Category Archives: methods of teaching reading

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.

Use cloze activities to test reading comprehension

If you are trying to assess whether your student, especially your English Language Learner, can understand what she is reading, use cloze activities.

Cloze activities are written passages with words left out.  Students need to supply the missing words.  Sometimes random words are omitted—such as every seventh word—and a blank space replaces a missing word.  Sometimes a particular part of speech is omitted.  Sometimes words that are important for the structure of a sentence,  like prepositions, are omitted.

Let’s take a paragraph and show several cloze variations which yield particular information about a student’s reading comprehension.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to the back of the yard where he knew what to do.  I threw a ball which he liked and a rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Now suppose we leave out every eighth word of the above paragraph.  Here is the result.

This morning, I woke up early and _______ downstairs to play with the new puppy.  ________ was in a cage, so I opened ________, and let him out.  Quickly I took _______ to the back of the yard where ________ knew what to do.  I threw a ________ which he liked and a rubber bone _______ he didn’t like.  Then we came inside ________ I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Depending on the word choices the student makes, you can learn if the student understands the meaning of the paragraph.  You can ask her to justify her choice by explaining which context clues she used.

Now suppose we try a different cloze paragraph, this time leaving out all pronouns.

This morning, _______ woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so _______ opened _______, and let _______ out.  Quickly _______ took _______ to the back of the yard where _______ knew what to do.  _______ threw a ball which _______ liked and a rubber bone which _______ didn’t like.  Then _______ came inside and _______ fixed him a simple breakfast.

From this exercise, you can learn whether the student knows both subject and object pronouns and when to use them.

Now suppose you are testing appropriate use of articles.  You can remove all articles, and in addition, put spaces before all nouns or adjective-noun groups to see if the student knows whether articles are needed and if so, which articles are needed.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with _______ new puppy.  _______ Max was in _______ cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to _______back of _______ yard where he knew what to do.  I threw _______ ball which he liked and _______ rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him _______ simple breakfast.

If a student is studying vocabulary, a word bank can be supplied and from those words the student chooses words to fill in the blanks.

Before you use a cloze activity, know what you are testing for and then create or find a cloze activity which will yield that kind of information.

When the student becomes the reading teacher

Sometimes my best teaching strategies come from children themselves.

I was working with a PreK student the other day.  She has mastered reading CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words like “cat” and “six”).  Now we are focusing on blends at the beginning of CCVC words like “swim” and “spill.”

One at a time I was showing her illustrations of CCVC words.  At the same time I was sliding a handful of letters near the illustration.  The letters included the letters needed to spell the word plus some distracting letters.  My student’s job was to pull out the letters needed in the correct order and “write” the word under the illustration.

Except that she didn’t want to do that.  She wanted to write her name using the letter tiles.  We were getting nowhere, so I let her write her name.  Then, after her name she wrote the word “is,” and after “is” she wrote “not.”  Then she wrote the word we were trying to spell in the picture, “twin.”

“Chaulian is not twin,” she said aloud, laughing because she knows she is not a twin.  I pulled out the letter “a” and inserted it into her sentence.   “Chaulian is not a twin,” she read.

“You wrote a sentence,  Chaulian.”

She was engaged again.  I pulled another illustration, this time of a plum.  I took away “twin” and put six letters in front of my student.  From them she picked “plum” and changed her sentence to “Chaulian is not a plum,” laughing once more at the ridiculousness of that thought.

We continued, with Chaulian writing little sentences about herself using CCVC words.

A few days later I tried this same approach with an even younger child.  She is learning CVC words, but of course she already knows how to spell her name.  I asked her to spell her name with letter tiles and then I added “is not a” and pulled illustrations.  Nneka is not a cat.  Nneka is not a map.  Nneka is not a ten.  Like Chaulian, Nneka’s interest in our reading game increased when her name was used.  And when she read aloud her nonsense sentences, she laughed and laughed.  Our work together had turned into a silly game.

Little children are self-centered, so of course it made sense to use their names.  And wacky little sentences made our work fun.  I was thrilled to keep their attention longer than usual.  Win-win.

Chaulian is a teacher.

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.

Knowing ABC names isn’t important to beginning readers

When most children are four, they can say, or should I say sing, their ABC’s properly, except for the L-M-N-O part.

But can they pronounce the basic sounds associated with each of those letters?  I know they can’t.

For example, I ask what sound is “pictured” by “y.”  The child says “w” as in “why.”  Or I ask what sound is represented by “w.”  The child says “d” as in “double you.”  The children are giving me the sound of the letter’s name, not the sound represented by the letter.  This causes confusion when they try to pronounce CVC words.

Look at the disconnect between how letters are named and the basic sounds which those names represent.  In the case of vowels below, the basic sound is considered to be what has been called “short vowel sounds.”

ABC name    basic sound    pronunciation

A                      a                     ay

B                      b                     bee

C                      k                     see

D                      d                    dee

E                      e                     ee

F                      f                     eff

G                      g                    jee

H                      h                    aech

I                      i                      eye

J                      j                      jay

K                      k                     kay

L                      l                      el

M                     m                    em

N                      n                     en

O                      o                     oh

P                      p                      pee

Q                     kw                   kue

R                      r                      are

S                      s                      ess

T                      t                      tee

U                      u                     you

V                      v                      vee

W                     w                     double you

X                      x                      ex

Y                      y                      why

Z                      z                      zee

Of the basic sounds of our language, only eight are represented by letter names which begin with that sound.  (Sounds represented by more than one letter, such as “ow” and “th” are not shown here.)

This made me wonder how important knowing the names of the ABC’s  is compared to knowing the sounds those letter characters represent.  I have concluded that it is the sounds which are important, not the names or graphics we assign to those sounds.

To prove this, look at the sounds which children from other countries say when they see certain  letters.  When children in Germany see “v,” they pronounce the “f” sound in English.  Those same German children, when they see a “w,” pronounce it like a “v” sound in English.  When children in Russia see a “p,” they pronounce it like an “r” sound in English.

So the picture/character/graphic is arbitrary.  Someone long ago in England (or more likely, ancient Rome and Greece) assigned certain letter symbols to portray certain sounds.  But other persons in other parts of the world assigned the same letter symbols to portray different sounds.

Since I discovered this, I teach letter “sounds” differently.  When I work with beginning readers, I try not to use words like “A,” “B,” and “C” when I refer to letters.  Instead I say the sounds those letters represent.  I say “a,” “b,” and “k,” and I ask students to do the same.

If you are teaching your child beginning reading in English, I recommend that you focus on the sound, not on the name of the letter.  The sound is what children need to know in order to read, not the name we give to the letter representing that sound.

The younger the student, the shorter the reading lesson

Many four-year-olds can learn to read, but their lessons must be short and involve games and manipulatives to keep them engaged.

That’s what I have learned from many years of teaching little kids to read.  After about ten minutes, many little ones lose interest or become distracted.  Then it is time to stop or to move on to a different approach.

For example, last week I worked with a four-year-old girl who is learning to associate sounds with letters and to form her first CVC words.  The lesson was supposed to last 45 minutes, but after 30 minutes, she could no longer sit still.  Here is what we did in that half hour:

  • We began using letter tiles which she loves to touch. She would pull one of the 26 letters I had presorted and tell me the sound associated with that letter.  She knew all but two, “v” and “y,” so we set aside those two and every few minutes we reviewed them.
  • Next, we reviewed last week’s lesson, making CVC words with tiles the vowel “a,” words like “cat,” “man” and “bad.” For five minutes she participated, moving some of the letters herself, but then she noticed my necklace and wanted to wear it.  I let her, but from her attention was diverted.  After another few minutes we moved on.
  • I had created BINGO cards using CVC words, so her next task was to identify the word I said from among the nine words on her card. This worked for a few minutes, but then she became distracted by the BINGO markers themselves—pieces of plastic I had cut out—and she started making patterns with them.  Enough of that.
  • We returned to making words with the tiles to no avail. I cut the lesson short, grateful that she had worked for a half hour.

With a five-year-old last week, the situation was much the same.

child playing card memory game

  • I corrected the few pages of phonics homework she had done while she dumped a container of letter tiles and put them in ABC order, chatting all the time.
  • She told me the sounds associated with each letter, reminding me that “k” and “c” make the same sound. She gets mixed up with “g” and “j,” so we set them aside to review as the lesson progressed.  I pulled letters to make words with beginning blends, such as “smell” and “stun.”  She said the words but in a few minutes, she lost interest.
  • We moved on to a workbook in which she read tiny sentences using CVC and CCVC words.
  • Finally I dictated a few words with blends in them and she wrote them.
  • A half hour passed, the scheduled time for her lesson.  Now she got her reward:  time to build houses out of the letter tiles.

For all elementary school aged children I plan several parts to each lesson, but for the youngest, I need one activity for each seven to ten minutes to keep them engaged.

Parental expectations for ELL can be too high

How long should it take for an English Language Learner (a student learning English as a second language) to read at grade level?

Longer than many parents want.

I am working with an ELL fifth grader from another country.  I tested her by having her read a list of basic English words, all of which she said she knew.  Then I had her read passages at a second, third and fourth grade level, and answer questions.

What I noticed is that she could score 100% on the second and third grade questions, providing the questions were multiple choice.  If she had to write a definition, she could copy what the passage said, but she could not paraphrase the words.  If she had to write sentences in her own words, she couldn’t do it.  If she could say the sentences aloud rather than write them, she couldn’t do it.

This is typical.  Multiple choice responses are easiest since the answer is provided; you just have to identify it.  Putting ideas into your own words is harder because you must rely on vocabulary which might not be in the passage and you must create sentences, a task which calls on so many skills—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, articles—the list goes on and on.  A person can learn to read English without learning to speak or to write, but in the US students are tested verbally and in writing, and of course both skills are needed for 21st century success.

Another factor to consider when judging how long learning to read will take is whether English is spoken at home.  For this student, it is not.  She cannot ask a parent what a word means.  She cannot hear proper pronunciation.  She is on her own.

Still another factor is the student’s motivation to learn English.  My student is motivated.  She focuses for the full hour we are together and completes her homework.

The mother of this student hoped that her daughter would learn to read quickly enough to be ready for fifth grade state exams in three months.  I told the mother that is unlikely, watching sadness fill her eyes.

Could it happen?  Yes, for an extremely intelligent and motivated learner living in an enriched English environment.  But is it likely?  No.  Becoming fluent in a language takes time, more time than many parents want.