Making Meaning: Strategies for Literacy Learning: The Unique Characteristics of Students with Asperger Syndrome Mean Teachers Must Think Strategically about How to Ensure That They Become Proficient Readers
Styslinger, Mary E., Phi Delta Kappan
As a high school teacher, literacy professor, and parent of an "Aspie," I've come to know many students living educational lives on the spectrum. While some comprehend text effortlessly, many more struggle to make meaning of what they have read.
To better understand and meet the literacy needs of less-proficient readers with Asperger syndrome, I have had to connect what is known about literacy learning with what we are coming to know about Asperger. When teachers increase their awareness and understanding of the literacy challenges confronting some students with Asperger, they'll be better able to determine which strategies can improve literacy teaching for these students.
How do we read?
Depending on the degree of severity, children with Asperger may demonstrate distinct language characteristics. They might exhibit a form of echolalia, a repetitive speech pattern in which they mimic the language of others and/or repeat rote phrases. Or they might demonstrate hyperlexia, the written word's equivalent of echolalia. Specific characteristics of hyperlexia include word reading skills that far exceed what would normally be expected and/or an indiscriminate reading of words. Both of these language characteristics have ramifications for literacy learning and teaching.
As we read, we use cue systems including grapho-phonics (letters-sounds), semantics (meaning), and syntax (order). Two of these cue systems are primarily visual. We see letters, translating them into sounds; at the same time, we note the order of letters, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. Students with Asperger demonstrate great strength in the visual cue systems, seeing and remembering patterns in letters, words, and text easily. I remember my astonishment when my daughter recognized letters and words and progressed to reciting books at a very, very early age. She was able to do so because of a strong sight word vocabulary based on graphophonic and syntactic knowledge.
While word-recognition skills for students with Asperger may be advanced, heightened by strong rote-memory skills, there can be a discrepancy between word recognition and reading comprehension (Church, Alisanski, & Amanullah, 2000; Silberberg & Silberberg, 1967). The ultimate goal of reading is understanding what has been written, not merely reciting or repeating words and phrases. Children with Asperger may demonstrate rapid calling or decoding by adhering to linguistic rules. However, they may not always make meaning of text. When questioned about what she had read on the page, my daughter could not answer. While a child with Asperger may possess the strength of letter and word identification, this can be coupled with poor comprehension.
Another reason students with Asperger may struggle with meaning-making is that they're very literal thinkers. Definitions for words are easily memorized, but multiple meanings for the same word can cause confusion. Figurative language including metaphors and idioms and certain genre, including parables and allegories, can be misunderstood. Books about Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish can befuddle children with Asperger because they're unable to interpret the figurative meaning behind the adult idioms. Metaphors present another obvious textual challenge. Students with Asperger can miss subtle comparisons. They may be able to define what a metaphor is and even recite examples but still not interpret what they mean. Because they are exact by nature, phrases like "a skeleton in a closet" or "bats in the belfry" have completely different meanings to children with Asperger and, if left unexplained, may be the source of a lot of confusion.
This concrete and literal thinking style can transfer to class discussions. Where a student with Asperger may understand literal-level questions effortlessly and respond most exactly and appropriately, he or she may struggle to answer more critical questions involving connections with the author's perspective or consideration of a character's viewpoint (Falk-Ross, Iverson, & Gilbert, 2004). People with Asperger are often preoccupied with certain skills, activities, or materials and, as a result, exhibit a one-sided conversational style. They have difficulty sharing topics or engaging in reciprocal conversation, appearing unwilling to listen to others. This may be compounded by their struggles to understand non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, tone, and proximity. As a result, seeing and appreciating varied points of view can be challenging.
Likewise, perspective on self is difficult for a student with Asperger. Reflection, the ability to examine experience, may pose a challenge for students on the autism spectrum. This affects comprehension in that a proficient reader notices when she or he does not understand and uses a variety of strategies to un-lock meaning such as rereading, skipping, correcting, sounding out, or adjusting reading rate. Proficient readers use fix-up strategies when meaning breaks down. They will infer, summarize, visualize, predict, make connections, ask questions, and access prior knowledge. Less proficient readers with Asperger who read superficially, focusing on words, may fail to monitor their own comprehension or to notice when comprehension fails (Oakhill & Yuill, 1996).
Those who struggle to comprehend have difficulty formulating inferences when reading. Inferring involves drawing conclusions or making interpretations about things that are not explicitly stated. Human beings make inferences all the time; we make inferences about facial expressions, body language, and text, and as students progress through school, they're increasingly expected to make inferences about the material they're learning. However, because they can be so literal, students with Asperger may struggle to infer. Asperger students in a language arts class may experience difficulty understanding the hidden language of text, reading between the lines and discovering the clues that authors leave behind. They can miss hints. Drawing a conclusion is not easy nor is making predictions.
The ramifications of poor inference are far reaching. Asperger students who do not infer well often show weaknesses in aspects of producing spoken (Cain, 2003) and written narrative (Cragg & Nation, 2006). We know that readers infer when they combine background knowledge with clues in the text to formulate an educated guess. But students with Asperger may struggle to bring any prior knowledge to bear when reading (O'Connor & Klein, 2004; Snowling & Frith, 1986). Prereading questions provided by teachers in an effort to prepare students for new material can actually deter and distract students with Asperger, activating prior knowledge that is irrelevant or inaccurate, negatively affecting comprehension (O'Connor & Klein, 2004). The same can be said for free-writing as a prewriting tool. Writing in an unstructured and unfocused way may provide little benefit (Li & Hamel, 2003) for Asperger students who become distracted. We also need to be mindful that most students with Asperger have challenges with fine-motor skills, including handwriting (Myles et al., 2003).
Suggestions to foster literacy learning
Heightening teachers' awareness of factors that might affect meaning making is a first step toward improving literacy teaching for children with Asperger. Here are some specific suggestions for strategies that teachers can use in their classrooms.
#1. DEFINE READING COMPREHENSION
Teachers must more explicitly define and emphasize reading comprehension, trying to help students with Asperger understand the difference in calling letters and understanding words. Encourage students to think about reading more as meaning-making and less about pronouncing. Explicitly explain what reading is, how reading is valued, and what reading entails in the classroom. How teachers define reading matters because it influences how we teach and how students learn. Similar to the comparison between reading and saying is the comparison of reading to memorizing. Students with Asperger may rely on keen memory whenever possible, and teachers can help students move beyond this way around meaning-making. Defining what reading is provides the foundation on which to build literacy instruction, paving the way for consciously modeling meaning-making strategies
#2. MODEL READING STRATEGIES.
To help children with Asperger think more about reading as an interactive process, teachers can make their own thinking visible as they read, inviting students into their inner conversation, demystifying the process, and helping students with Asperger recognize that we are all readers, thinking as we read, all the time. Teachers can demonstrate a think-aloud on a smartboard. This strategy can heighten awareness of the processes that readers undergo to make meaning and sense of text and demonstrate useful strategies such as questioning the text and drawing conclusions for students struggling to understand.
Teachers can provide mini-lessons on a variety of fix-it strategies to aid comprehension, teaching children with Asperger to record questions as they progress through the text. This visible representation of literacy processing can be extremely helpful, as there is a growing awareness of the visual learning styles of children with autism (Grandin, 1995). Students can draw pictures after reading to help them visualize what is read. An abundance of strategies are available to help students make meaning, and students with Asperger need regular practice across multiple texts and genres. Even though they might take awhile to monitor their own comprehension, they can settle into the predictable routine of fix-it strategies.
#3. WEAVE IN SPECIAL INTERESTS.
Whenever possible, reading material should be relevant to student experience. Like everyone, a child on the spectrum has personal interests, but a child with Asperger often doesn't let go of his or her fascination so easily, becoming preoccupied with only one or a few topics or activities. These current interests provide rich opportunities for reading, for making meaning. Teachers can incorporate student pursuits into the curriculum more easily by providing related or thematically linked texts representative of multiple genres. For example, when teaching Romeo and Juliet, an English teacher can collect a variety of genres around the idea of ill-fated love, including young adult novels, song lyrics, poetry, picture books, video games, and films that support the theme. Incorporating nonfiction text is important because it's direct and often comprehended more easily by students with Asperger (Myles et al., 2002). When provided more options, students with Asperger increase their chances of selecting text aligned with their interest.
#4. ENCOURAGE READING OUT LOUD.
Children with Asperger notice the world around them in great detail. They can hear the buzzing light, smell the room deodorizer, and feel the plastic tear in the seat--all of which go unnoticed by other students in the same room. Focusing can be hard in a typical classroom filled with so many sensations. Silent reading and independent reading levels of students with Asperger are below grade level (Myles et al., 2002). But students with Asperger who read aloud are more likely to maintain focus and improve comprehension (Myles et al., 2002). It makes sense that paired reading aloud can help maintain focus in children with Asperger, especially when students use their finger to track the words to help visually focus on what is read. Because many of our classrooms include time for sustained, silent, independent reading, teachers need to realize that students with Asperger may not comprehend as well when reading silently.
#5. PROVIDE VISUAL SUPPORTS.
We are just beginning to grasp the visual learning styles of children with autism. Teachers can use graphics in many ways to strengthen the abilities of students to make meaning. To help students make inferences in text, begin by helping them learn to "read" pictures. Children with Asperger can learn to "read" flashcards showing varied facial expressions by answering such questions as "what is this person feeling in this picture?" and "why do you think so?" Carol Gray developed two more specific visual systems helpful for students on the autism spectrum (1995). Social stories and comic strip conversations can help an Asperger student make inferences about social situations, which can then be translated to textual experiences. For example, a student can "read" a comic strip and fill in the blank bubbles with what he thinks characters in a story might say. Students can also "read" varied photographs and illustrations, interpreting the people, places, and situations, working toward better understanding of the clues left behind by authors.
To help students with Asperger decipher nonliteral language, begin by using picture books since illustrations help students infer the different meanings behind words. A Chocolate Moose for Dinner by Fred Gwynne, I'm in a Pickle and Other Funny Idioms and Eight Ate: A Feast of Homonym Riddles, both by Marvin Terban are wonderful additions to any library. Cartooning and drawing to explain language terms such as idioms and metaphors are helpful (Myles, 2005). Asperger children can illustrate the literal versus the intended meaning of a word or expression (i.e. "skeleton in the closet"). Graphic organizers are supportive tools for helping students with Asperger comprehend text (Myles, 2005). Videos can also be used to demonstrate expected behaviors.
#6. DEMONSTRATE EXPECTED BEHAVIORS.
The hidden curriculum is the set of rules that everyone in the school knows, but that no one has been directly taught (Lavoie cited in Bieber, 1994). Teachers should explicitly teach students with Asperger the social behaviors expected during a new language and literacy experience such as a large-group discussion or a small-group conversation. We can teach verbal and nonverbal behaviors best through modeling. Before engaging in a book club or Socratic circle, show students a video of a previous class engaged in discussion and have students list what they see and what they hear as they watch the clip. Discuss what to say and how to act, creating a list on chart paper, making visually apparent the rules of socialization. Students with Asperger can struggle with the give and take expected during a classroom conversation and have trouble keeping up with others. In order to prompt conversation, students can use a conversation starter card (Myles, 2005). Or, to moderate the amount of conversation, students can use speaking "chips," placing one in the center after each relevant contribution (Sofia, 2010).
#7. ADAPT WRITING ASSIGNMENTS.
Writing can help students make meaning. But students with Asperger have difficulty with handwriting. It is important that teachers make appropriate accommodations, providing students with copies of classroom notes or adaptations to assignment length as necessary. New technologies, especially voice-recognition, may mitigate many of the difficulties. Imagine the possibilities when Asperger students can write with their voices, even more so if writing assignments somehow are linked to special interests. Carolyn Sofia (2010) indicated that the I-Search, inquiry-based research proposed by Ken Macrorie (1988) for middle school and high school classrooms dramatically improved engagement with and willingness to learn the research process of students with Asperger.
Much remains to be learned about Asperger and its relationship to literacy, and there is a need for increased awareness and attention by educators, administrators, and stakeholders, due in part to its increased prevalence. In a way, we need to engage in our own process of meaning-making, connecting what we know about literacy with what we are coming to know about students with Asperger in order to make inferences about the ways and means to best meet the needs of this growing population. The convergence of ideas from these fields leads us to: define reading comprehension, model reading strategies, interweave special interests, encourage reading out loud, provide visual supports, demonstrate expected behaviors, and adapt writing assignments. Heightening awareness of the literacy challenges students with Asperger may confront while recognizing their unique characteristics and incorporating these into curriculum and instruction, is the first step toward helping students make meaning.
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MARY E. STYSLINGER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of English and literacy education at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.…
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Publication information: Article title: Making Meaning: Strategies for Literacy Learning: The Unique Characteristics of Students with Asperger Syndrome Mean Teachers Must Think Strategically about How to Ensure That They Become Proficient Readers. Contributors: Styslinger, Mary E. - Author. Journal title: Phi Delta Kappan. Volume: 94. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2012. Page number: 40+. © 1999 Phi Delta Kappa, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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