* Everything I know, I learned from…

Speech Therapists!  That’s a slight exaggeration, but not far from the truth.  I have been blessed by the advice and mentoring of many excellent speech and language pathologists.  Why has their advice been so crucial?  They understand and work at the deepest levels of understanding, helping kids process information.  Speech therapists demonstrate how systematic and carefully sequenced instruction transforms language, which is at the core of most academic and social learning.

It was a speech therapist who first shared the TOPS 3 Elementary Tests of Problems Solving with me.  This test assesses critical thinking based on students’ language strategies, logic, and experiences.  For students with dyslexia and those on the autism spectrum, these language-based skills are sometimes assumed to exist and therefore receive cursory instruction.  For this reason, I’ve used the Tasks of Problem Solving workbook by Bowers et al. for social skills and reading comprehension instruction (see related post), as well as for specific skill remediation.

Tasks of Problem Solving

This workbook includes a description of the following skills with useful tasks of increasing difficulty.  Many of the lessons include visual cues (or these can be easily created).  It is quite simple to adapt any lesson to student interests and needs:

  • Identifying problems
  • Determining causes
  • Sequencing
  • Negative questions
  • Predicting
  • Making inferences
  • Problem solving
  • Justifying opinions
  • Generalizing skills

One caveat: Years ago, after observing me in the classroom, a speech therapist strongly advised me to speak more s-l-o-w-l-y.  I’m still working on that skill!

* Reading comprehension strategies for ASD kids


At a recent IEP meeting, we discussed a reading profile of a student on the autism spectrum.  In my experience, there is often a wide gap between an ASD student’s vocabulary identification and reading comprehension.  How do we help remediate this gap?  Here are some strategies I’ve found effective:

  • Use reading material on topics of interest.  I have had to write my own materials at times, when a student has a particularly narrow range of interests.  The next best option is to find reading material that can be related to an area of interest.  Spend time exploring the student’s prior knowledge of that book/passage and provide/elicit possible questions the student may be able to answer after reading.
  • Teach students the differences between narrative and informational texts.  Provide graphics that outline these two formats.  Add question cards with single words or symbols to represent the types of questions associated with these texts.  Require students to make predictions at appropriate points in the text.  Provide visual cues to prompt these predictions as they read.
  • For teaching narrative features, use photos or illustrations of characters, the story problem, and problem resolution.  This could be organized like a trail or road, depending upon a student’s interests.  A Minecraft-style path may be engaging for lots of kids.
  • For teaching informational text features, an outline form or building block format is helpful.  Again, use a student’s interests to shape the graphic into an engaging tool.
  • Assess and teach specific skills related to reading comprehension.  Many of my ASD kids have had weaknesses in inference and prediction.  I have used “Tasks of Problem Solving” by LinguiSystems (now owned by PRO-ED) for both assessment and instruction.  (I’ll review this resource in another post).
  • Model and rehearse the process of summarizing short sections of text.  The challenge is to keep the dialog on task, not losing focus and momentum as small chunks are summarized.  Again, prepare visual cues that can be matched to the side of a paragraph.  Older students could create their own picture/word sticky notes, but when modeling this strategy, use pre-prepared images.  Verbal retelling is an instructional option, as well.  If that proves effective, students could record their verbal summaries independently on an app as they read.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share what they’ve read, especially in a leadership role.  They could be a mentor to younger kids or create a digital presentation to their class of what they’ve read.

To summarize, take advantage of your student’s strengths in using visual cues and their strong preferences for certain topics.  Identify specific areas of weakness in reading comprehension to address.  Teach strategies explicitly, providing a name and symbol for each one.  And enjoy!   Reading can be a passionate pursuit for our kids on the autism spectrum as it opens the door to more information and connections with others.

* Writing failure, writing success

After my two-part analysis of writing failure experienced by a twice exceptional student with dyslexia, here are some effective writing strategies to consider for older elementary students.

  1.  Address writing anxiety, which alone can derail all other attempts to learn new skills.  Dealing with anxiety is different for each student, but should include a strong validation of the institutional failures that led to the writing crisis.  There were many missed opportunities by the school/teachers/specialists to address a student’s difficulties before they became crippling.
  2.  Continue to work on phonological and spelling weaknesses by tackling multisyllabic words.  Teach spelling rules and patterns.  Teach syllable types, syllabication rules, and meanings of prefixes and suffixes.  Megawords is an excellent program for addressing these skills.
  3. Teach parts of speech if these have not already been addressed.
  4.  Provide ample time for students to learn new vocabulary associated with skill practice in #2 above.  Use crossword puzzles, games, word searches, mad libs, skits, and conversation to add these words to a student’s working vocabulary.
  5.  Teach vocabulary related to character traits.  By the later elementary years and into middle school, students will be required to analyze character development and use appropriate adjectives.  Many of our dyslexic students, despite high IQ’s, are still using descriptive words such as “nice” and “happy.”
  6.  Attack the disconnect between details and main ideas from “both sides.”  Have the student generate (dictate) lists of details and dictate main ideas (topic sentences/blurbs).  Also provide main ideas and require students to generate as many details as possible.  The first approach seems to work best, in my experience.
  7.  Graph or otherwise record increments of growth.  After years of struggle, these kids need to know they are climbing out of the abyss.
  8.  Allow kids to read and write on topics of interest.
  9.  Teach prewriting organizational strategies, such as graphic organizers.  Help kids use as many consistent shortcuts as possible for recording their ideas.  I suggest symbols and simple drawings.
  10.  Keep writing to a minimum until the student is well-equipped with spelling and organizational skills.
  11. Make use of technology, such as talk-to-text features and spell check.   All these kids should be able to use a keyboard efficiently.

It IS possible for students to recover from years of dismal writing experiences.  Supportive parents and teachers are crucial in validating a student’s effort and providing the requisite skills for success.  Who knows?  They may end up writing you a thank you note!


* Anatomy of writing failure, part 1

How do you transform a writing-phobic, dyslexic, twice exceptional student into a willing and competent writer?  I’ve been working on this challenge for a while, with gradually improving results.  One key to transforming a non-writer is to dissect the process into its stages of failure and opportunity.

First of all, why would a student with reading struggles find it so hard to write?  While typical learners are creating sentences like “I see anmuls.  Thay are big,” my student is writing “I am…..”  The other kids generated their own ideas and spelling.  Despite his giftedness, my student got stuck in the idea phase and had no clue how to spell more than a couple of words.  At the end of this year, other students have writing portfolios.  My kiddo has a lot of blank pages.

Opportunity #1:  Separate the writing and thinking processes.  Provide idea-challenged student with opportunities to talk, record, and draw ideas instead of writing words at this stage.  Focus on skills such as categorization.  Allow time for sorting pictures into meaningful stories.  Play games where students eliminate the “odd” picture or create a theme based upon similar groups.  Provide sufficient exemplars of single sentences and analyze their features with the student.  Use only writing topics of interest for this student, which will enhance motivation and allow him to draw upon a deeper understanding of how ideas are connected.

Opportunity #2: Work around the need to spell until the student has the prerequisite skills (which will take specialized instruction).  Allow recording, dictation, and copying.  Use technology.

Something to think about:  This challenged writer has spent a school year pretending to write, if he is compliant.  If not compliant, he has spent a year learning how to avoid writing in less desirable ways.  His only completed assignments are likely to be those where the teacher sat next to him until he had one or two sentences on his paper.  Other kids are now writing four or more sentences at a time, developing decent spelling skills, and many are writing for pleasure.

Next: The “I know you can do it” stage.  Help!

* E is for enervated

Kids at school should be energetic.  Within bounds.  Excessive energy, when kids resemble ping pong balls flying around a room, needs to be channeled or pleasantly suppressed.  Our goal is active learners who can manage their “engines.”

Enervated students should also draw our attention.  But in a class of overly active kids, the passive students may be a welcome relief.  You can spread them around the room to lower the impact of those ping pong balls, right?  Ultimately, both overly active and inactive students are at risk for academic and social problems.

Here’s my working definition of enervated students: Kids who are listless, passive, perhaps inattentive, fatigued, and outwardly unresponsive.  They don’t laugh at my jokes, which is a sure sign of trouble.  Let’s analyze some common reasons for listless behavior that goes beyond an attention disorder.  Yes, I am eliminating an attention disorder from this category.  Enervated kids could be sick, sleepless, hungry, bored, anxious or depressed, or have a sensory disorder.

In my experience, some of these kids were sleep-deprived and more.  One young girl described long nights spent in a parking lot, hanging out with her mother’s boyfriend.  Major alert factor there.  Another hadn’t eaten for two days.  Another major alert.  One had strep throat for weeks.  Another student claimed to be bored but had a processing disorder which impacted his ability to track classroom discussions.  A couple of unidentified gifted students were bored witless.  One student was suicidal.  In each case, it took a team of caring professionals to instigate needed changes.  Sadly, not all the interventions were successful.

I will never forget teaching one totally enervated resource group of five boys.  I could have died in front of them and they’d never react.  There were no indicators of physical or emotional distress.  They had concerned parents who were accustomed to their passivity but understood its impact on learning.  They were young healthy zombies.  What are the odds?  All from different regular classrooms, all struggling readers.  I enlisted the occupational therapist’s support.  Our working hypothesis was a sensory disorder.  My goal?  Independent movement.  Skipping ahead 6 months, these boys morphed into bowling balls.  It still took effort to get them going, but they could keep rolling.  They enjoyed our continual movement activities, they started to talk to one another, and all but one made progress in reading.  No, they still didn’t laugh at my jokes.


* Ratings rule!

When working with kids, one of the first things I establish is the importance of their honest feedback.  I’m especially interested in creating a language to discuss the difficulty level of a lesson or specific task.  A numbered rating scale, once defined and practiced, is a useful means of eliciting immediate feedback.  While it’s also important to gauge understanding, I can usually assess that without as much direct student feedback.  On the other hand, the levels of effort, discomfort or anxiety, and interest can be masked by compliance and a good working relationship.

Feedback on mental effort is especially crucial for twice exceptional students (2e).  These are the kids whose giftedness camouflages the energy drain of a lesson.  2e kiddos also enjoy a scale with a broad range of possibilities, so 1 through 10 is often preferable to 1 through 5.  It’s worth letting them take the time to adjust the numbers precisely (I got an 8.5 level of difficulty yesterday, which is pretty high).  The harder part can be helping them verbalize what features of the task made it so onerous.  Just as these students can struggle to differentiate main ideas and details, they may also paint the assignment with a broad brush.  Follow-up questioning elicits those details which then change my instructional materials or techniques.   Providing kids routine opportunities to evaluate instructional tasks not only validates their efforts but improves their ability to analyze and self-monitor their learning.  For me, it’s equally vital for improving my own skills as a teacher.  Win-win!


* Early concerns, part 5

If you have followed my previous posts about Stacey, an adorable kindergartner who may be at risk for learning and language problems, you’ll know that I am still fretting over her language development.  I am NOT a speech-language therapist but have taught special needs kids long enough to recognize when a referral might be appropriate.

To summarize my concerns about her language development, Stacey does not appear to understand a lot of verbal communication and her language often sounds well below what you would expect from a child her age.  On the other hand, she has experienced significant trauma and grew up in a bilingual environment.  She often engages others by using memorized phrases and sounds which have previously elicited a positive reaction.  If Stacey can see what is being discussed, her responses seem more on track.


Here’s a smattering of some recent informal interactions. We were putting together a cute Bratz spa (a nice alternative to spa apps) and as I struggled to cut the items free from their box, Stacey looked at the scissors and said, “They’re shark.”  It took me a moment to realize she was saying “sharp,” by which time I did indeed slice my finger.  The spa had a working sink and sprayer, so I filled it for her and watched her douse Yasmin’s hair.  When she ran out of water, Stacey said, “You’re plugging me!”  She demonstrated her meaning by shaking the now-empty sink.  When we refilled it, she said, “You didn’t put the… most.  You have to put 99.”  I asked, “Do you want me to put in more water?” Stacey replied, “99 water, OK?”  (At least she gets percentages!)  When she rearranged some spa items, Stacey commented, “I’m putting down it.”  When she had tired of the spa, Stacey was frustrated when her sib and his friend wouldn’t share walkie talkies.  She came over to me and complained, “They’re not sharing hings.”

In my next Stacey post, I’ll share what happened when we played the storytelling card game.

* Early concerns, part 4

My dear Stacey, a kindergartner at risk for reading and language disabilities as well as autism, always triggers my special education radar when she speaks.  Or doesn’t speak.  Or just makes noises.  Granted, she has suffered serious emotional trauma, which can lead to regression in social interactions.  She also has an older autistic sibling.  On the other hand, she has older siblings who are excellent communicators and role models for appropriate language.

Stacey has been using an app to create her own “movies.”  The Disney Princess Story Theater app allows kids to create scenes and then add their own voice to three-part stories.  I thought this would be a good opportunity for Stacey to practice sequencing events, using her beloved Disney characters.

Disney Princess Story Theater

Once Stacey learned how to record her voice, her first recordings were predictably filled with shrieks and other oddball expressions.  After giving her time to  exhaust the Silly Factor, I recorded a model of a simple story with her.  We listened to the British voice give us a brief overview of each scene and we then recorded an appropriate follow-up sentence.  She can add words that logically describe what is happening in that scene or what might happen next.

After listening to all her recorded stories and scenes (my phone is full of princess videos!), the following features are consistent:

  • Stacey has difficulty recalling character names.  Despite her love of all things princess, Stacey has demonstrated consistent word finding problems, often recording, “Who is that?”
  • SInce she never knew how to begin any story, I modeled, “I am Ariel.”  Stacey continues to copy that phrase, with lots of “I am…. Who is that?”
  • She has not yet created any coherent story in sequence.  Her recordings are a jumble of words, with a lot of the repetitive phrases she’s heard from her autistic brother (“And blow your nose!”).

Conclusions:  The task is too difficult for her, although it has not diminished her thrill of recording “stories.”  Stacey remembers what she has heard and that overrides the pictures she’s seeing.  For instance, one of the stories describes Ariel hiding from some eels.  Stacey adds a part of that sentence to all stories about Ariel, even though the pictures are quite different.  Once she has “mastered” (memorized) a sentence, it seems to become her default sentence, regardless of the context.

Next informal step:  Purchase a sequence game of Princess cards (Tell Tale Disney Princess Game).   We can still record her stories from picture cards, if she prefers, but this should give her an opportunity to practice with more support from me and more time to think through her ideas.

* Early concerns, part 3

How do we know if a child would benefit from early intervention?   I’ve already described my concerns about this kindergartner’s possible delays in reading, language, and social development (see parts one and two).  Not only does she have a strong family history of those issues, but has also experienced significant emotional trauma, which can lead to delays and regressions, as well.  I have not yet completed a systematic informal evaluation, but I keep gathering clues.  I was thrilled when Stacey grabbed a marker and wanted to write.

Stacey writing

We were doing some roleplaying, with Stacey creating signs that identified her as a doctor and dentist.  The paper above, if rotated, says, “I am a dentist.”  She wrote “I am a” without any assistance and left decent spacing, too.  Without lines.  Stacey got bored with that activity and turned most of the letters into happy faces.  While she was in a writing mode, I decided to check out rhyming again.  Without any graphemes, Stacy had typically become anxious about rhyming, even in a game format.  But when I asked her to use letters for rhyming, she was intrigued.  We started with cat and bat, both of which I modeled for her.  Stacey smiled and wrote my prompt, then created her own rhyme!  She was able to segment phonemes and identified three out of five short vowel sounds.  I did tell her to add a k after the c in ‘back’ and ‘black.’  Eventually, Stacey ran out of interest and said, “Period!” as she added punctuation after the word ‘hit.’  I asked, “What does that mean?” and she answered, “You are done… the….”  I suggested, “Sentence?” and she nodded.

Other observations: Stacey recognized individual one-syllable words in a sentence, blended phonemes without distortions (“k-æ-t” instead of “cuh-ah-tuh”), and demonstrated confidence and pleasure at her ability to write!  Woohoo!

Does this mean I can pack up my reading concerns?  Not until I’ve done more systematic work with her.   However, I am very encouraged with these skills!