Teaching Writing to Nonverbal Students

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

Nonverbal students are sometimes still capable of learning to read and write, but there are specific challenges involved. This lesson discusses what it means to teach writing to nonverbal students.

Working with Nonverbal Students

As a teacher of students with autism, Kim knows that once in a while, she will have a nonverbal student, one who does not communicate in language.

Kim's best friend, Elise, another special education teacher, tells Kim that she has a nonverbal student this year, though this student does not have autism. Elise has never encountered such a child before and feels like she does not know where or how to start.

Kim tells Elise that writing can be a really good way for nonverbal students to express themselves, and Elise is shocked. How can someone who cannot talk learn how to write?

Kim realizes that she has a lot to teach Elise about teaching writing to nonverbal students.

Fine Motor Work and Handwriting

First of all, Kim explains to Elise, it is important to think about the fine motor skills involved in writing; in other words, to think about how the student holds a pencil and controls his hands and fingers.

Sometimes, nonverbal students have no problems with handwriting, but other times, verbal struggles are comorbid with graphomotor difficulties. When this is the case, Kim explains, it might be helpful to have the child work with an occupational therapist.

Also, these students can benefit from tracing letters, copying letters and words others have written, and working on drawing simple shapes and objects with adult supervision.

Prompts and Picture Cards

Most of writing, Kim tells Elise, is not about mechanics, though. It is about expression. To help nonverbal students express themselves, Kim recommends starting with really specific prompts.

For instance, a teacher could give the first part of a sentence: My favorite day of the week is... Then, the teacher might give the student cards with the different days of the week, and the student can copy the one that fits their answer to the question.

Working with simple prompts like these over time will help nonverbal students learn that they can communicate their ideas via writing.

Some nonverbal students are not yet ready for verbal cards like that, though. Kim recommends that in that case, Elise should use cards with simple pictures. For instance, a prompt might begin: I like playing with... The student might have pictures showing dolls, blocks, and a computer; he can choose the picture that completes his sentence.

Sequencing Stories

Writing also involves learning about sequencing and organization. Kim knows that nonverbal students benefit from practice sequencing different stories. She tells Elise to write a simple story or use images to tell a simple story that will make sense and feel meaningful to her nonverbal student.

Then, she tells Elise to cut the story into three to five different segments, mix them up, and have the student put them in an order that makes sense. More sophisticated students who can read can do this with increasingly complex stories. This will introduce them to writing concepts like beginning, middle, and end, problem and solution, and cause and effect.

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