Literacy skills can enable quality of life for all members of society—especially those who use AAC. Although reading garners the most attention, for persons who use AAC the power of orthography takes on heightened importance, opening up opportunities for sophisticated communication across home, school, community, and employment settings. Reading allows individuals to learn about the world; writing provides access to the outside world.
The complexity of learning to compose text is particularly challenging for persons who use AAC because of cognitive, language, sensory, and motor needs. Despite these challenges, evidence is mounting that active participation in context-rich instructional opportunities can result in the development of reading and writing skills. Unfortunately, access to these opportunities has been limited. There are several erroneous assumptions regarding literacy instruction for children who use AAC that may be inhibiting this access. These assumptions include:
- Evidence of prerequisite literacy skills is needed before providing literacy learning opportunities.
- Writing skills are best taught in isolated tasks such as handwriting practice, worksheets, or grammar lessons.
- Conventional writing is not possible.
- Products of beginning writers should reflect conventional spelling.
- Spoken communication is not needed during writing.
- Symbol-writing activities provide a natural transition into conventional writing.
It is important that speech-language pathologists challenge these assumptions as they work together with school teams to provide meaningful literacy learning opportunities. In our work with students who use AAC, we use best practices of writing instruction with typically developing students as our point of departure. These practices employ an emergent literacy model of development where reading and writing are integrated with speaking and listening early in life. Best practices of instruction indicate that writing skills are optimally developed in daily, meaningful writing opportunities where children are encouraged to choose their own writing topics, drawings, and writing forms (e.g., sharing opinions or retelling a story) and publish products of their choice. Children also are allowed to choose their own letter combinations and engage in invented spelling.
Best practices also indicate that there is an extensive amount of spoken communication between teachers and students, and among peers, throughout the writing process. This communication involves a range of topics, some of which might include sharing a new idea, discussing a new angle, or providing suggestions for improvement. Finally, evidence does not exist indicating the need for symbol writing as a first step in the writing development of children who use AAC. Whenever possible, it is important that these students be provided with access to orthography when engaged in the writing process.
Language, Communication, and Writing
While language is recognized as central to literacy learning, children who use AAC often struggle to acquire basic language and communication skills. Across language domains they frequently demonstrate significant needs, including vocabulary delays, morphological difficulties, a predominance of 1–2 word utterances, poor syntax, impaired pragmatic skills, and restricted speech acts. Given what we know about the inseparable links between speaking, listening, reading, and writing, a solid foundation in language and communication is essential to full participation in classroom writing opportunities. Development of conventional writing skills will be enhanced when children who use AAC have rich background knowledge, access to a broad range of vocabulary to express that knowledge, and the communication competence to convey their background knowledge using a range of AAC systems.
When setting up writing experiences for students who use AAC, we can use observations of skilled writers as a point of reference. Skilled writers set goals for writing, have a sense of audience, and approach writing tasks with strategies. They spend an extensive amount of time planning, generate ideas easily, and have an understanding of a variety of text structures. The act of writing involves the juggling of multiple factors, including audience, word choice, sentence development, and text organization. Skilled writers are able to manage these multiple constraints by quickly moving among these factors while in the writing process. From their earliest writing experiences, it is critical that students who use AAC have access to instruction and technology tools that allow them to move recursively among all writing processes.
Supporting Beginning Writers
Beginning writers are persons who are in the emergent to early conventional stage. They are in the process of learning that text makes meaning. In our research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we learned that typically developing children in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms received an average of 85 opportunities during the school year to learn how to make meaning through writing. These same students created more than 100 drawings. Most students in general education classrooms achieve more conventional writing forms by the end of first grade.
Beginning writers focus their energy on generating ideas and producing text. They use images in their head to decide what to share through pictures and words. Central to idea generation is having knowledge of the topic at hand. Beginning writers typically use drawings to plan their topic before they begin to write. They chat with each other and their teacher about what they are writing. When this beginning text is created using invented spelling, the drawing and the oral language communicated during the writing process support joint reference between the creator and the receiver.
Our research also shows that beginning writers don't focus exclusively on narratives. They choose to compose a variety of forms of emergent text structures, including text labels, opinions, and story retellings. Students who use AAC can learn about text structures through frequent readings of a variety of types of books and through teacher models that illustrate multiple purposes for writing. Revising and editing are not core components of the writing process for beginning writers. Until second grade, revision during writing involves “saying more” by adding to already-composed text. Therefore, it is not essential that children who use AAC have their writing products edited for errors by teachers at this stage of writing development.
It is important that beginning writers focus on fluent expression of ideas in text. The goal is for students to write and then write more. Students who use AAC need rich life experiences and a solid language base that enables them to share through writing. Persons who use AAC can be beginning writers across the age-span. Understanding the key aspects of early writing experiences and the qualities involved in exemplary writing instruction will allow SLPs to offer appropriate writing support for students of every age.
Colin, a first-grade student with cerebral palsy, provides insight into the development of writing supports for a student who uses AAC. Colin uses a Dynavox as his dedicated communication system and actively communicates through gestures and facial expressions. Academically, he knows his numbers, colors, and letters of the alphabet and can identify rhyme in words.
Colin is fully integrated in a general education first-grade classroom. His teacher uses a “writers' workshop” model of instruction where students choose their own topics; share and discuss with teachers and peers before, during, and after writing; and publish writing projects of their choice. Colin's teacher provides writing instruction through a series of short mini-lessons that help students pay attention to different aspects of the writing process. During a typical large group lesson, his teacher provides a model for writing by thinking aloud about her own writing process. For example, she may talk aloud about how she generates and chooses a writing topic. Following this lesson, students might be asked to create a folder that contains a list of possible topics for their daily writing. Mini-lesson topics take on a variety of forms, ranging from use of writing conventions to development of sophisticated text structure to selection of vocabulary.
In order for Colin to successfully participate in writing, it is important that he have access to writing tools as well as vocabulary on his AAC system. Because of physical difficulties that result in a slow writing rate, Colin will not be able to compose as many writing products as the other children in his class. It is essential that his writing tasks be carefully chosen to reflect appropriate writing development and high-quality instruction. When Colin plans his writing, he works with his parents to take and choose photographs that reflect important events in his life. These photographs will be used as his “drawings” and allow him to choose topics that reflect his knowledge and that are important to him. The photographs parallel the drawings created by his peers and fit nicely with a mini-lesson on generating and choosing topics.
To be successful during classroom writing sessions, Colin also has access to vocabulary on his AAC system that allows him to communicate with his peers and teacher. For example, he may ask a peer, “Hey, let me see what you picked,” to ask about a writing topic. Composing means that Colin's “pencil” includes several AAC tools—an eye gaze frame, a Dynavox, an alternate keyboard, and an alternate mouse system.
While composing, Colin can engage in “writing” through a variety of forms. He can use a Qwerty keyboard array, either on his Dynavox or on an alternate keyboard, to compose text. Like his peers, composing using standard orthography will allow Colin to use invented spelling when writing. Also like his peers, the photograph selected as Colin's “drawing” will support his teacher and his peers in understanding Colin's invented text. Colin also may use word banks located on the eye gaze frame, alternate keyboard, or word-processing program that support him in composing text at a faster rate. When using the word banks, Colin chooses among words that set him up for different types of emergent text forms. For example, he can choose “I like…” to compose a text reflecting his opinions. He also may have vocabulary choices that represent his writing topic.
In this classroom the teacher uses “author's chair,” a writers' workshop activity that features individual student sharing of writing products and includes a follow-up large-group peer discussion. When it is Colin's day to share his writing, he is able to introduce himself to the group using his Dynavox and tell the class his writing topic. He then releases his writing product line-by-line using the Dynavox or a talking word processor. Students in the class also choose what writing products they would like published and shared with others. Colin has access to publishing software that allows him to print and share his work.
For students who have greater cognitive or language needs, the tasks above can be adapted to reflect their individual learning needs. For example, a student who is not yet able to compose text using orthography can choose a photograph as her “writing.” The adult supporting this student can generate a simple label that can be written below the photograph, read aloud using synthesized speech, and published for others to read. For each writing event there are multiple ways in which the task can be adapted to offer meaningful opportunities that foster the writing development of individual students.
The Role of SLPs
SLPs can play a strong role in fostering solid foundations for communication and language that lead to the development of conventional writing skills. A broad range of authentic and meaningful reading and writing should be integrated into the daily curricular experiences of students who use AAC. It is important that these children are afforded rich literacy learning environments that support them attaining their optimal writing performance. SLPs can support the writing development of children who use AAC by:
- understanding the student's individual learning needs. Assessing the capabilities of students who use AAC will assist in knowing where to start with instruction.
- using knowledge of the development of all language domains to support them in building a solid language foundation. Access to rich natural language learning contexts at home and school is essential.
- learning about writing development and best practices of writing instruction. Exemplary writing instructional approaches used in general education classrooms can be used as a point of departure for children who use AAC.
- identifying the mode(s) and strategies through which the student will compose text. Children who use AAC will be most successful when supported in being multimodal communicators (e.g., use of a combination of no-tech and high-tech systems).
- ensuring that AAC systems support the range of communication during all writing activities and that these systems reflect students' individual profiles. Students who use AAC need access to vocabulary during each writing event in the day. The amount and sophistication of their messages will depend on the student's language and communication skills.
- selecting systems that will support ease of movement between communication and writing and in the writing process. Ideally, students who use AAC will have their communication and writing tools readily accessible at all times. They should be able to move back and forth between talk with others and text production.
- assisting with home-to-school transfer of personal experiences that can be used to stimulate topic and idea generation for writing. The transfer of information between home and school can be fostered through a variety of formats, including activity logs, journals, remnants, photographs, and recorded messages.
- building background knowledge that supports topic and idea generation for writing.
- working together with the school team to generate and organize photos that can serve as “drawings” to support students' writing. Photographs shared by the family will only be used in the classroom if they are set up in a user-friendly format that allows teachers to access them easily. Students who use AAC can assist with prioritizing and organizing photos as potential writing topics. When they begin planning, students will be familiar with what is available and their selection will be made easier.
- identifying classroom discourse patterns (e.g., peer conferences or author's chair) of the writing curricula. Event-specific communication overlays can be created together with the school team that reflect the classroom communication patterns of the writing curricula.
- fostering classroom-based communication opportunities during writing events. SLPs can role-play together with children who use AAC to develop communication competence across the writing process. For example, these role-playing activities may involve learning how to use communication overlays, communication tools, or word banks. These activities also may foster the student's knowledge of the form, function, and timing of messages essential to successful classroom participation.
- being available in the classroom during writing events to facilitate the student's success in communicating orally or in text. As students work to build communication competence, it is important that they have adult or peer supports available that scaffold them during writing experiences.
Looking Toward the Future
In the future, it is critical that we move greater numbers of students who use AAC from emergent to conventional writing. From infancy, critical connections between language and literacy learning must be made. We must look together to find out which writing activities are most appropriate for students at varying levels of language and literacy development. We should examine which writing activities at varying grade levels provide core foundational experiences across literacy levels. We also must determine which writing tools are best for different writing tasks. Together with educational teams, SLPs have the opportunity to play a core role in the integration of communication, language, reading, and writing. The SLPs' knowledge of language learning applied in the development of writing skills can enable greater access to the world for persons who use AAC.
Janet M. Sturm is an associate professor in the department of communication disorders at Central Michigan University. Her research and clinical interests relate to computer-supported literacy, tying together literacy assessment and instructional strategies, classroom communication, and educational integration of AAC users. Contact her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.