Category Archives: asking questions

The challenges of teaching an autistic child to read

One of my students is a primary grades student with autism.  She speaks in single words, much like a toddler.  Sitting still for her is hard , so she eats an apple or some Cheerios while we work.  But that diverts her attention.

Through previous years of schooling, she has learned her letter sounds and many CVC words.  After working with her on how to pronounce blends with CVC words and observing her for many lessons, I have concluded that my phonics work may be in vain.  She seems to have memorized all the words she recognizes.

So now I am bringing flash cards with pictures of items and their names on one side, and just the names on the other side.  I am attempting to increase her reading vocabulary using a few sight words during each lesson, a method which I know is less effective than phonics.

Working with her is discouraging because she cannot tell me what works and what doesn’t.  I must observe her behavior, and based on my findings, figure out how to proceed.

Although I have taught several children with autism who are less impaired than this student, I have not taken courses in this field of special education.  On my own I have researched how to teach reading to a child with autism.  I have found that

  • Some children with autism cannot learn to read using phonics, but some can.
  • Teaching nouns is easier than teaching any other part of speech.
  • If you are teaching action verbs, it helps if you “perform” the verb—jumping, waving, singing.
  • Reading factual information—nonfiction—works much better than reading fiction.
  • Reading about a child’s interests helps motivate a child for a reading lesson.
  • Forget inferences. A child with autism cannot pick up subtle clues.
  • Expect no questions.

With my young student, I have made some inroads.  She accepts me as a teacher, as someone who interacts with her weekly.  She enjoys reading words she knows and receiving compliments and high-fives from me.  She willingly starts each lesson though she says “all done” many times throughout.  She scatters my materials with a brush of her arm less frequently now.  She no longer screams during our lessons.

But have I taught her any reading?  I honestly don’t know.

Discussing a story from different perspectives

Little children need to learn that there is usually more than one way to view a situation.  This includes viewing a reading passage from different perspectives.  How can you teach children to look at situations from various perspectives?

One way is by creating “hats,” one for each important character in a story.

Suppose, for example, you have read kindergarteners the story of Cinderella.  You could separate students into groups of four, and give each student a crown-like band to wear on top of the head.  The bands could be made from construction paper in four different colors.  The pink band could go on “Cinderella’s” head; the gold band on the “fairy godmother’s” head; the black band on the “stepmother’s” head; and the blue band on the “prince’s” head.

Ahead of time you have prepared a set of questions to ask, such as

  • At the beginning of the story, is this person happy or not happy? Why?
  • Why is the ball important to this person?
  • How does this person help or stop Cinderella from going to the ball?
  • At the end of the story is this person happy or not happy? Why?

By calling on some students wearing different hats for each question, students will learn that not all the characters think the same way about the events in the Cinderella story.

This same “hat” strategy can be used to discuss unrelated topics such as precipitation (rain, hail, snow); phases of the moon (full moon, half moon, quarter moon, new moon); and community jobs (police officer, fire fighter, teacher, grocery store owner).  By reading first about precipitation or the moon or community workers, children have a basic understanding.  Creating questions which force students to think about the ideas from various perspectives encourages young students to learn there are many different ways to understand the same circumstances.

I have spoken to many adults who say that as children, learning that not everyone did things the same way as their family did things came as a surprise.  And that not everyone thought the same way as their parents came as an even bigger surprise.

The “hats” strategy can be used not only to better understand literature, but also to understand the world around young children.

Behavioral signs that your student might be having trouble reading, writing

Students are really good at hiding or masking reading and writing problems.  If your student shows any of these signs, take another look at his or her cognitive skills.

Slurring over long words.  Some kids stop phonics instruction before they get to dividing words into syllables or deconstructing prefixes and suffixes.  When they see a long word, they say a word which begins the same way and slur the rest, hoping you won’t hear.  If you ask them to repeat the slurred word, they can’t read it.

Speaking softly.  Kids think, “If my teacher can’t hear it, then she can’t tell me it’s wrong.”  So they read or speak to you in a whisper.  Confident readers or speakers speak as loudly as you do.

Rarely asking questions.  If a student reads but doesn’t understand what he’s reading, it’s hard for him to ask a question.  But students who do understand often want more information.  Beware of silent students.

Talking off-topic.  Some students who are socially adept will precede a lesson with small talk, or interrupt to ask about your family or haircut.  They are stalling because they find the work hard.

Going last.  If a student routinely wants to go last, it can be because she is hoping against hope that there won’t be time for her complete lesson.  These students are reluctant because they are unprepared or don’t understand what is being taught.

Needing to use the rest room during the lesson.  Good students rarely need to be excused for part of the lesson, but poor students routinely do.  They say they need to use the rest room or to get a drink of water, taking more time than seems reasonable.

Checking the time.  Some students check their watches or phones every few minutes.  That’s not because they want the lesson to last.  They know to the second when the lesson should end and remind you when that time comes.

Coming to a lesson without workbooks, texts or homework.  “Oh, let me get it,” they will say, cheerfully, heading to their bedroom or locker and wasting three or four minutes.

What can you, the parent or teacher do?  We’ll discuss that in our next blog.

How to solve some behavioral problems masking trouble reading, writing

Hiding unpreparedness or lack of knowledge can become an art form for some students.  In the last blog we spoke of some of the ways students do this.  Now we will talk about how you can overcome these strategies.

You diagnose the reading problems.

Slurring over long words.  Assume the student needs advanced phonics instruction.  Work on dividing words into syllables and how to pronounce those words.  Work on prefixes and suffixes by separating root words.  Then discuss what each prefix and suffix means.  Put them back together again.  After four or five such lessons, ask the student to read a new passage and see if he still stumbles.  Ask about particular words which might be hard to pronounce or understand.

Speaking softly.  Ask other teachers if the student speaks softly in their classes.  If it is just in your class, there is probably no speech impediment.  Make sure there are no distracting noises.  If there are, move to a quieter spot to work.  Insist that the student face you when she speaks, and that she reads or speaks slowly.  Have her repeat if you still can’t hear her.  If this leads to tears, offer a moment for the student to collect herself, but keep going.    You could always bring a microphone.  Or bring a tape recorder and replay the student’s voice on “loud.”  The student needs to know the stalling tactic won’t work.

Rarely asking questions.  Turn the tables.  You ask the questions which you think your student should be asking.  Wait patiently for the answers.

Talking off-topic.  Interrupt Mr. Congeniality and say you would love to chat about your weekend after class.  Check your watch each time your student goes off-topic and make sure the student know you are adding that time to the original start time.  Continue to add minutes if the student interrupts.

Going last.  Mix the order of students if there is more than one, so the student who prefers to go last goes first or second.  If this is not possible, arrange your teaching time so you will have more than enough time for the one who desires a short lesson.

Needing to use the rest room.  If possible, five minutes before the lesson begins, call the student who usually needs to use the rest room and instruct him to use it now because there will be no time during the lesson.  If that is not possible, tell the student at the beginning of the lessons that there will be no bathroom break, and stick to it.  If the student still insists, time the student and make the student aware that you are extending the lesson by that amount of time.

Checking the time.  Tell the student he may not check his phone or watch during the class period.  Instead, you tell him every ten minutes or so how much longer the class will last.  Make sure he knows the time exactly when you begin—you could show him your cell phone—and show him the time again when class ends.

Coming to a lesson without workbooks, texts or homework.  If possible, before the lesson begins, remind the student what materials will be needed and tell her to get them now.  If that is impossible, tell the student as she approaches for her lesson that she has exactly 30 seconds to get what she needs.  Start counting aloud from 30 backwards.  Then add 30 seconds to the end of the lesson.

Your hope is that the student will improve his or her behavior.  If they do, say  thank you.  If there is another parent or a homeroom teacher whom the student respects, make sure you also let that person know the student’s behavior has improved.  Always spread good news.

Breaking the habit of looking for word-for-word answers

I was working with a fifth grader the other day.  He read a passage and needed to answer questions about it in writing.   One question asked, “What is the value of doing X?”  He went back through the passage, turned to me and said, “It doesn’t say.”

“Yes, it does say,” I responded.

He scanned again.  “No, it doesn’t.”

I pointed to the paragraph containing the answer.

He read it again and shrugged.

“What are you looking for?” I asked to be sure he understood the question.

“I’m looking for a sentence that says ‘The value of doing X is . . .’ and it’s not there.”

I “translated” the paragraph for him, pointing out what the value of doing X was, according to the passage.

“Well, why don’t they just say so?”

“Because they are trying to get you to think.”

“Well, I wish they’d just tell me.”

I see many kids like this one, unaccustomed to understanding a passage well.  They can operate at the “knowledge” level just fine, but can’t make that giant step up to “understanding” or “comprehending.”  They can’t “translate” an idea into a form required by a question.

What can a parent or teacher do to help such literal learners?

  • Start with a comfortable reading passage for the student, such as a fairy tale. Read it together.  Ask questions, starting with literal, knowledge-level questions like “What is the name of the girl in the passage?”  “Little Red Riding Hood.”  “Where is she going?”  “To her grandmother’s house.”

 

  • Then ask questions at the understanding level. “Why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “The grandmother is hungry.”  “Yes, but why is she hungry?”  “I don’t know.”  “Look at the picture.  It shows a skinny white-haired woman in bed.”  “She can’t get out of bed.”  “And why might that be?”  “She’s old.”  “Most old people don’t stay in bed.”  “She’s sick?”  “Maybe.”  “But it doesn’t say she’s sick.”  “No, but why would an old grandmother stay in bed and need someone to bring her food?”  “Oh.”  “So why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “Because the grandmother is probably sick and can’t get up to cook.”

By fifth grade students need to expect that answers won’t be found word-for-word the way a question is worded.  Students need to realize they must bring their own knowledge to a reading passage.

Prereading questions help struggling readers

Parents and teachers can help poor readers develop the skills of good readers by asking questions about the reading passage before students begin to read.

First, the adult should read and understand the passage and the places where a student is likely to encounter comprehension problems.

Second, the adult should propose questions about the themes of the passage. Ask the students to read the title. What does is probably mean? If there are graphics, ask what they tell abut the passage.  Encourage students to notice and comment on these clues.

For example, suppose some struggling second graders will be reading Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus. Some questions might be

• Is it normal for some kids to feel a little bit scared when they do something alone for the first time, like taking a school bus?
• Did that ever happen to you or someone you know?
• When some kids are scared, do they want to hide? Do you?
• Can a kid break school rules without knowing he or she is doing something wrong?

Good questions are those without clear-cut “yes” or “no” answers. Good questions make children think. Good questions develop discussion on the themes about which the children will be reading.

Finally, after students read the selection, return to the questions. Ask students if their thinking has changed. For some it might not have changed, but others will gain insights.

For this activity, fewer questions leading to deeper discussion is better than many questions with shallow discussion. If a question can readily be answered with a “yes” or “no,” follow up immediately by asking for an example.

Another way of using the questioning technique is to print a half-dozen questions on a handout. Next to each question have two columns, one labeled “before reading” and the other “after reading.” Under each heading students can write “yes” or “no.” This method forces students who might not want to engage in oral discussion to commit to an answer. Their written answers can serve as the start of a discussion.

It is the “why” behind the “yes or “no” which prepares students for gaining deeper meaning from the passage.

Teaching inferences

If students’ vocabulary is good but comprehension lags, the problem could be inferences.

Inferences are connections between what is said in the text and what we know to be true based on our experiences.

Good students delight in bringing their own world view to their reading, enriching the reading experience. But struggling readers don’t know they are supposed to do this. They think everything must be right there on the page. If asked to answer a question based on inference, they might say, “It doesn’t say,” or “The answer isn’t here.”

How can you teach inferences? According to Kylene Beers*, using the “It says—I Say—And So” chart helps.

Suppose, for example, the students read “The Three Little Pigs.” You ask, “Why can’t the wolf blow down the house made of brick?”

It says: The third little pig made his house out of brick.

I say: Brick is strong and heavy. And it is stuck together with cement.

And so: The brick is too strong to be blown down by the wolf.”

For the “It Says—I Say” strategy to work, this strategy must be used regularly, with modeling by the teacher or by students. A good place to start is with fairy tales or other well-known stories. Later, move on to grade level texts.

*When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004