Phonics is a key element of the primary curriculum and is a vital skill for children to master to develop their literacy. One of the areas that autistic children struggle with is language, with some children never using spoken language and others developing an extremely eloquent verbal language. How we teach phonics to autistic children may need to differ slightly to meet their individual needs, so here's how you can support linguistic and phonological development in children who are autistic.
Phonics is a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbolic writing (i.e. letters of the alphabet), whether they be individual letters or small clusters. For example, in English, the sound k can be produced by k, c, ck, or ch. Once children have an understanding of individual letter sounds, they can then be taught to blend them which will help them decode unfamiliar words by sounding out the sounds they do recognise. For example, if a child knows the sounds of p, t, a and s then they will be able to blend them together to form pats, taps, sat, tap etc.
Phonological awareness not only helps build literacy skills in children but it also teaches them about counting syllables, sound-matching, blending syllables and adding or subtracting prefixes and suffixes.
How to Teach Phonological Awareness to Children with Autism
There are so many creative approaches you can take to teaching phonics, and the more practical, the better. I like to use the Read, Write, Inc cards to start off and then personalise the content to each child.
Start with the easy to identify sounds
Sit across from the child and ensure you have their attention
Place cards on the table (2-4 at a time) and ask for them to point or indicate to a particular sound. e.g. 'Give me 'Aaa' or 'Show me 'mmm'
Allow a few extra seconds for processing before prompting if necessary
Use positive reinforcement
Top Tips for Teaching Phonics to Autistic Children
1. Make it simple
Learning and practicing the 26 letters of the alphabet and even more phonemes can be an overwhelming and difficult process. When working with a child, be sure to give them simple, short instructions and keep it to one at a time. Start off with the simple, more common sounds before moving into the letters like x, q and z or progressing on to blending letters. It is also a good idea to start off slowly and allow the phonological awareness to build and develop gradually.
2. Choose Common Words
When you move into recognising or sounding out words, use ones that are familiar to the child and that are commonly used in day-to-day life. Words like 'Mom' or 'Dad' or the names of pets/siblings/friends are good places to start.
3. Make it child-centred
Similarly to using common words, you can also use words that are motivating and of specific interest to each individual child. This could be using favourite TV or film characters, words associated with a subject or activity of interest or people of importance in their lives. Using words they know to be familiar and associated with things they find exciting or interesting will be motivation for them to engage in phonics lessons.
4. Give praise
Practising speech can be challenging and for children with a short attention span, it can be draining. Be sure to provide praise wherever you can and as often as you can, even for small bits of progress.
5. Use physical items or movement
Learning phonics just with flashcards can easily get quite boring, so try to think of ways you can make it more interesting. Using physical objects, such as popits or magnets, can make it far more engaging. You could also incorporate movements - start breaking down sounds and syllables with music and actions. Clap, drum, jump, or spin as your child practices different sounds and blending them.
6. Hands-on Learning
You can incorporate phonics practice into other activities such as painting, arts and craft, or sensory play. If you are at the sandbox, for example, you can work with a child to draw letters and words in the sand and practice the sounds during play.