Teaching Students with Autism to Read: A Strength-Based Approach
As an autism teacher, my ongoing challenge has been the quest for effective methods and materials to meet the needs of my students with ASD. Although the development of communication, social and behavioural skills is crucially important for children with ASD, so too is the acquisition of academic skills. Professionals usually suggest that skills in reading be taught but rarely mention exactly how to go about teaching reading to children with ASD. Teachers and paraprofessionals wonder: How? What do I use? What does it look like? What are the steps?
In my second year of teaching, my SLP loaned me a book called, "Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs" by Patricia Olewein and Leslie Broun. I read the book from cover to cover and started implementing the method right away. Within days, I was seeing success in my students. Oelwein's methodology quickly proved itself to be extraordinarily successful in helping many of my students with ASD develop reading skills, including students whose needs were more difficult to serve and who did not come easily to the learning situation.
Visual Learning Style
Oelwein's methodology teaches to the visual learning style of children who have ASD. In using this methodology, we teach to the child's strength. Oelwein's method is effective in
helping many children with ASD develop skills in reading because all the learning styles are addressed:
- The methodology is primarily visual and teaches to the strength of children with ASD and many other developmental disabilities.
- The spoken word paired with the printed word composes the auditory component.
- The kinesthetic element is present in the matching and selecting process, as well as in sentence construction using flashcards.
- The digital/spoken or otherwise expressive (e.g., hand sign) aspect of the method is an expectation if the child is able.
Principles of the Methodology
Whole Word Sight Recognition
Many children with ASD (or other developmental disabilities in which auditory processing is compromised) will find it easier and more efficient to learn to read by recognizing whole words. Students need to experience success and develop a sense of accomplishment in reading. This can be quickly achieved through a whole-word sight approach. Students do not need a thorough understanding of the alphabet to learn to read.
Letters and their sounds can initially be too abstract, and letters in isolation are meaningless—many children with developmental disabilities do not perceive them as the building blocks of words. Although students may know the sounds of letters in isolation, they are not necessarily able to combine them in a fluent manner; words become a slow combination of separate sounds, and comprehension is lost.
This does not mean that phonics are omitted or neglected; rather they are simply not the starting point for building reading skills for these students. When students acquire a sight vocabulary of 25 to 50 words, they can build sound and symbol associations by using familiar words, giving the letters a meaningful context (e.g., M is for Mommy, D is for Daddy, etc.). Teachers often find it most efficient to work from a "top down" approach—backward chaining from whole words to the sounds contained within words.
Using Personal and Meaningful Vocabulary
The life experience of children with ASD and other developmental disabilities is often more limited, and in order to enable comprehension, the children's reading material needs to be relevant to their own experience. One key to the success of this methodology is that the vocabulary used to introduce the concept of reading must be meaningful to the child. The child buys into reading— is "hooked" into the process. The names of loved ones—such as Mommy or Daddy—or the names of siblings, pets, favorite foods, toys, places, TV shows and characters, and, especially, perseverative interests (e.g., Thomas the Tank Engine) all serve as excellent vocabulary builders. During this "hooking" process, we "slip in" sentence builders, such as I, see, like, the, here, is, my, etc., so that sentence construction can begin almost immediately.
As the student becomes comfortable and confident in the reading process, the match, select, and name methodology can be carried across all disciplines, enabling a student to acquire subject specific vocabulary and participate in classroom units in a meaningful manner.
The ability to match is the prerequisite skill for participation in this methodology. The ability to match shapes, simple pictures, commercial lotto games, colours, and so on is a foundation of cognitive development and a skill that must be directly taught for skill development in both reading and mathematics.
The Olewein Method: Stages of Learning
- Acquisition—The child is learning to recognize words.
- Fluency—The student recognizes the word with some degree of consistency. If he or she is able to recognize a word more often than not, the child more than likely knows it but may be experiencing retrieval difficulties.
- Transfer—The student recognizes the word printed on different surfaces, in different contexts, and with different fonts.
- Generalization—The child recognizes the word in any context.
Steps in the Acquisition Process
Level 1: Matching: The child matches a word to the printed word.
Level 2: Selecting: The child selects a word on request by picking it up and giving it to the teacher. The matching and selecting processes should be repeated three times each, at least in the initial stages of becoming familiar with the method.
Level 3: Naming: The child says or signs the word in response to seeing the written word after being asked "What does this say?" For children with ASD, the method can be modified by allowing the child to choose and name the words in whatever order she chooses, giving her autonomy over the process and alleviating some degree of retrieval anxiety.
Learning to put words together coherently to make sentences is the most important factor in helping a child learn to think and use language effectively. The student's daily reading routine must include time for using his or her vocabulary words to create sentences. Work toward making sentences longer and more complex using words such as because, then, with, and and, as well as other sentence builders.
The child should become fluent in reading words in as many sentences as possible. Janzen (1996, p. 39) comments that children with autism do not automatically learn how to put words together to form their own sentences. Thus, a child needs to work toward being able to create sentences, first by working from a visual example and then by combining vocabulary words independently.
A sentence board is an easily constructed board that helps children learn to use their vocabulary words in sentences and generalize the recognition of their words. When the student is creating her own sentences, she can copy a sentence from the board to a notebook or computer screen. Ultimately, the child should be able to bypass the sentence board and make up sentences independently.
Review and Reinforcement
As with any methodology, review is an important part of the process. In her book, Oelwein outlines many enjoyable activities that make learning seem like a game, including the lotto games, the posting box, and the fishing game (a particular favourite). These activities use simple household and school materials. After words have been well learned and reviewed in games, the teacher can assign "review rings" organized either alphabetically or by subject (e.g., the science vocabulary ring). A personal dictionary and an alphabet scrapbook help consolidate word recognition.
Review is an ongoing and essential part of the learning process for children who have special learning needs and works best when it's as pleasurable as possible. The rate of word recognition consistency is often an issue when assessing skills. For children with ASD, variable performance is the rule rather than the exception (Janzen, 1996, p. 33). Factors such as hunger, fatigue, seizure activity, distractibility, or even the weather may all contribute to a child's inability to recall or retrieve certain words on a given day. Look for a general consistency rate of approximately 70% over a period of days.
Another key component to the implementation of this methodology is having the students read books as soon as possible so that they develop a sense of accomplishment and pride in their ability to read. Through sharing this new skill with others, these children will quickly understand that this activity will bring ongoing pleasure and positive reinforcement.
Initially, create books for the child using his or her personal vocabulary. Oelwein recommends starting with an All About Me book illustrated with photographs supplied by the child's family. A book about the child's experience at school is also an appropriate starting point. Subsequent books can be created on any topic that interests the child and makes the process of reading meaningful.
When a student has developed a level of confidence, it is time to teach to a print book. Choose a short book the child likes that has relatively uncomplicated text printed in a clear and simple font. Do a word analysis and teach new words page by page until the student is able to read the book from cover to cover. This is an exciting accomplishment that reinforces the positive experience of reading. Rarely will students balk at participating in the reading process: This is an area where success is possible.
Issues of Comprehension: Word, Sentence and Story
Whereas this approach to developing reading skills uses flashcards, the methodology does not call for endless rehearsal in word-calling. From the start, teachers are concerned with determining whether the child comprehends the words he or she is learning; thus, most of the beginner's vocabulary is based on people and things that are personally meaningful. If the child is able to match the printed word to the correct picture, object, or person, he or she has both recognized the word and comprehends its meaning.
As mentioned earlier, the student quickly progresses to using his or her vocabulary words to make short sentences. Check comprehension by having the student match these sentences to pictures. Conversely, the student may be able to generate a simple descriptive sentence either verbally or with vocabulary words (flashcards or print) to describe a picture. As the child's vocabulary expands and he or she becomes more comfortable with language, the teachers can make some assumptions about the child's rate of comprehension, but ongoing checks are essential.
When evaluating comprehension, allow for accommodations and modifications. If exercises in comprehension are graded, it may be fairer to evaluate work on the basis of what the student is able to do rather than penalize him or her for weaknesses that are an expression of ASD.
For many students who have autistic spectrum disorder, reading is a way to convey information about and interpretations of the environment and the child's domain of experience. If a student has been previously unable to learn to read or has been struggling with a phonics approach, the Oelwein method provides an alternative and effective process to develop reading skills and to enable participation in other academic areas in a meaningful
and comprehensive manner.
Until next time,
Broun, L & Oelwein, P. (2007). Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs: A Strength-Based Approach. Port Chester, NY: Dude Publishing.
Janzen, J. (1996). Understanding the nature of autism: A practical guide. San Antonio,
TX: Therapy Skill Builders.