Monday, September 30, 2013

Literacy for AAC Users - a beginning

Today I want to talk about literacy activities for kids who are nonverbal and use augmentative communication - particularly picture based communication.  You probably won’t be surprised to learn that most of these students are never taught literacy skills.  And yet, how can students grow into adults who have a place in a social environment, a work environment, or an academic environment if they can’t read and write?  Even many severely disabled students who are verbal do not receive sufficient - or any - literacy instruction.
Evidence based practice says that students should receive 1 1/2 hours per day of instruction.  These are general education students.  Students who struggle with  reading skills should receive an additional 30-60 minutes per day of support and instruction.  Wanna take a guess how many hours of literacy instruction most aac users get?  Well, if you guessed less than 1 you’d be right.  Many get none at all.
The research is relatively new on reading instruction as evidenced based practice for aac users, but it is there.  And it needs to get into the classrooms.  And many teachers aren’t sure how to go about teaching reading to kids who can’t make the sounds, reas the word out loud, demonstrate fluency or comprehension.  David Koppenhaver (2008) once said, “I’d argue that you teach reading to AAC users the same way you teach any kid - balance, balance, balance.”
So, what do we know about kids learning reading?  First of all, they need to be read to.  Parents and teachers need to read to kids all the time.  Lots of different books, and a variety of kinds of books.  By reading to them we help to provide motivation, to teach the process of reading, to give them experiences with books that they can’t read on their own, to provide meaning to the whole idea of written language.  Talking about stories as we read them builds language and thinking skills, and can facilitate reading comprehension.  Shared reading, with an adult or older student, has been shown to be one of the best influences on later vocabulary and reading skills.  Having interactive conversations around the story adds to background and vocabulary knowledge and higher order thinking skills when the right questions are asked.
We have a tendency to ask “What” type questions.  What?  What is it?  What do you see?  What is that?   These are not the questions that develop higher order thinking skills or encourage language development.  We need to be asking questions that use a variety of Wh-types and that ask for sequencing, describing, retelling, comparing and contrasting, feeling.  We need to ask open-ended questions, to make sure we give kids sufficient time to response, and to elaborate on their responses.

We also have a tendency to read less to our kids with disabilities, and to forget to use the same basic structure we use when teaching their non-disabled peers.  When we do read to them, we don’t ask as many questions, provide as much interaction, or prepare them for the experience.  We don’t set the purpose for reading, activate their background knowledge, or provide activities related to that purpose.  And we don’t often give them the opportunity AND the means to get practice in retelling the stories.
This last is very important.  We know how important it is for kids to gain confidence in pre-reading skills by re-telling stories to friends, parents, dolls, stuffed animals.....  Our aac users don’t get this practice with  vocabulary and syntax, event sequencing, and more.  When we give them the symbol supports to re-tell     stories, it increases their engagement, increases opportunities to build language, and increases their expressive vocabulary through books.  While this isn’t directly increasing their literacy skills, it is increasing their language skills, which are crucial to the process. (Use the link above to get my free story elements/re-telling symbol supports die.)

Next time, more specific skills for phonological awareness.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What Can I Do with a Single Communication Picture or Simple Message Button?

In a recent discussion with a teacher, I was asked what I would recommend doing with all the simple single message devices and assortment of picture communication symbols she had floating around.  A number of the kids (with autism) in her class have iPads with aac apps, but she felt like there ought to be something she could do with the BigMack and iTalk and Sequencer buttons.  And what about just having some pictures here and there?

So, here are some of my suggestions to her - and to you:

How many ways can you use 1 picture?  To request (I want, want, that, give, get), to greet (Hi, Hello, hey there, Bye), to accept or reject (yes, no, don’t, not), to protest (stop, don’t, not, away), to direct ( there, here, give, get, put), for cessation or continuation (more, stop, different go), for possession (my, mine, your, his), to participate (yes, no, repeating line, specific response).  Think about all of those communication functions.  It is much more functional to provide a variety of intents than to teach the same number of nouns.
Make your own picture dictionary.  Print out pages of category related nouns and verbs by location or association, adjectives of size, color texture, adverbs, prepositions, etc.  Make two copies of each page, and laminate one set and put one of each into a page protector (or you can laminate them both). Cut apart one set and velcro them to their match, which you have now conveniently put into a binder.  Voila!  A dictionary of picture words you can use whenever you need them.
Teaching vocabulary for 1:1 correspondence, defining, describing, locating, synonyms and antonyms, category associations.  Make word webs, story maps, word banks.  Practice sentence making.    Sort by same/different color or initial sound or ending rhyme (word family).
Take those single message buttons and program a repetitive line from a story book, a message like “turn the page,” a greeting, a joke of the day, an attention getting response, or “I need a break!.”  Put it in the middle of the table at lunch time and have it say “More, please.”  Record one core word at a time to teach those kids who don’t have their own iPad (or other speech output system).  Now you can practice help, more, stop, go, all done, don’t, make, play, eat, drink, read, sleep.

Pick up those discarded talking photo albums and make shopping lists, picture recipes, personal information, the steps to a task, lines to a song, social stories or scripts.

I hope that was enough to be going on with.  And maybe I got you thinking about some additional ideas.  I hope so.

I’ll be back with ideas for literacy.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

SoundSwaps App for Listening to and Moving Sounds in Words

Some students have difficulty with awareness of individual sounds in words, of whether two sounds are the same or different, and of the order in which to put them to form a specific spoken (or written) word.   These students have difficulty with discriminating speech sounds in sequences and perceiving and comparing the different patterns in sequences in words.  They cannot judge the differences between sounds and may delete or add sounds and syllables from words.

The goal of the SoundSwaps app is to assist students to improve decoding and encoding skills through improved auditory conceptualization.  (It’s great practice for all students, but was originally designed for students with dyslexia and auditory processing disorders.) Students will practice seeing and hearing words and learning where and when sounds are deleted, added, or moved to make new words.
This app uses errorless learning.  The app repels incorrect choices without drawing attention to the error.  There is never a “No” or “Incorrect” message, no negative feedback, no red X.  Just a subtle refusal to go someplace incorrect, and then visual cues for correct responding.
The positive response is continuous.  There is verbal reinforcement after every trial.  There is greater reinforcement after each sequence of changes.  The letters spin, jump, and fly off the screen at the end of each string of words, with accompanying whistles.   And there is applause with whistles after completing each level.
In the SoundSwaps app, letters come onto the screen one at a time.  When all of the letters are on screen, it says the whole word i.e. bag
Then it says: If this says “bag” make it say “bat”
Speak 1 and Speak 2 buttons allow the user to hear the words repeated as often as necessary.
There is a trash can on right lower corner of the screen into which letters that are not needed in the new word are dragged, so that they can be replaced with the new letter.  Alternately, dragging the new letter on top of the old one will simply replace it.
An on-screen keyboard pops up with consonants in blue and vowels in yellow.  When the correct key is touched the letter pops out from it to be dragged up to the word.  (The key with its text remains in place.)
In Step 1: Some keys are hidden; reducing the complexity of the task.
in Step 2:  The full keyboard is used, still with the colors differing for vowels and consonants.
In our example, the b and a when touched can’t be dragged to the trash or moved in location, but the g when touched can be dragged to the trash can.  If the user tries to drag letters for 2 unsuccessful tries,  the trash can will light up and pulse or the correct letter to use will pulse. (This depends upon what the user is doing/not doing)  
On the keyboard only the correct letter key can be dragged up to the open space in the word  (the key itself doesn’t move - the letter remains on the keyboard, but a duplicate moves up, as stated above).
After 2 incorrect tries (touches to wrong keys on keyboard) the correct letter(s) will highlight and pulse (in sequence if more than 1) as prompts/cue.
The data tracker will track % correct and % prompted, which activity, which level (1 or 2)
Level 1 - Word Families: The ending sounds stay the same.  Only the initial sound changes.  
Level 2 - Initial or final sounds change or are added/deleted
Level 3 - The vowel sounds change.  
Level 4 - Anything can happen.  Changes can be anywhere within the word, so listen carefully!  
For those who want a paper version, try these resources: for students who need practice with word families.

Get a free sample of the task cards for swapping sounds here.  Note that the app does not use pictures, since the words are spoken.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Answering Wh-Questions - There's an App for That: Question It

QuestionIt is an amazing app - even if I do say so myself.  Fortunately, other people are saying it, too.  I developed QuestionIt from a therapy activity I had done with kids with autism for many years with great success.
Parents were always telling me to publish it.  They all said that multiple therapists and teachers had tried to teach their kids how to answer Wh-questions - all without success.  Until I came along, with my bags of color coded pictures and systematic errorless learning.  Of course, I had no time to even think about what I would need to do to publish this as a marketable tool, so it just never happened.
But then the iOS revolution came along.  Speech and language therapy apps were coming out and I decided this was the time and this was the format.  I found a wonderful team of programers - Ditty Labs - right here in San Diego.  They persevered with me and my lack of technological savvy (once you take me away from AAC, technology sometimes mystifies me).
SO.  QuestionIt.  Question It  (?it) is the app for teaching students with autism and other significant language disorders how to answer Wh- questions.  Four activities use systematic fading of color cues and errorless learning techniques to teach students what type of word answers which type of question.  Data management feature allows speech pathologists and teachers to track data for individual students; providing accuracy percentages for each type of question in any given session.  The SymbolStix icons used are familiar to many students who use visual cues and symbol-based communication.

Activity 1 asks students to sort words into categories by the type of question they answer.  “Boy” is a person; a person answers ,”Who.”  Full color cue, partial color cue and no color cue levels are available.  Hundreds of words are provided for sorting people, places, times and actions.  Errorless learning is used; allowing only the correct response to be registered.  Verbal feedback is consistent.  Fireworks are fun motivators.

Activities 2 and 3 present sentences and ask Wh- questions in random order.  While Activity 2 uses the same sentence structure for all sentences (Who- is Doing What- Where- and When?), Activity 3 offers variations on the word order.  More than 4,000 sentences are available, minimizing student memorization and acclimation. Activity 2 has 3 levels of play; full and partial color cue and no cue.  Activity 3 has only partial color cue and no cue levels.

Activity 4 presents three loosely related sentences as a paragraph, continuing to ask questions in random order.  Activity 4 has 2 levels; partial color cue and no cue.  Again, hundreds of items are available for practice.
Overall, there are more than 10,000 questions in this app.

In all levels, errorless learning is provided.  Only one response is accepted and moves the student on to the next item.  Therapists and parents can control the pace of play by using the arrow to move to the next items after any discussion they want to have.  Every 5 correct responses provides fireworks, which grow in intensity as more and more correct responses are amassed. 
Question it is available only for iPad.
You can find QuestionIt in the app store here.  Check out the website here.
And, if you prefer the good old fashioned paper activities, you can purchase the Wh-Program materials from me here.