Supporting Literacy Learning for Children with Autism


Communication is one of the defining problems in autism. Many children with autism do not develop verbal language and communicating their needs is an ongoing challenge. Alternative systems of communication are frequently employed to provide support for children’s communication attempts. Similarly, literacy is often slow to develop or absent in many children with autism.

Given the many social, behavioral and communication needs of these children, literacy learning can, in many cases, be assigned lower priority as an educational objective. The training of special education teachers reflects this priority with more training in behavior modification and behavior management than in teaching children to read and write.

The Reading Process

Reading is a cognitive process. Basic to the process is the understanding that what can be said can be written down and then read again by the writer or by someone else. Once students grasp this basic concept, they must acquire an understanding of print (the code by which speech is represented as visual information) and the skills to decipher the code and turn it back into speech. In English, this visual information is composed of the letters of the alphabet, arranged in systematic patterns and clusters to spell words. Each letter has its own distinctive visual features, and each letter stands for one or more sounds by itself or in combination with other letters. Beginning readers need to learn to associate letters with sounds in order to access the information represented by print and comprehend the intended message. Comprehending the author’s message is the goal of reading. Readers, at all levels, bring their own knowledge and experience to the task of reading and comprehending what is read. Oral language and background knowledge are important resources that readers use to decode print and make sense of the message.

What Research Tells Us About Teaching Students To Read

There is a considerable body of scientific research that identifies effective ways to teach students how to read (National Reading Panel, 2001). Five areas of instruction have been identified that are critical elements to success in teaching reading.

Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with individual sounds in spoken words. Before you become a reader you must be aware of the sounds that are in words. Readers understand that written words can be spoken and that they use phonemes or particular speech sounds when they read a word.

Phonics is the relationship between the sounds of the spoken language (phonemes) and the letters of the written language (graphemes). Phonics is a system for remembering how to read words. The letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sounds when placed in memory are used to decode words.

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately and quickly. Fluent readers decode automatically and therefore are able to concentrate their attention on the meaning of the text. Fluent readers recognize and comprehend words at the same time.

Vocabulary is the words we know and need to communicate. Oral vocabulary is the words we use when speaking and reading vocabulary is the words we can read in print. Reading text with meaning relies on the words used being part of the vocabulary of the reader. A reader needs to know most of the words that are read to comprehend the text. Understanding phonics and using these skills to decode text is not helpful if the word decoded by students is not a word in their vocabulary or the meaning of the word can't be determined by context.

Text Comprehension
The purpose of reading is to understand what is read. Comprehension is the ability to take meaning from text and remember and communicate the meaning from the text. Good readers are those that monitor their comprehension to make sure they understand the text.

Autism and Literacy Learning Needs

To identify effective ways to support literacy learning for children with autism, consideration must be given to the reading process and to teaching methods that are flexible enough to accommodate individual characteristics. Because autism is a spectrum disorder it is difficult to develop a particular set of learning characteristics and a specific method that will meet instructional needs. Teachers that use prescriptive teaching methods or systems might find these too inflexible for the accommodations needed for use with children with autism. Teaching methods in literacy learning that can be readily modified to meet the individual needs of children and give wide discretion to teacher decision-making are more likely to be successful.

Growth in reading is closely tied to levels of oral language. This frequent deficit in children with autism requires increased attention to background knowledge and oral language levels. Some teaching methods used in special education approach reading as a set of skills that are prerequisite to the actual reading of text. Many of the practice exercises used to learn these skills are taught in isolation. The opportunity to connect this information to the child’s background knowledge is limited in this kind of approach. Having children read text using all of their current skills, regardless of the level, is considered essential to both comprehension and enjoyment of reading. Assessment of progress needs to be frequent and should measure specific skill development in addition to overall reading level. These data can inform teaching to ensure that it is specific to the needs of the child.

Children with autism who are nonverbal present a different challenge to literacy learning. Phonemic awareness in receptive oral language rather than phonics in expressive oral language will be the primary focus. We know from research with deaf populations that oral reading is not prequisite to reading. The deaf learn to read without the use of phonics. Also, individuals can read in a language without being orally proficient in that language. Emphasis needs to be placed on learning whole words using their orthography rather than using sounds to remember words. Because oral reading is the typical window on student reading aquisition used by teachers, it presents an addtional challenge when children are nonverbal or have limited verbal skills and are unable to use phonic information. Reading proficiency for these children needs to be measured by their comprehension of a passage read silently rather than their ability to read a passage outloud.

Two Promising Teaching Methods

Two methods to support literacy learning were examined. Reading Recovery (Clay, 1979; 1985) was used as an individual intervention, and Guided Reading (Swartz, Shook, & Klein, 2003a) was used both in individual and small group applications. These two methods were selected based on numerous criteria. Reading Recovery is a widely disseminated early literacy intervention project and has a significant research base. Though designed for first graders, the procedures have been used with other groups on an experimental basis. Guided Reading is a key teaching method employed in professional development provided by the Foundation for California Early Literacy Learning (Swartz, Shook, & Klein, 2003b). This project uses a collaborative teaching model where regular and special teachers use the same teaching methods. The data in Table 1 show a decrease in special education referrals in those schools using Reading Recovery. This effect size was increased in schools where teachers were trained to use Guided Reading.

Table 2 summarizes reading level increases for special education students with mild disabilities who were having difficulty or making slow progress in reading. These students were all third graders and participated in a daily Guided Reading lesson over a six month period. The Guided Reading group was inclusive with both special needs and regular children in the same group. All children increased in reading level and group results were significant.

These results and the anecdotal reports of teachers using both methods with special populations were sufficiently positive to use Reading Recovery and Guided Reading on an experimental basis with children with autism.

Reading Recovery

Reading Recovery is an early intervention program designed to assist children in first grade who are having difficulty learning to read and write. Reading Recovery uses supportive conversations between teacher and child as the primary basis of instruction. The Reading Recovery lesson follows a framework of activities that is individually designed based on a daily analysis of student progress. Each lesson has seven distinct parts; 1) rereading of several familiar books, 2) assessment of reading behaviors on a book used in the prior lesson, 3) letter identification and word work, 4) writing a story emphasizing the use of phonics, 5) rearranging of this story from a cut-up sentence strip, 6) teacher introduces a new book selected for specific learning opportunities, and 7) reading a new book using problem solving strategies with teacher support. This routine is managed in a 30 minute daily lesson for a period that ranges from 12 to 20 weeks (Swartz & Klein, 1997). Reading Recovery typically reports a success rate in excess of 75%. Success is defined as reaching and staying at grade level without the need for further intervention.

Reading Recovery is a one-to-one tutorial where children are pulled out of the regular classroom to receive this service. Teachers serve a maximum of four students per day. Reading Recovery teachers receive intense training in the teaching procedures and are expected to
follow these procedures closely. Data for use of these procedures with special needs populations are limited.


Three students enrolled in a university clinic social and behavior program for children with autism were selected using two criteria. Students were judged to be high functioning by initial referral evaluations and reported by parents to have initial skill and interest in reading. Literacy skills were confirmed using the Observation Survey (Clay, 1993) that also served as the pre-test.

Students received a modified form of Reading Recovery. Individual lessons were provided in two, one hour sessions per week over a period of nine months. This modification of daily lessons and time period was made to accommodate the attendance schedule for the clinic program in which students were enrolled. The students selected were not first graders as required by regular Reading Recovery procedures. The three students were ages 5.9, 6.3, and 7.9.

Students were assessed both pre and post with the Observation Survey. This test is composed of six measures of reading and writing; 1) letter identification of the 54 different upper and lower case letters plus print versions of a and g, 2) word test where the child is asked to read from a list of 20 high frequency words, 3) the child is asked to demonstrate an understanding of concepts about print, 4) writing vocabulary test where the child is asked to write all of the words he knows, 5) dictation test that measures analyzing words for sounds, and 6) text reading level with accuracy of 90 percent. Table 3 summarizes the pre and post test results.

All three participants showed gains on the five skill subtests. Participant 1 knew most of the letters of the alphabet but was unable to use any of this information in applied tasks. On all measures, Participant 1 reached grade level after the treatment period. Participant 2 had the most initial skill knowledge and made slow but encouraging progress in text reading level. Participant 3 also made good progress in initial skills in four subtests beginning with a pretest score of zero. Participant 1 was the most cooperative, Participant 2 was the most difficult to keep on task, and Participant 3 had the lowest amount of oral language. These variables are considered important in the success of the treatment.

The Observation Survey uses text reading levels based on gradients of difficulty. These can be translated roughly into more traditional grade level equivalents. However, since grade levels are very wide, measuring daily or weekly progress using these gradients are more useful for the purposes of modifying instruction. Samples of text at the text reading levels measured for the participants are included. Text level A and B are established in the first sample with an A if the child cannot read the no, no, no response and B if the child can read this three word sequence. Level 3 text is a sentence with simple construction but one that uses varying vocabulary. Level 14 text is quite complex and requires the child to read various sentence structures.

Text Level A, B (Hill, Where’s Spot? 1980)

Text Level 3 (Swartz, In My Garden, 1994)

Text Level 14 (Swartz, The Clock that Couldn’t Tell Time, 1995)


Each of the students received typical, special education services but had made no gains in reading. The impact of Reading Recovery on these participants was powerful and produced notable achievement gains for each child. The modified procedures were essential to the delivery of these services to children with autism. Teachers were carefully trained in Reading Recovery procedures but had only minimal training in how to work with children with autism. It is likely that more training in behavior management would have a positive effect on outcomes.

It is a frequent criticism of Reading Recovery that it is not cost effective. The allocation of a half teacher for four students for up to 20 weeks is a luxury that many schools feel that they cannot afford, regardless of the outcomes. This criticism needs careful consideration for students placed in the regular classroom. The criticism has less validity when models of special education delivery are considered. One-to-one work is more common in special education and staffing formulas make this configuration easier to delivery. Work with children with autism is often individual so that the Reading Recovery model holds some potential for use with this group.

Guided Reading

Guided Reading is a teaching method in which students read orally and the teacher provides direct instruction in phonics and comprehension (Swartz, Shook, & Klein, 2003a). Guided Reading is frequently used as an intervention for children who are having difficulty learning to read. In Guided Reading students read from their own copy of the same text, at the same time, but at their own individual pace. They do not read chorally. Students are usually convened in groups of 3-6 for similar instructional needs.

The Guided Reading lesson has three distinct phases. 1) Before the reading, the teacher introduces the text to be read. The instruction includes a preview of both content and unfamiliar vocabulary. The amount of information provided by the teacher during this introduction is based on the need for support of the students in the group. 2) During the reading, the teachers listen in to each student and provides support at the point of difficulty. The teacher prompts the student to use his own knowledge to solve the problem. These teacher prompts help the student employ various reading behaviors to use phonics and comprehension information available in the text. Examples of prompts are “Does what you read look that way?,” to use phonics sources of information and “Does the word you read make sense in this text?” to use comprehension sources of information. Individual teaching points are also made during the reading. 3) After the reading, the teacher has a discussion with the group about their comprehension of the text. Teaching points that are useful to the group are also made after the reading. This sequence is repeated in daily lessons. Student growth is monitored with a Record of Oral Reading (Swartz, Shook, & Klein, 2003a) that assesses reading errors, comprehension, corrections, accuracy and fluency.


The individual participants were diagnosed with autism. Participants 1 and 2, aged 6.11 and 11.10, were participants in an after school social and behavior treatment program and received instruction. This instruction was provided in the home of each participant. Participant 3, aged 16.1, received instruction as part of a Guided Reading group in a typical self-contained special education classroom.

Participants 1 and 2 received 60 minute lessons, once per week for a period of three months that included a sequence of skill development and a Guided Reading lesson. Follow-up activity for Participant 1 included independent writing and for Participant 2 independent alphabet and vocabulary work.

Participant 3 received instruction in a Guided Reading group with two other students diagnosed with mild mental retardation. Instruction was provided in 20 minute daily lessons over a period of six weeks. Group work in interactive writing (Swartz, Klein, and Shook, 2001) followed the lesson.

Results for Participants 1 and 2 are shows in Table 4. Text reading level and and writing level increases are reported in Table 4. Initial assessment for Letter Identification and Text Reading are from the Observation Survey. The second score for Letter Identification is from the Observation Survey and the Text Reading score is from the Record of Oral Reading. Writing scores are from the Writing Rubric used on writing samples three months apart.

Text Level 3 (Swartz, Water, 1994)

Text Level 7 (Swartz, Moving to America, 1995)


Text Level 1 (Swartz, Swartz, & Klein, You, 1996)

Text Level 5 (Swartz, If Germs Were Purple, 1997)

Participant 3 was assessed using the Record of Oral Reading to determine text reading level. The initial reading level placement was established with the San Diego Quick Test and the post test level using a readability formula (Fry, 1977). More complex text with the readability formula is determined by average sentence length and number of syllables. The error/correction ratio is how often the student corrected their own error as they read.


Participants in both treatment designs received direct instruction to develop reading behaviors that are important to become a proficient reader. Lessons were carefully planned based on ongoing assessments that were used to make each session strategic to individual needs. Participants 1 and 2 received one-to-one instruction but the lessons were only scheduled once per week. Participant 3 received more lessons but worked in a small group of three students with similar needs. All participants made good progress and teachers reported increased interest in reading with accompanying increases in attention and on-task behavior.

Guided Reading is a group teaching method and as such represents an economy of scale when compared to Reading Recovery. It is also an inclusive method where Reading Recovery is a pull-out method. Guided Reading teachers had the advantage of specific training in working with children with autism.

Discussion About Both Teaching Methods

Both Reading Recovery and Guided Reading are teaching methods that use frequent assessment to modify instruction. Both teach skills but in the context of meaningful opportunities to read. Guided Reading has been described as the “first reading of a new book” part of the Reading Recovery lesson where teachers provide scaffolded instruction both before and after the reading of the book (Schwartz, 2002). Teachers are provided intensive training and support in both theory and practice. The impact of each of these methods is part of an extensive research agenda.

Reading Recovery teachers needed the flexibility to change the Reading Recovery lesson sequence to be successful with children with autism. It is clear that the teachers would also have benefited by additional training in behavior management. Guided Reading is, by its design, a teaching method that encourages teachers to use what they know about individual students to plan the lesson.

These teaching methods are ones that provide direct instruction in both phonics and comprehension and do so while students read. Reading of text is emphasized over isolated skill practice. Reading Recovery and Guided Reading also make specific attempts to connect reading and writing. They both attempt to encourage early student independence by teaching children the reading behaviors necessary for success.

Based on the outcomes for these six participants both teaching methods can be recommended for use with children with autism. Training in the teaching methods and in how to work with children with autism is considered critical for success. Guided Reading is a collaborative method that can be used with small groups. The opportunities for inclusion using Guided Reading helps meet an additional and equally important goal for students placed in special education.


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Research Team

Reading Recovery instruction was provided by Cristina Espinoza and Graciela Arredondo who were trained by Adria F. Klein, Ph.D.

Guided reading for the two Spanish speaking participants was provided by Liliana Garcia and Susana Real-Beltran who were trained by Lilia Lopez and Esther Vazquez.

Guided reading for the English speaking participant was provided by James Reinebach, a special education teacher and graduate student at California State University.