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Why Literacy is Critical for Students Who Use AAC: Part 2 - Introduce Writing

by Maureen Donnelly M.Ed January 27, 2020

Why Literacy is Critical for Students Who Use AAC: Part 2 - Introduce Writing

Welcome to Part 2 in a 3-part series about why literacy is critical for students who use AAC. In Part 1, I introduced accessible ways to teach students alphabetic knowledge. If you didn't catch it and want to know more, read it here.

Let's talk about beginning writing — why it's important, what matters, and how to get started. Due to the nature of their impairments, individuals who use AAC tend to experience a significant lexical gap -- where a person's receptive vocabulary exceeds their expressive one.

In her talk, Karen Erickson encouraged us not to be afraid of this gap. Why not? Because writing is how we close it! And writing is not just the act of picking up a pencil. Writing is the act of composing your thoughts independently, by whatever means possible.

For many of us, the thought of helping our students learn to write is daunting. But let's set that fear aside and begin at the beginning. How do we learn to do new things? We do them! And that's pretty much the summary of how to introduce writing and support beginners.

As you get started, consider these things:

  1. An alternative or accessible pencil includes all 26 letters of the alphabet all the time. For some students, this is an accessible keyboard like the one found in Reading Avenue, our accessible, comprehensive literacy instructional program delivered by Boardmaker Online. For others, partner-assisted scanning is the way to go. Whatever you choose, the best alternative pencil is one that a student can use and one that closes the time gap (as much as possible) between what they want to say and their ability to compose.
  2. Treat all students like writers, even before they can compose conventionally.It means responding to all attempts at writing as if the writing has meaning. This practice goes a long way toward cultivating motivation and helping students believe that they too, can be writers.
  3. Start with a picture. Before students can compose conventionally, it helps to have a shared referent by which to assign meaning. Consider the example below from Reading Avenue:

Reading Avenue Ducks

Here Alec is writing about ducks (see picture at right). Here's how his teacher responded:

"Ohh. Look! Are you writing about the ducks? That makes sense because I see the letter D right there. And look! The word lake starts with the letter L. Are you also writing about the lake?"

Do you know what research tells us about students who become conventional readers and writers? They have adults in their lives who think they can. It takes years for typically developing children to write conventionally. It may take your AAC user even longer. Let's agree to be patient. It's worth it!

For more information, visit the Reading Avenue overview page.

In the last instalment of this series, I'll introduce how to begin supporting students in their spelling skills by combining two sound-based strategies. Stay tuned!

Maureen Donnelly M.Ed
Maureen Donnelly M.Ed

Maureen Donnelly, M.Ed, is an early childhood educator who currently holds the position of Curriculum Manager at Tobii Dynavox. Before this, Maureen contributed to the creation of numerous products that support emergent readers of diverse abilities and ages. Maureen lives and works in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in an office stuffed with children’s books.



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