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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Syntax Development and AAC Users - What’s in a Word; Just One Word?

In teaching and talking about teaching AAC use, a lot of time is spent on deciding which should be the first words taught to an aac user.  First words for aac use, as a topic, has gotten a lot of “airplay,” as it were.  
Less time has been spent on talking about where to go from there.  Because so many young aac users have a variety of language disorders and differences, more time has been spent talking about increasing the variety of communication functions a child/student uses, and this is definitely a good thing.  But while we’re at it, we need to think about the ‘form’ of the language, as well as the ‘content.’

In graduate school, we learn that form refers to the rule-based aspects of language,  content refers to the meaning of language, and use refers to the social conventions - or pragmatics - of language.
We all should know by now that beginning vocabulary instruction with young nonverbal children should not begin and end with teaching the names of objects that they want to ask for.  I love Janice Light’s admonishment; “There is more to life than cookies.”   Having spent way too many years teaching kids with autism the names, signs, or pictures for concrete things they could ask for (M&Ms come to mind, alas), I know full well that the behavioral issues that come with not being able to communicate are rarely, if ever, alleviated by a handful of M&Ms. 
Much research has been done on language development in general, and on the acquisition and use of early words; especially those words we know of as “core words.”  The teaching of core vocabulary to aac users is becoming more widespread and has moved beyond the work of Bruce Baker and users of PRC devices.
But, somehow, we often seem to get stuck with those first 15, 25, or 32 core words.  Even SLPs forget about 2-word combinations when teaching aac users.  But isn’t that the natural place to go?
I spend a lot of time convincing SLPs who have not previously worked with aac and suddenly find themselves with a student who needs aac on their caseload, that they really do not need to do very much differently.  Language development is language development.  Language disorders are not significantly different across students.  Vocabulary instruction is vocabulary instruction.  The mode of communication may be different, and that requires an extra step or two in the process, but…. Yes, you can do the same things you’ve been doing.  Teaching strategies differ.  Materials differ.  But the structure of language doesn’t necessarily differ at this atge.

I also spend time watching those same SLPs become triumphant when they realize that it does work and ….. Look! He’s putting two words together.
Two word combinations are necessary to convey meaning when one of those words is a noun.  “Apple.”  Well, what about an apple?  Do you want an apple?  Did your apple fall on the floor?  Did someone take your apple?  Are you tired of apples?
But think of the magic of communication when combining two core words.  All of the  multiple meanings of both words create powerful combinations.  “Want apple.”  “Not apple.”  “Give apple.”  “Bad apple.”  Good apple.”  “More apple.”   I’ve made meaning intelligible, and I’ve covered - how many functions??

I’ve included here a list of the 25 core words of toddlers, from the original Benajee, DiCarlo, Striklin (2003) study.  Next week, I’ll talk about some strategies for increasing those single word “utterances” to beginning phrases.  But I’ll bet you already know them.

Keep talking.

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