kitchen table math, the sequel: Autism and reading comprehension: the parents as experts

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Autism and reading comprehension: the parents as experts

(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field)

One of the ways in which the usual rules don't apply when teaching autistic students is in picking appropriate reading assignments. Consider the following two passages:
Nobody gave The Treatment like Farquar. Palmer knew a kid who had his arm in a sling for a week after. Yet Farquar himself was maddeningly unpredictable. Some birthday boys he seemed to totally ignore, passing them on the street as he usually did, as if they were dog doo. On the other hand, he had been known to walk halfway across town, knock on a door and say sweetly to a surprised parent, "I hear there's a birthday boy in here."
Some kids turned into quivering zombies. They kept their birthdays as secrets as possible. In school, if their teacher announced their birthday, they denied it, claiming that it was a mistake. They refused to have parties. They stayed inside their house for a month so they would not bump into Farquar.
But there was another side to it. There was the honor. There was the respect you got from other kids, the kind of respect that comes to soldiers who survive great battles...
(From The Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli.)

Instead of fighting with weapons, Ghandi and the Congress Party began to use other methods of resisting the British. They taught the Indians to resist with "noncooperation"--meaning that Indians simply refused to pay taxes to the British government. They encouraged Indians to "boycott" British goods (refuse to buy anything made in Great Britain). Gandhi told his followers to make their own handmade cloth for their clothes, rather than buying British cotton. When the British put a tax on salt, Gandhi led his followers on a march of 240 miles to go collect salt from the sea, rather than buying the taxed salt. He started with seventy-eight people. By the end of the march, thousands of people were following him.
Gandhi told Indians to take their children out of British schools. He asked them to give up privileges given to them by the British. He himself sent back a medal that the British government had given him for his work in South Africa. When a factory refused to give its workers enough money to live on, Gandhi went on a hunger strike. He refused to eat until the factory owners agreed to the raise. It took too three days for the factory owners to give in and agree. They didn't want to be responsible for Gandhi starving to death!
(From The Story of the World, Volume IV, by Susan Wise Bauer).

Both The Wringer and The Story of the World are intended for the 9-12 age range. And according to the usual measures--vocabulary, sentence length, and sentence complexity--the second passage is unequivocally the more difficult of the two.

But in terms of the work the student must do to fill in the gaps in literal content to make sense of the text, the first passage is much more challenging. In particular, nowhere is it stated that Farquar beats kids up on their birthdays. If you don't infer this, you then won't understand why kids try to keep their birthdays a secret. And without this, and a grasp of the social meaning of "honor," you'll be completely baffled by the second paragraph of the excerpt.

In the second passage, on the other hand, much more is spelled out. The explanatory asides, while they contribute to the length and complexity of the sentences, offer useful definitions of key terms ("noncooperation" and "boycott.") In general, much less filling-in is necessary to understand the connections between sentences.

These differences between texts make sense when we consider their different settings. One is set close to home, and centers on schoolboy dynamics with which most neuro-typical children are familiar. Because of this, it can leave many things unstated and still make sense to most readers. The other text, on the other hand, is set in a faraway time and place, and involves issues that 9-12-year olds cannot be assumed to be familiar with. Thus, much more needs to be made explicit. For children with autism, many of whom pick up much less of the social dynamics of everyday life, this has the effect of leveling the playing field.

Because of this phenomenon, readings centering on other times, places, and issues tend to be much more accessible to those with autism than readings centering on everyday life. Unfortunately, however, in their zeal to make everything "relevant" to students' purported "personal lives," today's educators are biasing their reading selections more and more towards realistic texts about everyday life.

Any parent who spends any time reading with their autistic child knows about the problems this creates. But too few of those who teach autistic children in school settings--be they regular ed or special ed teachers--have either the training or the experience with one-on-one reading support to have much of an inkling about how autism affects reading comprehension.

Teachers must therefore be willing to hear suggestions from autism parents about appropriate reading assignments. But are they? I'm still waiting to find out...


farmwifetwo said...

They finally get it... but it takes a lot of work.

What finally got through at my boys' school is psychometric and speech/language testing which shows the difference. Little boy reads at Gr 3.5, he comprehends at 1.5... he's in Gr 3.

Also, I had to prove to them the difference.

At one of the meetings, I made up a word, told them how to pronounce it... told them how to spell it... then I said "and what does it mean"...

They finally got the point.

Redkudu said...

>>But are they? I'm still waiting to find out...<<

Very rarely. And certainly not from the school.

Is the selection from "The Wringer" from the beginning of the story?

The only problem I see with this comparison (and it's not a problem per se, maybe just an observation) is that one is fiction and one not. Usually kids will read by genre. So if "The Wringer" is the piece of short fiction being used, what would a comparable piece of fiction be for an autistic student? (I mean comparable in terms of theme, figurative language, etc. I don't know about elementary, but in middle and high school we generally pick pieces of short fiction which illustrate certain concepts.)

I have a very good friend who is an autism expert. When I choose a piece for my classes, I usually run it by her to get an idea of where my autistic students are going to get hung up, and how I can plan ahead for that, but I don't know about alternatives.

Is there a list like this? Could one be made?

palisadesk said...

There are a lot of very well-informed parents of children with autism (as evidenced here, and on some other groups I know of), but this level of parental knowledge is not universal. Also, a majority of children with autism have some degree of cognitive disability, so this also impacts “reading comprehension” and the expectations we set for the student at various points.

I have only worked with students with autism in an inclusive setting, and none had parents who had the knowledge about their language and learning development that folks here have. I didn’t know much either, and have tried to find out what works from experienced practitioners, mostly in the private sector. My most recent student had a wonderfully supportive family, but they could not assist with reading instruction issues. I found it was easy to teach this student to decode well (using Headsprout Early Reading and decodable books), but “comprehension” was another matter entirely.

We had to work on a lot of basic language comprehension tasks first. He needed to explicitly learn directional language, positional language, seriation. We worked on vocabulary in categories: parts of the body, vehicles, animals, tools. We practiced sentence frames for both oral and written language. We worked on the “question words” (where, when, who etc) with a lot of pictures, story strips, story maps. We used highlighters to go through very short texts to underline words or phases that tell who, or what or when. Although the experts say that children with autism are “visual learners,” this student was not. His auditory skills were far superior to his visual skills.

We had to teach pronouns, verb tenses and other syntactic features of text very explicitly. I got a number of good resources from Super Duper Publications and also used “Language for Learning” and “Language for Thinking,” which are DI programs, but modified somewhat in presentation – it was occasionally necessary to re-phrase the script, and to teach the lessons via back-chaining. My district is very big on teaching “inference” and “prediction” and other “comprehension strategies.” This was a big challenge. We used pictures and got to the point where the student could make statements about the picture that were inferential in nature (like, what season it was, how a person depicted was feeling) and explain his answer in a concrete way, but we didn’t get to the point where he could do this with text. “Prediction” depended on understanding verb tenses and cause/effect in a pretty abstract manner and I don’t feel we got anywhere with this, either. Working with informational text seemed more productive.

I did talk to parents of kids with autism and got some good ideas, but the actual parents of this student, and a couple others I worked with earlier on, did not have specific ideas on how to help them with reading. I would have welcomed information of that kind if available. Parents could tell me about interests the student had and that was sometimes a boon to selecting reading materials that would engage the student. The issue of teaching reading comprehension to kids with autism is bound up with how to develop their language skills generally, and a lot of generalists like me don’t have a deep knowledge of the relevant research and resources.

Allison said...

I can't address the autistic issues. But I don't even see that this is true:

--These differences between texts make sense when we consider their different settings. One is set close to home, and centers on schoolboy dynamics with which most neuro-typical children are familiar. Because of this, it can leave many things unstated and still make sense to most readers. The other text, on the other hand, is set in a faraway time and place, and involves issues that 9-12-year olds cannot be assumed to be familiar with.

I didn't find the first to be set anywhere that was close to home. Maybe I didn't have neurotypical experiences, or I'm not neurotypical enough, or I'm not a boy, but I didn't find this to be familiar. I didn't find the Gandhi text to be explicit enough either for it to make much sense (what is a Congress party? what do those two words mean to a 12 yr old? What's cotton and how's that a cloth? )

Maybe these are excerpts, and so much of what came before mattered, but to me, they are largely the differences between literature and facts. Literature might very well be difficult for autistics because it makes references to things they don't know that others take for granted, but I found that most children under 13 that I've known don't comprehend literature the way adults think they do. They don't yet know how to recognize analogy as separate from reality, they don't yet know what's real and what isn't to understand hyperbole, they don't understand sarcasm.

I think this kind of thing speaks to the appropriateness of literature in the first place, and the value of content rich history and social studies to make literature accessible to even the neurotypicals.

Katharine Beals said...

>>what is a Congress party?

That was defined earlier in the passage

>>What's cotton and how's that a cloth?
My language-delayed autistic 13-year-old (mild/moderate) had no trouble with this connection.

He also has no trouble with the concept of figurative language, though he's still fine-tuning his usage and understanding.

He understood the Ghandi passage with minimal explanation; he had no idea what was going on in the Wringer.

Perhaps The Wringer is more challenging for neurotypicals than teachers realize; in that case, I propose that the still-canonical From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a total baffler to more kids than teachers and parents realize. I teach passages from this book in my autism class: there's a tremendous amount of assumed everyday/pop cultural knowledge without which many things in the text make no sense at all.

Now, I did find the Mixed-Up Files to be a bit of baffler back when I took a stab at it in 3rd or 4th grade, but I later assumed that was because I wasn't neurotypical enough.

But I don't think the issue is so much one of fiction vs. nonfiction. Fantasy/sci fiction is also more accessible to autistics than everyday fiction is because, again, there's less assumed common cultural background knowledge.

momof4 said...

I think schools are using far too many "everyday life" sources. Kids already know about their own situations. Whatever became of the idea that school should expand their horizons? As the Emily Dickinson poem says, "there's no frigate like a book, To take us lands away." I agree with Allison that quality non-fiction (science as well as history) should be included.

Some years ago, I remember some samples from the 8th grade NAEP test. One discussed the Blue and the Gray, Grant, Lee and Sherman's march to the sea BUT assumed the reader would know the subject was the Civil War and the role of the generals. Without that knowledge, getting the questions right would be very difficult. Another passage was science-based and assumed the reader knew the structure and operation of the solar system as it related to day, night, months, years,tides,eclipses etc.

Catherine Johnson said...

There's WAY too much 'everyday life' stuff - and I question how 'everyday' it is.

I observed a 5th grade writing lesson in which the teacher told kids that the expression "chillin' like a villain' "is the way you talk to each other."

I had never heard that expression myself, and I have never heard a 10-year old child in my town use it.

In the same lesson, the teacher criticized realistic lines such as "Good morning, honey" on grounds that such lines were mere chitchat and as such do not belong in fiction.

Catherine Johnson said...

As the mother of two children with autism, I can tell you that I had trouble with the first passage --- took me 'til the very end to realize these kids were getting beaten up.

I found the Gandhi passage delightfully explicit and sound!

These are my autism genes speaking.

Catherine Johnson said...

I need palisadesk to teach Andrew to comprehend.

Andrew can read.

But I have no idea what he comprehends or how to teach it --

palisadesk said...

You definitely do not need me! You need somebody who knows what to do.

I was winging it. I did have some good advice from people in the DI and PT community and parents I met who were homeschooling their children with autism, and I also did a lot of reading -- books by Sundberg and Partington, Mary Barbera's book on the Verbal Behavior Approach, plus other stuff available from our professional library.

I found the so-called "experts" available to me pretty useless -- the SLP mostly knew only about articulation issues, the psychologist was completely unfamiliar with autism instructional strategies (had never heard of the ABLLS, for instance -- never used it, I could understand, but never *heard* of it??). The district has a team of autism "experts" but they basically tell everyone to use PECS (because children with autism are "visual learners"), visual schedules, social stories and "first...then" cue cards. It's about controlling the child, not about teaching him.

I felt bad about a lot of the time this student was in a general ed classroom, basically doing nothing. He didn't like coloring or art, and after third grade was pretty much unable to grasp most of what was going on in terms of content curricula. Since he was very well-behaved and a sweet kid, he was one of those who was spending a very low percentage of time in his ZPD.

I learned a lot from workshops by Alison Moors and Michael Fabrizio, who ran a private consulting practice for kids with autism. Michael still does but Alison has started an inclusion school in Washington State.

I have been to workshops in my district and they all advocate teaching kids with autism a strictly sight-word approach (because they are "visual learners" ----auuugh! What about the ones who aren't?)

Catherine, one activity I develped that I shamelessly stole the idea for was a reading activity using various math materials like pattern blocks and counters. I wrote out directions on cards, and they said things like "Put the green triangle between the two yellow hexagons" or "Get the blue triceratops and put him inside the pencil box" and stuff like that, for literal comp (I made some kind of game out of this). This was for checking literal comprehension (and spatial/positional concepts).When I bought Katherine Beals "Grammar Trainer" the student felt right at home at first because the directions reminded him of this activity!

Since the student didn't have a lot of oral language I made up questions like "If Dan went to the ball game, clap your hands" and so on for questions about a short passage the student read. It had to be interactive; yes/no stuff just prompted wild guessing and you had no idea what he was thinking.

I think "Language for Learning" did more for this student's reading comprehension than any "reading" activities we did.

Anonymous said...

I have all four Story of the Word books and I refuse to ever give them away. I have read 3 to my boys, one who has serious language issues. It isn't simply vocabulary choice that Susan Wise Bauer uses to communicate effectively. It's the flow of the sentences and their order. Both my boys followed the stories beautifully.

As far as young children only being interested in themselves, I might have believed that if I hadn't started reading the Greek myths to my boys in grade school. The first story I started with was Achilles and Troy. They were in 1st and 4th grade at the time. The look of absolute shock was written all over their faces. I almost couldn't carry on because I was laughing so hard. They couldn't believe I was reading them such a story, but they were completely mesmerized by those Greek gods from that day forward.

I guess I owe Susan Wise Bauer for that, too. I remember when she said that children love the big stories and don't at all need to to relate it to themselves. That made sense to me on some level, but watching their reactions was what really sold me.