"You are working too hard!" I frequently tell teachers and SLPs when I am called in as a consultant to support them and their AAC users. So many professionals think they need to program every word that the AAC user will need for an academic lesson, field trip or other occasion.
As most of us know core words are the words that make up 80% or more of our speaking and writing. Words like put, go, help, like, it, that, why, then. With core words we can communicate, without them, not so much. And fringe words give us context. They are the reasons why we communicate. We need fringe words to talk
about things like soccer, Disney World, our new bicycle. Important
fringe words that are used frequently in the lives of our students
belong on their devices for example pudding, blanket, My Little Pony,
awesome, seizure, WWE or sensory table. Deciding the fringe words to
program involves interacting with the child, understanding his or her
interests and the interests of peers and siblings and figuring out what
fringe words are salient and necessary to the child.
Rarely are science vocabulary words like magma or magnetic pole going to be salient and necessary. Or what I like to call "recyclable", they will be used just once and never again. Other non-recyclables are Battle of Little Big Horn, peninsula or the names of all of the characters in the months shared reading. How then do we teach, talk about and assess? (Which is only 20% of what we do - right? We teach and talk and THEN assess!)
Well we need to create a paradigm switch in our own heads and that of other professionals and paraprofessionals. We need to start asking questions that allow our students to answer using the words they already have on their device. This serves multiple purpose (beyond saving us the hours and hours of programming), the most important purpose is our AAC users learn how to be creative and use the words they have to say what they need to say. AAC is usually a life time learning process for our students and being able to communicate about topics when they don't have the specific words they need is an essential life skill.
For example, I was chatting with my friend Owen at Camp Communicate in Maine. He was trying to
tell me his idea. After a few miscommunications and much frustrations he was able to say "tiny plays" and he had previously given me the hint that the word started with 'S'. Skits! Owen was able to use his communication repair skills and practice with using descriptive language to help me understand.
Gail VanTatenhove invented the Descriptive Teaching Model to address this issue. She explains that teachers typically us a referential style of teaching, "What land form is surrounded by water on three sides?" and the students answer in a single word with a very specific fringe word, "peninsula". This doesn't work well for our AAC users. So instead we can ask questions they can answer using the words that they have, "Tell me about the water around this peninsula?" and the student can answer something like "not all around" or "almost all around" or "around most of it". Does the child know what a peninsula is? Clearly he does. You could ask some more, follow up descriptive teaching method questions if you needed to be more sure he understood. Similarly if you are teaching about the British Army during the revolutionary war you could just say, "Tell me something you know about the British Army." All sorts of answers would be appropriate, "they wear red", "they are mean", "they fight", "they have horses", "they hurry" and so on and so on.
Here are some resources to help you learn about and begin to use the DTM.
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