Monday, December 22, 2014

Moving Beyond “I Want…” in AAC; What do You Want?

Time after time I see students whose only use of augmentative communication is for requesting.  For many, this is perpetuated by PECS boards and books that only offer them the “I want..” sentence starter and a choice of concrete items and activities. In this case, the requisite means to communicate effectively is restricted by the limited vocabulary available.  For others, their teams just seem to be stuck on requesting, without a clear idea of how to move forward.



As SLPs we know just how many communicative intents there are, and the different kinds of messages that can be produced, given the vocabulary, the skill, and the motivation.  When I speak to teams about IEP objectives for these kids, I try to focus on increasing the variety of communication functions that students use consistently.  
Janice Light (1988, 1997) lists 4 main reasons to communicate: expressing needs and wants (usually we have this one covered), developing social closeness with others, exchanging information (too often the only other function in classrooms), and fulfilling social etiquette routines.  Students communicate to indicate a preference or desire, to make a choice, to request an object or activity/action, to comment, to share, to request information or escape or attention.  They might also use language to make up stories, to assert their independence, and to express feelings. Too often, in classrooms, the majority of their opportunities to communicate is limited to providing or requesting information - asking questions about and responding to the curriculum.
Ways to expand the range of communication functions used can include introducing thematic units and conversation starters, and adding interactive and engaging activities.  Thematic units provide a long-term (a week, maybe longer) of attention to a specific topic with organization and cohesion.  They allow for exploration of and lots of practice with a set of vocabulary words, many of which may be localized to a specific area of the student’s aac system; such as ocean animals.  They can also offer lots of opportunity to practice describing, comparing, and contrasting language skills.  They should also provide sufficient time for lots of commenting and conversational interaction, since there is less urge to move on to the next subject.
Introducing conversational topics into the classroom allows for increased motivation.  Allowing students to talk about topics of interest often can open up willingness to engage beyond the monosyllable or one symbol response.  With a little bit of planning and thought you can cover a wide range of language objectives while allowing the student(s) to focus on topics that interest him/them.

Adding interesting activities that are interactive can be a way to provide structured opportunities to communicate while engaged in activities that differ from the usual classroom routine.  Adding cooking activities, storytelling and joke telling, game playing and other activities the students find “fun” can mean adding multiple opportunities to increase interactive language; especially commenting and expressing feelings.


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