Functional Reading Skills in Special Ed – The Gateway School of NJ

Functional Reading Skills Help Special Needs Students Navigate Daily Life

functional reading skills being taught in NJ

Everywhere you look, there are signs and screens. Forget about books. How can anyone be expected to function without being able to read?

This skill is called functional reading and it is one of the life skills developed at the day habilitation programs offered at Primetime Centers. We begin to teach this and other life skills at Gateway School, when our students are very young. When they reach adult age, most of our graduates will continue to need support and supervision. That is the role of the Primetime Centers.

From the very moment students enter our program, they are exposed to reading a schedule every day in their classrooms. They are also expected to read a calendar and weather-related items. This takes place during morning meeting. Later, through various trips into the local community and businesses, they encounter community signs, transportation schedules and menus. These are the applications that are enforced during the transition into adulthood.

So what sort of materials work best for teaching functional reading skills?

It is important that adults with developmental disabilities become independent and able to navigate daily life in most environments. We want them to be able to travel, shop, work in certain settings, order for themselves off a restaurant menu, and navigate through an unfamiliar building. Above all else, we want them to be safe.

Here are three reliable resources when it comes to targeting literacy for adults with developmental disabilities:


Start with signs in the community or in the building. Make flashcards by taking photos of the signs and printing them out. Once a student knows what the words mean, begin pointing out signs in other locations. The most important words and signs repeat themselves. Exit signs let them know how to leave a building. Gender-identifying signs like “men” and “women” help them find the right bathroom.

Circulars & Menus

A simple step up from signs would be circulars and menus. The mailman delivers them daily. Why not use them? Grocery store circulars work well because they have images, and pair these pictures of the food items with their names. Over time this juxtaposition allows the students to begin to recognize just the written word. This makes it more likely that when they see it in a different context, they can read it. Point out a favorite food and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t take so long for your pupil to recognize its name. When he or she wants to know where to purchase it, highlight the name of the supermarket. Integrating functional math skills by seeing the prices listed in the store flyers also enables the students to improve their money recognition.

Since we’re discussing the motivational impact of food, let’s talk about menus. Those who struggle with literacy will find other ways to order food at a restaurant. They will simply order the same items or have someone else choose for them. Menus, however, are chock full of opportunities for teaching both functional reading and math skills. The array of choices presents a vocabulary challenge. Menus also use categorization, which is a potent literacy skill. Finally, learning the prices associated with the items will allow us to incorporate a math skill, such as budgeting, into our lesson.

Magazines & Newspapers

Books are not necessarily out of the question. However, in order to stay focused on function, magazines are also full of literacy opportunities. Adults with developmental disabilities may, at first, be overwhelmed by the vast amount of text. That is why we choose articles with plenty of pictures and cut out specific articles or ads that appeal to the individual student.

Newspapers are just as challenging as magazines, for the same reasons. A local newspaper, with familiar subjects and locations, tends to be the smart choice. The student can choose an article on his or her own, based on what interests or motivates him or her.

Specialized Curriculum Resources

One favorite curriculum material the teachers at Gateway use is our N2Y (News to You), and our Unique Learning System. We download these lessons monthly with current topics of interest to keep motivating our learners. The materials pair small picture icons below the text to help the reader figure out the story. “From one convenient, cloud-based platform, educators deliver differentiated, standards-aligned content enhanced by powerful assessments, data tools and evidence-based instructional support.”

The Gateway School an private special education school in New Jersey

Our Mission at The Gateway School is to help all of our special needs students with the learning, social, language, and behavioral support they deserve. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student to becoming the best they can while providing a safe and nurturing educational environment.

We would be more than happy to discuss your child’s specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.541.4400, or request a tour of The Gateway School located in Carteret New Jersey, just minutes off of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Chris Hoye, Principal-The Gateway School of Carteret, NJ