Phonics, spelling, and keyboards for children who cannot speak

4 minute read

Teachers, Speech-Language Pathologists, and families often ask us if Proloquo2Go has a phonetic keyboard. We love to hear from people who are thinking about phonics instruction and literacy for students who use AAC. Proloquo2Go does not have a phonetic keyboard, and this is why.

Spelling is how we problem solve how to represent a word with letters. It is how our students apply what they know about letters to the sounds they hear in a word.

Phonetic spelling is a strategy used most often by students during a narrow window of literacy development. We see phonetic spelling when students are learning to spell simple common words like CAT or MAN. However, phonetic spelling is only one strategy that students need. For example, there are many simple, common words in English, such as “the” and “is”, which can never be spelled phonetically.

One letter, multiple sounds

The problem with phonetic spelling is that English is not phonetic. English uses 26 letters to represent 44 sounds. There are multiple sounds associated with individual letters (e.g., the F in FAN vs. OF). There are multiple letter combinations that can represent the same sound (e.g., the sound in FAN, GRAPH, HALF, or LAUGH). Phonetic keyboards oversimplify the alphabet and associate only one sound per letter. Phonetic keyboards can support very early spelling attempts but disrupt the problem-solving of spelling as soon as students move past the simple consonant-vowel-consonant stage.

Take the letter S. We all know S for the sound we hear in SNAKE or SAY. But at the end of a word, S often represents a sound we associate with Z, like SAYS or BEDS.

Vowels are even more complicated. A is for apple, right? Sometimes! The letter A represents 9 different sounds in English. Listen to the sounds of A in these common words: MAN, MANY, MANE, WAS, WATER, WAR, TUNA, READ, and GARBAGE. A phonetic keyboard could help spell only the first word. It would interfere with trying to spell the other 8.

A phonetic keyboard interferes with problem-solving on how to spell common sight words, such as AS, OF, FAR, LOOK, WAS, and ONE. It can interfere with learning morphology, such as when students turn DOG into DOGS.

Phonetic keyboards and AAC

Students who are learning to communicate with AAC need systematic phonics and word study instruction. Comprehensive phonics instruction develops their phonemic awareness and teaches spelling strategies and skills. Spelling is what allows them to say any word they don’t have a symbol for in their AAC. Good spelling instruction is part of comprehensive literacy instruction.

We know that phonological awareness is often delayed in students who are learning to use AAC. When kids don’t speak, they don’t get to practice learning to manipulate, isolate and delete sounds. Instead, their phonological awareness tends to develop later, as they learn to read. Comprehensive literacy instruction will help them develop phonological awareness.

Good literacy instruction includes learning to use the alphabet to spell. All students should be encouraged to explore writing and spelling with a regular keyboard. Proloquo2Go has both an A-Z and a QWERTY keyboard. All students need daily opportunities to explore writing with the alphabet. If there are no major motor challenges with using a keyboard, we recommend using Typing View as soon as possible. It provides word prediction and teaches typing skills that can be used in other apps too.

Proloquo2Go typing view - I do not like spnt - I do not like spinach

AAC is how our students can share their own ideas. Be cautious using a student's AAC as the tool to teach discrete skills like phonics. Instead, use other tools to teach phonics. Encourage your students to use their AAC to try and spell words they can't find in their Proloquo2Go. Model sounding out words in Typing view or in the search feature.

A student who is just learning to use Proloquo2Go is often early in their literacy journey. They may be emerging in their understandings of letters, words, and texts. We should focus on teaching these students letter names more than letter sounds. Students use letter names as the stable base to then start associating letters with specific sounds.

The keyboards in Proloquo2Go are enough to support your students to become strong spellers. Your students need AAC to say the names of letters in order to talk about them. They need symbols and letters to communicate about what they want to write. We encourage you to consider other technologies for word study and explicit phonics instruction, such as apps for making words lessons using letter tiles.

Phonetics and AAC

For more information, please see:

Integrating comprehensive literacy instruction

PrAACtical AAC: The critical nature of literacy in AAC

Erickson, K., & Koppenhaver, D. (2020). Comprehensive literacy for all: Teaching children with significant disabilities to read and write. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.