Alternative communication in the classroom

Issue: Volume 96, Number 2

Posted: 13 February 2017
Reference #: 1H9d60

Augmentative and alternative communication has offered students at Kowhai Special School new tools for learning, writes special education teacher Angi Pearce.

My journey into the world of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) began at the beginning of 2015 when I started teaching at a school for children with special needs.

Prior to this I had been teaching in mainstream primary schools for almost 30 years and I had never heard of AAC. Over the years, I had taught many students in mainstream settings who struggled with language and communication. I frequently used individual and class visual schedules, as well as some video self-modelling to help direct positive behaviours.

When I began teaching at Kowhai Special School, I immediately discovered that having one or two students in a class who had communication difficulties was totally different from having a whole class of students with communication difficulties!

I had to quickly learn alternative methods of communication in order to help them express themselves as well as fully understand what I was saying.

The speech language therapists at the school introduced me to the term ‘augmentative and alternative communication’, which refers to all methods of communication (other than or in addition to speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas, such as facial expressions, gestures, symbols or pictures.

There began my learning journey.

Initially, I found the Makaton sign system the easiest to use and it quickly became a part of my communication toolkit. It got to the stage that when I went out with my husband in the weekends, I would greet people using Makaton sign – it had become so automatic for me!

The core vocabulary board

One of the AAC tools I learnt about was the core vocabulary board.

This is a board containing symbols that represent the most frequent words of a language. Approximately 80 per cent of the words we use daily come from a set of fewer than 400 words. The 50 most frequently used words in daily communication account for about half of total words spoken. Core vocabulary boards are used to support both receptive and expressive communication.

Initially I found the core vocabulary board a lot more difficult to master.

I started with a board with just 50 symbols but I found this very limiting, as I wanted to be able to say so much more. I changed to a board with 112 symbols, which gave me much more scope.

I started by using an A4-sized board, then moved to an A3-sized board. Later, a set fringe vocabulary (strips with lower frequency vocabulary ordered into categories) was added to the top, which significantly widened the scope of language that I could model.

The introduction of an A2-sized core board with a robust set of fringe vocabulary in 2016 was the turning point from which AAC really took off in my classroom. For a long time, though, my most commonly used pathways on the core vocabulary board were, ‘your turn next’, ‘finished’, ‘sit’, ‘look’, ‘wait’ and ‘stop’.

The modelling was all by me and none of the students used it at the early stages, although they did respond to my communication using the board. I tended to use it during our morning circle time, neglecting it the rest of the day.

Towards the end of 2015, some of my students got their own core vocabulary boards. To start with, they just had the core vocabulary and no fringe. As with the large board used in circle time, they were used more by the teachers than the students.

To help teachers learn where symbols are on the board and to use the board more frequently, the speech language therapists developed ‘core word calendars’ which encouraged staff to focus on one core word and the corresponding Makaton sign per week, along with suggested phrases.

A new year, new ideas

2016 arrived, and with it I had a new resolve to accelerate the use of AAC in my classroom in order to promote an inclusive and language-rich environment where aided language stimulation (intensive language modelling) was used throughout the day.

‘Total communication’ is a term meaning the acceptance and validation of all methods of communication. I decided to investigate how I could foster and embed a team approach to total communication in my classroom.

I decided that the steps I needed to take to achieve this were:

  • Make an expectation that any staff working in my room use the communication tools that are available e.g. core vocabulary board, Makaton.
  • Seek out tools that can be used in a range of settings with the support of the speech language therapists.
  • Research how other schools have brought their classroom staff on board with the total communication approach.

Regardless of who they were working with, I wanted my students to be exposed to constant modelling of the strategies and tools. I wanted them to be encouraged and supported to use the tools as well, to help them express themselves and understand others.

The speech-language therapists gave our staff members a lanyard with 11 core symbols to support receptive language and behaviour management. I immediately introduced the expectation that all staff in my room were to wear their core vocabulary lanyards at all times. Initially, this was met with resistance, but change came as I continued to model its use and the students started to interact with them.

A breakthrough came when one student flicked through the symbols on one teacher assistant’s lanyard to find the symbol for ‘toilet’ and pointed to it, indicating he wanted to go. This was the beginning of students using the symbols for expressive communication and encouraged the teacher assistants to persevere with modelling and using the lanyard symbols. We also added a mini core vocabulary board to the lanyard – it had 30 core symbols and a fringe with ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’ and ‘toilet’ on it.

The lanyard symbols were useful for interactions with the students in the playground. For example, we could point to symbols to ask students on the swings, “Do you want a big push or a little push?”

More tools for communication

In term 2 one student started to trial a PODD (Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display) system. In PODD books, language is organised according to how we use it and is accessed via ‘pathways’ that need to be learnt.

This presented a whole new challenge with its introduction – how to work with two different AAC tools at the same time in the classroom (or three, if you count Makaton as well). We struggled our way through the term, with little success beyond using a few symbols such as ‘hello’ and ‘your turn.’

We found there were so many pages that we didn’t know where to start! The speech language therapists came to the rescue and produced a weekly pathway calendar for us to use with her, much like the core vocabulary calendars, which helped us learn some of the most common pathways. The student’s family was given a pathway calendar to use at home, as well.

Around this time, we were given an A2-sized core vocabulary board, with a complete fringe set. It was from here that I saw an exponential growth in student communication in my room. This large-sized core vocabulary board became the focus of communications at mat time.

The students also had their personal core boards beside them and were encouraged to use them as the large one was being used – when I modelled ‘good morning,’ they would respond by pointing to the same symbol on their core board, vocalising the greeting if they were able.

For writing, the students used the core vocabulary board or PODD to indicate what they wanted to write in their story. In numeracy, we used them to support number recognition, counting, shapes, colours etc.

Out in the playground, staff started to carry around either the PODD or the A4 core vocabulary board and lanyards with them. They used them in their interactions with students as they played.

We found that the more we modelled their use, the more students started to point to symbols – for example, one student who is non-verbal started to point to the symbols, “I – want – big –” and then signed the word ‘push’, when he wanted someone to push him on the swing.

Student agency through communication

Staff and students in my class have grown so much in their use of AAC and it has been exciting to observe the resulting ‘communication explosion’ in the students.

These tools have given them a voice - their own voice. They have been gifted the ability to express their wants, needs, feelings and ideas. An example of this was when one student was becoming very upset when another student screamed. After calming down one day, he was able to independently find the symbols for ‘angry’ and ‘scary’. He pointed to them and said, “Angry. Scary noise.” This student expressed his feelings in a way he’d been unable to do previously.

Just recently, the realisation hit me that students go through the ‘babbling stage’ when using AAC, just as babies learning to talk also babble before producing meaningful words. This means that students in the early stages of using AAC would point randomly to symbols, and we would attribute meaning to their ‘babbling.’ Students are able to express their preferences and share their ideas with us.

Looking forward, the speech language therapists are in the process of developing A5-sized core boards with fringe vocabulary. These will be worn by teaching staff so that wherever we are, we will be able to communicate with students.

We are also considering ways to permanently have access to aided language systems in the playground, for example, a large, painted core board available to students and staff.

All of us still have a long way to go on the AAC journey, but with each new sign or symbol we use, and each new interaction we use them in, it is becoming the culture of our classroom – and, indeed, our school. It’s our hope that every student develops a way to express themselves in a purposeful and meaningful way.

BY Angi Pearce
Kowhai Special School,

Posted: 12:38 am, 13 February 2017

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