Teaching Reading to Nonverbal Students

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Helping nonverbal students learn to read can be an exciting endeavor, but it is also challenging. This lesson discusses some key tools and strategies involved in teaching nonverbal students to read.

Reading and the Nonverbal Student

As a second grade teacher in an inclusive setting, one where students with disabilities learn alongside their typically developing peers, Susan knows that it is important to meet her students where they are.

This year, she has one nonverbal student in her class. The child does not speak at all, and Susan is slowly beginning to gauge his capacity with receptive language, or understanding of other people's language.

Susan knows that many nonverbal students have autism, while others have past traumas or severe mental retardation. She is starting to do research into whether it is possible for nonverbal students to learn to read.

Susan discovers that there are some strong strategies out there for teaching nonverbal students to read, but she also realizes this is going to be complex and challenging. She starts to learn as much as she can about how to help her student.

Working on Decoding

One of Susan's first questions is how she can teach a student decoding, or sounding out the words on the page if he does not make sound out loud.

She learns that first, she has to establish an RMR, or reliable means of response with her student. This means they need to mutually agree on a nonverbal cue, like a smile, a set of winks, or knocks on the table, that the student can use to show he understands what Susan is teaching him.

Then, she works on explicitly instructing her student in decoding. She teaches him one phoneme, or sound and symbol match at a time. Susan shows him the phoneme, pronounces it, and asks him to pronounce it internally, in his mind. He indicates to her when he has done so properly.

As Susan's student advances, she uses similarly explicit strategies for blends, sight words, and, eventually, whole sentences.

Working on Comprehension

Susan also understands that comprehension, or understanding literally and inferentially what has been read, is a key aspect of reading. With her nonverbal student, she knows she will need to use visual and tactile strategies to work on comprehension.

For instance, when Susan reads a story to her class, she often uses discussion to assess and also push their comprehension of the text. She has her nonverbal student work on one of the following activities:

  • drawing a picture related to the text
  • putting image cards in order to show how the text was sequenced
  • using his body to represent a scene from the text
  • building a block, clay, or cardboard model of what he predicts will happen next

Many nonverbal students have developed very strong strategies for visual and kinesthetic communication, and Susan finds that by watching her student closely, she is able to determine what kinds of strategies will help him develop and express his comprehension.

Susan also knows that comprehension often develops as students form relationships to one another based on reading. With her nonverbal student, she helps scaffold, or thoughtfully assist, these relationships by making time and space for him to share his visual and tactile creations with others.

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