Literacy in Augmentative and Alternative Communication

This past week I traveled to Toronto for a "Literacy in AAC" course that was delivered by Karen Erikson and David Koppenhaver (the authors of the book "Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four-Blocks Way").  The focus of the course was on developing literacy skills in students who have complex communication needs. 

I do believe in literacy learning for all students but this course challenged me to further redefine what "literacy learning" is for the students that I teach.  I have been moving towards an understanding of generative reading and writing over the past couple of years but coming to understand that and actually having a plan of action around how to make that happen are two different things.  I came out of this course feeling like there is now an action plan and that plan is rooted in ensuring that the students that I am responsible for have a comprehensive literacy program that includes interactions related to each of the four blocks of literacy during the course of their days.  For the elementary and junior high students that I have this will mean using curriculum overlapping as they will be in inclusive settings for a large portion of their day.  For the elements that are more important to do directly, we will do a pull out intervention time to work on this.  For the high school students that I have I am looking at creating a literacy class that is equivalent in time to a five-credit course as well as finding another time in the day for students to do self-selected reading.

With some of my students we will be starting at the beginning and for others we will be building on the emergent skills that they already have.  Being part of the Alberta Education "Literacy for All" Pilot project this year has put us in a situation where we have built some of the foundation that we can build on with this new information.  

I would have a hard time summarizing all that I have learned so am hoping to do it over time in reference to what we learn as we implement different aspects.  Where we start is to rethink the need for exploration and interaction without limits related to reading and writing for all of the students that I teach.  So that means using alternate pencils to "write" in the same way that preschool students "write" (i.e. scribble a bunch of letter like figures) without correcting or trying to direct - but rather just naming letters and exposing the student to purposes for writing.  A couple neat suggestions around finding purposes for writing included using remnant books (which I have tried using in the past to create opportunities for communication) where everyone in the students life adds pictures and items to the book related to some thing that happened in their life.  Whomever adds the picture and item also adds a sticky note with a brief description of what it is about.  Then when it is time to write, the student picks which item in his/her writing book that he/she wants to write about and then he/she writes using an alternate pencil.  Here is where what we would have traditionally done needs to be rethought.  Instead of showing the student how to use the alternate pencil to write the words that you want to write about the the thing that he/she has picked to write about, you allow the student to just write - put down whatever letters he or she says he/she wants to put down when writing and you talk to them about their writing - in the same way that you would look at your toddlers picture with scribbles under it and know that is his/her writing at that time.  They did say that it is okay to to pull out one letter and write a word related to the topic but to not do it in a way that corrects and to not take away or direct their writing at this point.  As students are exposed to a comprehensive literacy program, their writing evolves as a result of the interaction of the components of the program.  A second idea was to put "captions" on pictures - again not correcting or directing but allowing for exploration and interaction.  It is a bit of a shift.  I'm excited to get started.  

This is obviously only a small piece.  As I start to figure out how to take all of this stuff that is spinning around in my head and put it in to action I am sure I will be writing more.  


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