A creative approach to teaching literacy to pupils on the autistic spectrum
I have taught pupils with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) for many years, ranging from severely autistic pupils with no speech to the pupils that I currently teach who are higher functioning and are in inclusive provision in a mainstream school.
Over the years, I have found that literacy is an area of the curriculum that many pupils with autism struggle with, as opposed to numeracy for which many autistic pupils show a preference and aptitude. Literacy poses greater challenges for the autistic mind; unlike numeracy, it can be abstract and reliant upon good receptive and expressive language as well as imagination and inference, all things that are difficult for the child with autism. I have also discovered that, for many of these pupils, handwriting and getting things down on paper can seem like daunting, even overwhelming, exercises. Indeed, tasks involving too much writing can demotivate pupils with ASD.
Many pupils with autism are not intrinsically motivated to connect with the learning process and the teacher’s delivery and content must therefore be particularly engaging for these pupils. I have recently begun to think of new ways of energising pupils and of recording their work in a way that is not reliant purely on the written word.
My teaching style and resources are highly visual, a must for autistic pupils who need something strong and visual to focus on in the teacher-delivered part of the lesson. I create a lot of PowerPoint presentations and make good use of the wonderful range of visual clips available on YouTube. I use visual writing frames in Big Writing tasks to aid pupils’ imagination and story sequencing skills. However, I have recently begun to experiment more with technology in my lessons by filming pupils’ speaking and listening work and then immediately watching it back with them. This is an alternative way of recording pupils ideas and is highly motivating for them; they love to see themselves on the big screen.
I recently taught a successful literacy topic on George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl using this kind of approach. I planned lots of practical activities around the book to try to capture pupils’ interest. Pupils made their own “marvellous medicine” in groups of three, which provided a good opportunity for co-operative working, a skill that many pupils with ASD struggle with. They then had to invent a name for their “medicine” and design a label which they stuck onto a large cut out bottle. Following on from this, I filmed the pupils individually talking about their “medicine” and describing its magical properties to the group. This provided a good opportunity to encourage the group to think of questions to ask the speaker, another skill which pupils with ASD can find difficult.
Pupils had some amazing ideas, many of which might never have emerged if this had being a purely written task. The pupils could also get immediate feedback as the camera plugged straight into the whiteboard and they were able to watch themselves as they worked.
The next task involved the pupils writing about the effects that their medicine had if you took some. Once again I tried to think of a novel way to do this to keep motivation high, and I decided to get pupils to explain their story in a cartoon strip format. Again, this minimised the amount of writing expected, but it also encouraged pupils to be imaginative with their ideas. The results were excellent and pupils were highly motivated throughout the task.
The latter half of the book tells of how George gave the medicine to his farm animals and the amazing effects it had upon them. Pupils pretended to be reporters from a newspaper and they had to design and write a front cover story about these events. We brainstormed headline ideas together and focused on the main relevant points of the story that they would need to include in their article.
Many pupils with ASD have difficulty identifying relevant information in a text and organising it into a coherent form; many may focus on irrelevant detail, so it is important to help pupils identify what is important in any story.
Finally, pupils had to pretend to be news reporters from BBC News and present their stories, including interviewing characters George, Grandma and Mr Kranky. Simple props were used to set the scene: a director’s clapper board, spectacles and a microphone for the reporter. Pupils were again filmed and were able to watch themselves back and talk about the experience together.
While this kind of activity would, I believe, be highly motivating and useful for all children, I feel it is particularly useful for pupils on the autistic spectrum for the following reasons:
- it is fun and engaging
- it provides excellent social skills practice for pupils with ASD, who often find it difficult to pretend and put themselves in others’ shoes
- it challenges pupils with ASD to think of relevant questions to ask others and to go through the process of asking them, both activities that many with ASD struggle with
- the film footage provides useful feedback for pupils regarding such things as the appropriate use of body language, voice volume, eye contact and conversational skills. By watching the film footage staff can comment to individual pupils on these issues.
Help with all of these social skills can, of course, be delivered through personal, social, health and economic education and social skills sessions, but if they can be incorporated into subject areas such as literacy, this is all to the good. The use of video really facilitates this process and social skills work is simply more powerful when pupils can look at film footage of themselves.
I feel that for many pupils with autism who really struggle to put pen to paper we need to rethink our approach to literacy and how we record pupils’ development. Speaking and listening activities are vitally important for these pupils and the ability to speak confidently and with relevance to the topic in question is paramount. It is at least as important as purely written work. Modern technology enables us to quickly download and view films of pupils at work, and each pupil can have their own file containing their work stored on a PC or data stick. Each individual’s work is therefore highly portable and can move easily through school settings with them.
I am very excited by the opportunities that filming pupils offers, not just in literacy development but also in other subject areas. It perhaps offers particularly good opportunities for social skills work and I am keen to explore new ways of expanding this approach in future projects. This approach has certainly brought a new vigour to my work and, most importantly, has produced real benefits for the pupils I work with.
Heather Jones is a teacher in the Communication, Language and Autistic Spectrum Support Team at the ASD Resource Base at St John Fisher School in Denton, Manchester:
This article was first published in issue 47 (July/August 2010) of SEN Magazine.