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

By Styslinger, Mary E. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2012 | Go to article overview

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).

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