Do's and Don'ts of AAC - Questions

AssistiveWare’s David Niemeijer and Jane Farrall teamed up on a Do’s and Don’ts of AAC Poster for International AAC Awareness Month. This blog explores one of the Do/Don’t pairs.
 
Do's and Don'ts of AAC - Questions
 
I travel a lot and each year visit many special needs classrooms in different parts of the world. One of the things that often strike me is the role questions play in teachers' and therapists' communication with AAC users.
 
An open-ended question can be described as a question which requires a full response from a person that is based on their own knowledge and feelings. In any environment where questions occur naturally, like in classrooms, it is essential that open-ended questions are used for AAC users. It allows language to be modeled and gives AAC users the opportunity to learn to say what they think and feel. This is very different from situations where they are asked questions that you already know the answer to!
 
In this article we will look at a couple of situations in which there is a tendency to use closed questions or questions that the AAC user knows the person asking the question already knows the answer to. For each situation I will suggest some alternative, more natural and more conversational approaches for asking questions.

Introductions

A visitor in the classroom is a great opportunity to let an AAC user ask some questions and answer some questions, but what often happens instead is a dialogue like this:
  • Teacher to student: "Look we have a visitor today."
  • Teacher to student: "What is your name?"
  • Student looks a bit puzzled at the teacher.
  • Teacher to student: "What is your name, Johnny?"
  • Teacher navigates to About Me page of the AAC system
  • Student presses Name button on system: "My name is Johnny."
  • Teacher looks expectantly at visitor
  • Teacher to student: "How many brothers do you have?"
  • And so forth...
I have seen this happen so often that it can't be a coincidence. What is wrong here? The teacher is asking the student questions that the student knows the teacher already knows the answer to. Can you imagine this happening in a regular education classroom with a verbal student? Probably not. What you would probably imagine is that in that case the conversation would be initiated with the teacher looking at the student and saying: "please introduce yourself to our visitor."  Why not do the same for the AAC user? Would that not be a more natural cue to start a conversation with the visitor? Or, even better, take the opportunity of having a visitor to let an even more naturally prompted situation develop. Before meeting the student ask the visitor to introduce himself and then ask the student about his name and siblings. That way the student can show his skills in a natural setting where the person asking the questions clearly cannot already know the answers.

Colors

We make a communication app, Proloquo2Go, and designed it to be used for communication. However, in many classrooms I see it be used far more for quizzing and testing students than for real communication. I will focus on one common example here that I have observed in way too many classrooms. Teachers and therapists want to know if a student can identify shapes and colors correctly. I guess direct teaching of concepts such as colors is considered useful to build on for further academics. Here is a typical dialogue:
  • Therapist points at a yellow object.
  • Therapist: "What color is this?"
  • Student presses Yellow button on system: "Yellow."
  • Therapist: "Good job."
  • Therapist points at a blue object.
  • Therapist: "What color is this?"
  • Student presses Blue button on system: "Blue."
  • Therapist: "Good job. Good talking."
  • Therapist points at a yellow object.
  • Therapist: "What color is this?"
  • Student presses Green button on system: "Green."
Colors pop-up in Proloquo2Go
 
Colors pop-up in Proloquo2Go
 
What is happening here? Was the first "yellow" response a fluke? Or could it be that the student is fed up with answering the same questions over and over again? Could it be that the student is wondering why these adults need help all the time with identifying colors and out of frustration just answers randomly? Any of the above is possible, but think of this: How do you feel when someone asks you a question to which you gave an answer a minute ago. You would probably be annoyed and if it happens often you might respond irritated. Have we already modeled on the user's system how to share annoyance or irritation? Does the student already know how to navigate away from the colors page to the feelings page, or does the colors page have an "all done" button? If not, then hitting the wrong color might be one of the few polite ways for the student to express frustration.
 
So we care about color identification. What more natural, more conversational way would there be to find out if the student is able to correctly identify colors? How about picking up a children's book and reading it with the student, while modeling colors on the user's device like this: "Look here is a yellow flower and that big one there is blue. I like the blue flower, which one do you like?" This allows the user to see how you press the color buttons while talking about the flowers in the book and allows the user to demonstrate their understanding of colors by pressing either yellow or blue on the device. But what if the user answers "red" on the device? Should we say, "no that is wrong!" or rather say, "ah you like red flowers, let's see if we can find any red flowers on the next page." We won't immediately know if the user can identify all colors correctly, but it is important to ask open questions, because that is what people do in real conversations. What's more, with the first approach of direct quizzing there is a good chance that it will take at least as long to find out if the student is capable of identifying colors, while probably building up frustration on both sides and missing out on the fun of reading books together and talking about those books.
 
Morning circle
Another common situation in special education classrooms where teachers ask questions the students already know the teacher knows the answer to, is morning circle, morning meeting, calendar time, or circle time. Virtually all special education classrooms I have been to do a morning circle ritual talking about attendance, the days of the week, the months of the year, and the weather. During this time teachers ask the same questions every single day from preschool to high school.
 
The questions are totally closed, there is only one right answer for each question, they are extremely repetitive and after some time either everyone knows the answers or doesn't care about the answers (anymore). While the non-verbal students are stimulated to use their device there is no real communication going on. If we feel this morning ritual is important, are there ways to blend in open questions? For one thing we would need to greatly expand our repertoire of weather and calendar questions to prevent repetition, which is essential if we want to avoid questions that kids have already shared the answer to time and again. We could ask things such as:
 
Open questions:
  • What season do you like best?
  • What kind of things can you do after school when the weather is sunny?
  • What are fun things to do in winter?
Closed but different types of questions:
  • On what day of the week are you going to Jim's party?
  • In what season is your birthday?
  • Do you know why Alice is not here today?
As you can imagine, you will run out of new calendar and weather questions at some point. That is a good time to start thinking about more conversational topics about things that matter to the students' lives.
 
Example of a circle time poster
 
Example of a Circle Time poster

What next?

Take a look at your classroom and therapy activities and consider the type of questions you work with. Are your questions open or closed? Do you repeat the same questions often? Do you often ask questions the AAC user knows you know the answer to? Then think about how you could achieve the same academic, therapy, or testing goals with a different style of questions. Also, don't forget to create opportunities for AAC users to ask questions too. In regular education, the best students are the ones that ask questions to gain a better understanding of what is being taught to them or to learn about things they are curious about and that you did not cover. We want to enable AAC users to control their own learning and expand their knowledge. What greater way to help them than to model to them how to ask questions. Perhaps that way they can use their AAC system to ask you what the name is of that aquamarine color they are pointing at…

Useful links

~ David Niemeijer
 
David Niemeijer is the founder and CEO of AssistiveWare and has been active in the AssistiveTechnology field since 1996.

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