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Saturday 19 September 2015

Teaching Reading to Students with Autism

With the start of school, I have been crazy busy and have neglected my blog.  On top of that, my blog designer closed her business and now my header and navigation bar are missing.  I have tried to contact without any response.  If any of you reading this know Lauren from Teach, Pray, Design, please let her know that I am trying to contact her.  Thanks!  Now for today's post; today I am going to share with you the reading program I use for my students with Autism.

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.

Readiness Skills

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

  1. Acquisition—The child is learning to recognize words.
  2. 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.
  3. Transfer—The student recognizes the word printed on different surfaces, in different contexts, and with different fonts.
  4. 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.

Sentence Construction

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

I have this Sentence Board Kit that I made for this reading approach available in my TPT store to help you with implementing this approach in your classroom.  This will be free until Sunday at midnight, so make sure to get them now!  I'd also love to hear your thoughts on this approach.  Leave me a comment below!

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.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Classroom Reveal & Organization Tips

Happy Labour Day weekend everyone!  We start school on Tuesday, so I plan on enjoying this weekend as much as possible!  But, before I start relaxing, I wanted to share my classroom set-up with you and how I organize everything.  This is a photo heavy post, so grab your favourite beverage, sit back and enjoy!  Next week, I will resume my series: Inside the HELP.  I haven't forgotten about, just got sidetracked with setting up my classroom!

Classroom Model

For those of you who don't know, my classroom is based on a transitional model.  This means that students come into my room for a short period of time (from 6 months to two years) and then transition into a regular classroom setting.  It is a section 23 or treatment classroom and students who come into my room need intensive behavioural and/or therapy to learn the pre-requisite skills necessary to be successful in a regular classroom.  The other unique feature of my classroom is that we also train the EAs who will be working with these students before they go back to their home schools.  The EAs usually spend about two months in my room being trained on ABA and SLE teaching principles and how to implement behaviour treatment plans.  

We have capacity for 6 students in my classroom, and serve students in grades JK to 6.  The students also vary in their level of functioning and severity of ASD, from mild to severe.  As such, I need to have a wide variety of teaching materials.  The other important thing to note about my classroom, is that while students our in my room, they are not eligible for SEA claims.  Because it is a treatment classroom, it is expected that we would have all of the necessary equipment to meet the students' needs.  When students are ready to transition out, we can then apply for SEA claims so that they have access to specialized equipment once they return to their home schools.  Because these students need a lot of adapted teaching materials, we always send materials with them when they leave our classroom.  Therefore, I always have to have duplicates of teaching materials so that I can send some with the students when they leave. 

The Philosophy Behind the Set-Up 

Not that I have given you some background information, I can better explain how my classroom is set-up.  I use the Structured Learning Environment (SLE) or TEACCH approach for the physical setup of my room.  You read more about this approach here.  Basically this approach refers to the way each area in the classroom environment is set up and where materials and furniture are placed.  

There are two key concepts to consider when organizing your classroom according to the SLE approach:

  • Create clear physical and/or visual boundaries to help students know where each area begins and ends. 
  • Minimize auditory and visual distractions. 
Segmenting the environment helps clarify expectations. Once students are taught expected behaviors for each space in the classroom, the distinct areas become powerful cues for appropriate behaviour.  Reducing distractions helps students to focus on the concepts that are being taught instead of details that may not be relevant, and reduces competing distractions. Often when students with ASD are presented with too much stimulus (visual or auditory), processing may slow down, or if overloaded, processing may stop completely. 

Classroom Tour

Ok, now onto the photos!  This is the view as you walk into my classroom.  These tables are used for centres and snack time.  Our prep counter in in the back corner, along with my desk and the cupboard where we store all of our iPads and Chromebooks.

This is the view to the right as you walk into my room.  This table is used for group teaching and the white cubbies are where the students hang their coats and backpacks.  I also use this cubby for storing my centre bins on top and behind the unit are additional cubbies where I store extra toys.

Behind the group teaching table, are cubbies and shelves that I use to store books, and math and literacy manipulatives and teaching materials.  In the rolling cart, I store all of the activities for our math and language arts centres for the week.

Along one wall, I am lucky to have a bank of cupboards where we store teaching materials, prep materials and office supplies as well as reinforcers.  As you can see from the photos, I am obsessed with bins!!!  I love using bins to store and organize almost everything in my classroom.

On top of the cupboards there is space to store teaching materials in bins.  Here I store all of our centre activities, according to theme and materials we sure for Discrete Trial Teaching.

Inside the cupboards, I keep art supplies, reinforcers, games and puzzles, sensory bins and materials to make independent work tasks.

In our art cupboard, I also keep the visuals for the students and paint smocks on the inside of the door.

This is our prep counter.  I mounted rails from Ikea and hung these plastic bins on the rails to store scissors, markers, etc.  On the counter are our laminator, staplers and hold punch.  Below the counter in the cupboard, we store our laminating pouches, velcro, baggies and file folders.  Beside the counter is a rolling cart that we keep all the prep in that needs to be laminated, cut, etc.

On the filing cabinet beside my desk, I have dish racks that hold dry erase boards and the students' math and language arts binders that we use during our centre time.  On the side of the filing cabinet, I have posted all of the visuals needed for running centres.  On the back of the filing cabinet, is a hanging pockets with choice boards, first/then boards and working for boards, as well as pencil cases that we use in our centres and my folding magnetic chart that I use for group language arts lessons.

Next to the filing cabinet is our Independent Work space.  There is space for two students to be here at the same time and each student is levelled according to their skills and abilities.   I have organized all of the tasks according colours and then each student is only given tasks of their colour to complete.

Behind the group teaching table, is the one on one teaching area.  This is where we do discrete trial training.  This space also has enough room for two students to receive instruction at the same time.  At each table, I have posted choice boards, first/then boards and working for cards.  When the students come to the table, the first thing they do is choose a reinforcer to work for.

We use the Hawaii Early Profile as our curriculum and develop the students IEP goals from it.  I have organized all of the student's teaching materials according to the HELP goal  number, so that it is easy find the materials during teaching sessions.  The goal number is also on the students' data sheets, so all we have to do is read the number and find the corresponding materials.  It makes these sessions run so much more smoothly.  I put all of the flashcards in these hanging wall pockets I found at Target last year and then the bulky materials in the bins in these wooden storage carts.

Next to the one on one teaching space, is our SMART board where we have our morning meetings, music class and group math and language arts lessons.  It is also used for structured play.  The space is defined by the wooden storage carts in the one on one teaching space, a large cupboard and a toy shelf.  On the back of the cupboard, I hung my number and alphabet pocket charts.

On the other side of this cupboard is our play and gross motor area.  It is bordered by two tall cupboards in which we store extra toys and gross motor play items on one side and by a toy shelf and bookshelves on the other.  We teach our students functional play through imitation, modelling and play scripts.  We also teach them to make and follow play schedules to ensure they are engaged in functional play.  The play choice boards and schedules are posted on the side the cupboard.

Also in this area is our reading corner.  I have non-readers this year, so most our the books we use are adapted and board books.  We also have a little guy that likes to take all of the books off of the shelves, so I keep some of our books in these hanging pockets I got from Thirty-One and hung our Back to School adapted book set on the bulletin board in this corner.

And lastly, student schedules!  I post the student's daily schedules in the centre of the room, so that they are easily accessible throughout the day.   We keep the Boardmaker symbols we use on the students' schedules in these organizers I got at Walmart.  The schedules we use for gym class are kept on the back of the classroom door.  And the Boardmaker symbols for gym class are posted on the side of the students' cubbies beside the door.

Well, that was a lengthy post!  I hope you found it helpful and I would love to hear your classroom organization tips!  Leave me a comment below!

Until next time,

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