Key Takeaway: Teacher language within general and special education classrooms differs for students with autism, resulting in potentially negative impacts. Numerous studies have shown that open-ended questioning and language-rich environments are linked to positive academic achievement and communication development, especially for students with disabilities like autism who may struggle in these areas. —Amanda Jenkins

By analyzing six types of teacher language (open-ended questions, language models, close-ended questions, directives, indirect requests, and fill-ins), Sparapani et al. (2021) found that teachers generally use more directives and close-ended questions when interacting with students with autism, “potentially limiting their opportunities to engage in rich exchanges that support learning and development.”  

The study looked at teacher language in kindergarten to 2nd grade general and special education classrooms and found that while special education classrooms had more language usage overall, both settings had language that consisted primarily of close-ended questions and directives (69% in special education classes, 60% in general education). Open-ended questions were rarely asked in either setting to students with or without autism. Numerous studies and research have shown open-ended questioning fosters active engagement, improves communication skills, decreases problem behaviors, and increases academic growth. 

As Sparapani et al. state, “These data might suggest a need for teachers to include scaffolds, modifications, materials, and/or other adaptations into classroom activities rather than rely on oral language, such as the use of directives and/or close-ended questions, for students with limited language and lower cognitive skills.” More research and development needs to be done to provide teachers with an understanding of the impact their language and questioning practices have on their students.

The authors also indicated that teacher language is related to the individual student’s symptom severity, vocabulary skills, and cognitive ability. The study used multiple standardized tests to determine base-line levels of functioning and skills of the individual participants. Then the researchers focused on the individual student experiences in general and special education settings through the use of video observations and analysis. In both settings, students exhibiting more severe autism symptoms were addressed with mostly directives and significantly less open-ended questions. Special education teachers were more likely to address individual students and general education teachers addressed students in groups more often. As Sparapani et al. state in the findings, “the language environment within special education classrooms may not adequately prepare students for the linguistic and social pragmatic directives within general education classrooms . . . [and] may create an instructional barrier for learners with autism who transition between settings.”  

As special education policy focuses on creating a least restrictive environment and as inclusion/collaborative classroom models increasingly become the norm, students with autism are spending more of their academic time in the general education setting.  This study highlights that it is the teachers and paraprofessionals responsibility to monitor the language used in their teaching practices and to ensure a language-rich classroom experience. Best practices, such as using open-ended questioning and language models, give all students the opportunity to develop academic and communication skills vital to success.

Summarized Article:

Sparapani, N., Reinhardt, V. P., Hooker, J. L., Morgan, L., Schatschneider, C., & Wetherby, A. M. (2021). Evaluating Teacher Language Within General and Special Education Classrooms Serving Elementary Students with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Published. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05115-4

Summary by: Amanda Jenkins—Amanda strives to help students effectively communicate their strengths, weaknesses, and goals, and believes the MARIO Framework provides the structure and foundational skills for students to take ownership of their learning, inside and outside of school.

Key Takeaway: High expectations play a vital role in developing future success in students. For learners, frequent educational and vocational discussions with friends, family, and teachers during adolescence can be incredibly important in fostering their aspirations and transforming them into reality. —Emmy Thamakaison

Lynette Vernon (Edith Cowan University) and Catherine Drane (Curtin University) share their retrospective, cross-sectional study examining the association between student characteristics (ie. socio-economic status (SES), gender) alongside discussions with influential figures (ie. family members, friends, teachers) and expectations to attend university, receive vocational/technical education, or go into full-time employment after secondary school.

SES’s contributions to the development of future aspirations have long been debated, in particular, the suggested relationship between lower SES and lower educational and vocational aspirations. Vernon and Drane present their arguments against this as their results revealed that “career and educational aspirations for students, predominantly from low SES background were high” but found that often “the missing element is the knowledge of how to make these aspirations concrete and obtainable.”1 

  • Compared to students with higher SES, those with lower SES tend to engage more frequently in Technical and Further Education (TAFE) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) discussions and less frequently in university discussions. 
  • Students discuss their aspirations with their parents and peers more than their teachers and counsellors. Therefore, it is vital for these high-impact influencers to “have the necessary up-to-date knowledge and skills to provide the relevant information around educational opportunities.” However, parents of students of lower SES may lack the prerequisite knowledge as they may not have experience with university and/or TAFE/VET pathways. Thus, informative parental support and discussions with multiple influencers may be beneficial to maintaining high aspirations. 

Apart from SES, other factors such as gender, academic year level, and first-in-family (to attend university) status are considered “important predictors” for students’ vocational and higher education expectations. 

  • University discussions affected female students more significantly in terms of their expectations to receive higher education.
  • Those with first-in-family statuses engaged in discussions about university more frequently than those whose family members have attended university, indicating “their capabilities of resilience, motivation, and tenacity to explore university pathways.” However, first-in-family status was not associated with TAFE/VET expectations.
  • Vernon and Drane found that year level (grade level) indirectly contributed to the pathways between discussions on university, TAFE-VET, or full-time employment expectations.

Regardless of individual characteristics, frequent discussions about students’ futures allows the maintenance of their aspirations and sets them on the path to reaching their potential. 

  • As one of the main confidantes for a student, parents are encouraged to “provide the reality context for their children around their educational desires” in the discussions. 
  • Teachers remain largely untapped for valuable aspirational discussions. Prioritizing career education in a school setting and promoting teachers as a “positive, knowledgeable, and accessible resource” can therefore go a long way in “empowering [students] to pursue their desired education and career pathways”. 

Ultimately, this research encourages policy-makers, teachers, and influencers to recognize the importance of discussions around educational and vocational pathways. Adolescence is a critical transitional period as students decide what they will pursue beyond secondary school. While individual factors influence future expectations differently, increasing the frequency of quality discussions with influential figures can “provide the opportunity for all students to practice and develop their capacity to aspire and meet their career [and educational] expectations.”

Summarized Article:

Vernon, L., & Drane, C. F. (2021). Influencers: the importance of discussions with parents, teachers and friends to support vocational and university pathways. International Journal of Training Research, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/14480220.2020.1864442

Summary by: Emmy Thamakaison — Emmy is a recent high school graduate attending Stanford University and is an enthusiastic advocate of MARIO Framework.

Research author Lynette Vernon, Ph.D., was involved in the final version of this summary.

Additional References:

  1. St. Clair, R., Kintrea, K., & Houston, M. (2013). Silver bullet or red herring? New evidence on the place of aspirations in education. Oxford Review of Education, 39(6), 719–738. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2013.854201