculum coordinator for the Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn,
New York. Sheila Salmon is the director of the Fund for New York City Public
Education's Library Power Project.
by Liz Goldfarb