Reading Comprehension for Students with Severe Disabilities

Reading is one of the most functional skills we can teach our students. The world is a print rich environment and we need our students to be able to function in it. The ultimate end-goal for reading is comprehension. I love this quote from The Center for Literacy and Disability Studies-

Comprehension, like the other components of reading instruction, must be explicitly taught. But it's a complex skill and it's hard to measure. There is a ton of research out there for teaching students to read and comprehend, but not a lot of it is specifically targeted for students with significant cognitive disabilities, just like there's not a lot of reading programs out there for our student population.

Too often, I see teachers who are "teaching" comprehension by just asking 10 questions and recording student scores. I've definitely been guilty of this! If we want students to learn to comprehend what they are reading, we must do better. We have to explicitly teach comprehension skills and strategies. Here are some ways to work on reading comprehension with students with severe disabilities.

Picture Comprehension: Even your non-readers can work on comprehension through pictures. Students can practice answering questions about a picture or a movie. 

Single word/ sight word comprehension: If you have students who are working on vocabulary words or functional sight words, work on single word comprehension along with identification. Ask students to match the sight word to the object or a picture of object. If that’s too difficult, at the beginning, provide the picture and a very obvious distractor or even a blank image.

Sentence comprehension: Your beginning decoders can work on comprehension with single sentences. If students are working on decoding CVC words, put them into a sentence (with basic sight words) and have the student act out the sentence or match it to a picture.

Yes No questions: For students who are just beginning to read or students with limited verbal expression, you can work on simple yes/no questions about the text. Use visuals or AAC systems for students to answer. 

WH questions: Explicitly teach your students how to answer WH questions. There’s lots of free visuals on TpT for how to answer WH questions or if you're artsy, you can make a cute anchor chart. I like to break it down to one question type at a time. For example, first, teach that who questions should be answered with a person, then read short text excerpts 2-3 sentences and ask only who questions. Next, introduce WHAT questions, but continue to practice and take data on who questions to ensure maintenance, and so on.

Activate prior knowledge: When students are reading academic content, they need to have background knowledge to go along with it. Provide hands on experience with the topic or videos to help increase background knowledge.

Draw pictures to help visualize. A lot of my students don’t necessarily have the verbal language to expressively talk about what they are reading, but they love to draw! After reading, have students draw to respond to what they read. Provide a specific prompt to keep students on track.

Use least to most prompting to correct: Scaffold your prompting when a student answers a comprehension question incorrectly. First, re-read the section of the text where the answer is located. Next, re-read the sentence where the answer is located. If students still aren’t able to find the answer, explicitly model finding the correct answer.

Ask text dependent question: This sounds simple, but it really takes practice. When I have a student teacher in my classroom, this is always something that we work on. Comprehension questions should be able to be answered and supported by the text. The questions that you ask should require familiarity with the text to answer. Here’s a great guide for coming up with text dependent questions.

Teach students to monitor their comprehension: Just being able to identify when you don’t understand the text is an important strategy for students. When reading to your students, model and think aloud as you monitor your own comprehension. Show students what you do when you do not understand when you are reading. We have to teach our students to think about the text as they are reading and the best way to do this is by modeling it. At the end of each paragraph or page, stop and talk aloud about what is happening. Teach students to come up with questions they have about what they are reading.

Talk about what you are reading: Comprehension is hard to assess. Sometimes the best way for me to measure whether a student is comprehending what they are reading is to just have a discussion about it. When my students are reading independently, I like to pop in and have quick chats with them about what they are reading, their favorite parts, what’s happening in the story right now, etc. It’s nothing formal, there’s no written response expected, it’s just me checking in. 

There are so many amazing books out there. Use them to teach your students! You can use picture books, novels, adapted novels, comic books, magazines, books with real photos or interesting artwork, etc. Using texts that are interesting to your students will make a huge difference in what they are able to comprehend! I love to use readworks.org and Epic to find texts about high-interest topics for my students. Both are free! 

Let's make the most of our reading instruction and provide our students with explicit and effective comprehension instruction! It's not easy but it will be so worth it to see the independence it can create!

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