Functional Literacy

Categories: Language Arts

There is a misconception that academic and functional mutually exclusive. We for some reason got stuck in this thinking that tells us that instruction and activities are either academic or functional but cannot be both. When our students get older and we begin to transition to more functional tasks – that doesn’t mean that we are leaving academics behind. It’s our responsibility as late elementary and high school teachers to ensure that our academic instruction has a functional component since that looming 22nd birthday isn’t far off. So let’s talk about out academics and functional skills can live together in perfect harmony.

We can still challenge our students and teach them important academic skill while preparing them to be independent adults.

Selecting literacy goals for some students is easy or obvious. Some students are following some type of skill sequencing and we can quickly identify where to go next. Other students it can get trickier. For students that we have had for many years, we sometimes get stuck in a rut on where to go next. We go through our regular “bank” of IEP goals and hit a wall. If you teach late elementary or high school students, we feel a pull between continuing to teach academics and switching to a more functional focus. It’s hard to know how to balance these two components.

How do we identify literacy goals?

We need to consider the current skill set of the student and their age. Age is just as important. We have to be real for a minute. Once our kids turn 22, that security and comfort of the school, team of professionals, IEP team, and consistent instruction disappears in the blink of an eye. So we need to make the most of every minute we have with our kids getting them as ready as we possibly can for independent living, getting a job, and functioning in the community. We need to consider the age of our students when selecting goals because we want all goals to be functional, what is functional will depend on the age, and long term objectives will change/evolve over time.

What does functional mean?

Functional means designed to have a practical use and used to contribute to the development or maintenance of a larger whole. What is functional for each student will change depending on their age. For a 6 year old to learn letters it will be functional because it well help him learn the larger skill of reading. However, for an 18 year old working on letters may no longer be functional because it may not serve that purpose of learning to read.

Functionality and High Expectations

During the process of selecting goals – continue to have high expectations for students. Just because they can’t read now doesn’t mean they won’t. Consider what is the best use of that child’s time. Think efficiency. We want to teach the best skills in the least amount of time so the child can learn more and more.

What to consider when selecting functional literacy goals:

  • learning history {has the student had a teacher the last 4 years that never gave him the chance to target basic academic skills?}
  • strengths
  • interests
  • long term opportunities.

Appropriate Goals

  • a 1st grader working on phonics
  • an 8th grader working on paragraph structure
  • a 4th grader working on name identification
  • a 2nd grader working on book orientation
  • a 10th grader working on reading comprehension

Inappropriate Goals

  • a 1st grader working on job application skills
  • an 8th grader working on letter identification (when he has been working on it for 4 years)
  • a 2nd grader working on typing exclusively (when he has some writing skills)
  • a 10th grader working on sounding out blends & digraphs

Think about working on academics with a functional twist.

I love sneaking loads of functional literacy into my independent work tasks. Check out my favorite activities to put in your task boxes that perfectly target functional literacy!


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