Sunday, June 17, 2018

Surf's Up! Can I Hear You Over the Waves?

Summer is officially (almost) here.  Most school districts are done for the year, the days are getting longer and lighter, and I heard the sound of the ice cream man's truck las weekend. And just a few days to go until the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted links to my free activities for talking over the school break.  I've decided to take a break, too, from blogging for the next month and a half. I'll be back in August, as everyone gets back to school.  

But before I go, I thought I'd post one more idea for keeping kids communicating over the summer.  As you head to the beach, grab this idea along with the sunblock, and have fun in the surf and sand. This is a sample page, but there is also a core-word based communication board for fun at the beach, and more suggestions.

Have a great summer and, remember,.............Keep on talking!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Moving AAC Users Beyond Single Words

Last week I shared with you some free resources to help keep students communicating over the summer, to prevent that “Summer slide,” when students are out of school and not engaged in intervention activities.
This week, I thought I’d share with you some of my ideas for building phrases and sentences with core words (and necessary fringe). Just to review, core vocabulary are those high frequency words that we use over and over again to generate the messages we make. And fringe words are those less frequent words that are important and specific to each user.

We know that we need to provided models of use of the AAC system so that our AAC users can learn where to find and how to use words, and how to use the AAC system. We know that this modeling of the AAC system takes the place of - or supplements our use of - speech models for picture based communicators. That immersion in this ‘different language’ is needed for students to know how to use it competently.

We also know that we need to provide our models at and 1 step above the child’s current language use. So, if the child is using single word responses, we model 2-word phrases. If he is using 2-3 word phrases, we model 3-4 word phrases. Etc. Unfortunately, what happens is that somewhere between the single word stage and the 3-4 word stage, something breaks down. Communication partners stop providing consistent aided input. Or they think that this is such an accomplishment - finally to have the child communicating - that they’ve accomplished what they set out to do. Or having the child be able to tell what he wants or needs is sufficient.
For whatever reason, relatively few of our AAC users develop morphosyntactic competence.

Janice Light pointed out a number of years ago that a part of the problem was the lack of grammatical availability in AAC systems. While there are still too many AAC systems - on paper, on devices and apps - that continue to restrict language development, there are also many available now that do have a mechanism for morphological markers and syntactic forms. All require additional steps to add the markers(-s, -es, -ed,- ing, etc.) to the word. And all too often I see that these buttons - where there are specific buttons for these - have been removed, in order to make room for more words. More words may be nice, of course, but when that is at the expense of language building students lose too much.

If you’d like to learn more about expanding utterances of AAC users, join me at the AAC in the Cloud conference, sponsored by Cough Drop AAC, on June 26. There are many great speakers lined up. Hope to see you there. In the meantime, keep on talking!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Keep Them Communicating Through the Summer Slide

For most students Summer is a time for freedom from studies and studying.  We do have numerous programs for keeping students reading over the summer and avoiding the dreaded Summer slide.

For students with special needs, including language disorders, the Summer slide is more of a certainty.  Students with language disorders need to keep working on those target skills year-round.  
Those who need to use AAC - Augmentative and Alternative Communication - need all of their communication partners working with them throughout the Summer - and even other, shorter breaks, from school.

Parents don’t need specific materials to help them work on communication skills over the Summer. They just need some ideas.  Communicating is a social endeavor and AAC use should be taught in the course of normal, genuine communication occurrences.
Providing parents with ideas for how to use daily routines and fun activities to help develop their child’s communication is often sufficient.  If, however, you need to, make sure that there is time to train parents in the basics before the school year ends.

I have several Summer Communicating handouts in my TPT store for free, to provide just such guidance for things to talk about with their child.
Here are just a few samples to take a look at:

You can find my Summer handouts through these links:

You don’t need special materials
Communication happens everywhere
You just need to provide ideas to keep moving with vocabulary and language - not just for the Summer, but all year round.

Have a great Summer and, remember, Keep on Talking.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

He Can’t? I Bet He Can!

Not too long ago I did an AAC assessment for a young teen who is severely - profoundly motorically disabled.  He cannot move any but his facial muscles, so it was an evaluation of different eye gaze systems, both no tech and high tech. No low-tech options available for potential eye gaze users.

His mother was a bit unsure about the assessment; telling me he really didn’t have much to motivate him.  He didn’t really like “things” or technology, she said; he’s more of a people watcher.  He likes being social.

I could understand not being motivated by things.  Given his inability to interact with “stuff,” I wasn’t surprised he really wasn’t interested in much.  I also understood being socially motivated.  He was, after all, a teenager; albeit one with none of the usual experiences his typical peers have had.

What was needed was a way to motivate him to communicate, even though he had little prior experience with communicating. The manufacturer’s rep who had brought this eye gaze system and I decided to try a game of Simon Says.  This is a great way to introduce cause and effect and it worked like a charm.

For the next 20-30 minutes, he was able to direct us to turn around, sit down, stand up, dance, and more.  The smile on his face was amazing! He was so happy that he could tell us what to do; that he had the power to do that.  Most of his face was taken up by this smile.  Writing the report was a no-brainer (after we tried the required 2 more systems needed for both good decision making and a funding report, of course).

So, don’t write off your student as being “unmotivated” by anything.  Brainstorm with fellow team members, family, and friends to think outside the box about what might work for him.  And remember - it’s all about the power!

I was so happy that “Simon Says” worked for him, that I made a resource all about learning core verbs, adjectives, and prepositions through directing actions.  You can check it out here.

Have fun, and….. keep on talking!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Let’s Talk Vocabulary. How Much do You Really Need?

In the AAC world these days there is a lot of talk about core words.  Practice has been catching up with research, and teaching AAC users high frequency core words with which to build their own unique phrases and sentences has become more common.

Last year, Carole Zangari wrote a post on the PrAACtical AAC blog about not throwing out the baby with the bath water.  In our rush to teach core words, we have created situations for many of our AAC users where they don’t have the fringe vocabulary that is important to them on their AAC systems. And while many of our students are working with the Universal Core 36 or 40 words, that is not nearly sufficient vocabulary to meet communication needs long-term.

Many of us have interests that are unique to us or favorite topics we like to talk about, or hobbies or other experiences.  And we have the words with which to discuss or explain or narrate them.  Many of our students similarly have specific items or topics that are important to them. And of course within the classroom and home environments we are - or should be - reading books to them on a variety of interesting fiction and nonfiction topics.  So where do those words come in? How do we get them in the AAC system, and provide sufficient repeated practice with them so that the students understand and can use them?

In Special Education and Speech-Language intervention we have long understood that by keeping various curricular content in thematic units so that English and Math and Science and Social Studies are all addressing related content with similar vocabulary we provide students with a much better foundation for vocabulary building. 
General Education classes also work with thematic units; particularly in the lower grades, for the very same reasons.

Unfortunately, those same Special Education classes have ventured away from themed vocabulary instruction as they stick to the “Centers” approach to working on IEP goals.  I have seen many of these classrooms moving students from Center to Center every 20-30 minutes with no connection between the cutting task at the fine motor center and the story sequencing task at the ELA center or the handwashing task at the ADL center.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I am a huge believer of using trade books (story books) to teach language skills, as well as literacy.  By using both fiction and nonfiction texts on a theme, we can provide a more cohesive plan for providing our AAC users with vocabulary around experiences that they may be missing, or just not getting enough of.

What are some favorite themes and books to go with them?
In the Fall, we often talk about pumpkins around Halloween time.  But pumpkins can provide a myriad of language experiences beyond carving faces.  Pumpkin life cycles, pumpkin shapes, pumpkin pie making.  Try these books: It’s Pumpkin Time, From Seed to Pumpkin, The Very Best Pumpkin, P is For Pumpkin, and Oh, My, Pumpkin Pie.

Planning a food themed unit? Try these books about vegetables: the little pea, Rah, Rah, Radishes, The Giant Carrot, and Sylvia’s Spinach.

There has been an explosion of children’s literature in the past couple of decades, and books abound on every topic possible.  Create fun thematic units around topics that are important not just for all students, but for each of your students individually.

To get you started, you might want to try this resource for the end of the school year or during extended school year (aka summer school); “Summer Beach Fun with Core.”  The materials in this resource focus on core words appropriate for Summer activities, with some fun fringe words on top.

Have fun with it, and.... keep on talking!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

What's the Purpose of THAT?!

My apologies for my absence last week.  Like many of us this Winter, I finally succumbed to this miserable crud that is infecting so many.  And I can't even blame it on having to shovel snow or scrape ice.  I no longer do such frigid tasks, here in Southern California.  
But I'm back on track - mostly. Although my poor cat, who likes to sit on my lap, has become extremely distrustful.  He's easily disturbed by loud noises, and my coughing and honking evidently count as such.  But, he'll get over it, in exchange for some treats.

So, on to this week's post.

We tend to talk a lot about use of core vocabulary and expanding functions beyond requesting, but we don’t talk quite so much about social skills and pragmatics with AAC users.  
The Pragmatics Profile for People who use AAC was developed based upon the Pragmatics Profile of Everyday Communication Skills in Children (Dewart & Summers,1988), which the authors assert is useable by many populations, as it is descriptive rather than a measure of skills.  
The Profile allows clinicians to collect information to describe an individual’s communication skills functionally and usefully.

While the original Profile was written for the preschool population, it soon extended to Elementary aged students, and then adults.  The original authors suggested that the Profile could be used with a wide variety of students; including those with physical and other disabilities.  This version for students who use AAC was adapted so that it is simple to administer to describe the pragmatic communication skills of students using, or who have used, AAC.

The Profile provides a 5 point scale that includes “Does this,” “May do this,” “Does not do this,” “Not applicable,” and “Potential target.”

Communication functions questions range from gaining attention to the full array of communication functions/intents and participation in various communication interaction types.  There are example provided and space for narrative remarks.  At the end is a summary chart, that can be used by teams to establish objectives and measure progress.

Until next week .........Keep on Talking!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Can Nonspeaking Students Learn to Read? Why Not?!

If you follow my blog you’ve probably read before about developing literacy skills in children with limited language and/or complex communication needs (CCN).  We just do not spend sufficient time teaching literacy skills to these children; not anywhere near the amount of time devoted to teaching reading in general education classes and even less than students in general education classes who are struggling readers and who receive additional support in the resource room.

A recently published article by Barton-Hulsey, Sevcik, and Romski (2018) examined the relationship between receptive and expressive language skills and phonological awareness skills in children with development disabilities.  They attempted to help us understand how children with developmental disabilities and minimal speech develop reading skills; specifically phonological awareness skills.

The National Reading Panel has reported that instruction in phonics and phonological awareness is very effective.  In fact research has shown that, while taking significantly more time than neurotypical peers to acquire literacy skills, the relationship between phonological awareness and reading skills is the same in both groups. (The Institute for Educational Sciences - IES, 2014).
Children’s understanding about the sound structure of language plays a significant role in their understanding of how speech and reading support each other (Frost et al, 2009).  Contrary to widespread belief, letters do not actually represent the sounds in a word; rather they represent the underlying phonology (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989).
While there have been a number of studies exploring the relationship between speech sound disorders and development of phonological awareness skills, little has been done to explore this relationship in students with minimal speech with filtered variables.  There have been some studies exploring reading development in individuals with motor speech impairments but no significant impairment in cognitive skills.  However, there are very limited studies that have looked at the development of reading skills in children with intellectual impairment.
In one study (Card & Dodd, 2006) it was found that children who could speak performed better on some tasks of PA (phoneme manipulation & visual rhyme), but not in other tasks (segmenting syllables, spoken rhyming words, and reading nonwords).  If development of PA skills is not dependent upon the ability to speak, then we should be able to develop these skills in AAC users.

This newest study looked at the relationships between receptive language, speech ability, early literacy skills and phonological awareness in children with developmental disabilities.  The results suggest that “…speech ability does not play a significant role in PA for those children.”

“Speech ability and letter-sound knowledge we found to have a small, nonsignificant correlation.”  Similar to the 2006 study by Card & Dodd, the findings suggest that limited speech does not result necessarily in limitations on tasks of PA.

The study concludes that the “ability to speak may not be an important component in the linguistic knowledge necessary for PA…”  While significant modification may be necessary for reading tasks for students who use AAC, there is nothing to suggest that we cannot teach them to read.

As David Yoder said (ISAAC, 2002): No child is too anything to learn to read!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The 30 Million Word Gap

That's an amazingly big number, isn't it?  30 Million.  It's even more amazing - and frightening - that this is the number of words that children from low SES (socio-economic status) are missing from their environments, when compared to children from professional families - those from higher SES.

If you can stand reading about statistics, here are a few from different studies:
Von Tetzchner (1997) and Porter (2009) both refer to the differences in language environments between typically developing children and AAC users.  
Children are typically surrounded by examples of others using the communication systems they are learning. Hart and Risely (1995) found that typical children in working class families hear approximately 1,250 words per hour and accumulate a listening vocabulary of 6 million words by the time they are 3 years old. 
They also reported (1995) that 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their age-mates from professional families. 
This difference has been called the “30-Million-Word Gap” and “The Great Catastrophe.”

The average 3 year old in a middle class household hears about 6 million words per year.  The average deaf child the same age and background (and in a signing home) sees approximately the same number of signs.  
But the average nonverbal 3 year old sees 0 instances of someone using pictures to communicate.

According to Von Tetzcher (1997) “the difference between their own expressive (and for some also receptive) language and the language used by significant people in their immediate surroundings” is a critical factor in the acquisition of language for AAC users.  
There is an assumption in all major theories of language learning that the individual is surrounded by others in the environment using the same language system.    
Even in second language learning the importance of immersion has been noted. Learners of second languages need to participate in an environment that exposes them - immerses them - in experiences with that language in order to become competent communicators. 

Parents and others engage often in routines with children that demonstrate how the world is organized, what words people use in those organized routines, what people’s roles are in routines (who says what when) and how to interact with others in these routines; even before they can participate in the conversation.

“The average 18 month old child has been exposed to 4,380 hours of oral language at the rate of 8 hours/day from birth.  
A child who has a communication system and receives speech/language therapy two times per week for 20-30 minute sessions will reach this same amount of language exposure in 84 years.” (Jane Korsten).  

Because this type of immersion environment is rarely provided (although beginning to find foothold) to learners of AAC, there is a great discrepancy for them between the language environment to which they are exposed, which uses verbal language, and the language system they are being asked to use, which is a picture-based language. 

That's all for the numbers this week.  The take-away? Talk to your children/students. Read to your children/students. Expose them to vocabulary.  And for your AAC users - use their system when talking or reading to them.
More next week.
In the meantime, keep on talking!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Are You Practicing Enough?

We all know that it takes many more exposures to words and concepts for our AAC users to learn them than typical students.  But do you know how to increase that exposure? Do you know how to provide repeating, on-going, opportunities for practice in your AAC user's day?

Obviously, we want to maximize the contexts in which students can practice 'their words.'  But how do we make sure all those opportunities happen?  Often the best way is by creating opportunities for modified incidental teaching.

Many of our students don't learn naturally through incidental teaching moments. So how can we modify those moments?  Take a look at some of these ideas:

"It is (size, color, shape)" - practice with objects in the environment.  A big book and a little one.  A blue pencil or a red one.

Pronoun + to be + preposition: A student on a swing = "He is on it."
"What is in the (crayon box, paper tray, rug, etc.)?" = "They are."
"Where are they?" = "On it."

"Who is washing hands?" =  "He is"
"Who is reading?" = "She is."
"Whose pants are pink?" = "Hers."
"Where is the red one?" = "There."
"What is blue?" = "It is."

Extend these types of questions to read alouds.  Ask questions while reading and looking at the pictures.  And, per Gail Vantatenhove's 'descriptive classroom,' ask questions that focus on core word responses, rather than referential questions that require a name or other fringe word that won't be needed ever again.

Try it.  And, Keep on Talking!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Being a Good Communication Partner to a Child Who Uses AAC

Good Communication Partners:
     create a positive communication environment
     respond to all communication attempts
     use the child’s AAC system to communicate to them

Creating a Positive Communication Environment:
          There is a positive communication environment when we respond to all of a child’s communication attempts, provide support as needed, focus on positive results, and find solutions to challenges. Even when you respond to an undesirable behavior, if you do so while also modeling how to use the correct message in the AAC system you take advantage of a communication opportunity.

As much as possible, do NOT ask yes/no questions, do NOT ask closed-ended questions

DO ask Wh-questions or other open-ended questions. If necessary, ask multiple choice questions.

Strategies to create opportunities to communicate include:
     providing choices, 
     sabotaging the environment, 
     giving small amounts of desired item/activity, 
     briefly delaying access, 
     using pause time, 
     using fill-in-the- blank activities.

Respond to all Communication Partner’s Attempts:

All children communicate. They don’t all communicate symbolically - that is, with pictures, words, text. And some of their nonsymbolic communication is undesirable.

Think about how this child responds to his/her own name; what (s)he does when a routine is interrupted; what (s)he does when wanting an item, action, attention, or help; or tells you when something is wrong. What we’re talking about is how this child communicates to reject/protest, request, comment. Those are some of the main, early functions of communication. The earliest communication behaviors are social regulatory - regulating another’s actions.  What we need to do is to respond to those other communication behaviors, while shaping them into more acceptable or understandable forms.

The more you practice using the aac system during real contexts, and increase the number of those contexts in which you use the aac system, the more automatically the child will learn to use the system.  Use the AAC System to Communicate TO the Child:

Aided Language Stimulation - also called Partner Aided Input - is crucial to the child learning to use their aac system.
Language is learned through models. Children learn spoken language by listening to others using it. A child using picture-based communication is learning an entirely different language. They need to see models of people using it effectively. And models provided in response to their communication are most powerful.

Facilitating Communication:
  1.    provide access to the aac system - it needs to be available all of the time. This is how this child “talks” and (s)he needs to know that communication is valued enough to be there whenever it is needed 
  2.    provide AAC models - use aided language stimulation as much as possible. When asking questions during an activity, highlight key words by using the aac system
  3.    provide opportunities for the child to take a turn - i.e. by pausing after each turn you take. Don’t be the only one “talking”
  4.    pause/expectant delay - give the child time to process, time to formulate a response. Looking expectant while pausing lets the child know you expect a response
  5.    ask open-ended questions - and wait for the answer before you provide it; if necessary, you can answer the question then provide a prompt for the child to imitate the answer. Asking Wh-questions instead of yes/no questions allows the child to learn higher-level responses.
  6.    prompting those responses - providing verbal prompts lets the child know what they are supposed to do.

When do I do Each of Those Things?
     Begin with routine activities. Many routine activities have a set beginning - middle - end that are predictable , use words that are predictable. This makes it easier for the child.

Other activities are a little less predictable but can easily provide communication opportunities.

Sample activity (based on Kent-Walsh and Binger):
1. Read from a book (a 2-pg. spread) + Model using the AAC system.
2. Ask a question + Model using the AAC system. Then PAUSE
3. Answer the question + Model using the AAC system. Then PAUSE
4. If necessary and appropriate to the target goal: Prompt a response.

Take turns with other adults role playing how to do this so it becomes automatic.  Start using ALgS (Aided Language Stimulation) with one activity. When you’re comfortable, add another activity/time.  Keep adding activities throughout the day until the strategies are used all of the time.

Keep track of the need for new vocabulary. By the time you have increased the number of contexts, you may find that there is more vocabulary that you need. Have a plan for how to keep track of this. For example, some classrooms keep a list on a clip board for each applicable student, staff write down words as they come up. The list is given to the
person who updates the system every day/week/2 weeks - as appropriate.

Keep on talking!