What is Literacy Lab?

Both engaging and academically aligned, Literacy Lab is a computer-supported program that addresses foundational reading and writing goals for early readers of all ages.

Inclusive of all learners.

Literacy Lab is designed to support the needs of diverse learners, including those with intellectual, physical or communication challenges. Literacy Lab is also an ideal intervention for RTI and ELL.

Comprehensive instruction to last throughout the school year!

With books and activities, Literacy Lab provides 30-50 weeks of instruction at each of 3 instructional levels. Your learners will want to keep going with their favorite books and activities well into the summer months!

Learner driven – teacher approved.

By teaching literacy in the context of common science and social studies content, derived from kindergarten through 2nd grade educational standards, Literacy Lab addresses standards-based learning objectives in Language Arts as well as Science and Social Studies.

Literacy Lab directly addresses the most common reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language goals of early literacy instruction

    Literacy Lab provides instruction that emphasizes:
  • The daily application of new knowledge and skills.
  • Comprehensive, integrated instruction that builds over time.
  • Active participation and interaction during activities.
  • Collaboration and communication.
  • Ongoing comprehensive instruction with instructional feedback.


The research is clear that all students, regardless of disability, can learn to read and write when provided with appropriate instructional supports. Backed by research from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and created in close consultation with Dr. Karen Erickson, Literacy Lab provides comprehensive literacy instruction for all learners. It draws on key research findings, such as:

  • Using an instructional approach consistent with findings of the National Reading Panel (2000) and the National Early Literacy Panel (2009).
  • Helping students use knowledge of patterns to read, spell, and use hundreds of common words.
  • Supporting use and instruction for sight words that make up 50-75% of the words that the beginning students most commonly encounter.

Read more on the research ››

Karen Erickson, Ph.D.

Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research addresses literacy assessment and instruction for struggling readers of all ages including those with significant disabilities.


How does it work?

Launch Literacy Lab Interactive Demo

Each unit contains three instructional levels that provide preset lesson sequences.

Engaging thematic units will keep students interested as they relate to content, build background knowledge and master critical reading and writing skills.

The variety of activities within each unit support a teacher’s continued use for multiple students, over multiple years.

Beginning literacy instruction based on science and social studies content is effective because it supports the world knowledge that is required to read and write effectively.


Level 1 Activities


Students who are in the earliest stages of literacy development – just beginning to understand concepts of the alphabet and who have limited phonological awareness.

Activity Examples


All three levels of instruction are included in each unit. Each level contains about 38 reading and skill activities for a total of 114 instructional opportunities per unit!

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Level 2 Activities


Learners with some literacy skills. Students who are beginning to show interest in shared reading, and making connections between pictures and text.

Activity Examples


Each session in a unit provides new activities followed by practice time driven by the learner.

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Level 3 Activities


Learners having some success with written language, but who require continued support with decoding words and reading with comprehension.

Activity Examples


Literacy Lab is ideal as an intervention for RTI and ELL students who are building foundational reading and writing skills.

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Learning is inextricably linked to reading and writing, but many students with disabilities lack the foundational literacy building blocks required for academic and lifelong success (Clendon & Erickson, 2009; Light & McNaughton, 2007). For decades students with disabilities have demonstratedtheir capacity to succeed in the general curriculum when provided with appropriate supports to meet their unique learning needs (CEC, 2011; Hanser& Erickson, 2007; Fallon, Light, McNaughton, Drager, & Hammer, 2004). Yet thousands of learners continue to be excluded from meaningful literacy opportunities and there is insufficient educational content that applies assistive technology (AT) and research-supported instructional strategies to meet the needs of diverse learners (Erickson, Hatch & Clendon, 2010).

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and related education reform movements are suitably raising the bar on the expectations we hold for students with disabilities, including those with the most significant challenges, as well as the professionals and administrators who support them. The CCSS provide a shared understanding of the big picture of what students should learn and be able to apply. School districts around the country are committing to meeting the needs of all students by ensuring opportunity to succeed as readers andwriters across the general education curriculum. If students are to succeed, teachers must be well-informed about effective strategies for teaching literacy to students with disabilities, including those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, and related developmental delays (CEC, 2011).

The instructional scope and sequence of a new program from Mayer-Johnson, called Literacy Lab, is informed by research in literacy instruction for learners with disabilities, aligned to all 6 strands of the English Language Arts (ELA) Common Core Standards, designed to support both professionals who are new to literacy instruction and those who are senior-level experts, and an example of innovative application of the principles of universal design for learning (UDL).

Research review

Successful approaches to building literacy are comprehensive and integrated. Cunningham’s (1993) Whole-to-Part Model of Silent Reading Comprehension highlights the reading and language-based constructs that underlie successful silent reading comprehension and comprise comprehensive, integrated instruction. The model is consistent with findings of the National Reading Panel (2000) and the National Early Literacy Panel (2009) while offering an important framework for organizing and understanding all of the critical components of comprehensive beginning literacy instruction. The primary constructs represented in the Whole-to-Part Model are word identification, language comprehension, and print processing (see Cunningham, 1993 or Erickson, Koppenhaver, & Cunningham, 2006 for a detailed description).

Historically, literacy programs designed for individuals with disabilities have tended to focus on only one or two constructs at a time. For many years there was a prevailing belief that individuals with developmental disabilities could be taught to read sight words, but that they could not learn to decode words using phonics-based strategies. As a result, instruction tended to focus on whole-word recognition with limited attention placed on the internal make-up of words or comprehending words in connected text. Consequently, these students had limited knowledge of phoneme-grapheme relationships and were unable to figure out unfamiliar words when reading. Various researchers (e.g., Fallon, Light, McNaughton, Drager, & Hammer, 2004; Hanser & Erickson, 2007) have now demonstrated that this belief was unfounded and individuals with developmental disabilities can respond positively to analytic reading instruction.

Successfully implementing decoding or phonics intervention is only one component of the comprehensive instruction beginning readers require. Intervention must also address comprehension, fluency, and myriad other skills and understandings. Isolated word reading deficits only account for a small portion of the difficulties identified across all poor readers (Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin, 1999; Nation, Clark, Wright, & Williams, 2006).

Comprehensive literacy intervention addresses all three components of the Whole-to-Part model: word identification (including phonemic awareness, phonics, and word identification); language comprehension (including vocabulary and text comprehension); and print processing (including fluency, the development of inner speech, and prosody). At the same time, comprehensive instruction supports learners in applying or generalizing the knowledge and skills they are acquiring to novel and self-selected contexts. The ability to generalize or apply knowledge and skills is often particularly difficult for students with disabilities and yet it is the thing that helps readers and writers develop and experience increasing success across reading and writing contexts.

Comprehensive approaches also provide students with a balance of directed, interactive, skill-building instruction, guidance in applying those skills in meaningful contexts, and opportunities to independently apply newly acquired knowledge and skills through practice with self-directed reading and writing. Literacy learning, by its nature, requires learners to problem-solve across a variety of skill sets in order to read with comprehension and write with purpose and meaning. While opportunities to explore new content are critical to reading and writing development so too is the opportunity to practice and refine knowledge that may have been previously gained. Beginning readers and writers require multiple opportunities to revisit content as a way to refine newly acquired skills and understandings.

Background on the development of Literacy Lab

In 2010, a team of experienced educators, speech-language pathologists, and AT developers came together to define a comprehensive literacy program that would address the literacy learning needs of a broad range of students, including those with the most significant physical and intellectual challenges. This team enlisted expert guidance from Karen Erickson, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, UNC-Chapel Hill Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Through a review of the literature and thousands of hours of iteration on design, this collaborative team created Literacy Lab v1.0. The following key design principles were maintained throughout the design and development process:

  1. The program must drive towards learner outcomes in reading silently with comprehension and writing meaningful texts independently.
  2. Deep understanding and application of skills requires thousands of opportunities to practice and be an active participant in constructing one’s own knowledge.
  3. Instruction must be comprehensive and address all of the constructs involved in reading, including writing.

Literacy Lab overview

Literacy Lab is software comprised of 8 thematic units, with nearly 1000 unique instructional activities focused on reading comprehension, guided and independent readings, vocabulary, phonological awareness, word identification, and writing. Communication supports are built-in to enhance interactions and support learners who require or benefit from augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Practitioners can either follow a preset instructional sequence or they can customize instruction based on student development and need. In each session of the preset sequence, students complete 1-3 new instructional activities and then select familiar activities for additional, self-directed practice. Literacy Lab includes 120 universally accessible, incredibly engaging, electronic books that relate to a theme.

Literacy Lab addresses a range of beginning instructional needs by offering preset activity plans at three levels of complexity. Activity Plan Level 1 addresses the needs of students who are just learning important concepts about print, developing alphabetic and phonological knowledge, and beginning to make connections between written and oral language. Activity Plan Level 2 targets students who have acquired these skills but are not yet using written language in a meaningful way. Activity Plan Level 3 provides meaningful learning opportunities for students who are having some success with written language, but require continued support in decoding words, reading with comprehension and fluency, and writing to communicate effectively with others. All three levels offer built-in supports for communication and, together, the three levels provide a single approach to address a broad range of beginning reading and writing needs.

Literacy Lab has been successfully piloted in a variety of classrooms and additional research projects with partner classrooms will be getting underway soon.


American Medical Association. Ad Hoc Committee on Health Literacy for the Council on Scientific Affairs. JAMA 1999; 281:552-7.

Catts, H. W., Fey, M. E., Zhang, X., & Tomblin, J. B. (1999). Language basis of reading and reading disabilities: Evidence from a longitudinal investigation. Scientific studies of reading, 3(4), 331-361.

Clendon, S., & Erickson, K. (2009). Literacy instruction for individuals with complex communication needs (2009). ACQ, 11(2), 77-80.

Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) (2011). Common Core Standards: What Special Educators Need to Know. Retrieved on July 23, 2012 from www.cec.sped.org

Erickson, K., Hanser, G., Hatch, P., & Sanders, E. (2009). Research-Based Practices for Creating Access to the General Curriculum in Reading and Literacy for Students with Significant Intellectual Disabilities. Monograph prepared for the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) Assessing Special Education Students (ASES) State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards (SCASS).

Erickson, K., Hatch, P., & Clendon, S. (2010). Literacy, Assistive Technology, and Students with Significant Disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Childre, 5(42), 1-16.

Erickson, K. A., Koppenhaver, D. A., and Cunningham J. W. (2006). Balanced Reading Intervention in Augmentative Communication. In R. McCauley and M. Fey (Eds.), Treatment of Language Disorders in Children (p. 309-346). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Fallon, K., Light, J., McNaughton, D., Drager, K., Hammer, C. (2004). The effects of direct instruction on the single-word reading skills of children who require augmentative and alternative communication. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 47, 1424-1439.

Giordano, G. (1996). Literacy programs for adults with developmental disabilities. Singular: San Diego.

Hanser, G., & Erickson, K. A. (2007). Integrated Word Identification and Communication Instruction for Students with Complex Communication Needs: Preliminary Results. Focus on Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 22(4), 268-278.

Johnson, Dale D. The Dolch List Reexamined. The Reading Teacher (1971): University of Wisconsin, Madison: International Reading Association.

Johnson, Francine R. The Timing and Teaching of Word Families (1999).The Reading Teacher. Vol. 53, No. 1.International Reading Association.

Lerman, R. I., & Schmidt, S. R. (1999). Functional literacy and labor market outcomes. Paper presented at the Urban Institute conference, "Helping Low-Wage Workers: Policies for the Future," US Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, May 6-7, 1999. Retrieved online December 29, 2004. http://www.dol.gov/asp/programs/history/herman/reports/futurework/conference/ nalsfina/nalsfina.htm.

Light, J. & McNaughton, D. (2007). Evidence-based literacy intervention for individuals who require AAC. Seminar presented at the annual convention of the American Speech Language Hearing Association, Boston, MA.

Nation, K., Clarke, P., Wright, B., & Williams, C. (2006). Patterns of reading ability in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 911-919.

National Institute for Literacy (2009). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Washington, DC: Author.

National Reading Panel (2000) Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read (Reports of the Subgroups). Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.

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