Sunday, April 30, 2017

You Call That Reading Instruction? Not for AAC Users!

Josh is a nonverbal boy in a Special Day Class for students with autism. He is 6. Reading time in his classroom consists of students listening to a book on tape, while the teacher sits at the front of the room, holding up the book and turning the pages. Students sit at their desks; too far from the book to see much. When the tape is finished, so is “Reading” time. Students move on to other work.

How does this count as reading instruction? Why does Josh’s teacher think that this is sufficient; that just “exposing” them to books is all that her students need? And why is she, sadly, not alone in this belief?

David Yoder (2000) said it all when he said, “No student is too anything to be able to read and write.” And yet, walk into almost any classroom for students who are nonverbal, read almost any IEP for a student who can’t talk, and look for the literacy instruction. 
Chances are, it isn’t there. Or it is limited to learning the letters of the alphabet - usually during a 15 minute Literacy Center rotation.

“The assumption was that the students might learn a few sight words for functional living but probably would not become readers. We know from the National Reading Panel research that some development of sight vocabulary is certainly important but to only provide sight word instruction is to place a ceiling on students' literacy skills,” says Diane Browder.

Evidence based practice calls for reading instruction 90 minutes per day for general education students. Struggling readers often get an additional 30-60 minutes per day of intensive instruction. But students who use AAC and have complex communication needs often receive no literacy instruction. How many of your students who are nonverbal receive 2-3 hours per day of reading instruction? I, personally, don’t work with or know of any.

Not only is literacy development crucial for academic, social, and occupational success, but literacy and language skills are so intertwined that developing skills in one enhances the other. Yet I have been in countless classrooms where the interaction with books is restricted to passively listening to them being read - either “live” or on tape.

Yes, reading to students is crucial. Books are a singularly encompassing way to introduce students to vocabulary and ideas they would not normally encounter. Reading to students provides motivation for them to want to learn to read, it teaches them about processes for reading, provides experiences with books they cannot read independently, and gives a sense of meaningfulness of written language.

But those readings need to be interactive; not passive. Talking about stories encourages thinking and language skills, and facilitates further reading comprehension. 

Shared reading has been shown to be one of the best influences on later vocabulary development and reading skills. Having conversations around the story generates vocabulary knowledge and develops higher order thinking skills - when the right types of questions are asked. (click on the link above for a free handout)
Too often teachers who want to do more than just turn on the tape player tell me their students can’t “talk about” the stories they hear.

Interacting with stories - with all of the curriculum - is dependent upon students having a robust, comprehensive aac system that provides them with the vocabulary they need to discuss…..well, whatever they want to. Whether you are a proponent of core word systems, PODD books, or any other style of aac book or device, your students need to have sufficient vocabulary to talk about whatever they need to in the classroom, as well as whatever they want to anywhere, and they need to know how to find it.

And, too often, even given an aac system, students are only asked, “What” questions that require little or no thinking and limit language production to identifying nouns and verbs. Teachers are looking harder than ever at Bloom’s Taxonomy with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but why are they not always looking beyond that first, bottom, rung for these kids? 

Students need interactions around stories that focus on answering a variety of Wh-questions; sequencing events; using more complex phrases and sentences to make responses; describing, comparing and contrasting characters or settings, and more. And they need experience with re-telling stories.

In short, AAC users need the same types of interactions around books as their verbal peers. What we do in intervention with these students isn’t really any different from what we do with other students. Only the mode of expression is changed, and the addition of one step - that of identifying where the vocabulary needed is located in the AAC system.

AAC users often get short-changed in the experiences department. They don’t always get to go to the same places as their peers, interact with the variety of people and environments. Those students who have motor or sensory impairments aren’t able to interact with or experience the same things. So, we need to build their background knowledge a little differently. And we need to recognize that interacting with stories is as close as they may get to some experiences.

AAC users also don’t get the same kind of experiences with story telling and re-telling as their peers. Yet these experiences are very important for later literacy success. Typically developing children sit and listen to the same stories over and over. Then they practice re-telling these stories to their stuffed animals and dolls and younger siblings. AAC users rarely get these experiences.
Speech-language pathologists may still debate about their place in literacy instruction, but we are uniquely positioned to build those language skills that these students miss. We just need to recognize that teaching aac users is not often all that different from teaching the same skills to other students. We teach students all the time about semantic relationships. That is one of the biggest tasks of the SLP. Teaching nonverbal students how to find the words they want to use based on whatever the semantic organization of their aac system is should be a piece of cake for us all.

What else do aac users need to be able to read? Janice Light and David McNaughton have provided us with excellent information and systems for teaching phonological awareness skills to nonverbal students.

“..good instruction is good instruction. We do not believe that a different curriculum is required in order for children with disabilities to success in learning to read and write.” (Erickson and Kopenhaver, 2007) The teaching strategies are there. Let’s teach teachers how to use them. And let’s teach students how to access them. Everyone deserves to learn to read.

Erickson, K. & Koppenhaver, D. (2007). Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four-Blocks Way. Carson-Dellosa Publishing Co, Inc., Greensboro
Light, J. & McNaughton, D.
Yoder, D. (2000). DJI-AbleNet Literacy Lecture. ISAAC. (found in Farrall,J. Literacy for ALL Students.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Where Do I Find the Words for THAT?! Talk About Earth Day with AAC Users

As I continue to assure you that you can, indeed, include your AAC users in speech therapy and classroom activities that the rest of your (verbal) students are doing, I'm going to talk about an Earth Day activity today.
Earth Day is this weekend, which is Why I'm posting next week's post a few days early - so you can give this a try.
But no vocabulary teaching is limited to a specific day or week.  We can build our AAC users' vocabulary any day as they continue to add words to their "stash."

I have an Earth Day sorting activity that I use with students, which requires only that students be able to sort items into their recycling categories (paper, plastic,  metal) or non recycle activities (laundry for clothing, etc.).  I usually use this as a jumping off point for talking about not just recycling and Earth Day and being "green" every day; but also about describing the items - specifically about what they are made from.

What are all the things your students can think of that are made out of paper?  Workbooks, text books, bulletins and notices, newspapers, magazines.... you get the idea.
For your speaking students, you may need to provide some scaffolding for word retrieval problems or other language issues that make listing items in a category difficult.

But what about your AAC users?  What do they need to do to retrieve the words they need for this activity?  Well, where will they find those items in their AAC system?  It might be in a folder of "School Things," or a page of "Leisure Activities." Help them figure out where to look to find the words they need to participate in the discussion.

What about plastic things?  These can be found in many different groups of items, so help your AAC users to think bout where some of those might be in their systems.  Plastic utensils?  Probably found in the Food & Drink -> Kitchen Utensils pages.
Aluminum cans? Probably found in the Food & Drink -> Drinks page.  And many of your students are bound to know where to find those soda cans even if they aren't usually allowed to drink soda.

Point out places in your classroom or on campus that encourage recycling of these items.  Many rooms have black trash cans for trash and blue ones for recycling paper at the least.  One high school campus I'm on has specially marked trash containers around the campus for students to place cans and bottles in.  One of the special education classes bags these up and takes them to the recycle center, where they exchange bottles and cans for cash they can use for outings in the community.

Any activity you can talk about or within with your speaking students can include your AAC users.  Just make sure they have a robust system with sufficient vocabulary to participate.  In a pinch, make a core-word based communication board for the activity - while you're waiting for that robust system to arrive!

Have fun, keep recycling, and.... keep on talking!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Did You Know About This?

I recently got an email from the zoo telling me about the activities they have planned for World Penguin Day.  I had no idea there was such a thing, but these days it seems like there is a day or week or month for almost everything. 
I once did a search for various "celebration days" to see if I could come up with an idea for an activity for everyone of them.  As you might expect, I gave up - at least for the moment.

But I do have activities for Earth Day, for Fire Prevention Week, for Dental Care month and Vision Awareness Month, and probably a few I'm forgetting.

Now, I love penguins. The penguins at our local zoo, here where it is warm, are African penguins, who live off the Cape where it is warm.  Included in the celebration is a bubble blowing machine.  Evidently penguins love to chase bubbles.  Who knew?
My daughter actually visited South Africa last year and went down to the Cape to see the penguins.  She held out her hand to one, and it bit her.  I put a bounty on his head. (Just kidding!)

When we lived in Boston we would go to the aquarium there and watch the penguins a lot.  Here, we get to Sea World only occasionally now that the kids are grown.  But when we do I love to watch them.

There are many different kinds of penguins.  We all tend to equate penguins and the Arctic, but there are several who live in warm waters off of Equator (in the Galapagos Islands) and those off the coast of South Africa.

To celebrate World Penguin Day, I'm going to have students I work with use my interactive books about penguins.  The resource includes books to interact with, books to make, penguin comprehension questions, a book to write and some penguin-inspired phonological awareness tasks.

I'm also giving you something to celebrate about - a free file folder matching activity, which you can find here.

Enjoy the penguins, and...keep on talking.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

More Thoughts on Word Relationships and AAC Use

Last week I wrote about classifying words and how the need to organize and find words within AAC systems can put a strain on the metalinguistic skills of our AAC users.
And, since I often talk about how your AAC users can do the same activities in intervention sessions as your other students working on related skills, I thought I’d demonstrate by using a basic receptive/expressive language game today.

Given that Spring is finally here - and not a minute too soon for some of you - I’m going to talk about a resource I’ve made dubiously named “Bunny Hop Through Spring.”  it is, otherwise, just called a game for expressive and receptive language.

If you want a no-commitment look at it, there is a free sample in my store here.  You can take a look at it and follow along without even having to make a purchase.  How cool is that?

Anyway, there is a fairly standard game board and even little bunny game pieces.  If you are going to use these with students who have some motor difficulties, I suggest taping the bottom strip of the bunnies around a glue stick to help make them easier to grasp and more solid to hold onto.

I am, of course, going to expect that your AAC user has a robust communication system.  That way, you can build word knowledge along with knowledge of where those words are in the system itself.

So, taking a look at the first page of cards, you can see that students are asked to name opposite adjectives.  Adjectives are among the important core words we want to teach our AAC users.  And most AAC systems have a special folder for pages of descriptive words.  Working on that task is fairly straightforward.

Look at the next page of game cards, there are 6 cards from the categorizing skill set, where the student needs to name members of a specified category.  
“Name 3 animals with stripes,” is one task.  Ok, so, where are the animal words in the system?  Often the user navigates to “groups” then to “animals” and then may have folders of pets, wild animals, farm animals, sea animals.  So, what are 3 animals with stripes and where are they in here?

In the “wild animals” page I can find zebra and tiger.  What else has stripes? A skunk?  That is probably in wild animals, too - unless there is a forest animal page.  Some cats have stripes (but not all - so be careful).  If I am talking about one of my cats, then, yes, he does have stripes.  But the other one doesn’t, so it does not hold that all cats have stripes.

There are any number of wild animals have stripes, but they are probably too obscure (unless you live on the plains of Africa).  Some snakes also have stripes.  Ringtails, as their name suggests, also have stripes.  They are the state animal in Arizona.  Our fringe vocabularies, or the frequency of use of them, varies by our experiences, our environment, and our level of knowledge.

In talking about how to ask questions of AAC users that encourages core word use and descriptive thinking, Gail Vantatenhove has warned us about only asking referential questions whose answers are nouns that may, or may not, be in our users’ AAC systems.
So, think carefully about what you are trying to teach your student.  If you are building vocabulary for topics that are necessary, or teaching how to navigate the AAC system, many language games are on equal footing in intervention.
If, however, you are helping students build on their use of core words to demonstrate knowledge of a topic then concentrate on more descriptive vocabulary (see last week’s post).

Whatever you’re working on, keep on talking.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

How Many Ways are Words Related?

I often find myself explaining to teachers, SLPs, and parents who are beginning to implement AAC with their student or child how sadly ironic it is that the students who have the hardest time learning to use language are the individuals who have to do the most thinking about how to use language - their “meta” skills - in order to say anything.

When we speak, we rarely - if ever - think abut how to access the words we want to use.  I spend a lot of time talking about - and to - my cats.  I don’t have to think about where to find the word cat; the trip into categories -> animals ->  pets -> is beneath the level of consciousness.

But for individuals who use AAC - especially those with complex and significant language needs - that is exactly the conscious path they need to learn to take.  If they want an apple, they need to think about how to navigate to categories -> to food -> to fruit -> to apple.

While our implementation of AAC is highly contextualized, we can, and should, also spend time teaching specific language skills to make the task of communicating more fluid.  One of the ways we have addressed the skills needed is to teach categorization skills at many levels.

We teach students that cats are animals, that they are more specifically pets, that animals are nouns, or things.  We also need to teach that they belong to the categories of furry things and soft things and living things.

An activity I use with many of my students - even with those students who are verbal but need help with their categorizing of vocabulary skills builds groups by attributes.  This helps to promote flexibility when thinking about words.  A cat is a member of the animals group, of the subcategory of animals that are pets, but also the category of furry things, of things with 4 legs, and - in most cases - the group of lazy things.

I’ve created a variety of activities for categorizing over the years.  Small fancy erasers come in a wide variety of objects, as do refrigerator magnets.  Try the dollar store for tubes or bags of small plastic animals, household objects, play foods, and more.

And, if you are moving from objects to decontextualized practice, here is a paper activity that kids seem to enjoy.  Everyone gets a flower center, and then chooses petals one at a time from a pile in the center that is turned face down.
If the petal you chose doesn’t belong to your category, put it back in the pile. Then the next student takes a turn.  
An alternative play is to have student keep petals they’ve picked in order to trade with others later.

Have fun, and……keep on talking!