Things that Helped our Son “Grow” that had Nothing to do with “School”


Band: Liam was first chair clarinet throughout his 7th grade year. This was the year he experienced a marching band unit as well. New experiences developed a more well-rounded player.

TSA (Technology Student Association): Liam learned about electrical apps, which was also a connection with his dad, who studied electronics and electrical engineering. He would go on to compete in nationals in Nashville, TN due to this event. He learned to stretch himself to try other events as well. Not all he liked, but he grew to understand which types of events were for him.

XC: This was his first year of running. He earned most improved runner and pushed himself physically like he had never had cause to before.

Math Counts (math competition): Liam’s second year found him placing 11th at the chapter competition – just one spot shy of making states. He learned how to gracefully handle disappointment while celebrating the success of earning 1st place among 7th graders and 2nd overall regionally.

Liam grew in confidence through these activities; his success came after hard work and applying himself.

Previously, most things had come easily to Liam. Or, he would give up if something was too difficult for him.


Through the encouragement of teachers and peers, he learned a new way to approach new or challenging situations.

Seventh grade was a huge year of growth for Liam personally and extra-curricular-ly.

Big Writing Goals for the Boys

Fifth and seventh grades found the boys with incredible writing teachers. Needless to say, they were not as pleased as I was to have the focus on writing take precedence in their respective language arts blocks.

For Kieran, the year required him to build his writing stamina. Writing was a non-preferred task that he usually let go to the last minute.

When he did write, he could produce well claimed and substantiated pieces. His creative writing was adventuresome and wild!

Before beginning to write every piece, he would constantly second-guess himself.

“I cannot use that word because I don’t know how to spell it.

I don’t have anything important to write. The teacher told us to never do this, or she doesn’t want us to write about that.

The teacher told us to never do this, (or) she doesn’t want us to write about that.”

He had created so many internal “rules” about writing, that he stifled himself as a writer.

Through patience and perseverance (at home and at school), the breakdowns over each assignment grew less frequent and less intense. Last year, his teacher asked to use his writing portfolio as a sample with her current students. I could see his pride.

Liam continued to experience the same issues with writing as in previous years. That year, however, he had to face these issues, because he had to write more often. He became better versed in strategies for solving his writing difficulties.

He had to write creatively the most. He liked this type of writing the least because he didn’t know what to write about. He often became overwhelmed by all of the choice.

He talked about topics with his teacher, peers, and then me at home. Eventually, he settled on something to write about and wrote a flash fiction piece. I will share his writing later on in one of my “teaching” posts. It was a successful experience.

He also began to shine with conventions. He confidently offered peers’ revision and editing suggestions. I had to laugh when his classmates would sometimes reject his comments, even if they were grammatically correct.

He learned to accept feedback from his classmates as well.

It was a huge growing year in writing for both boys.

Word Consciousness

Another strategy for vocabulary instruction in older learners is supporting their awareness of how word parts affect meaning.

Learning prefixes, suffixes, and roots is a concrete manner in which to build a student’s vocabulary.

Vocabularians (2015) offers a number of effective strategies for learning and remembering morphology (p. 84-87). Likewise, as the Concept of Definition Map can support a student’s understanding of multiple word applications, as can a Semantic Feature Analysis.

Used during pre-reading, this is a research-based strategy helps students identify the important features of words:


Activities like these offer students more information about a word than just the definition, which will help them acknowledge and internalize that words have more than one meaning, depending on the context.

Context Clues

All students, regardless of their learning style, need to be explicitly shown how to derive meaning from context.

Teachers can guide students to notice that an author often provides the definition of the word in the latter part of the sentence.

Students need to be taught that authors will use a word, then provide a synonym of the word, often following “and,” or simply restate the word’s meaning in a follow-up sentence.

Likewise, teachers should point out that when providing an antonym for a vocabulary word they have written, authors often use a “contrast” signal word to denote the relationship.

Many students do not pick up on these “tricks of the trade” without the teacher pointing them out.

However, once revealed, students can remember and use these clues to their advantage.

Scaffolding & Explicit Practice Ideas

word nerds

Vocabulary graphic organizers can effectively scaffold a student’s deeper learning of word meanings.

Word Nerds (2013) for elementary level students and Vocabularians (2015) for middle grade learners offer great ideas for how to make vocabulary instruction explicit, engaging, and meaningful.

At the elementary level, routines like word prediction (p. 38), explicit instruction in synonyms and antonyms (p. 62-65), and vocabulary lanyards (p. 65) would teach students on the autism spectrum about word definitions and multiple meanings.

Vocabulary Board Games (p. 78) and Vocabulary Rings (p. 80) would grow the vocabulary of students due to the student’s ability to practice using the words in a structured manner, and to have consistent access to the words, respectively.

At the middle level, Concept Word Walls (p. 38), Fast Mapping Related Words (p. 39), Vocabulary mini-lessons (p. 42), and Word of the Day (p. 44) would teach words explicitly and provide strong reinforcement for learning new words systematically.

One seventh grade student with whom I have worked loves to engage in Intentional Word Play (p. 44). He actually sees himself as being funny when he changes the meanings of words or uses words that do not fit a situation, intentionally, to play with a word’s meaning. This is a sign that he understands that words have more than one meaning. While he usually gets friendly groans instead of laughs at his jokes, his manipulation of language shows that he is engaging with vocabulary in a memorable way.

Classroom Ideas – Systematic Approach to Vocabulary


Students also need systematic vocabulary instruction. Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith (2013) mention the systematic approach of Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s (2002) five-day plan for “robust vocabulary instruction” (p. 17). They also outline Michael Graves’ (2006) four-part vocabulary program, which has been successful with a variety of students who struggle to learn vocabulary words:

They also outline Michael Graves’ (2006) four-part vocabulary program, which has been successful with a variety of students who struggle to learn vocabulary words:

  1. Provide rich and varied language experiences
  2. Teach individual words
  3. Teach word-learning strategies
  4. Promote word consciousness.

Frey and Fisher (2009) recommend teaching vocabulary intentionally, transparently, by making words usable, personal, and a priority. Finally, Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith (2013) offer their own model for how to teach vocabulary systematically:

Finally, Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith (2013) offer their own model for how to teach vocabulary systematically:

  1. Individual Word Instruction
  2. Word Learning Strategies
  3. Word Consciousness
  4. Rich and Varied Language Experiences

The teacher needs to choose a routine or system that best matches his or her classroom environment and teaching style, and stick with it. Especially with students on the autism spectrum, clear and consistent expectations will give these students confidence and a predicable structure to rely upon. Systematic routines support any executive functioning needs the student has.

Especially with students on the autism spectrum, clear and consistent expectations will give these students confidence and a predictable structure to rely upon. Systematic routines support any executive functioning needs the student has.

Adding to our Teacher’s Toolbox

Teaching students with ASD about word tiers also support executive functions. It scaffolds for a learner how to think about the types of words that they need to learn.

Tier 1 words are basic vocabulary words that do not have multiple meanings. Knowing the characteristics of Tier 1 words gives students specific feedback about how these words operate in any text.

Tier 2 words are general academic words that students will come across throughout their day, especially in their different content area classes. These are the words teachers should focus a student’s daily attention on learning.

Tier 3 words are domain-specific. Teachers explain that students only need to know these words while learning certain subject matter. When students see Tier 3 words, they need to recall background information specific to that topic, which includes the Tier 3 vocabulary or technical words used with that content.

Knowing how works are categorized in this way creates for students a foundation for word consciousness. Word consciousness, an awareness and curiosity about how words operate within our language, is our goal toward which older students can work.

This can be facilitated by having students rate their initial understanding of or prior exposure to a word (I know it well, I sort of know it, I’ve heard of it, I have not heard or seen this word before).

Due to weak central coherence, students on the autism spectrum will not check in with their familiarity with a word automatically. Having a rating system built into the vocabulary learning routine or notebook will remind students to notice if they have previous experience with a word and if this current exposure will reinforce or add additional information to what they already know, or will establish an understanding of the word for the first time.

Classroom Ideas – Visual Vocabulary

One sixth grade student who I observed was very turned off by writing down the to his weekly vocabulary words.

It became a non-preferred task for him – something he was reluctant to complete.

However, when he was allowed to draw the meaning of the word to show his understanding, he became more engaged in the learning.

In the example below, he was studying the root –ject. He created the following cartoon/graphic to show his understanding of the word family. His comprehension of how this root is used in the following words.

His humor is also able to come out in this format:

Whether through a digital format, such as Bitstrips, Comic Creator, ToonDoo, MakeBelifsComix, or by hand, creating a visual representation of word knowledge is an engaging alternative for expressing vocabulary learning, if one has ASD.

Classroom Ideas – Vocabulary

7th grade was a great year for us discovering and confirming great ideas for teaching Liam inferencing and writing in literacy. Over the next few days, I will be sharing these ideas.

Vocabulary requires explicit instruction.

In their book Word Nerds, Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith (2013) share how all students need to learn vocabulary through direct instruction. Students with high functioning autism must have explicit instruction to support their learning and processing, specifically to learn multiple or less obvious meanings of keywords in a text. To establish a routine for direct instruction, Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith (2013) recommend a six-step instructional plan derived from Robert Marzano’s (2009) research:

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask the student to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term.
  4. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the term in their vocabulary notebooks.
  5. Periodically ask students to discuss the term with one another.
  6. Involve students periodically in games that enable them to play with the term.

If the approach to learning vocabulary, regardless of how fun and engaging, is not direct or explicit, students on the autism spectrum will not be able to incorporate what they have learned into their “word schema.”

Students with ASD can benefit from recording vocabulary verbally discussed words in a vocabulary journal. The journal can be a part of a reader’s or writer’s notebook. It could be hand-recorded, or more formal.

The key element is that the student is noticing and recording his or her exposure to the word, then visually and (possibly) kinesthetically (if drawing is involved), acting upon this information to add this word to their mental lexicon (dictionary).


Knowing What She Needed


We are not allowed to request a teacher in our district, which is a wise practice.

But I did share with Mea’s first grade teachers that I still felt that she should have a structured classroom in order to help her stay focused with her behaviors.

She benefitted greatly from such a classroom.

Did Mea always behave well? No.

One time she threw a note at her reading teacher, saying, Here.

Another time, she led two other kids to belittle a child.

But the teacher was on top of it the whole time.

One time, she was specifically told not to play with a “tooth necklace” holding a tooth that had come out during the day.

Did she listen? Nope.

She lost the tooth and the necklace.

In library once, she slammed down a computer.

In another class, she talked the whole time the teacher was giving directions.

Throughout the year, her teachers gave her room to grow, as well as rules to follow to help her (and others) stay safe.

And she grew: as a reader, as a classmate, and as someone who could better manage her behaviors during class, and get her energy out when it was appropriate to do so.


Mom, will you be home tonight?

Not tonight, kiddo.

Is it a teaching, or reading, or working night?

Nope – it’s a basketball night.

Oh. How about tomorrow night?

That’s a teaching night. Hopefully, we will get through what we need to early…


Just a few more weeks and then things will slow down, promise.

That’s what you always say.

Because it’s always true.

I love you.

I love you, too.

From the Mouths of Babes


When Mea was in second grade, we still had to have conversations about getting the sillies out, not planning her day around making people laugh, and listening to the teacher.

Her comment to us was, I feel that I could use more recess time to get out my sillies. I don’t get enough recess right now to do that.

It was probably because she had heard this from somewhere else that she shared it so pointedly.

She repeated it to us because she recognized the truth of this fact in her life.