Sunday, March 31, 2013

Literature appreciation, social inferences, and social skills therapy

My recent Atlantic article, Are Grading Trends Hurting Socially Awkward Kids, received many comments addressing whether students should be assessed on their presentation skills or on their ability to cooperate with others. One thing that didn't get much attention was what I wrote about social inferences in reading assignments:

Language arts classes, meanwhile, tend to favor books by authors like Judy Blume and Jerry Spinelli: realistic fiction starring recognizable school-aged peers in social settings. To the socially adept, these books are highly accessible. But the socially oblivious may find themselves unable to answer the reading comprehension questions, many of which require social inferences...
One person who did share thoughts on this is Disability Rights Advocate Stephen Hinkle. Writing directly to me, he says:
I am a person with autism who has struggled with narrative reading all my life. Questions like "why was this piece written" or "what would author X's response be to a piece by author Y", or questions about the characters' relationships I could hardly decipher. On the other hand, I can read non-fiction books, websites, etc about science, math, technology, nature, court cases, etc really well.
...Many of the questions about the characters deal with relationships, friends, dating, sexuality, mannerisms, and imply background knowledge that is inferred indirectly. To process this, this would require the child to at least have a background knowledge of these types of relationships.
Stephen Hinkle points out that these issues surface in other media as well:
Even on TV, many people with social skills deficits often watch TV channels in which the programming is non-inferential such as CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Discovery, TLC, The History Channel, Biography, NatGeo, Military Channel, Investigation Discovery, GSN, NASA-TV, Animal Planet, TruTV, HGTV, and the Science Channel. On the other hand, many of the sitcoms, dramas, soap operas, etc require social knowledge to understand the subtle cues in them.
The remedy?
Kids who struggle with social skills need direct instruction in the social skills that are relevant for their age, and be taught in real contexts they can relate to (not just one on one in the speech room). What I propose is direct instruction in recreation, leisure, school spirit, manners, etiquette, conversation skills, friendships, relationships, and at the high school level dating. The social skills instruction needs to be based on the child's chronological age (i.e. using age appropriate activities), and with the right accommodations for their functioning level.
And this instruction needs to encompass much more than what traditional social skills therapy does:
When I was a kid, all they did for so-called social skills was one-on-one in the speech room working on vocabulary and conversation.

...A lot of these behavior scale tests do not accurately test the rec/leisure part with activity specific knowledge of many extracurricular and school spirit type settings including playgrounds, playrooms, day care rooms, clubs, sports, visual arts, performing arts, dances, science fairs, and others. 
Proper social skills instruction, in turn, may not only improve social skills, but also the appreciation of literature:
I predict that for some kids, teaching social skills before literature reading may make these kinds of readings easier for them to handle.
And, by extension, the appreciation of movies and TV shows, the majority of which are infused with potentially baffling social interactions.


Anonymous said...

Schools are in a poor position to teach "social skills". There are too many kids in a classroom and too many competing interests for teachers to really address social skills issues. What teachers end up doing is isolating or grouping kids with poor social skills, so they don't negatively impact the social experiences of others in the classroom, and this makes it much harder for kids with social skills issues to succeed. It also promotes bullying of these isolated children. Why shouldn't kids marginalize the less socially skilled when teachers do it too?

There are many different reasons why children have problems with social skills, and teachers typically group kids who are quirky or shy or have social anxiety issues with ADHD or autistic kids in order to allow popular kids with advanced social skills to work together. The result is that they are doing exactly the opposite of what they believe they are doing; they are making it nearly impossible for kids with poor social skills to improve. Teachers should stick to education and leave psychology to the psychologists.

cranberry said...

Students need to infer an author's unstated assumptions--on the SAT. See here: (page 7)

One of my children just took a practice SAT. Some of the reading questions seemed designed to screen out literal-minded people. It's a multiple-layered inference. It's not, infer what the author thinks about the subject of the passage (even if unstated.) No, it's really infer what the test-writer thinks readers should infer of the author's opinions.

Was this always a part of the SAT? I don't remember.

David Foster said...

It has also been suggested that reading literature is a way of *improving* social skills:

StephenH said...

My response to David Foster:

I read the blog URL you mentioned. Yes, reading fiction may show improvement on the "facial reorganization" test and recognize feelings some, but that is only 10% of what is needed to really be social. Many of those types of tests lack the situation specific skills used in a variety of social and extracurricular environments.

For example, I remember going into an assembly in the school cafeteria and not know when to clap as an audience member. I did not think of going to a school dance until 12th grade because no one taught me how to dance. I also did know the protocol to make a friend or ask someone out.

Very little of this is actually on tests like the SSRS, Vineland, or other "behavior scale" tests. Instead, the skills I am talking about are more of what you would find in an Emily Post Etiquette Book, with a bit of Rec/Leisure added to it.

You can also hear a podcast I did on this a couple of years ago here: