Teach me to fish: Building grammar skills

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To learn how to create grammar on an AAC system, you’ll need to see how the AAC system does grammar – even if you already know how good grammar sounds in speech.

“go store” “I want to go to the store”
“yesterday go store” “yesterday I went to the store”
“he like dog” “he likes the dog”
“I run” “I’m running”

What’s the difference between these sentences? The ones on the left sound like they are from a young child who hasn’t learned the rules of grammar yet. The ones on the right sound mature, correct – and, well, smarter.

We often hear from parents and teachers who want their child or student to sound like the sentences on the right. They feel people will think their child or student only understands at the level of a very young child if the child or student speaks with immature grammar. And they want the AAC system to make it much easier, even automatic, to create grammatically correct sentences.

It’s very natural to want an AAC user to sound as smart as they really are. But sometimes this natural wish for good grammar “out of the box” gets in the way of important language learning experiences.

Let me watch you fish: Hearing good grammar

To learn grammar, you’ve got to hear grammar. You need people around you speaking with the grammar of your language. Without this kind of grammatical input, you can’t understand or learn to use the grammar of a language.

Most people who use AAC and have good hearing and auditory processing skills hear enough grammar. Their family, friends, teachers, and therapist all talk to them and around them.

But just hearing grammar isn’t enough to learn to use grammar. You also need to try and create grammatical sentences - and have people give you feedback about whether you got it right.

Speaking children learn grammar by making mistakes, and having them corrected by the people they’re having conversations with. AAC users aren’t going to use speech to make grammatical sentences - if they were, they wouldn’t need AAC! They are going to use their AAC system to make their sentences.

Text bubles: "I go store" and "Do you want to go the store?"

Show me how to use my fishing rod: Seeing good grammar on AAC

Speech and AAC are two different tools for communication. They have things in common, but they don’t work exactly the same. So to learn how to create grammar on an AAC system, you’ll need to see how the AAC system does grammar – even if you already know how good grammar sounds in speech.

This means that we need to use the grammar tools in the AAC system when talking with the AAC user. That way, they see the tools in action and can learn how they work.

This doesn’t mean that every single time you talk to an AAC user, it has to be in grammatically perfect, complete and complex sentences! If you try to model every single word you say, you’ll slow down the interaction. This increases the risk of losing the moment and the AAC user’s attention.

Instead, take this approach: model the next step of the AAC user’s language journey on the AAC system.

For example, Angie can make short sentences in the present tense. She may use these sentences to talk about things that have already happened, are planned for the future, or she wishes would happen. But because she is only making simple present tense sentences, sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what she means.

You can help her make her meaning clear by modeling different verb tenses. In the examples below, only the bold words are said on the device.

Angie: I go store
You: Yes, you went to the store yesterday!

Angie: I go store
You: I think we will go to the store tomorrow.

Angie: I go store
You: Do you want to go to the store?

Giving fish vs teaching fishing

Learning grammar takes time. When you’re using a computer system to help you talk, it’s very tempting to wish the computer would do the grammar work for you.

Can’t the computer just recognize the correct verb tense and change the verb button so it says the “right” thing? Wouldn’t this be both faster and easier than having to learn how to construct a grammatical sentence on your own?

There is something to be said for this argument. After all, don’t we give AAC users an AAC system to help them communicate more easily and clearly? Why not make it even easier and quicker by helping with grammar automatically?

Here are some of the reasons this is a short-term “fix” that may have long-term negative consequences:

1. Not everything you say is a simple sentence

Subject-Verb-Object is one of the many forms an English sentence can take - “I want soap”, “Dad eats flowers”, “We buy horcruxes”.

I (subject) want (verb) soap (object)

If an SVO sentence is in the present tense and the subject is the third person singular (he, she, or it), then we can make a general rule that we add an “s” to the end of the verb and it will be properly conjugated. This is certainly something a computer can do: “Dad eats flowers”.

We may need to look back farther than the word just before the verb to figure out if the subject is singular. If the subject is more than one person, then “Mom and Dad eats flowers” would be wrong.

And of course we have to know that we’re going for the present tense - the -s rule doesn’t help us at all if “Dad ate flowers” yesterday.

SVO is a very important sentence type, but it’s not the only one we want AAC users to create. Some sentences begin with a verb (“Knitting is fun”, “Does it bite?” “Is it on fire?”) and others with a question word (“What is that smell?”)

For these kinds of sentences, you don’t know what form of the verb is needed until you are already past the verb, so a program can’t automatically choose the verb form for you. You have to learn how to use the rules!

2. Perfect grammatical prediction is harder than you may think

There have been attempts to create AAC systems that automatically give you the correct grammar. But it’s very difficult to take every case into account.

In the case where the system has guessed wrong about grammar, you need some way to correct your sentence, and to do this, you need the grammatical knowledge of how to fix it.

Fixing a sentence is a more complex problem than creating the correct sentence to begin with. So in giving automatic help with grammar, we can sometimes make the problem of being grammatical harder rather than easier.

3. Learning from mistakes and getting feedback is important

This brings us to the most important reason that having automatic grammar may not help. Even though an AAC system can be designed to do some of the grammar for you, it will never be perfect. So you have to learn the rules anyway. And the best way to learn the rules is to use them and get feedback on whether you’ve said things right or not.

The better job a system does at keeping you from having to think about the grammar rules, the more it will keep you from learning those rules for yourself.

And since you have to learn the rules anyway… why not learn them as quickly and efficiently as you can by practicing as much as possible!


For those who would like to dig deeper into this topic, here are a few academic references on teaching grammar to AAC users:

  • Binger, C. (2008). Grammatical morpheme intervention issues for students who use AAC.Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 17(2), 62–68. doi:10.1044/aac17.2.62
  • Binger, C., & Light, J. (2008). The morphology and syntax of individuals who use AAC: research review and implications for effective practice. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (Baltimore, Md. : 1985), 24(2), 123–138. doi:10.1080/07434610701830587
  • Binger, C., Maguire-Marshall, M., & Kent-Walsh, J. (2011). Using aided AAC models, recasts, and contrastive targets to teach grammatical morphemes to children who use AAC. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 54(February), 160–176.
  • Blockberger, S., & Johnston, J. R. (2003). Grammatical Morphology Acquisition by Children with Complex Communication Needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19(4), 207–221. doi:10.1080/07434610310001598233
  • Fey, M. E. (2008). Thoughts on grammar intervention in AAC. SIG 12 Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 17(2), 43–49. doi:10.1044/aac17.2.43
  • Smith, M. M. (2015). Language Development of Individuals Who Require Aided Communication: Reflections on State of the Science and Future Research Directions.Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 31, 215-233. doi:10.3109/07434618.2015.1062553
  • Soto, G. & Clarke, M. (2017). Effects of a Conversation-Based Intervention on the Linguistic Skills of Children With Motor Speech Disorders Who Use Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60,1980-1998.
  • Sutton, A., Soto, G., & Blockberger, S. (2002). Grammatical Issues in Graphic Symbol Communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 18, 192-204. doi:10.1080/07434610212331281271
  • Sutton, A. (2008). Language acquisition theory and AAC intervention. SIG 12 Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 17(2), 56–61. doi:10.1044/aac17.2.56


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