Build kids’ vocabulary, imagination to improve their reading comprehension

Build kids' vocabulary, imagination to improve their reading comprehension

Key points:
· Use visual supports to clarify meaning of new words, phrases
· Encourage students to imagine writing as movie scenes
· Ask, answer questions to help students focus on main ideas

Students with autism may be able to decode words well, but they typically struggle to comprehend what they read. They often lack executive functioning skills to keep information straight and have difficulty taking others' perspective, which can make it hard for them to understand the intention of authors and the motivations of the characters they create.

Don't let such challenges hinder students' learning, or else they may later impede their personal and professional life. Bolster students' reading comprehension skills by previewing vocabulary and phrasing before they read new text. Help students develop mental images to "see" and better understand what they are reading. Ask and answer questions to solidify what takes place in text and what students are learning.

"Comprehending text or expressing what they understand may prove difficult" for students with autism, said Dorothy Waddell, a reading specialist at Southeastern Cooperative Educational Programs. "It is important that we directly teach what [strategies] good readers [use] to our readers that struggle. We want to help them comprehend text at deeper levels in education and in the world around them."

Take these steps:

· Introduce vocabulary: Prepare students with autism who have executive functioning deficits for reading a book or other form of text by reviewing relevant information with them ahead of time, Waddell said. For example, rewrite the title of the book to solidify it in students' minds. Also, highlight and break down vocabulary students will encounter in the text. And write a short passage on a white board ahead of time that has central concepts and vocabulary from the book, said Patty Crumb, a literacy support and mentor teacher in Virginia Beach, Va. The students can read the passage together. As the students identify key words, underline them. As a group, she said, they can grasp the meaning of the words. Then have the group develop and write a one- or two-sentence summary of the passage that includes the key words.

Also teach connotation and word choice to help students learn about implied meaning and inference at a word level, Waddell said. Use tape strips to illustrate the shades of meaning of words to make the concept of connotation visible and concrete. Start with a key word, such as "happy," and pick four synonyms for that word, such as "glad," "delighted," "ecstatic," and "content." Explain that the words are similar, but describe a range of happiness, from somewhat happy to extremely happy. "Teach them to write the words in order of intensity," she said. You may want to start with words the student can relate to from past experiences, Waddell said, then use words that will appear in the text you're having them read.

And demystify idioms, such as, "You hit the nail on the head," by having students write out and draw the literal meaning of a phrase, then write out and illustrate the figurative meaning the author intended. "At first, it should be done as a shared activity with a teacher modeling to help students learn how to correctly interpret idioms," Waddell said. "Model looking in the text for clues to guess the real meaning."

· Create mental images: Help students with autism visualize what takes place in the book so they can better grasp characters' perspectives and recognize when they shouldn't interpret a part of the story literally, Crumb said. One way is to share with students movie scripts or clips based on the book they are reading. "It teaches point of view, irony, and fluency," she said. "The filmmaker used imagery to describe the author's words. Compare what you had envisioned to what imagery the filmmaker used. [Have] the students make a similar comparison." Encourage students to choose images to represent what they are reading, Crumb said. "This will help with perspective-taking, intent, and cognitive flexibility."

· Ask questions: Students with autism may not be able to tell you much about a text after reading it, Waddell said. Use an adapted version of reciprocal questioning to strengthen their grasp of the story. For example, ask students what the writing was about, then tell them several things about the text. Then ask students to ask and answer the same question. Repeat the process with different questions about the text. Also, encourage students to ask and answer one another's questions to further generalize their skills. Write on a white board the title of the writing and connect that with the main idea of the text. "If finding the main idea is too difficult at first, you might want to start by saying, 'What did you learn?' or 'What happened in the text?'" she said. "If they have difficulty even learning the main idea [of a paragraph], write all the sentences of the paragraph on separate strips, then read the paragraph, remove a sentence, then reread the paragraph and repeat the process until you find that one sentence that makes the paragraph have cohesion and meaning."

Waddell and Crumb spoke about this topic during a Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence webinar.

See also:
· University of Georgia to partner with local school districts on autism research (Nov. 9)
· Create intensive, co-taught class to build high schoolers' social-skills (Sept. 4)
· What steps should a district take when parents request a specific autism methodology? (Aug. 10)

For more stories and guidance on this topic, see the Autism Direct Roundup.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for LRP Publications.

December 4, 2015

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