As Professor Joanne Arciuli tells it, in 2020 these kids have had to adjust to an online environment just like everyone else because attendance at schools and clinics has been affected during the pandemic.
“It starts with the basics, just making sure the volume's right, the brightness on the screen, everybody's looking at the right thing at the right time, reducing distractions in the background,” she says.
Professor Arciuli is Dean of Research at Flinders’ College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Her specialty is human communication and much of her career has been focused on child development and disability, especially speech, language, literacy and the learning mechanisms underpinning that.
“For a long time people thought autistic kids must learn to read differently, and kids with Down syndrome must learn to read differently again,” Professor Arciuli says.
“People were searching for these disability-specific ways to help children acquire literacy skills. And then it turns out that, actually, there are really key aspects of literacy instruction that are good for all children.
“And, yes, some kids with developmental disabilities might show slower progress in their literacy acquisition or you might be able to tailor some of the content to their particular interests. That can be quite important with some autistic children in the way it helps with motivation.”
For several years, Professor Arciuli has been working with a freely available, computer-based literacy instruction program called ABRACADABRA.
She introduced it to one of her PhD students, and together they were the first to test the program with autistic children using one-to-one instruction in their own homes. It went well, but one-to-one instruction in family homes is quite labour intensive and not really scalable.
“A school approached me,” says Professor Arciuli, “and so we decided to do the ABRACADABRA program slightly differently.”
To make the program work in a school setting, we needed to upskill teachers to deliver the program. Instead of being entirely one-on-one, it was kids sitting at individual computers for some things, and coming together in small groups for other activities, sometimes sharing computers.
“That went quite well, slightly different results in some aspects of literacy, but still quite promising,” says Professor Arciuli.
And then along came COVID-19 to upend children’s schooling and additional clinical and educational programs, along with so much else. The PhD student mentioned earlier is now Dr Ben Bailey. He and additional collaborators from Flinders University, including a new PhD student, Annemarie Murphy, are part of Professor Arciuli’s COVID-19 literacy response team.
“COVID has affected school attendance and attendance of clinics for lots of kids, especially for kids with developmental disabilities,” Professor Arciuli says. “They haven't been able to get the extra support that they might've had, such as a speech pathologist coming into the classroom a couple of hours a week. Or they might've been attending a clinic outside of school hours for additional literacy support.
“So all of that got thrown up in the air and we had to think about clever ways of doing things.”
Professor Joanne Arciuli
Professor Arciuli and her team came up with a hybrid system of teaching that still involved the ABRACADABRA program, but delivered to children over Zoom by a facilitator. At the same time the team set about upskilling parents so they could work with their children during shared book reading at home, so that it became more structured.
“We’re giving parents some tips on how to interact with their child during sharing reading activities, and encourage parents to do this regularly. This is to complement the facilitated ABRACADABRA sessions.”
Overall the Zoom/hybrid delivery of learning programs is showing some promising results, while showcasing the flexibility of ABRACADABRA as a platform.
”The ABRACADABRA program is very engaging for children,” says Professor Arciuli. “It consists of cartoon characters that appear in a series of game-based activities.”
“We find that the kids really do see it as a game, rather than a lesson. They get into it to score their points in various activities which may involve reading or spelling words or trying to comprehend meaning. ABRACADABRA has many different ways of reinforcing involvement and learning.”
It has also provided unexpected opportunities to bring parents further into their children’s development. Researchers such as Professor Arciuli have known for a long time that the home literacy environment is important. The number of books in the home, and parents' own literacy skills are both predictors of literacy. But this is strengthened further by giving parents a little bit of information about how to interact with their kids during shared reading time.
We need to make sure parents are neither overcorrecting nor undercorrecting. We need to make sure they are neither overpraising nor underpraising. And there are multiple things to focus on such as reading accuracy but also reading comprehension. “We find that a lot of parents pull their kids up on the fact that they haven't pronounced a word correctly and that they're not necessarily reminding kids about the whole meaning running through the story or whatever it is they're reading. And comprehension can be a particular issue for some autistic kids. So increased opportunities to practice comprehension skills is a good thing” says Professor Arciuli.
Without a clinician or educator present, it becomes an instructional experience for the parents to build their child’s knowledge about literacy skills.
In 2021, Professor Arciuli is leading the largest ever efficacy trial of the ABRACADABRA program with autistic children. It is funded by a Linkage grant awarded by the Australian Research Council in collaboration with a partner organisation, the Luke Priddis Foundation. Co-investigators include researchers from Macquarie University and University College London.
“We are going to take learnings from the COVID-19 literacy response team into this new project. The world has changed for all of us and it is great to be working with a program like ABRACADABRA that can be used flexibly.”
Article published on 13 November 2020
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