Megan Fry: How a Child Who is Nonverbal Learns to Read: Phonics and Eyegaze/AAC

A child usually learns how to read by sounding out words and receiving immediate feedback from a teacher on those attempted sounds.  As a child who had a disability and was nonverbal, that process could not work for me.
My first communication device had buttons with pictures for each word, but I did not understand how to sound out those words.  Instead, I relied on symbols for each word’s meaning.   In early elementary school, my classmates were taught phonics, and they used their voices to figure out new words.  As a nonverbal child, I was not able to sound out new words or listen to my own voice attempting new words.  Because of this limitation, my teachers taught me to committ each new word to memory (sight words) instead of phonics.
As I grew older, I slowly realized I was behind my peers’ reading level.  I was so focused on figuring out each word by sight that my reading comprehension skills suffered.  I would pretend to read just to fit in with my classmates.  When my teachers would ask me questions about what I just read, I would base my answers on the pictures in the book.   My teachers could not see the hidden truth.  I began expressing concerns to my teachers hoping someone could help me, but they often looked away in denial.  When they did try to tutor me, they did not know a way to teach a nonverbal child phonics.
With a low reading level, I needed auditory assistance on tests and assignments, which led to me being pulled out of the classroom often.  I purchased an OCR software called NaturalReader that could read anything to me aloud.  With only having to plug in my headphones, I could still be in the classroom!
Finally, in my freshmen of high school, a teacher took me under her wings and taught me phonics.  Week after week, we covered one phonic at a time in her classroom after school.  She slowly sounded out words to let me hear her voice as if I was sounding them out myself.  This slow, methodical process helped me make the connection between letters and sounds, and my reading skills began to grow.
As I made the committment and put in the hard work to make myself a better reader, I became more confident in school.  I still use NaturalReader when I have a long passage or book to read, but my reading comprehension skills have skyrocketed right on time for college.
By Megan Fry

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