Homeschool & Autism: Learning to Spell

Learning Materials for Teaching Spelling - Homeschool and Autism - An Everyday Story

Learning Materials for Teaching Spelling - Homeschool and Autism - An Everyday Story

I don’t think I have told you all before, but a couple of years ago, we sought out the expertise of a psychologist to help us understand Jack better. We were already pretty certain that he had autism and was gifted but decided to have Jack undergo testing so we could put a few more pieces of the puzzle together. The psychologist confirmed our thoughts and diagnosed Jack with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Jack’s cognitive assessment (testing a range of different intellectual and cognitive functions) has been instrumental in helping us to understand how Jack thinks and learns. Jack is Twice Exceptional (often abbreviated to 2e). Twice Exceptional is a term used to describe intellectually gifted children with a disability; exceptional ability in some areas and significant learning difficulties in others. This is Jack.

Jack can remember the house we lived in when he was two and can tell you what he ate for lunch on the day we went to the museum three years ago. He can solve complex algebraic equations, he can hone in on a drum beat in a song and recreate it, he can recite novels verbatim, builds amazing Lego creations and draws with intricate detail…. he also is highly distractable, has great difficulty holding information in his short term memory, can not process more than one step of a verbal instruction at a time, is unaware of time passing, requires daily support and physical supervision to do self-care tasks like dressing and brushing his teeth, is not able to quickly and accurately scan information (as you would when reading) and struggles with prioritising information as it comes in; he is easily over-loaded with sensory input.

What this means for reading is that, while many other children will learn to read and spell on their own by simply being exposed to literature, Jack most likely won’t. He needs direct and explicit instruction that is broken down into small chunks of information and presented in isolation without distraction.

Knowing what we know about how Jack learns, this is how I am approaching reading and spelling with him. I use short chunks of time – maybe 5-10 minutes – to work with him. For spelling, I am using a THRASS chart. Do you know THRASS? I was introduced to it fairly recently and really love the way it clearly shows all the different spelling combinations for a single sound (why does English have to be so complicated??).

Jack and I are working through the chart using picture cards. These picture cards are called Writer’s Block (ours are from Modern Teaching Aids). They are intended as writing prompts but we are using them for spelling at the moment.

Homeschool and Autism - Teaching SpellingLearning Materials for Teaching Spelling - Homeschool and Autism - An Everyday StoryIt’s so important that I break each step up into short, manageable chunks. First, Jack will choose a card, then:

  • I’ll ask him to say the word and break it down into sounds,
  • Jack will spell out the word using our movable alphabet (ours is from Wood Puzzles),
  • next we look at the THRASS chart – every word has a vowel. On the THRASS chart, the vowel sounds are on the bottom half of the chart separated by a line.
    • In the case of ‘newspaper’, the child starts with the ‘n’ sound, the identifies the ‘ew’ sound (selecting from moon, screw or glue), back up to the top of the chart for ‘s’ & ‘p’, /a/ is a vowel sound so down the bottom again (selecting ‘a’ as in baby), up to the top for ‘p’ and finally, down the bottom for ‘er’ (selecting from teacher, collar, doctor or measure)

Am I confusing you all yet? :/ Sorry. You can see what I mean in the picture where I have placed the two red dots. We are using the chart in a very basic way but I can see that this very explicit approach to spelling is having a positive impact on Jack.

He knows now that all words need a vowel (either a single or combination of letters), he knows that this means using a blue letter from the movable alphabet pieces and choosing a spelling combination from the bottom of the THRASS chart. All very simple, concrete steps.

And this understanding is starting to translate over to his reading too. He is starting to see letters, not as single entities, but as groups of letters which can make one sound. Today he read, a-stro-n-aut using his knowledge of THRASS. And that is a huge step forward.

17 Comment

  1. You are incredibly inspiring Kate. My daughter has autism too and I was nodding my head when I was reading about Jack’s amazing abilities as well as his challenges. I struggle too with my daughter. It’s hard to acknowledge the weaknesses when they are so gifted in other areas. Sometimes I catch myself becoming frustrated because I think she should be able to do something.

  2. Thank you Kate, from all across the world you are helping us so much with out young ones!

  3. How wonderful he has you to help him learn through this! What patience that must take. Bless you for staying the course and seeking out the best way Jack will learn. <3

  4. Julie Meseha says:

    Kate,
    Thank you for this very open and insightful post. I have been thinking a lot lately about how to start introducing letters and their sounds more to my almost 3 year old. He’s showing a strong interest and I would like to facilitate this a bit more, and I’m leaning towards a more Montessori method of developing this interest. I’ve been planning on purchasing the moveable alphabet too, but I was wondering how the THRASS worked as I saw you mention it a few months back. I love the little picture set and might put this on my long list of potential resources for the next couple of years. Thanks again for your continued inspiration.

  5. Interesting – I remember reading years ago about mri studies where children with asd saw letters as shapes (or at least the bits in the brain for shapes lit up) whereas children without asd saw the letters as sounds, meaning, and shapes. That kind of fits in with having to support the understanding of letters as you’ve done here. Great.

  6. Susana Galli says:

    You are amazing Kate! You do a great job both with your children and inspiring parents all over the world. Thank you!

  7. My stepson was diagnosed with autism quite a few years ago also. Spelling was something that he struggles/d with, too. We’ve never really been able to use a phoenetic approach with him, it’s always been whole word recognition. He’s getting better at recognising the way sounds make up words, but he’s also just turned 9. Luckily he’s got a phenomenal memory, which makes whole word recognition something that works for him until he’s better able to use other approaches 🙂

  8. lydia purple says:

    Kate, as always so inspiring! You are one of the reasons I actually took the leap and started homeschooling 😉

    while reading this, I realised how much of a blessing your creative approach to homeschooling is to Jack. In a normal school environment the most prevalent way to assess his knowledge would be through reading and writing. His gifts wouldn’t shine as much then. But the way you teach him or let him learn allows him to flourish in his gifted areas and expressing his progress and knowledge in multiple ways like drawing, singing, building or otherwise creating… 100 languages! and at the same time you are there teaching him the important skills he struggles with separate from his other academic achievements! I believe you are giving him something very unique for this world of competition where weakness, disabilities and difference are not understood or supported enough to lead each individual into success and fulfilment however that might look like. Being able to flourish in one’s strengths while being supported to grow in one’s weaknesses is not something most people who struggle in school experience. All to often their weakness becomes the defining part of their identity and that is truly sad. I believe that with your way of teaching the day will come when Jack grew enough in the areas he struggles with like spelling or reading to use them to his advantage when appropriate, but he will also be well equipped to use a multitude of other ways to express and show what he can do and this is truly a wonderful life skill and a huge advantage! I hope that in the times you feel discouraged or unsure, you will always be able to see this big picture and to rejoice in Jack’s difference!

  9. Thank you, Kate, for this post. Somehow I must have felt this, as I started following your blog. I have a son with high functioning autism too, he is 6, and we have one more year until school starts for him. Please, continue to share information about how you work with him. My son knows all the letters and can count pretty well, but still not able to spell or connect the letters into words. I’m sure he will pick this up with a little help.

  10. Kate
    Thank you for sharing, fascinated to understand your challenges more.
    Just occurred to me you may like to get in touch with Ingi, she lives in Canberra and until recently homeschooled her son who is also twice gifted. Very approachable
    http://www.defyinggravity.com.au/

    1. Thanks Erin 🙂 I’ll be sure to pop over and say hi.

  11. Hello.
    I read your blog regularly through feedly, but have commented only occasionally. I remember your first post about Jack’s autism, because its title stayed with me “Its a wonderful world in there” (I think). I love the way you write about Jack, and makes me wish I could know him, because he sounds like a lovely person to talk to. All the best to Jack and his wonderful family as he negotiates this new world of reading.

    1. Thank you so much Shvetal. He is a wonderful little man.

  12. Patricia Hope says:

    I have been teaching reading through writing for years and started out using materials from the Riggs Institute, riggsinst.org. This gives a wonderful background into how and why it works so well and how to implement it.
    It works wonderfully for children on the spectrum, those with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, but also those with no disability.
    I recently found that a home educating lady has adapted the scheme (made it more affordable) and easier to implement for home ed parents. I’m loving it. It’s called Spell to Write and Read by Wanda Sanseri.
    It really makes sense of spelling and is fascinating for anyone interested in language too. The English language is not random and when you know the reasons for the different spelling patterns it takes the fear our of it.

  13. This is wonderful! I homeschool my 9-year old son with ASD – I’ll be adding spelling onto our curriculum this year using this approach. What a fabulous idea! Thank you!

  14. Hi! My daughter is 5, she’s very bright, she swallows books for breakfast that are much beyond understanding for a child her age, however, when it comes to spelling and writing she doesn’t know how to write a 5-letter word.. Phonics doesn’t seem to make sense to her, words she reads in books are not connecting with writing when she needs to write them. She hears sounds that are not in the word when she tries to spell it. I am glad I read this post, think I’ll try teaching her spelling using the Trass chart. One question – you are saying Jack can’t concentrate for long (we have same issue) so you are teaching him using 5-10 minute chunks of time. How many words can he accomplish in that time and do you do it few times a day or just once? Because I think my daughter could hardly do 1 word in that time

  15. Kate, would you suggest any other Thrass products?

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