Emergent literacy development in children with autism spectrum disorders Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Lanter, Elizabeth
    • Affiliation: School of Medicine, Department of Allied Health Sciences, Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences
  • The term "emergent literacy" is broadly used to characterize the time during which children are developing those skills and abilities that precede independent reading and writing abilities. Since the term was first used, researchers' and educators' increasing knowledge of emergent literacy has led to the identification of component skills and characteristics in young children, as well as aspects of their home environments that are associated with their later literacy accomplishments (National Research Council [NRC], 1998). Aspects of the home environment associated with literacy achievements are commonly referred to as the child's "home literacy practices" (Boudreau, 2005). Component skills include: oral language ability, print concepts knowledge (environmental print recognition, knowledge of print forms, conventions, and functions), alphabet knowledge (letter name and letter sound), name writing and other forms of emergent writing abilities, and phonological awareness. Characteristics include pretend reading and literacy motivation. Home literacy practices associated with later literacy include the parents': use of behaviors that promote literacy learning, personal literacy abilities, and beliefs and attitudes about their child's education. Children's emergent literacy has not been widely studied in the population affected by autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In order to better understand emergent literacy development in young children with ASD, this study descriptively explored the component skills and characteristics, as well as the home literacy practices associated with later literacy for children with typical development, in young children with ASD. Forty-one child participants with ASD between the ages of 4 years 0, months and 7 years, 11 months were assessed directly in this study. A clinical diagnosis of ASD was documented via records review; in addition, parents completed the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ; Rutter, Bailey, & Lord, 2003), a screening tool for autism. Parents of thirty-five of these children took part in a structured interview related to the emergent literacy development and experiences of their children. The child participants' literacy-related behaviors were assessed via direct and indirect assessments. Direct assessments included measures of the children's oral language abilities, nonverbal cognitive abilities and early literacy abilities (print concepts, alphabet knowledge, and name writing). Indirect assessment via a structured interview using the Home Emergent Literacy Profile for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (HELPA, Lanter, 2008) further explored these early literacy abilities, as well as the children's emergent writing, phonological awareness, pretend reading, and literacy motivation. The HELPA, a measure specifically designed for this study, was the sole instrument used to explore those aspects of children's home literacy practices previously mentioned as being associated with literacy development in children with typical development. Findings related to the children's component skills and characteristics suggested that oral language skills were moderately correlated with the children's early literacy skills (rs between .32-.45), and that an uneven pattern of acquisition of early literacy skills and abilities was observed both within and across early literacy abilities. Relative early literacy strengths in the children included the knowledge of mechanical aspects of print concepts (e.g., book orientation) and letter name identification. Relatively weak skills included pretend reading and understanding the purpose of reading and writing. Variable performance was observed in the other skills measured in this study. The most striking finding was that early literacy skills related to a conceptual understanding of the communicative purpose of reading and writing (e.g., pretend reading, understanding the purpose of reading and writing) were found to be weaker than those that do not require this understanding (e.g., environmental print recognition, book orientation, letter name identification). Although limitations in early literacy skills existed for many of the children in this study, parents of the overwhelming majority of the child participants reported high levels of literacy motivation. Findings related to the children's home literacy practices suggested that: (a) home literacy practices alone may not be sufficient to ensure these children's literacy achievements; (b) the parents' use of home literacy practices may have been influenced by characteristics of the child; and (c) many of the parents reported feeling that their child exhibited a strength in literacy skills, despite reporting that they felt their child may not have a solid understanding of the purpose of literacy. There are five implications to be drawn from these findings. First, speech-language pathologists and teachers should recognize that, consistent with children who have typical development, oral language skills are associated with early literacy skills among children with ASD, but that some children with significant oral language difficulties may show relative strengths in some early literacy skills. Literacy instruction should thus focus on both aspects of development, oral language skills and traditionally viewed early literacy skills in children with ASD. This recommendation is consistent with best practice recommendations (e.g., Center for Early Literacy Learning [CELL], 2007; NRC, 1998). Second, variability both within and across areas of early literacy development is apparent among children with ASD. While variability also is observed in children with typical development, for the children in this study, there appeared to be relative difficulty with understanding the social communicative purpose of written communication. This parallels what we know about language development in the population with ASD, that pragmatic language abilities are more adversely affected than structural language abilities (Tager-Flusberg, 2004). Further research is needed to consider how the early literacy profile observed in this study speaks to what we know about the disorder. This finding encourages speech-language pathologists and teachers to employ instructional methods that teach of the components of literacy to children with ASD in meaningful literacy activities (e.g., writing notes). This pedagogy should be extended to the children's parents, so that they can consider literacy skills in a framework that includes both component skill development and understanding. This is considered best practice for children with typical development (NRC, 1998). Third, for children with ASD, the parents' use of behaviors that promote literacy learning may not be sufficient to ensure these children's literacy achievement. Especially for those children with more significant oral language impairments; school-based instruction using evidence-based teaching methods may be needed in addition to experiences provided in the home environment. For children with typical development, research has shown that promoting early literacy abilities through an evidence-based curriculum contributes to later reading abilities for some children (Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, & Hickman, 2003). Further research is needed to evaluate the efficacy of emergent literacy programs for children with ASD. Fourth, the literacy teaching behaviors of the children's parents in this study may have been influenced by the child's abilities. This suggests that educational professionals may want to individualize home programs based on the ability of the child and feedback from the family.
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  • Watson, Linda R.
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