* Christopher and me: update

It’s been ages since I updated you all on my tutoring sessions with Christopher, my nephew on the autism spectrum.  Christopher continues to work hard, flying in the house eagerly after a long day at school.  He has enough energy for both of us!

Great progress on vocabulary:  The number of unfamiliar words we encounter per session can be daunting, but with continual chipping away, using Quizlet and “natural” conversations, Christopher is steadily moving forward.  By “natural” conversations, I mean anything related to his fascination with all things Bowser and Donkey Kong.  Did you know these video characters can be sinister, peer at others, have jagged claws, and bolt away from enemies?  Christopher enjoys thinking of ways to include the vocabulary words so that he can safely talk about Bowser without straying “off task.”  Clever young man.

Improved word recognition has led to improved reading and listening comprehension, but we have miles to go before he is on grade level.  On the other hand, his improving language skills will eventually bring him close to that goal.  We are still progressing through the language-based Tasks of Problem-Solving, after which I’ll need to decide on next steps.  Christopher has come a LONG way since this past summer; he now answers 10 complex questions on problem scenarios with about 80% accuracy, depending upon his focus and familiarity with the topic.

A one-track mind:  Christopher asked me today, “Why is it bad to talk about one thing?”  We had a delightful discussion of conversational skills and his preference for lots of Mario and little “active.”  Did you know that “active” makes you hot and cold and that everyone doesn’t like active?  I certainly agreed with him there.  Christopher is at a stage where he recognizes how his narrow interests affect his social standing.  Fortunately, he has found a couple of kiddos who share his interests and dislike of “active.”  He is searching for ways to connect with others, so I asked what he might talk about at school tomorrow.  (Hint: We have winter storm Helena barreling in our direction.)  I can guarantee that Christopher is not going to mention the possibility of 5″ of snow.  When we got to that part of my suggestions, all he could imagine was “no school on Monday,” which led to quiet fascination of a day devoted to all things Bowser and no “active.”

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* Brain-friendly spelling

What does neuroscience tell us about spelling instruction?  An excellent resource for understanding brain-friendly teaching in this area is “The Best of Corwin: Educational Neuroscience,” edited by David Sousa.  (Corwin has been at the forefront of educational research for many years; click on the link to access webinars, free resources, and more.)

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In her chapter on The Literate Brain, Pamela Nevills reiterates what we already know.  Memorizing a set of words each week is NOT the way to develop capable spellers.  Instead, she suggests a sequence of skills by grade level.  These are also paired with reading instruction on the same skills.

  • Kindergarten- letter-sound associations
  • First grade- vowel sounds with decodable words, along with exceptions
  • Second grade- complex vowel and consonant patterns
  • Third grade- multisyllabic words, the wonderful schwa (unaccented syllables), and common prefixes and suffixes
  • Fourth grade- Latin-based prefixes, suffixes, and roots
  • Fifth through eighth grade- Greek roots and content vocabulary.

Nevills asserts that only about 4% of English words cannot be spelled using predictable spelling patterns and those are best learned through repetition and memory.  My experience confirms that estimate.  For struggling readers and writers, this is great news!  Students who learn spelling and syllable rules early and systematically actually change the structure of their neural pathways.

What are the implications for classroom and special education teachers?  Learn these rules and patterns for yourself and your kiddos.  There are many available resources online.  Encourage your PLC or grade level team to incorporate these skills into reading instruction.  Reading instruction, especially decoding words, does not end at third grade!  A bonus for teachers in Educational Neuroscience:  Each section provides student demystification of our brain processes for that topic, including a scripted discussion starter.

I’ll share more about this terrific resource in later posts.  

* 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.     

 

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* Tiny Tap’s terrific online courses

Tiny Tap takes online learning to a new level with curated Tiny Tap Courses!  Now teachers and parents can combine lessons to create seamless learning units!  Competency can be determined by requiring students to reach a certain score before advancing to the next lesson or continuous practice is available without requiring a minimum score.  Students also earn certificates as they complete courses.  Here’s a look at how phonics instruction can be personalized by grouping skills for particular students.  With over 80 thousand available lessons, comprehensive instruction is a tap away!

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Tiny Tap’s lessons and units are available in 30 languages and offer personalized instruction on a wide range of topics.  In case you’d forgotten, Tiny Tap offers parents and teachers insights on individual and class performance while providing differentiated learning experiences for students.  Tiny Tap is a terrific resource for special needs students with a wide range of needs.

If all that isn’t enough, what about making money while you individualize instruction?  Here’s the Tiny Tap teacher-driven economy.  You gotta love it!

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I could easily imagine a social skills unit for my dear Christopher.  I think it’s time for me to start tapping!

 

* A Most Reluctant Princess

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Jean Cogdell has written another 5 star winner, this time for thoughtful young girls who ponder their future.  As Amy considers her potential careers, including doctor, artist, president, and fairy, clear and gentle illustrations by Ashley Bauer capture the splendid role-playing of this imaginative child.  The sweetest message in this book is based on Amy’s secure love from her parents, especially her dad.  He calls her “his little princess” and Amy delights in being swept off the ground into his arms.  Her mother’s arms also hold this precious girl tight, reminding her that she has plenty of time to follow her dreams.  Cogdell has written this book in rhyme, with the soothing repetition that should make this a delightful bedtime story.  For older readers, there are other issues to ponder, such as the weight of a crown and throne. This book is sure to inspire girls and boys alike to enjoy creative play, while acknowledging that love is the foundation for any happy future.

A Most Reluctant Princess is available from Amazon.

* Christopher and me: what to read?

If you’re following this blog, you know I am tutoring my nephew, Christopher.  He’s A Sweet Dude (ASD) who flies into the house 4 times a week, calling out, “Aunt Katharine!  Aunt Katharine!”  When we started working together, I was a bit daunted by his weaknesses in language, social skills, reading comprehension, and writing.  But you would not believe his amazing progress!  He is a real trooper, working as hard as he can during long sessions after school.  Christopher writes 5 paragraph stories using graphic organizers, with over 80% of the work unaided by me.  That’s a huge reversal from his inability to write independently at all when we started.

Christopher’s progress in reading is equally strong.  While he still does not enjoy reading out loud, he understands that it helps him read more carefully; allows us to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary; and provides opportunities for analysis of characters and plot and making inferences and predictions.  I give him a “speeding ticket” when he races past punctuation, his eyes widening with delight as he gets ticketed.

How do I decide what books for him to read?  Like many kids on the autism spectrum, Christopher can identify words at grade level, but his comprehension lags well below that.  His preferred interests are video games, but given his eagerness for tutoring, I don’t need to stick with Mario Bros to keep his attention.  I look for books which are at his word-recognition level and will require him to learn needed skills.  Most importantly, I match the essence of him.  Christopher has a wacky sense of humor and loves anything gross, with shades of mischief and mayhem (yes, we are related!).  That brings to mind Roald Dahl, right?  We started with “The Twits” and have graduated to “James and the Giant Peach.”  These books provide a socially acceptable way to talk about nostrils and cabbage-shaped aunts and sad events to which he has strong personal connections.  Would you believe I have to force him to stop reading?   It’s all good.

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* Back to school packets from ReadWorks

ReadWorks has published a set of cool packets for K-12 teachers.  And they’re FREE!  If you haven’t registered, it takes just a moment and is well worth your time.  These packets focus on the summer-school transition for the younger set and on grade level topics for older students.  Each reading packet has paired texts, research-based questions, and vocabulary support.  Topics range from being a good citizen at school and getting along with others to explorations of civil rights and “the most expensive house in the universe.”

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Download this and MUCH more!

 

Also new:  ReadWorks has gone DIGITAL and I’ll share more on that later.  Don’t miss out!

* 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!

 

* Room Recess: Playing and learning

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Wow.  I just discovered Room Recess!  What a gem of a site!  Room Recess is the brainchild of a single teacher who creates an amazing array of reading, math, spelling, and “computer lab” games.  It’s FREE and tremendously engaging.  Most importantly, the skill practice is high quality.  I have never seen so many excellent games on main idea, cause and effect, and inferences.  Those are always difficult skills to find online and Recess Room provides a treasure trove of excellent practice.   Other unique literacy skills include practice on prefixes, parts of speech, and vowel sounds.

If your students enjoy video and computer games, they will dive into this site with glee.  In fact, kids may not realize they are working!  The site is divided into academic categories, with specific skills listed by topic and/or grade level.  Room Recess games are typically timed or leveled, with some opportunities to regain lives.  The daily high scores are listed, along with first through fifth place winners.  Even for kids who cringe at timed activities, there are plenty of games that require more strategy than speed.  Again, I can’t say enough about the variety and quality of this resource.  The creator also encourages educators to suggest topics for games.

Can you believe this site is AD-FREE???

Wow.

* Reading comprehension strategies for ASD kids

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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.