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How to balance age-appropriate academics with foundational work

autism parenting education Jul 11, 2023

When homeschooling a nonspeaking student, it's important to build a strong academic foundation. That means sometimes teaching the student below their age-appropriate grade.

However, most nonspeakers have average or above average intelligence, despite inaccurate language-based IQ test results.

If your nonspeaker is being homeschooled after years spent in a self-contained special education classroom that lacked academic instruction, they probably have big gaps in foundational knowledge that must be filled. However, to presume competence, you must also inspire their intellect by providing age-appropriate academics.

Here is how I do that for my student, and how I advise other parents to balance the two.

1. Literature. When I was in the 6th grade, and my class returned from lunch and mid-day recess, our teacher turned off the lights and read novels outloud to us for 30 minutes. We laid our heads down on our desks, listened and cooled down. I've always been an avid reader and believe I'm a better visual learner than audio. However, I still remember two of the books she read to us that year: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The more I learn about spell2communicate and nonspeakers' incredible ability to retain audio information, the more I realize that reading out loud to nonspeaking students is an excellent teaching tool. 

This Spring I began reading age-appropriate novels out loud to my student. I let him wander around the room, play with therapy putty, doodle and even watch YouTube while I read. Even when he's doing the latter, I can tell he's listening because when I get to an exciting moment in the plot, he puts down his iPad and begins stimming with his hands in the way he does when he's excited. He also laughs out loud at appropriate times, even when it appears he's not listening at all.

So far we've read Charlotte's Web, White Fang and we're finishing up The Mouse and the Motorcycle. He's enjoyed all three books, often asking for more chapters after we've finished the day's page goal. White Fang was his favorite so far, which is a testament to his intellect, as that book has the most advanced writing and plotline of the three.

To find age-appropriate chapter books or novels for your student, simply search "novels for (X) grade" and include any other keywords that represent your student's interests. For example, my student loves animals.

2. Vocabulary. Teaching your nonspeaker age-appropriate vocabulary is a great way to affirm your belief in their competence. Your student doesn't need to write or speak the word, but they should be exposed to the word and its meaning. Add the word to your student's AAC device and/or show them how to spell it using a letterboard. Then, over the next few days, model use of the word in your everyday language. Vocabulary.com has a wealth of vocabulary word lists to choose from, organized by grade and subject matter. The website also offers great literature suggestions for students.

3. Social studies. My student has shown an amazing ability to appreciate and understand other cultures, geography and history. Because of this, I've always taught him grade-level social studies and history. He's learned California state history, world explorers, the American colonies and Revolution, Westward expansion and Ancient Civilizations, and these lessons were among his favorites. This fall, we'll study the same subjects as his mainstream 7th grade peers, the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance and up to the Age of Exploration.

My favorite history tools are Evan-Moor History Pockets, which combine short reading lessons with hands-on craft activities. Last year while studying Egypt, for example, we built a cardstock pyramid, constructed a pharaoh's tomb, dressed Egyptian paper dolls and sailed a model barge up and down a pretend Nile river, illustrating the Egyptian empire's innovative trade practices. History pockets provide all the cutouts and models, all you have to do is cut, color and paste.

I also use YouTube videos and movies to teach history. Like with the novels, don't expect your nonspeaker to sit still with their eyes glued to the screen. Even if they're up and moving around the room, seemingly not watching, they're still learning. You'd be surprised what you can find that will teach your subject matter. The Scooby Doo full length cartoon, "Where's My Mummy" was surprisingly historically accurate while also being engaging enough to hold my student's attention. He also loved the original 1981 version of Clash of the Titans and developed a bit of an obsession with Pegasus after watching.

Science. This is another area that can often be taught at grade level. My student is a couple of years behind in science fundamentals, but I also subscribe to an age appropriate chemistry kit subscription box. The finer points of the chemical reactions are probably over his head (heck, they're often over my head) but he loves participating in and observing the experiments. He also enjoyed watching Prehistoric Planet on Apple TV last Spring, and we spent a couple of months ending each homeschool day with 30 minutes of dinosaur videos.

When it comes to language arts and math, it's important students build a strong academic foundation and expressively show as much mastery as possible. However, because nonspeakers' receptive abilities far outweigh their expressive communication skills, it's very important to teach them age-appropriate topics for exposure. Balancing the two will produce an effective and rewarding homeschool experience.

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