Reading comprehension is one of the biggest challenges I see with individuals with autism. As we have talked about this summer, these challenges often stem from deficits in reading fluency and the ability to answer wh- questions. Reading comprehension is hard because it incorporates SO MANY SKILLS. First, you need to read the text and understand the words and concepts. Then, you need to listen (or read) a comprehension question. Then, you need to comprehend that question. Then, you need to identify the appropriate information from what you read to answer that question. There is so much going on. And one breakdown along the way throughs the whole system off. If you aren’t able to read and comprehend the text, you likely won’t be able to answer reading comprehension questions correctly. If you aren’t able under the question, you likely won’t be able to answer reading comprehension questions correctly. If you aren’t able find the right info to match the question, you likely won’t be able to answer reading comprehension questions correctly. It’s tricky!
Dr. Temple Grandin talks a lot about associative thinking and about how her thinking process is similar to google image search and one concept or word can quickly bounce from related idea to related idea in the form of pictures. When I first heard her explain this many years ago, it completely made sense to me. I saw this process going on daily with may of my students. When I do literacy PDs, I often show an old bing.com commercial on search overload where the conversation goes from tomato salsa to salsa music to Mambo #5 etc.
I saw this process happen when I would ask a student what they ate for dinner last night and they scrolled through everything they knew about dinner. He’d answer “mom and dad” “Olive Garden” “Tuesday” “the car” “the menu” “nighttime” before finally landing on the right answer – “spaghetti.” This process happens when we assess reading comprehension. We ask a question about a text and our student give us almost everything they know about the text. They may eventually get to the right answer but they weren’t able to focus on the exact question and information we were looking for.
So there is no one quick solution for targeting reading comprehension skills. It needs to be a multi-faceted approach. You definitely want to be build up the reading fluency skills like we talked about last week. Use books and topics that are of high interest to your student. This is something obvious we often forget about. I am super bored when my husband is watching golf on TV but very engaged when watching Real Housewives. The same goes for reading. The engagement will be easier with high interest topics.
I think visuals can be really helpful to assist our students in navigating this tricky process of reading comprehension. Use visuals as prompts of the question you are asking, as response options, or aide in comprehension of the text.
Model and Write
It’s also key to model your thought process when answering questions and comprehending the text. There are a huge range of strategies you and I use when reading. We visualize the text, we skim the content when we are done, we focus in on key words, etc. Talk through these processes. Provide some visual support for this modeling process by writing it out. Remember – words are visuals too. Write it out as you go through the modeling process. This will cue students in on how to read for meaning. Writing it out will help our visual leaners have the same level of engagement.
Go Beyond Question & Answer
Reading can be assessed in so many other ways beyond just the traditional question and answer format. Allow students to free write, free draw, or free talk what they read in a story. This approach is student driven and may give you the opportunity to see comprehension abilities that were previously difficult to identify. For free write, give your student a paper and pencil and tell them to write as much as they can about what they read. I sometimes like to give a timer here so we don’t write for 30 minutes. For free draw, have them draw about what they read. Prompt them to add detail and label their picture for further comprehension assessment. For free talk, have them tell you about what they read. Again you can use a timer here. For data purposes, you can count each correct fact as 1 and if you are using a timer you can calculate correct facts told per minute for a basis of comparison and progress monitoring.
If you are using question/answer setup – consider the way you present. A simple option is just writing out the question which can be hugely helpful for some of our students. Also consider the way your student will answer. Maybe he can circle from multiple choice options, select from visual options, or write the answer as opposed to saying the answer.