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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 one 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, read 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.

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