Although social narratives (or social stories) are typically used with kids who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, I find them quite effective in my work with a variety of struggling learners. For kids who have a reading disability but cannot easily describe and/or cope with their feelings of despair, social narratives provide a format for beginning that important dialog. These stories also allow them to see that others deal with the same frustrations. Developing fictional characters who struggle with similar issues also creates a safe distance between those intense feelings, while still allowing discussion of both feelings and strategies.
It is not necessary to use decodable books with kids whose reading abilities are average, but allows dyslexic kids access to realistic fiction through materials at their particular stage in phonetic analysis. I begin by developing a character with whom the child can identify, but without any reference to learning problems. The characters have interests which are similar to that of my student and are usually the same gender and in the same grade. However, I change enough other factors so that my intent is not transparent (at least not immediately!). After taking the student through a few “chapters” in the character’s life, I introduce a school situation which causes that character distress. Depending upon my student’s responses to these stories, I determine how closely the situation will parallel my student’s issues. For example, if they have been able to talk openly as we discuss what they’ve read, I can make the chapters more direct. If my student has avoided any relevant personal connections, I will broach key similarities such as behavior or strong feelings but change the subject matter (such as from writing to math).
I do ask kids to make personal connections to what they are reading with every chapter. They may describe shared interests or similarities to friends or family. Once the book series begins to address more “difficult” topics, such as anger, frustration, sadness, and misbehavior, I continue to ask the kids to make personal connections. Many of these students will skirt the tough issues at this stage. The books then start to focus on strategies; kids make predictions about the outcome of these interventions, explaining their reasoning. At that point, they are discussing situations much like their own, but with a degree of emotional distance. My students typically follow the struggles of these characters with much interest. Again, depending upon their response, the decodable books may describe successful resolution for some of these issues, or will shift to another character who confronts similar problems. After the “second round” of exploring difficulties with learning problems, I have found that most kids are willing to describe their own experiences.
This approach is usually too transparent for gifted kids, so I typically start a similar dialog verbally, in gradual increments. For an average learner with reading disabilities, these stories can support important discussions about feeling anxious, upset, or stupid. One student was on his “second round” with a set of decodable books when he turned to me and said, “Don’t think I’m going to discuss anything personal after I read this, because I’m not!” I stifled a smile (and said to myself, “Yes, I can tell that you are!”).
If you have a student in crisis, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for weeks of character development before addressing tough feelings that often accompany dyslexia. This narrative approach works best with students who are extremely resistant to talking about their strong feelings and with whom I will have time to inch forward. Just as kids do when being bullied, I’ve found that kids with dyslexia usually feel embarrassment and shame. Those kids who act out in a large group setting (and hope I don’t know about it) are the most resistant to disclosure. Then I weave a sympathetic teacher or other adult into the plot, hoping that my unhappy student will identify with the relief of talking openly. All the while, I am teaching specific decoding skills and syllable rules, so the process has the potential to be doubly effective. My student is addressing valuable reading skills systematically (which will translate into more confidence and hope) while giving them much-needed opportunities to share their feelings or at least, recognize that others have similar problems. This is not a “fix” for the feelings of stupidity and anger that dyslexic kids often experience, but I have found it an effective tool.