By Emily Gabrielle, AAC Education & Resources Consultant Liberator UK
Language for learning – finding the balance curriculum and communication.
A time of optimism
One of the most joyous moments of any consultant’s role is when you set up new device for an individual- especially if the individual has never had access to their own voice-output AAC system before. It’s a time of pure excitement, optimism and hope for the future.
An essential part of this process is always the discussion regarding the ‘what now?’ More specifically, what are the goals we are going to be working on from today? It can be a surprisingly challenging thing to consider particularly as there will often be differences of opinion on what the priorities are for the individual in terms of the language they learn. However, it’s really important to get the goals right, along with the expectations for the individual.
One such challenge can sometimes present in the form of expectations from different communication partners – today I’m thinking more specifically about balance between achieving language goals and curriculum goals.
Language to learn
Following a placement of a new device we can sometimes find ourselves in schools having discussions with support teams, whose clients are 6 months in to their AAC journey, who are feeling a tad deflated. Perhaps because progress has been slower than they thought it would be, the individual perhaps is still only using 1-2 word phrases or hasn’t yet being able to spontaneously respond to questions on the Ancient Egyptians which is needed to mark off that particular part of the National Curriculum.
With children often being in education before they get their first device it’s natural to want them to start using vocabularies in class as soon as possible. However, let’s put this into context – in the UK a child typically starts formal schooling when they are 4-5 years old. At this point, they are deemed to have sufficient language to begin to access a learning environment.
Think about the language skills demonstrated by a 4 year old who has been fortunate enough to develop speech at a ‘typical’ development level – they are incredible! Sentences are complex, grammatical markers are used, tenses shift as needed and multiple language functions are used effortlessly. This isn’t a skill learned overnight – instead it’s been 4 years of modelling from others, rehearsal and refinement by the child and gradual development and extension of skills.
And so it should be for those who are beginning to use AAC – it’s really important that we make sure we’ve built those foundation skills in language to ensure the individual has a life of learning ahead of them and can continue to learn new vocabulary, language structures and the like well into adulthood.
With this in mind it’s really important to have an open discussion at the start of someone’s journey about the skills they now need to build using their new vocabulary. Now let’s be clear – this is definitely NOT a discussion advising people not to get their hopes up – rather it’s an activity designed to help all involved in supporting the client aware of the skills they now need to build.
Utilising the resources on the AAC Language Lab will undoubtedly support this process
Paint a picture
Using the Language Screener at the start of someone’s journey and again periodically throughout will allow you to paint a picture of their current profile. Similarly, ensuring you have Realize Language enabled on the device will mean you can collect real time data about the vocabulary words being used, the times the device is used and start to build a picture of perhaps what the device is being used for. Alongside this referring to the Language Stages will ensure you start to be aware of what an individual is doing independently, what perhaps they need some support with and what should be targeted next.
The wonderful thing about us as human beings as we are all different and with this in mind I tend to encourage teams to view the language stages not as a step by step progressive tool but more like a ‘Panini Sticker Book’ – which skills have been achieved and which do we still need to work on?
When you have your picture, you can now begin to look at what skills need to be targeted. The session plans on the lab are helpfully divided by language stage and then further identified by the skill they target – the inclusion in the plans of additional homework cards means that everyone can be working on goals simultaneously, immersing the individual in the language being targeted. Furthermore, the activities available on the lab mean class teams can find activities which may be more relevant to curriculum topics they may be working on – which supports learning of the pertinent language skill in a relevant curriculum based activity. A win win for teachers, support staff and SLT’s alike!
Curriculum relevant vocabulary
Whilst building these early foundation skills in language, undoubtedly the focus will be on more ‘core’ based vocabulary and this can prove challenging in the classroom context – especially as the curriculums followed tend to have a heavy emphasis on the ‘fringe’ vocabulary associated with a topic. In this context it can prove challenging to think about how one can use a device in class without programming in every specific topic word needed – even more challenging if the individual perhaps only has a vocabulary of 100 words or so which they are currently using independently.
Giving consideration to using a more descriptive language model in the class context can help overcome this somewhat as educators are encouraged to ask individuals ‘tell me about…’ rather than simply asking students to name items. In doing this we can use more core to expand upon a topic, demonstrating knowledge beyond simply naming.
One trick can be to encourage class teams to think about vocabulary for classroom activities from an ‘activity first’ perspective. That is, to consider, what are the core words we could use for a particular activity? In doing this simple short activity it can really help teams to think more about simple core vocabulary they can be modelling, using and assessing in the classroom context.
Keep the faith
Whilst finding the balance between curriculum and communication can feel overwhelming when you start out don’t panic! Progress takes time and those foundation language skills, once established, will lead to a lifetime of learning. The important thing is to ensure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet – that everyone is aware of the next steps being worked on at that moment in time so we can all celebrate each small success and know it’s ultimately leading to a greater goal.
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