Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Strategies for Reading Aloud for Non-Verbal Students and Children with Special Needs

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Vanessa Levin of Pre-K Pages and Deborah Stewart of Teach Preschool.  They "wowed" me with their experiences, love, and excitement for preschool during their presentation entitled, “Wow Your Crowd with a Read Aloud” at NAEYCAs a reflection of their presentation and Vanessa’s blog post dated 11-19-2014, I began to think about the strategies they shared and how they relate to children with developmental disabilities, limited language, social deficits and/or Autism. 

During their session they shared 10 strategies for wowing the crowd based on the books Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook by Gay Su Pinnell and Irene Sue Foutas and The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. 

The first strategy they discussed was stamina (which I totally bought into to!)  They described stamina as the length of time children can listen to a story or look at a book independently.  This concept is huge when thinking about children with disabilities. Often attention spans are shorter than typically developing children.  

When choosing a read aloud book for my special needs preschool classroom, I always kept the attention span of my lowest level students in mind.  In the beginning, our books were very short and using high interests. For those that needed it, I would also incorporate a task strip to help them know how long the book was and how long they would be sitting.  

In the book, a frog eats different bugs with his sticky tongue and then gets eaten by a fish at the end of the story.  To help students who have a hard time sitting, I would offer them little images of each bug and animal that gets eaten in the story and they would attach it to a task strip. 

Although we want our students to be actively engaged during a read aloud with the book itself and the reader, some students are not able to sit and attend without knowing how much work they have to do.  The icons and task strip help reduce anxiety and support success as they know exactly how long the story will be. 

This strategy is based off of the TEACCH program.  The TEACCH program is designed to support children with Autism. The idea is that the activity, in this case a book, is visually structured so the students know how much work they have, and when the work will be finished. 

Now moving on to the second strategy shared by Vanessa and Deborah...vocabulary.  They shared, "when children understand the vocabulary used in a read aloud they will be more engaged and you will be better able to capture their attention."  Makes total sense! However, with some of our special needs students, vocabulary is very limited. 

In some situations in order to support a student's understanding of the vocabulary in a read aloud, we play games in small groups or at direct instruction to prepare them for a read aloud later in the day. 

For example with The Icky Sticky Frog book, I may have students match photos of the bugs and animals that are in the story to icons of bugs and animals that are in the story. 

This helps students generalize that a fish can look like this or like this but it is still a fish. 

This activity often helps with IEP goals related to increasing the number of words a students knows, says and/or understands.  It also supports the student in making sense of picture icons and photographs so they know that pictures and icons have meaning in order to use them for individual schedules and choice boards. 

Leading me to another version of the same thing, for students whom do not yet understand icons we use three-dimensional objects to help with making sense of vocabulary.  

Here is a sample of a three-dimensional vocabulary task. Instead of matching icons and pictures, the student matches objects to pictures that are magnetically attached to spaces in a muffin tin. 

Next up...Repetition.   While reading the same book over and over may not appeal to the adult doing the reading, it is important for increasing comprehension and vocabulary.” –Vanessa Levin

When working with students with special needs, I often introduce new books at direct instruction or in the small group literacy center and then repeat the story as part of read aloud at large group.  The idea is that I am setting students up for success.  Many students with special needs struggle in large group settings. By introducing a book at small group or during one-on-one direct instruction, I can expose them to a book to support comprehension and prepare them for success in a whole group setting. 

Another option is to work on adding imitation and repetitive phrases in small group and in one-on-one settings.  Many students with special needs have limited verbal and gross motor imitation skills.  By reading a story in a small group setting, I can teach them the words and actions.  For example with the Icky Sticky Frog, we could work on sticking our tongues out when the frog does it in the story and/or working on saying “Shhh" or "Shhh, frog didn’t make a sound” when that part comes up in the story.  

Do you have a student who is non-verbal?  No problem.  Program a voice recording button or use the voice memo on your phone or iPad to say the phrase so every time the phrase comes up in the story your non-verbal student can contribute at the same time as their verbal peers. 

I prefer to use a voice recording button for this activity, but I figured I would show you with the voice memo on my phone since mobile device and iPads maybe more readily available.  Note: You can also tape little visuals in your book where the repetitive phrases come in so students can see when it is their turn visually.  A great self control activity to wait for the button visual!

This page also has a velcro bug. We do that in our mini-version as another way for students to interact with the vocabulary, attend to task, and know how long they need to attend to the story.  All the characters are on a velcro strip and get pulled off and put into the story as it appears.   

Now moving on to other books and a new strategy, Narration.  Vanessa Levin shared that Narrating or retelling helps children understand what a story is about and how story structure works. Children enjoy retelling stories independently in centers using tools and props such as flannel boards and puppets.”

A way we like to retell stories in our classroom is through pretend play.  For example after reading the Birthday Monster by Sandra Boynton, we might transform our pretend play center into a birthday party! (More to come on the Birthday Specific Pretend Play Center in a future post.) To see a pretend play center transform based on a book, click here.  The book it was inspired by is Biscuit Visits the Vet by Alyssa Satin Capucilli.

The final strategy is Wordless Picture Books!  Vanessa shared in her blog that Nothing is more interactive, motivating, and engaging than inviting a child to tell you the story they see in the pictures using their own words.”                                                                                                                                     

I totally agree. But what if a student does not have verbal communication? How can it be done then?  Through aided language boards!! They are systems I have come to know through the work of Gayle Porter and Linda Burkhardt in their work creating Pragmatic Organizational Dynamic Display.  You can see more regarding aided language boards by clicking to this past posts on communication supports.  The video below demonstrates my son working through a story using pictures to retell it.  Note: To stay with the Icky Sticky Frog theme, I chose to use the book and just place sticky notes over the words. 

(Even though my son is not nonverbal, I asked him to play the part so you can get an idea of how it might work.) 

Some teachers are reluctant to use visuals such as this because they want their students to talk, rather than point however research shows that visual support facilitate communication.  I use aided language boards and other visuals with many students regardless if they have language deficits or not as the support helps the students come up with the words to retell the story and builds literacy.  Remember visual supports are easier to fade than verbal ones so if you have to help a student retell the story by doing so with visuals instead of words, they will become independent more quickly!

Until next time...Happy reading aloud!



  1. I loved this post. Thank you for sharing your ideas and showing the videos of how you uses these strategies.

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  3. I loved this post. Thank you for sharing your ideas and showing the videos of how you uses these strategies.

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