Tell Me About the Story

Comprehension Strategies for Students with Autism

Inclusion Rules by Paula Kluth
Adapted from: P. Kluth & Chandler-Olcott (2007). “A land we can share”: Teaching literacy to students with autism. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.Many a teacher has asked a student to “tell about the story” only to be met with a blank stare. This may be particularly true for students with autism. Some students simply do not have the communication abilities to respond, others may be confused by the prompt, and still others don’t understand enough about the story to provide an answer. In this short article, I explore ideas for helping students experiencing these challenges. First, I examine how to help students share what they know and follow that discussion with a list of ideas to try with learners who need to improve their comprehension skills.

Helping Them Share What They Know

Many teachers tell me that their students with autism can read but that “they don’t understand anything”. It is always tricky to respond to such statements as many students with autism do understand what they read but cannot effectively express what they know. That is, some students with autism only appear incapable of comprehending text. Because students with autism have movement and communication differences, they may struggle to answer questions and express ideas in conventional ways. Some students might be unable to “find” the words needed to answer comprehension questions (or any question for that matter). Others may know the words but be unable to answer questions when directly asked to do so.

It may be hard for some teachers to understand that a student could fluently read a text, know exactly what it means, and be unable to communicate that information. And those who do understand these gaps may be stumped at how to engineer other ways to help the student show what she knows.

If a teacher is confused about a student’s ability to comprehend, he or she should give the learner many ways to demonstrate understanding. For example, when asking questions, be sure to give students plenty of time to answer (even a minute or more). It may also be helpful to say the questions and present them in written form or even to let the student write their answer or circle it rather than saying it. The teacher might also try approaches that make the interaction more informal and less direct. Some learners are more successful when questions are asked using a funny voice or accent or when a prop such as a puppet or microphone are used in the lesson.

If students seem completely unable to answer comprehension questions, teachers might offer other ways to show understanding. They might ask learners to draw or point to pictures (which may also be challenging for some on the spectrum), use signs, gestures, or pantomime to retell the story, or create a collage or cartoon related to the text.

If all of these strategies are used and the learner’s comprehension of material is still unclear or unproven, the teacher cannot assume the student does not understand or cannot learn. And the student should never lose access to literature, other books, and opportunities to learn academic content. One reason teachers must persist is that students with autism often demonstrate understanding in their own way. For instance, a high school teacher who works with a young man with significant disabilities, began reading him Thinking in Pictures (Grandin, 1995), the autobiography of a woman with autism. Before he was introduced to the book, the student was able to remain seated for no more than fifteen minutes at a time. When the teacher read him a book on autism, however, the student sat rapt for more than fifty minutes. The teacher reported that she had never seen him sit so still or so quietly. She interpreted this behavior to mean that he was interested in and able to-in some way-understand the text. She then chose other books to read to the young man and found that the student had a similar positive reaction to other texts she chose- especially those related to autism and disabilities. This story illustrates why teachers cannot always judge “a book by its cover” when it comes to student attention or ability and why-for some students-assessing comprehension requires observation, interaction, and attention to a wide range of cues and behaviors.

Providing Comprehension Support

But what about those students who clearly don’t understand what they read? What about those who need comprehension support? Having shared some information about students who know more than they can demonstrate, it must be acknowledged that many students with autism (and those without) need help comprehending text. Students with autism, for instance, may have problems making predictions; visualizing the events of a text; and identifying a purpose for reading. As one mother learned, some students with autism also have a hard time separating main ideas from details:

In fifth grade my son was assigned to write a paper on Benedict Arnold. When I looked at his rough draft, I noticed that he had included all of the important facts about Arnold’s life except for one – the fact that he had betrayed the Revolutionary Army to the British for 10,000 pounds and a commission in the Royal Navy! I asked him whether he hadn’t left out something important, to which he replied, “But all of it is important!” (Rosinski, 2002)

The following strategies may help some students gain new skills and improve their ability to read and communicate about written material.

Build Background Knowledge

Student comprehension can also be boosted when the teacher helps the learner build background knowledge. Many students with disabilities, in particular, need this type of support as these learners are often excluded from the very activities that help students build background knowledge (e.g., socializing with peers, field trips).Presenting background information related to the focus topic can help students better understand the text. For example, teachers might show students a related movie, tell the learner a story related to the text, or help the student create connections between his or her experiences and the topic of the text. The teacher might also:

  • brainstorm with the learner and write ideas on chart paper
  • ask questions about the topic
  • provide experiences related to the book (e.g., make soup before reading about doing so)
  • make connections between the topic and a student’s special interests
    share other books related to the text

Perhaps the most significant support that can be offered is to include the student in the typical routines and activities of school life. Students will build “background knowledge” daily when they are included in the social life (e.g., recess, art class, locker routines) and the academic life (e.g., math class, orchestra, academic clubs) of the school. After all, how can a student understand a story about King Tut when he has never been included in social studies lessons? And consider how challenging it would be to comprehend a story about a complex friendship when you don’t have time alone with friends, opportunities so socialize with the peers of your choice, or support to meet new people.

Think Aloud

To boost comprehension, teachers can help students monitor their own understanding as they read. One common strategy teachers use in a whole-class format is the think-aloud (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000). A think-aloud involves the teacher reading a text to the class and modeling his or her own comprehension strategies such as asking questions, making inferences, determining importance, and making connections to personal background knowledge. The text or selected passage should contain information, concepts, and words that students may find difficult. The students should be encouraged to read the passage silently as the teacher is reading aloud.

A teacher might start reading a book by saying, “The title of the book is Running for Class President so I think it will be about kids being involved in student council or some kind of student government. When I look at the picture on the cover, I think maybe the main characters will be a boy and a girl. The cover has a picture of a classroom, so I think a lot of this book will take place in a school”. The same type of monologue is then used with pieces of text selected by the teacher. Passages that have unknown words, busy dialogue, figurative language, or that seem confusing, in general, are good candidates for the think aloud. For instance, after reading an opening paragraph about two teenagers escaping from a detention center, the teacher said, “Now the author has me interested. I really want to know why these boys escaped and why they were in a detention center. The author shared that Jesse was rebellious. I want to find out more about that. What exactly does that mean? How is he rebellious?”

Teachers may even write their thoughts so students can see and hear the process. For students with autism, it may be helpful to distinguish (with body language) between passages that are read and ideas that are shared. To make sure his students (especially those with Asperger syndrome) were not confused, one of my colleagues stood in the middle of the room with his book open his hands when he was reading. When he was thinking, however, he stepped a few feet to the right and even took on a “thinking posture” (tapping his cheek and cocking his head).

Be Dramatic

Comprehension can also be bolstered when teachers use drama. A teacher might have students act out parts of a textbook or a passage in a short story.This technique is often used in lower grades, but it can be very effective in both middle school and high school classrooms as well. When students with autism study literature in the upper grade levels, they may have some difficulty understanding the motivations of characters in a story. This problem occurs because some of these learners have difficulty identifying and articulating emotions in certain contexts. Watching peers act out scenes from literature can help students with autism and others pair dialogue with appropriate facial expressions and voice tone. These scenes, therefore, can help learners better understand the meaning of the story.

Teachers may choose to use different types of drama for different lessons. Pantomime, dramatic reading, and full-story performance are all types of drama that can be used in the classroom to enhance student comprehension and enjoyment.

Introduce Reciprocal Teaching

Students can also be asked to help each other understand text. Some teachers ask learners to engage in “reciprocal teaching” (Palinscar & Brown, 1984). Reciprocal teaching is essentially a dialogue that takes place between teachers and students. The dialogue is structured by the use of four strategies: summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. The teacher and students take turns assuming the role of teacher in leading this dialogue.

Once students are comfortable with the strategies, they are invited to become “the teacher” and conduct reciprocal teaching dialogues with new material. At this point the teacher’s role shifts from providing direct instruction to facilitating student interaction, monitoring progress, and providing feedback. As students become more skilled with the strategy, they can work in pairs or small groups to coach one another, ask questions, summarize, predict, clarify, and think aloud about what they are reading.All students, but particularly those with autism, may need to see this strategy modeled more than once. Since students with autism are typically quite visual, the teacher may consider taking a video of a reciprocal teaching lesson and sending the clip home for viewing.

Try a Retelling

Some learners may “fail” comprehension assessments because, in part, they are uncomfortable with the direct nature of question/answer interactions. For this reason, some students may respond well to the retelling strategy. Retelling is a comprehension strategy as well as a tool for assessment.

A retelling is done by the reader after he or she has read or heard a story. The student is asked to tell the story in his or her own words. Retelling reinforces story structure and the language and imagery used in the text and provides more information about a reader’s understanding than comprehension questions or other traditional assessments. By repeating the story, a student can learn to attend to the story elements during the initial reading and gain strategies for organizing his or her own thinking.

To help struggling readers engage in retelling the teacher might:

  • start with familiar stories;
  • model the strategy;
  • provide a template or graphic organizer to help the student frame their retelling;
  • have other students model the strategy;
  • allow the student to doodle as part of the retelling;
  • give the student illustrations or photographs to use in the retelling;
  • give the student paper dolls or props to use in their retelling;
  • give the student specific strategies to use in retelling;
  • encourage the student to take notes or draw pictures during the initial storytelling;
  • allow the student to type or write the retelling if this is easier; or
  • allow small groups of students to retell a story together.

Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures. New York: Vintage Books.
Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. (2000). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension to enhance understanding. York, Maine: Stenhouse.
Palinscar, A.S., & Brown, A.L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117-175.
Rosinski, D. (2002, June). Literacy on the autism spectrum. The Spectrum. Autism Society of Wisconsin.