* More on language struggles

Yesterday I shared my concerns about Stacey, a rising 3rd grader who appears to have a language disability.  It can be difficult to intervene if parents are unable or unwilling to accept that their children have major challenges; it’s even harder if all of the kids are struggling in some way.  Where does that leave us?  If I were a regular classroom teacher at Stacey’s school, I might initially attribute her unusual verbal responses as shyness or as a misunderstanding.  In a large group setting, it can be harder to evaluate students if they aren’t eager to respond.  Hopefully, Stacey’s teacher would spot Stacey’s unusual errors and word finding problems.

As a special educator, I might not notice Stacey’s language struggles, either.  If a parent or teacher does not refer a student, I would have limited contact with that child.  On the other hand, I have had opportunities to refer kids for speech and language issues when they have been invited to social skills groups called “lunch bunches.”  A lunch bunch is when my special needs kiddos could invite one or more friends to a small group lunch. In that setting, I typically found that all of them could use a hand in conversational skills!  But seriously, I think the easiest way to get to know kids is in a small group setting.

The best hope for Stacey to receive some language intervention comes from small group interactions with adult supervision.  In that setting, it would be much more obvious that Stacey is not functioning at typical levels for her age.  Whether an official evaluation process ever gains traction is uncertain in light of the family dynamics.

Stacey on electronics

* Identifying language struggles

Stacey dancing 2When Stacey was in kindergarten, I had serious concerns about her language development.  As a rising 3rd grader, now heading back across the states after a summer visit, Stacey continues to display many indicators of a language disability.  She still struggles with basic prepositions, directions, and word recall.  Sadly, she is so desperate for attention that when her grammatical errors entail hoots of laughter from her sibs, Stacey will repeat whatever she can to earn even more laughter.  One of the worst indicators of her struggles to communicate are her increasingly serious behavior issues, with physical aggression and a “shorthand” verbal teasing.

Yesterday she attempted to ask me to subscribe to a YouTube channel featuring, “It’s Raining Tacos,” but I had no idea that’s what she wanted:

Stacey:  Aunt Katharine.

Me:  Yes?

Stacey (holding a tablet in front of me):  Can you do that?

Me:  What do you want?

Stacey:  Can you…?

Me:  Is it working right?

Stacey:  See?  I want this.

Me:  “It’s Raining Tacos?”  You want to play it?

Stacey (irritably pulling away the tablet):  No!  Never mind.  Forget it!

Me:  Show me what you want.

Stacey (pointing in the direction of the screen):  See?  That.

I was desperate, checking for the battery level, sound level (all earlier issues that took just as long to sort), and trying to keep her with me long enough to figure this out.  Eventually I asked, “Do you want to subscribe to this channel?”  She answered, “Yes, but forget it.”

More tomorrow on what could be done to support Stacey’s language growth.

* Syllable talk

I just completed a reading evaluation of a home-schooled student who has all the skills he needs except one: recognizing/identifying syllable rules.  As students move into upper elementary grades, rules for syllabication become increasingly vital.  This kiddo is now reading to learn, not learning to read.  He may use context effectively but still stumbles over unfamiliar words with multiple syllables.  If this student were dyslexic, he’d be crippled without an early introduction to syllable types.

I have found that most folks are not passionate about syllables.  My family groans when I start a lunchtime conversation about open or closed syllables.  But what about this?  I paid a middle school student to learn syllable types one summer and he gained a couple of years’ growth in reading.  AND he was no longer a behavior problem at school.  My dearest teaching widower is resigned to the reality that we sometimes pay students to learn.  But since finances are a topic I avoid like the plague, money and syllable rules are off the table for lunchtime conversations.  Hey, anyone want to talk about the schwa?

schwa happens.jpg

Get your schwa shirt at Wilson Language- a terrific site for reading teachers.

* Christopher and me: defining success

Christopher failed the reading portion of the End of Grade (EOG) tests.

Christopher 1

I tutor my precious nephew, Christopher, a 4th grader on the AU spectrum.  He’s made terrific progress in the past year, with gains in vocabulary and reading comprehension.  But was it enough?  During a benchmark trial for the EOGs at school, Christopher melted down with tears and distress.  After 3 hours of testing, he had answered 7 out of 45 questions.

In our follow-up tutoring sessions, Christopher spoke angrily about the injustice of test questions that were meant to “trick” him.  He stated accurately that he could not read the test passages.  What to do?  If the EOGs were an accurate measure of his growth, I would have been very concerned.  In reality, Christopher’s gains are best measured against specific objectives on an IEP, not against grade level norms.  His reading performance remains well below that of his peers, but remarkably above where he was a year ago.  And we have long abandoned efforts for him to read orally; he cannot maintain focus, he benefits from seeing what he hears, and natural phrasing helps him use context for unfamiliar words.

Knowing that he would likely produce a test misadministration for himself and the other kids in his small testing group, I suggested- gulp- that he not attempt to read the passages but instead read the questions and scan for answers.  Using this strategy on grade level passages in our sessions, he scored about 50% accuracy.  That would have to do.  The alternatives were unacceptable.

Christopher called me every night in the week-long EOG countdown.  His determination to succeed in this rather hopeless endeavor was both encouraging and heartrending.  “What does ‘most likely’ mean, Aunt Katharine?”  “What are key words?”  I reaffirmed my conviction that he would do his best and that I was proud of him.  Christopher survived.  He did not lose the gains we had made, he does not know he “failed,” and he will continue to grow.  Going forward, audio books with a visual component will be the key for Christopher’s ongoing instruction in all academic areas.

I understand the need for standardized testing, but I value the effort Christopher has made, his desire to keep learning, and the confidence he has gained this year from measurable growth in his skills.  The 4th grade EOG does not define Christopher’s future.

* Backing up, moving forward in math

Backing Up and Moving Forward” is an insightful article in this month’s Teaching Children Mathematics.  The premise of the article is that carefully worded math problems can assist teachers in first assessing student performance and then determining the next steps: do students move forward or back up?  The authors, Barlow et al., share their experiences with 5th graders’ understanding of dividing fractions and how teachers determined what those next steps should be.

In the process of designing their lessons, the authors share some features of effective word problems.  In this experiment, the word problem was fashioned around “Chef Frederick” as he made dessert.  Do students have familiarity with this kind of cooking experience?  Does the problem support varied response styles, such as visual, manipulative, or written?  measuring-cups

The authors also established a 4 point scale of student performance, from exceeding expectations to lacking fundamental understanding.  From my perspective as a special educator, I can predict that many of my kiddos would fall in the lower end of the proficiency scale.  Asking students to demonstrate their understanding visually is an effective indicator of performance.  Both teachers and students can better see the reasoning process and where it might have broken down.  In one example, a student did not know how to represent a simple fraction; obviously, dividing fractions was introduced before that student had sufficient prior learning.

I’d love to see a follow-up article on how classroom teachers could address major gaps in mathematical understanding.   It takes time to replace misconceptions.  It takes willingness on both the student’s and teacher’s part to tackle the process.  What happens to the struggling learners while the remaining kids move forward?  It is encouraging that these educators recognize the need to fill in those gaps, instead of simply pushing forward.  If this assessment and repair process occurred routinely at all grade levels, perhaps we wouldn’t see as many kids who are partially memorizing algorithms and procedures without true understanding.


* Christopher and me: not so fast

I’ve been sharing my efforts to help my nephew, Christopher, a kiddo on the autism spectrum (aka, A Sweet Dude).  He has a reading profile similar to many ASD kids I’ve taught: tremendous word recognition and fluency with weak vocabulary and comprehension.  Christopher entered 4th grade this year (having been retained once already) with a 2+ year discrepancy between word recognition and comprehension.  His reading performance was recently assessed at school and voilà!  Christopher has gained more than a year’s growth in reading since we began our sessions!  

But before we break out the champagne, let’s examine the data provided by the school. Christopher has a “scale score” of 142 and the cut-off is 139; his score is even above his district average for third graders.  But a scale score on what?  It’s likely to be an mClass assessment called TRC, which uses the Fountas and Pinnel reading levels.  How is the parent supposed to know?  How could a parent advocate for their child on the basis of this information?  There is not a single clear reference to the test, which has now successfully removed “the retained reading label.”  Well, that’s a relief!  A second relief is that Christopher “will now remain with [his] current classroom teacher and take the 4th grade EOGs at the end of the year.”  That’s good news/bad news?

I do know that Christopher has made marvelous progress in reading, so why my sarcasm?  In 2012, North Carolina initiated the Read to Achieve program designed to reduce social promotion of students not reading at grade level by third grade.  Statistically, if kids aren’t proficient by then, they are at risk for school drop out.  But the devil’s in the details.  And you wouldn’t believe the details.  Here’s a link to those details, which are amazingly convoluted even to me- and I’m familiar with the convoluted world of education.  In an Op-Ed piece published by the News and Observer in June, 2015, a teacher is quoted as saying, “It is a dark day to be a third grade teacher in North Carolina.”  The writers, Robert Smith and Scott Imig, take NC to task for the unintended effects of Read to Achieve, such as high rates of anxiety among third graders and teacher ratings of strong negative effects on reading.

The bottom line: Christopher is making speedy progress in our sessions, but I’m not sure the school has proved it.     




* Christopher and me: medication for ADHD?

In this ongoing series about my intervention with Christopher, a nephew on the autism spectrum, this post is about his attention struggles and whether medication is a good option for him.  Christopher’s teachers have struggled with his distractibility and certainly want to recommend medication.  Been there, done that, with some kids.  Public schools cannot and should not require parents to put kids on medication, but very often, teachers are the ones who can see how attention problems affect daily learning.


My dearest widower caught this episode of Christopher and I playing with a pencil during a brain break.

Although kids on the spectrum can have attention disorders and are sometimes treated with medication, I don’t believe medication is the way to go for this youngster.  First, Christopher did not receive early and effective intervention.  We don’t know how far he can go with adequate support.  He began kindergarten at six years old and finally received social skills support in second grade, for one 30 minute session a week.  Parental denial was a primary factor in that delay, which stalled his progress and minimized and/or eliminated the potential benefits of school and family coordination.

Second, Christopher’s attention problems are reduced with positive behavior interventions and adequate academic support.  He is an active learner in our sessions and is eager to please.  I do provide times for him to act “silly,” which in his case means laughing and talking rapidly about his interests.  Some of those interests, like getting a shot, reflect his anxiety about life.  He worries about many things and given the tremendous upheaval in his life this year, those uncertainties are reasonable.  We play through his worries, which seems to act like a pressure valve.  Christopher will escalate into a wild thing if I don’t intervene at all, but I want him to see that he can “come back” with minimal support.  Without other kids, it is easy for us to openly explore issues which affect his social standing, such as picking his nose and sucking his fingers.

Third, Christopher is at risk for losing weight on stimulant medications.  He is already underweight and eats a very restricted diet by choice.  He is gradually broadening his range of acceptable foods now that his environment has stabilized, but I don’t think he can afford to lose even 5 pounds.

Bottom line:  We need to give Christopher the time to benefit from other interventions before considering medication.

* Christopher and me: brain breaks

I’ve been asked how to keep a young’un attentive during summer tutoring, especially one with special needs.  My nephew, Christopher, is such a joy to teach, but he does get tired, off track, antsy, and frustrated at times.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, he’s an ASD (A Sweet Dude) kiddo .  Here’s what I do:

  • Keep a visual schedule so he knows when we will take brain breaks.
  • Take a variety of brain breaks, including going outside for a few minutes to toss a minion (below) or to attempt hula hooping.
  • Encourage him to stand up as we work, if he looks fatigued.
  • Give him something to fidget with.
  • Keep the activities focused on his special interests.
  • Tally every off-task remark and praise him for the improvements he’s made as we work.  Many times, simply tallying or graphing is sufficient with kids.  No need for a reward, but…
  • Establish a small reward of his choice for each of our 3 major activities (thinking/language, writing, reading).  For example, he loves a sour small candy, so he’s gotten 3 miniature pieces after each session of working hard.  He DOES work hard all the time anyway, which I find very typical of kids on the autism spectrum.
  • Provide a larger reward for longer and more difficult assignments which may take a week to earn.  These are typically the “thinking” activities related to problem solving.
  • Stay playful.  We DO get off track and although I sneak in some language work as we banter, he needs to enjoy himself with those wild and crazy thoughts of blowing noses, beating Super Mario Bros, or endless discussions of “comic mischief.”

(Hover mouse to read captions.)

* Christopher and me: evaluation

Christopher is my autistic nephew, a sweetheart of a kid with many delightful qualities.  You might remember how determined he was that all his sibs got an equal share of candy at Halloween.Max skeleton 2

Christopher is loving, attentive, eager to please, and confident in his math skills.  When I wrote my post on reading comprehension strategies for ASD kids, I was hoping for an opportunity to tutor Christopher.  Voila!  Opportunity realized.

I started with an evaluation of Christopher’s skills.  His teachers reported at least a 2-year discrepancy between his reading accuracy and comprehension, something I had already noticed informally.  He makes excellent use of phonics, which is not typical of kids on the spectrum, in my experience.  Sure, he has easily memorized many words, but he can also decode unfamiliar multisyllabic words in isolation.  By self-report, he “HATES to read and stinks at it.”  I explored his problem-solving skills using the LinguiSystem TOPS-3 materials, suppressing giggles at his idiosyncratic answers.  I also faltered in confidence.  Out of the ten categories involved, he was somewhat proficient in one of them.  Christopher’s responses were often “in the ballpark,” but he lacked the ability to reason effectively.

Here are some of the (modified) questions and his answers:

  • James bought a pair of socks and gloves.  What do we call sets of two things?  “2 socks” (repetition of question) “2 gloves”
  • Melanie wrote her science report again.  Why?  “Because she wanted to return it.”
  • What do you see after you pop a balloon?    “A lot of red paper.  It’s everywhere.”
  • Kim’s mom is buying new shoes for her.  Kim wants shoes with Velcro.  Her mom wants to buy shoes with shoelaces.  What is the problem?  “Everything will not be peaceful.”  Two solutions?  “She’ll tell her mom she wants to give them away.”  (Another solution?)  “She’ll ask one more time that she really wants Velcro fasteners.”
  • Mom got a grocery cart in the store.  What will she do now?  “Use the food to cook for dinner and lunch.”
  • Today is July 10.  The milk container in the fridge says, “Use by July 3.”  What is the problem?  “They can’t use it for a year until the next July 10.”

We started with general information, the basis for problem solving.  His knowledge base seems unconsolidated and is full of gaps.  After one session, we took a “field trip” to the nearby post office because he was dreadfully confused about all sorts of mail questions, including how you could get a package to someone who lived far away (let me tell you, walking there is not the solution!).  Christopher was disappointed that he couldn’t see the “factory” when we arrived at the post office….

I told myself, “Baby steps.  Baby steps.”  Indeed, after a week of intensive work on general information and practicing wh-questions, Christopher showed strong improvement.  We used highlighting tape, practiced new vocabulary related to reading comprehension, role-played answers, used talk-to-text for writing on his favorite topic, and supplied powerful motivators.  The 1-to-1 instruction and the systematic nature of our work also helped.  As you can see from his responses above, Christopher is in the game but just not in position.  I look forward to the next month’s progress and will keep you posted!


* Were you born to be a blogger?

Qzzr rocks!  I created my first quiz with rapid assistance from the Qzzr team.  (I wanted to embed the quiz here but the plugin only works on WordPress.org, not.com.)  There is no registration, it takes a minute or so, and that’s it!


What did I learn?  Qzzr forced me to think and rethink both my categories (outcomes) and criteria (questions), a terrific learning process as I consider making a social skills quiz for kids on the autism spectrum.  I started off with a graded quiz but I created far too many possible outcomes, from being a born blogger to avoiding technology at all costs to all shades in between.  I explored single choice versus any choice responses, adding images to my questions, and weighting answer choices.  My dearest widower was kind enough to take the quiz himself, which helped me see that the quiz does not really suit non-bloggers at all!

I think Qzzr could be a powerful tool for students to use, especially gifted kids in upper elementary grades and students in middle and high school.  Teachers could use student-created quizzes as an evaluation of understanding or inclusion in digital portfolios.

5 stars for Qzzr!