Thursday, December 17, 2015

Vocabulary Development for Readers with Autism

Reading expands the breadth of a reader’s vocabulary, which in turn contributes to reading efficiency.  In other words, the more you read the better reader you will become because a richer vocabulary gives more meaning to what is read. The opposite is also true, the less you read the poorer will be your vocabulary and the harder it will be for you to bring meaning to text. Normally, good readers learn most of their new words by using the context and their own experience of the world to add meaning. Often this meaning will initially be a gross approximation to the actual meaning of the word. However, after many encounters with the same word in a variety of contexts the reader will refine the depth of meaning and also see how meaning can change from one context to another.

Many children who have mastered decoding may have difficulty with reading comprehension, particularly after year four. This is because the language structures are much more complex, much of the vocabulary is unfamiliar, the types of texts differ from the more familiar narrative structures that they have been accustomed to in the lower grades, and the emphasis or focus shifts from decoding to comprehension. Often children with language deficits will struggle and appear to fall behind at this point. Reading becomes harder and they tend to avoid reading, which then contributes to poorer vocabulary through lack of exposure to new and unfamiliar words. This becomes a self-defeating cycle of poor reading comprehension and reading disengagement.

In addition, many children with high functioning autism have good to very good decoding skills and have a reasonable amount of reading practice. However, they have more difficulty connecting meaning to new words. They tend to concentrate on the detail and not so much on connected text such as; phrases, sentences, paragraphs and longer discourse. They often have language deficits that hinder this process and have difficulty making appropriate inferences. This may include their inability to develop text coherence, understand emotion and other character traits in narrative texts and have difficulties with executive functioning in working memory. These problems make it difficult for them to connect with prior knowledge, use the sentence and story context, and make appropriate inferences about the meanings of unknown words. Thus, they may read more but their vocabulary suffers as they progress through the grades. Usually these children are very intelligent and are able to cover their comprehension deficit but there will come a time when the texts that they are assigned become too difficult to adequately comprehend. What also makes detection difficult is the fact that they may appear to be reading fluently with expression but without adequate comprehension.

To help these students there are some very practical ideas that have been suggested by Susan Gately (2008 see article for more details). I have listed many of these ideas below but have structured the methods in terms of my COR Literacy Framework (See earlier Blog) (also see my earlier Blog series on Fluency).

Perceptual Level:
  •     Visually cued instruction – helps focus on relevant parts of information
  •     Graphics
  •     Colour
  •    Provide concrete and tangible information
  •    Focus in relevant parts of the story or information
Cognitive Level:
  •    Priming background knowledge
  •    Picture walks
  •  Visual maps
  •    Understanding narrative text structure
  •     Emotional thermometers
Metacognitive Level
  •    Think-alouds
  •      Reciprocal thinking (also refer to reciprocal teaching - Google)
  •     Goal-structure-mapping
  •     Decrease reliance on other prompts and increase independence

Details about these ideas can be found in:
Gately, S. E. (2008). Facilitating reading comprehension for students on the Autism Spectrum. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(3), 40-45.

For a more detailed explanation of vocabulary difficulties see pages 83-84 in:
Woolley, G. (2007). A comprehension intervention for children with reading comprehension difficulties. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 12(1), 43-50.

A very informative article and book chapter related to problems with vocabulary for children with ASD:
Lopez, B., & Leekham, S. R. (2003). Do children with autism fail to process information in context? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44(2), 285-300.
Leekam, S. (2007). Language comprehension difficulties in Children with autism spectrum disorders. In C. Cain and J. Oakhill (Eds.), Children’s Comprehension Problems in Oral and Written Language: A Cognitive Perspective (pp. 104127), NY : Guilford Press.

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