Developing literacy is essential for AAC users. AssistiveWare’s Proloquo® is designed to support users to grow their vocabulary as their literacy skills develop seamlessly. In this blog post, we explain how you can use the unique features of Proloquo to teach literacy to all students. As part of the “Proloquo explained” blog series, it is written for anyone who wants an in-depth explanation of the design of the new Proloquo AAC app.
Literacy and communication
In AAC systems, graphic symbols represent whole words. This makes it fast and efficient for an AAC user to create and communicate a message. Proloquo’s Crescendo Evolution™ vocabulary is pre-programmed with 2500 graphic symbols. That is sufficient for any person to have conversations on general topics. More symbols can be added at any time to cover the specific interests and preferences of the AAC user.
But graphic symbols alone are not enough to cover the 10,000 or so words needed to effectively participate in school or work. For example, by the time speaking children start learning to read, they already know and use around 5,000 words. Speaking adults use about 15,000 words in daily activities but know about 50,000 words.
Graphic symbols are useful when each symbol is visually distinct from the others. But it would be nearly impossible to memorize a different graphic symbol for 15,000 words. It is even more difficult to order this many symbols in a way that AAC users can easily find and use them all. Instead, as language develops, it becomes easier and more efficient to learn to read and write.
Letters and characters (like punctuation) are a particularly efficient type of graphic symbol. Only 26 letters combine to represent the 50 or so sounds in the English language. With fewer than 100 symbols (e.g., letters, punctuation, numbers), students can write any sentence. Literacy opens the door to saying anything you want to say, at any time. Proloquo is uniquely designed to help students progress from recognizing graphic symbols to printed words. As the user grows in their literacy skills, they are immediately rewarded with new messages they can communicate.
Teaching alphabet awareness
Students who cannot yet read or write have emergent literacy skills. They may not yet be noticing the print in the environment and the letters of the alphabet. They are most likely to attend to words with strong personal connections, such as the names of family, friends, and pets. Consider using the Related Words feature in Proloquo to add personally important printed words. For example, you might add the AAC user’s family member's name to the graphic symbol for their relationship, e.,g. Aunt Ava and Aunt Mariam to the word aunt. Show the user how the first letters of Ava and Mariam are different. Point out features of print: Ava is a short word, and Mariam is longer. Repeat this strategy throughout the vocabulary, such as adding favorite characters to the symbol for princess and ogre. An emergent user may not start using the Related Words feature right away, and that’s OK. Every time you model its use, you are building alphabet awareness. The printed words will become a source of curiosity about print. This curiosity builds motivation to learn to read.
Teaching sight words
We have carefully selected the 2500 buttons with symbols in Proloquo. There are buttons with symbols for the words children are most likely to speak as single-word messages, before they can read. However, as children learn to build sentences, they use words that are difficult to symbolize, such as and, a and, the. These are common first words to teach as sight words. Proloquo does not use symbols for articles and conjunctions. You can teach the words in the orange text-only tab by pointing out visual features of the word itself: “I need the word and. It is short and starts with an A. There it is!”
Proloquo also offers text-only Related Words. These extend the meaning of general words and allow users to add more nuance or be more specific. For example, good and bad are general terms and have buttons with symbols. Excellent and terrible are fun, interesting Related Words. Many emergent users are highly motivated to use these kinds of “sparkle words” and popular slang. Show them how they can explore the meaning of each Related Word by selecting it and hearing the word aloud. If you note that a term like Gucci has become a synonym for good, ask the user if they would like to add it as a Related Word. Show them a list of possible words that could be added, and read each word aloud as you ask the user which words they would like to add.
Proloquo uses alphabet order whenever a list can be scanned easily, such as the related words that come pre-programmed in Proloquo. You will also see alphabet order in subfolders like the US states or lists of countries. When you or the user are searching for one of these names, show them how to look down the column to find the correct initial letter. Help them notice how they can scan left-to-right across the columns to move quickly through the list. Point out key features to help recognize the word, like all the As in Alabama or the space within the name New York.
You can create your own half-height, text-only subfolders for any list that involves recalling particular names. These lists are an authentic reason for students to apply what they know about the alphabet to talk about something they care about. An alphabetic list might be useful for all the students in a class or grade, all the members of a sports team, all the characters in a TV show, all the spells in Harry Potter, or all the past US Presidents. You can still create a button with a symbol for the most personally important of these terms, like the student’s best friend in class or favorite athlete on the sports team. This button can go in the main topic folder to make it fast and easy to access, separate from the text-only subfolder of the complete list.
Proloquo comes with the most common words but relies on you or the AAC user to program the words important to them. You will add these either as buttons with graphic symbols or as print-only Related Words. Many users will need your help to add these words. Involve the user in the process as much as possible. Don’t simply add buttons from memory. Instead, refer to printed lists or even labels on their favorite items. Sound out the words as you add them, pointing at and naming the letters as you go. Show the user how you can copy spelling from the print around you, or think about the sounds in a word as you type it.
The search feature in Proloquo is another great feature to teach spelling. Whenever you need to search for a word, sound it out and name the letters. Use think-alouds to make your spelling process visible. For the most emergent users, you might just focus on the first letter, such as “I want to find fantastic. I hear an F.” For a more advanced user, you can keep going, noticing aloud that you hear an A, then a N, etc.
Use the Letters subfolder when you want to emphasize letter names and alphabet order. Users can select letters from the Letters subfolder to practice writing with the alphabet. The message bar will perceive each letter as a unique word and will speak aloud each letter name. This allows users to explore letter strings like A B C D or L M N O without the message bar attempting to read that string as a word, like lmno!
Finally, Proloquo provides easy access to a QWERTY keyboard. When a word is missing from the vocabulary, consider showing users how they can spell it. Encourage even novice users to explore the keyboard. They will develop alphabet awareness as they select strings of random letters. Beginning users often enjoy listening to text-to-speech software as it attempts to read their scribble. More advanced users can practice spelling words that are missing a symbol. Encourage users to attempt to spell these missing words, because even just providing an initial letter can give an important clue to help them be understood. For example, users can give context by saying soft drink, movie, or fast food. If they then select just the letter M, that can help their communication partners narrow it down to Mountain Dew, Moana, or McDonald’s.
Teaching reading connected text
When you say a short message with Proloquo, the message bar will show both the graphic symbol and the printed word. This 1:1 correspondence between the symbol and the printed word is intended to support emergent users as they learn the symbols for key words.
However, if you say a longer message with Proloquo, the symbols will disappear from the message window. This is to support learning to read connected text. Once a message covers more than one line, the graphic symbols interfere with learning to read connected text. It becomes harder to show the 1:1 correspondence between the graphic symbol and the printed word. Attempting to look at both the symbol and the printed word below, interferes with the eye movements needed to learn to read fluently. Once the message is longer than one line, teach students to use their knowledge of letters and words to read it. They can tap the message to speak their message and follow along as Proloquo reads the text aloud.
Teaching the vocabulary of literacy
Finally, the Literacy folder ensures educators have the most important words you need to teach reading and writing. It is where you will find words like book and story, alphabet, and word and syllable. Subfolders will help you teach letter names as well as concepts like letter, vowel, and uppercase, and terms for punctuation marks.
Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
Biemiller, A. (2010). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. Columbus: SRA/McGraw-FINI.
Brysbaert, M. & Biemiller, A. (2017) Text-based age-of-acquisition norms for 44 thousand English word meanings. Behavior Research methods, 49, 1520-1523.
Erickson, K., and Koppenhaver, D. (2020). Comprehensive Literacy for All: Teaching Students with Significant Disabilities to Read and Write. Baltimore: Brookes.
O’Leary, R. & Ehri, L. (2019). Orthography facilitates memory for proper names in emergent readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(1), 75-93.
Smith, M. (2014). Supporting Vocabulary Development in Children Who Use Augmentative and Alternative Communication.
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