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Why Being Descriptive Works

Posted Jan 5, 2022 - 10:25am

By Connie McCafferty, M.A., CCC-SLP, PRC-Saltillo Consultant

During one of my recent school team trainings for a young teen with a new AAC device I came across the opportunity to demonstrate the difference between referential and descriptive teaching. For those of you who are not familiar, referential teaching simply refers to using nouns to answer questions.  For example, if I asked, “Who was the first president of United States?”. The answer would be “George Washington”. Contrast this simple answer response, in that case a name, to descriptive teaching where we would start with the actual noun or item which we want to define and the AAC communicator will use the rich core words on the AAC system define or describe the item.  In the following story I will share my example of descriptive teaching I used with this team.

The middle school class was currently reading the novel Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. I have always loved the story of Charlotte’s Web.  Maybe it was growing up in the Midwest United States and on a grain farm which also house a variety of livestock.  Or perhaps it was my familiarity with attending the local county fair.  Any way you look at it, Charlotte’s Web was and still is one of my favorite cherished childhood books.  The story centers around a small pig, named Wilbur, who was born runt of the litter. The farmer's daughter Fern save the pig early on. The pig then befriends Charlotte who is a spider who saved Wilbur’s life by weaving word into a web, catching notice of the community during the local county fair. Throughout the novel we are introduced to a variety of other friends in the farmyard. In my opinion Charlotte’s Web is a great novel and has stood the test of time, one of my all-time favorites.

This particular training session began with this student’s educational team to train them on her current communication system. This was a new device for her, but she had a previous device with the same robust vocabulary configuration, so she knew her communication system rather well.  The group reviewed the new system’s technical specifications and the vocabulary. The teacher then asked if we could create a page that listed all the characters and important names of events surrounding the classroom’s current novel, Charlotte's Web. I acknowledged her request and explained that we could do that.  It is not too difficult to create extra pages on an AAC device.  However, I decided to go another route. I asked the little girl who was involved in this meeting and using her communication system if she could simply tell me about Wilbur, the main character of the story. She quickly started typing on her device.  As she selected buttons, beeps and words were heard coming from her device. Then, the young lady looked up from her device, smiled and selected her message window to respond to my question about Wilbur.  “Little pig sad the spider help pig live all happy”.  The team consisting of myself, the speech language pathologist, classroom teacher and paraprofessional sat there excited to hear those words. This young lady was able to describe who Wilbur was and what happened in the story.

I continue to work with the student.  I acknowledged what she said by recasting and expanding her description, “Yes, Wilbur was the little pig.  He was the runt of the litter, and a Charlotte did something to really help Wilbur, right?  Could you tell me about Charlotte?” Again, this young lady went back to composing her message on her system. A short time later, she poked her head up, smiled, and told us the statement, “Spider is smart big word help the pig.”  By this time the teacher excited that the student was able to describe two of the main characters and the main plot of the store. Becoming apparent to the team was that an additional page with the names of characters and specific places was not needed.  This young lady was using the words in the device to demonstrate her comprehension of the story.  We didn’t have to pre-program the characters names in the device.  We just had to “tweak” how we asked our questions.  Instead of direct, referential questions that typically require a one-word answer, I gave her open-ended questions.  It was simple, “Tell me about __________”.

Since this encounter I have shared this story with several AAC teams. This experience demonstrates the difference between referential (typically one-word answers or nouns) and descriptive teaching.  Descriptive teaching allows communication partners a way to model the core language available in a device while at the same time teaching content specific vocabulary. Using descriptive teaching suggests that we use core words to define and describe the key vocabulary in the lesson. In this instance this young student was describing characters and the plot what was going on in the story.

Additionally, this is not to say that you shouldn't use nouns on your communication system. There are going to be certain academic words, people’s names, places that do need added to the device. Add motivating words as well if they are not already found on the device.  If the child loves to shop at the store Target, then add Target.  You can expand and add meaning to that motivating word using the robust core vocabulary found on the device, such as “I don’t like Target” or “I want to go to Target”.  Paying attention to motivation words and adding them to the device is a good technique.  If motivating enough perhaps these words coupled with the robust core vocabulary will be used again and again through a person's lifetime.

For more information on Descriptive Teaching:

Literacy resources for Charlotte’s Web:

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