I am beginning a post series to document my brother’s journey in literacy. Introductions can be a bit tough, but I’ll try not to overwhelm you with too many details. My twin brother, Josh, has severe nonverbal autism, which limits his speech to ~4 word “I want…” sentences and basic labeling. We’ve tried countless speech therapies over the years, including Applied Behavioral Analysis. This approach was largely based on operant conditioning, the idea that desired behaviors (e.g. speech) would come with positive reinforcement. Although we did see some progress, this type of therapy was very tedious and taxing. Josh’s therapists used ABA with him from when he was three to about age eight, which was probably exhausting for such a young child. Because much of ABA was rooted in rewards, Josh did develop language, but mostly only in the form of “I want [noun.]” One professional told me, “The idea that [teaching “I want…”] is productive is based on a myth that if the child sees that his language gets him things, he will begin to speak more. In all my years of clinical practice I have never found this to be the case (with ASD)–though I have heard that promise made endless numbers of times to both parents and therapists.”
This professional is Dr. Marion Blank, an expert on literacy and the creator of Reading Kingdom. When Josh and I were eight or nine, my parents decided to try Dr. Blank’s innovative program. Her goal was to guide Josh away from what she called the “I Want Recital” and help him truly develop language. Rather than focusing on speech, though, her therapies were geared towards reading. According to her, “most non-verbal children cannot speak because of fine motor problems –in the mouth and tongue area–and not because they cannot process language,” so literacy can actually be the key to communication. I can’t remember all components of the Program because it was so long ago, but I do recall exercises in spelling, handwriting, and language comprehension.
Josh tried the Program for about three years, and the results were astounding. He was memorizing and rewriting entire paragraphs, and he was also speaking in unprompted 5+ word sentences. However, his epilepsy relapsed when we were thirteen. He started having grand mal seizures every few months, but now they come about every 5 days. The seizures have unfortunately erased nearly all of the progress he made in Dr. Blank’s program. Because focusing on a task for too long is a seizure risk, we have not been able to try the Program again. Even so, there is one component we’ve kept: the computer portion.
This part of the Program was always Josh’s favorite. It works by teaching him one word at a time. For instance, if he selects the word “the,” the Program would teach him “the” through various entertaining activities. I think it would start by showing him”the” and having him identify it each time it occurs in a paragraph. As the Program progresses, he’d learn how to spell “the” by at first filling in missing letters, and then eventually by typing it independently. Not only is this computer program relatively seizure safe; it’s also been effective. His reading isn’t where it was pre-seizures, but the computer program has helped preserve what he otherwise could have lost. It has allowed him to maintain a Dr. Seuss level of reading. The Program’s whole word approach works well for Josh because his memory and visual skills are stronger than his ability to decode. It is much easier for him to recognize “like” after learning it as a whole than it would be for him to understand that “l” makes an /l/ sound, the “i” is a long “i” because of a silent “e,” etc. Phonics focuses on how different letters and letter combinations sound, so Josh’s trouble with articulation might lessen phonics’ potential effectiveness. Additionally, the whole word approach emphasizes learning words in context. These context clues could give Josh the building blocks to grasping syntax.
The debate between the whole word method and phonics is not new in the education world. Both have their benefits and drawbacks. The whole word method equips children with the tools to begin writing sooner, and the readings in class are often more interesting than they would be in a phonics-based classroom. A major con, though, is that it is difficult for children to teach themselves new words without a foundation in phonics, which is probably Josh’s biggest reading challenge. He can only read words that the Program has explicitly taught him. While we are hoping to work around this hurdle in the long-term, the whole word approach has helped him unlock language more than any method we’ve tried before.
For more information, see http://www.succeedtoread.com/phonics.html