Effective and efficient literacy skills can open so many doors for people with little or no speech. Literacy skills paired with a comprehensive AAC system allows for successful and independent communication. We love this!
Literacy learning for people with disabilities, needs to be flexible to allow for individual differences, as well as purposeful and motivating so learning happens for a real reason. While we don’t yet know everything about how individuals with disabilities learn and acquire literacy, we know a lot about how typically developing children acquire effective literacy skills.
Some essential factors to target for successful literacy learning include (see references below for more information):
- Oral Language
- Phonological Awareness and Phonics – (including Synthetic Phonic approach)
- Reading – fluency, accuracy, comprehension, vocabulary
- Writing – mechanics, editing
All of these essential areas can be a part of the explicit literacy instruction for an AAC user. Here are some of my key tips and strategies for literacy instruction for an AAC user:
1. Oral language
Teaching and developing effective “oral” language skills on an AAC system is essential! Of course this starts with having a comprehensive core word vocabulary set, available all the time! Then, there are many opportunities for AAC users to build and develop their language skills using words on their AAC system. As we model and teach how to combine words to construct sentences, think about what this is achieving… firstly, it is for communication, but in time, those sentences are linked closely to literacy development. One day the student is composing sentences to tell the teacher about his weekend, next he is writing sentences to do a weekend recount.
2. Phonological awareness and phonics
It is really important to explicitly teach things like sound-letter links. While there are many apps available that do this, I like the apps by Reading Doctor. These apps strengthen sound-letter links and give students a chance to blend and segment these sounds together, another essential skill for effective literacy development. The apps have auditory, video and picture mnemonic supports built within the app, with many customisable features. Any student can use these apps! I like combining Word Builder with Proloquo2Go. If we are working on word families and generating a bank of rhyming words, we can use Word Builder to do this. Once we have spelt the word, we then go into Proloquo2Go to find that word in our vocabulary. Matching the written word to the word on the AAC system helps them build comprehension of that word!
3. Model with the keyboard
It is important to model how we can use the AAC system and keyboard together. No matter what stage the person is, I often model using the keyboard. If I am modeling a message about my weekend, I can use my core words for most of the message, but if I get to a word that is not on the device (eg. a specific name of a person), then I will click on the Keyboard and model how I sound out to spell that person’s name. Once I have spelt it, I can insert it into my message window. It is really important to model ALL of this regularly.
4. Third-party keyboards
When modeling the keyboard in Proloquo2Go, it can be awesome to use a third party keyboard, such as Keedogo Plus. These modified and simplified keyboards are perfect for emergent literacy learners, who are already getting exposure in class to lower case text, so transitioning to the standard Apple QWERTY keyboard, with its capital letters, can be difficult. And the extra fabulous thing about these keyboards it that they are used across other apps on the iPad. So if you are using the very fun PicCollage for writing about some favourite photos, the keyboard will be used. Or if you are using the cool Write About This app, with writing prompts, again the keyboard will be used.
Reading and sharing books is not only fun, but essential! When sharing books with students, it is often great to focus on modeling key repeating elements in the story on their AAC system. Look at the language and ideas in the book, and consider what core words and sentences can you model. For extension and writing goals, allow students to write about their favourite page, or do text innovations, ie. making changes to an element of the story when they write. For some students, writing in this activity, may be combining words on their AAC system with the keyboard. Once the sentence has been written, I will often add this sentence as a button into a book folder. This is great for retelling the story to others later!
6. Writing with purpose
Any writing activity has to be REAL and PURPOSEFUL! You will see how students are more motivated when they have a real reason to communicate and write. For this reason, I regularly use the SHARE features in Proloquo2Go. A student can write a message to Dad and send it as text message. Or an email to their teacher or friend. Perhaps their message is copied from the message window into Pictello to create a photo book they can share with friends and family?
Of course, this is all just the beginning! It is exciting to watch people with little or no speech really develop literacy. Remember that the key to adapting literacy activities for all students may be to give them more time and repetition for learning. It is also about giving them the right technology tools that allow them to access literacy and be engaged in the process. So make it real, make it fun and make it meaningful! Then, everyone will LOVE it!