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In K-12 education, there is no dispute that developing reading skills is fundamental. In fact, research suggests that early literacy instruction for students with and without disabilities is essential for future literacy development3. Teachers across the world are constantly utilizing various strategies to support students’ reading comprehension and decoding skills. For some, typical decoding and comprehension strategies may be fairly accessible. For others, reading comprehension or decoding may prove to be more difficult. Students with autism typically have challenges related to reading comprehension, such as answering questions or expressing ideas in traditional ways.
In primary education, decoding is often seen as the priority as opposed to reading and listening comprehension skills. However, listening comprehension skills are a significant predictor of subsequent reading comprehension development. Gough and Tunmer stated that reading comprehension is not only being able to translate printed text into pronounceable words, but also understanding text by way of listening instead of reading2.
Many students with autism perform at average or above average levels in decoding text, but struggle with comprehension. Research suggests that students with autism have strengths in syntactic processing and struggle with semantic processing4. For students with autism, reading comprehension may be especially challenging because it is more abstract, relying on the ability of the reader to infer, understand story structure and references, visualize action, or understand the interactions between characters, thus making it difficult for students with autism to fully process a text1.
So, what can we do to support narrative and reading comprehension development for students with autism? The Language Builder: Academic Readiness Intervention System (ARIS) has lessons that support narrative and comprehension development specifically designed for students with autism. From lessons that focus on sequencing pictures to answering comprehension questions about a story, ARIS provides lesson ideas, tips, strategies, and tools to ensure students with autism are fully supported in their comprehension development. Check out the tips from the ARIS lessons below to boost your child’s narrative and comprehension skills!
Practice with Sequencing Pictures
Students with autism should be able to identify the beginning, middle, and end of a story and retell it in the correct order. One way to achieve this is by sequencing pictures. The ARIS curriculum provides sequencing cards, or you can use pictures of your own that represent steps of a story. Cards with real photo images are ideal for children with autism. Once a child has successfully retold a story in the correct order using pictures, you can add in a game to increase their engagement. One game is a sequencing card game:
Start by taking at least two sets of sequencing picture cards and shuffle them to form one deck of cards.
Then, take turns drawing one card at a time with the student. As you each draw a card, you would sort each card into piles so that there is one pile for each sequence.
Then, you can ask the student to rearrange each sequence in order. (To increase difficulty, you can mix in three or four sequence cards together!)
Another way to boost students’ narrative and comprehension skills through sequencing pictures is by forming your own picture story sequences. Use a child’s favorite dance move, television character, or their own routine, and take pictures or screenshots to form your own picture story sequences for your student to put in order. This makes the learning process fun, personalized, and engaging!
Practice Describing Salient Features
By providing opportunities for students with autism to practice describing salient features of an image, item, person, or animal, you not only provide them with practice in boosting their adjective vocabulary, but you also further develop their comprehension and narrative skills. One way you can work with your child with autism on describing the salient features of something is by playing a game like “I Spy” to practice using multiple descriptors of things in the environment.
Another way you can work with your child with autism on describing the salient features of an image, is by playing picture taboo:
In this game, you start by creating a custom deck of photo cards that consist of easy-to-describe scenes or familiar objects.
Then, you divide the deck evenly between you and the student.
Next, each person takes turns describing an image on a card using three phrases, while the other person tries to guess what is depicted on the photo cards.
Playing games like “I Spy” or picture taboo are engaging ways to deepen students’ narrative and comprehension skills!
Practice Telling a Story
Telling a story is a key component of narrative and comprehension development. As children with autism develop, it is necessary to build their skills around relaying a logical narrative as opposed to acting out imaginative play scenarios. One way to do this is by having students with autism tell a story using their favorite toys:
First, have the student assemble their favorite toys into three scenes that make up a beginning, middle and end.
Then, using a cell phone or a tablet, you can take a photo of each scene.
Then the student can then swipe through the photos and retell the story. As the student practices more, they may be able to retell the story without pictures or even add a title to their story, to further develop their comprehension and narrative skills.
Practice Listening to a Story & Answering Questions
Another key component of narrative and comprehension development is listening to a story and answering questions about it. As students with autism matriculate to higher grades, this element of reading comprehension is significant. One way to increase students’ engagement with this is with an activity called “Question Cut-Outs:”
Start by using magazine pictures, and ask the student to illustrate a story that could prompt questions. The student would paste pictures from a magazine onto a piece of construction paper and then use the pictures to create a silly or complex story.
Then, you would ask the student questions about the main idea, details, or vocabulary in the story.
While these are just a few tips that target students’ narrative and comprehension development, all of these can be adapted and personalized in ways to meet the unique needs of your child.
2 Gough, P. and Tunmer, W. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.
3 Nguyen Neal Nghia, Leytham Patrick, Schaefer Whitby Peggy, Gelfer Jeffrey I. (2015). Reading Comprehension and Autism in the Primary General Education Classroom. The Reading Teacher, 69(1), 71–76. doi: 10.1002/trtr.1367
4 Randi, J., Newman, T., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2010). Teaching children with autism to read for meaning: challenges and possibilities. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 40(7), 890–902. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-0938-6
Madeline Burroughs is a Specially Designed Instructional Coach at two high schools in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, GA. In this role, she works to coach special education teachers in providing systematic, specially designed instruction that effectively targets students’ strengths and needs. Madeline received her Master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education in May 2019, and hopes to continue to serve as an advocate for all students with disabilities throughout her career.