Advancing communication and literacy skills

Marie, a first-grader with cerebral palsy, works on her journal entry with Cecila, a paraprofessional. Cecilia asks Marie what she would like to write about today and opens a large laminated book filled with icons with the corresponding word underneath each image. Cecilia runs her finger down the columns of icons. Marie nods her head when Cecilia reaches "activities," indicating she'd like to write about an activity. Cecilia turns to a page with activities icons and once again runs her finger down the columns, stopping when Marie nods to select the icon for "television." "Oh, you'd like to write about watching television?" asks Cecilia. Maria nods and smiles.

Special education grad assistants
Ashton Donahue, Susie Lund and Amy Schoeppner are three former UNI graduate assistants that worked with the Center for Disability Studies in Literacy, Language and Learning.

Next, Cecilia shows Marie a laminated sheet of paper containing rows of letters. The little girl points to the capital letter "I." Cecilia writes "I" on a piece of paper. Marie then points to "w," "o," "ch" and "t" to spell the word watched. Cecilia writes what Marie spells: wocht. Twenty minutes later, Marie finishes her journal entry about a favorite television show that says, "I wocht 'iCarly' with Ela. It made me happy."

The Center for Disability Studies in Literacy, Language and Learning at UNI includes 10 graduate assistants who work with faculty and staff from UNI's special education, communication sciences and disorders and curriculum and instruction departments.

At UNI students in a variety of majors have the opportunity to link research, teaching and service. Through the center, students have developed literacy software, observed K-12 classrooms, videotaped student and teacher interactions and worked on student assessment tools.

It's this type of research with a professor that gives students exposure to the research cycle. They see how to conceptualize a study, establish location sites, organize and process data. The idea of research becomes real. 

"Graduate students regularly spend time in schools supporting the center's work and deepening their knowledge in their respective fields," said Jennifer Garrett, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders." Faculty at the center bring these experiences into their undergraduate programs and classes so students can benefit from these experiences.

"I needed experience. I wanted it and this was a huge experience, huge. I don't know if I would have gotten the job I have now if I hadn't had this experience. The interviewers were floored by my experiences and things I had done through the Center and because I had seen so many kids with so many abilities. I am so grateful," said Ashton Donahue, '11, employed at Capital View Elementary, in Des Moines, Iowa.

“It’s one thing to hear about it in the classroom, but I wish other people had the opportunity to have the same experience I did because it connects pieces for you and shows how it all comes together," said Ali Kurt, graduate student, special education.

Learn more about the Center for Disability Studies in Literacy, Language and Learning at