Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Narratives before expository writing: the problem with one size fits all

In preparation for a class I'll be teaching soon, I've been reading up on reading disabilities. The various articles and chapters I've reviewed tackle a number of disabilities--from dyslexia to Specific Language Impairment to ADD/ADHD to autistic spectrum disorders. And they suggest a number of disability-specific remediations. Many of these, unfortunately but not so surprisingly, haven't been tested for efficacy, but most sound eminently reasonable.

It's when it comes to which sorts of texts are most challenging that the reading disability literature starts to falter. For this is where the peculiar stengths and weaknesses of students on the autistic spectrum--the strengths and weaknesses that distinguish these students from all their other reading-disabled peers--most come into play.

It is the underlying assumption of the literature on reading disabilities that, everything else being equal,  narrative texts (i.e., chronological, character-centered stories) are easier than expository texts (logically or thematically organized explications). As far as remediation goes, this implies that that academic subjects that might typically be taught in a more expository way are best introduced--at least to struggling readers--in narrative form.

Here, for example, are recommendations from Carol Westby in "Assessing and Remediating Text Comprehension Problems":

Narratives can provide students with some of the schema knowledge that they will need to comprehend expository texts in social studies and science lessons.
For example, when beginning a unit on weather for third-grade students, a teacher read the book The Storm in the Night, in which a grandfather and grandson sit out a storm while the grandfather tells about his fear of storms as a child. Following the story, children can be encouraged to share their experiences with storms.
However well this might work for students with dyslexia, ADHD, and/or Specific Language Impairment, I'm guessing that many children with autism would  be bored out of their minds. Most would find it much less taxing--and much more engaging--to read an expository piece on different types of storms than to listen first to their teacher reading about a grandfather's childhood fear of storms and then to their classmates talking about their personal experiences.

Indeed, as I've argued elsewhere, if we want to maximize the academic progress and minimize the boredom and frustration of children with autism, it might be best to skip over the more socially and emotionally-driven narratives and go straight to the most technical, logical, fact-rich (and linguistically accessible) expository pieces that we can find.


Mylene said...

Thanks for this clear and thoughtful commentary. I'm adding it to my resources on the topic of teaching technical reading. I look forward to reading more about the class you'll be teaching.

Anonymous said...

Neither I nor my kids are anywhere on the autism spectrum, but we all hate the touchy-feely reading choices and the endless focus on personal stories and creative writing. Beyond the first-week-of-school "what I did on my summer vacation" composition, my teachers expected academic, expository writing, not personal narratives, journaling or creative writing. Those were things that kids who were interested did on their own. Schools have become FAR too interested in feelings (which some kids find an invasion of privacy), with the result that we've had a couple of generations who don't know the difference between "I think" and "I feel".