Literacy is a topic that receives much attention in the AAC field. It is a known fact that educators fall short of fully developing the literacy skills in those in their classrooms who have complex communication needs.
This occurs for several reasons, including low expectations and lack of knowledge and anxiety about teaching literacy skills to those with complex communication needs.
However, literacy skills are particularly important for those with complex communication needs.
Every communicator takes a different colored literacy rainbow to get to the communication competency pot of gold.
Literacy and AAC are deeply intertwined. For those with complex communication needs, literacy skills cannot be developed without AAC and AAC cannot be used to effectively and efficiently communicate without literacy skills.
Receptive communication, expressive communication, reading, and writing are interrelated and not hierarchical (Koppenhaver, et al., 1991).
Although robust language systems include symbolic representations of the words that are in the language system which the communicator can use to generate utterances, symbolic representations are subjective and are interpreted differently based on the communicator.
They are also limiting to the communicator as they can only use the vocabulary accompanied by a symbol.
However, there is one symbol set that is in every robust AAC language system that breaks such limits - the alphabet. It is the only symbol set that provides the communicator with the ability to effectively communicate anything that they would like to in any given context to any given communication partner (Soto & Zangari, 2009).
Therefore, robust language systems include a keyboard to provide the communicator with access to the alphabet.
For a communicator to be able to functionally use a keyboard to generate spontaneous novel utterances using language that may not be preprogrammed in their AAC system, they need to have literacy skills that are developed.
Literacy skills are also important for the communicator’s receptive language abilities as they can read the preprogrammed vocabulary in their AAC system instead of relying on subjective Interpretation of the symbols accompanying the vocabulary.
The literacy rainbow is the path that leads to the communication competency pot of gold.
The different colored arcs in the rainbow are the paths to be taken to get to the pot of gold. Each color of the rainbow is a unique way for communicators to develop literacy skills and engage in literacy-based activities. The colored path that is taken is unique to the communicator and depends on their skillset.
There are no prerequisites to literacy skill development and use!
The Accessible Literacy Learning Program (ALL; Light & McNaughton, 2009) is an approach to literacy development grounded in research to meet the needs of those with complex communication needs and unique physical needs that make accessing written texts a challenge. To develop literacy skills in those with complex communication needs as they relate to reading and writing, you should focus on the skill areas of:
Shared reading - the communicator and a facilitator read a book together while the facilitator supports the communicator. The facilitator models the skills that a proficient reader has. Expression while reading also helps to engage the communicator with the text and reading experience. Engage the communicator in shared reading on a regular basis. For additional information on why and how to implement shared reading with your communicator, visit Shared Reading Information and Strategies.
Sound blending - the communicator must be able to blend individual sounds together sequentially to write and read words.
Phoneme segmentation - the communicator must be able to break down words into separate sounds so that they can read and write words.
Letter-sound correspondence - the communicator must be able to know what each letter of the alphabet produces what sound so that they can read and write words.
Single-word decoding - the communicator must be able to apply their knowledge of letter-sound correspondence and letter patterns to read words.
Sight-word recognition - the communicator must be able to read and understand words without using phoneme segmentation so that they can efficiently read and string together words.
Each skill area represents each of the colored arches of the rainbow and must be developed for the communicator to reach the communication competency pot of gold.
How might we adapt reading activities to develop and assess literacy skills of those with complex communication needs when they cannot read aloud to a facilitator so that they can assess their reading skills based on the mistakes that they make when they read aloud and/or as they decode and write words?
Make the expressive task of reading a receptive one! Think about how emergent readers and writers read and write unfamiliar words. They sound out the word by using phoneme segmentation and sound blending to break down the word into separate sounds and then they blend those sounds together to form the word so that they can read and write it.
Because this is not possible for those with complex communication needs to do, you can pick out one word or phoneme on the page of the text that you and the communicator are currently reading and use the keyboard on the communicator's AAC device (or any keyboard) to type the word or phoneme you said aloud.
How might we adapt writing activities for those with complex communication needs who have fine motor deficits that make holding a traditional writing utensil extremely challenging or impossible?
Alternative pencils make it possible for those with complex communication needs who have fine motor deficits to write with minimal physical effort without using a traditional writing utensil (e.g., a pen).
When choosing an appropriate alternative pencil for a communicator, remember that the cognitive demands (i.e., idea generation, translation of thoughts into words, correct spelling of words, correct punctuation use and placement, etc.) and physical demands (i.e., strength, posture, motor planning, endurance, etc.) of writing must be balanced out when the communicator is writing (Hanser, 1998).
If such demands are unbalanced, the communicator will not be able to write.
Alternative pencils can be either high-tech or low-tech.
Some high-tech alternative pencils communicators may use are (but are not limited to) a:
keyboard page with or without word prediction on their ProSlate or WinSlate
Lightwriter SL50 (or other similar word processor)
computer keyboard (regular size or large keys) with or without a keyguard
Some low-tech alternative pencils communicators may use are (but are not limited to):
a paper-based version of the keyboard page on their ProSlate or WinSlate
a E-tran board with letters of the alphabet (for communicators who use eye gaze as their access method)
felt, paper, or plastic letters of the alphabet
Choosing an appropriate alternative pencil for a communicator is dependent upon their physical abilities, cognitive abilities (including language skills), and the demands of the writing task. Therefore, each communicator takes a different (or even multiple) writing literacy colored arch of the rainbow to get to the communication competency pot of gold.
The communication competency pot of gold must be reached for a communicator to be autonomous.
The colored arches of the rainbow are the reading and writing paths in which the communicator takes to the communication competency pot of gold as literacy skills are essential for those with complex communication needs to have.
Every communicator has a unique accent color in their rainbow as they use different tools to write based on their needs while the other colors of the rainbow are consistent across communicators as they read the same way.
The communicator and their support team must follow the literacy rainbow to reach the communication competency pot of gold.
What colors will be in your communicator’s literacy rainbow?
Hanser. (1998). The Plight of a Struggling Writer: It’s a Juggling Act. photograph.
Koppenhaver, D. A., Coleman, P. P., Kalman, S. L., & Yoder, D. E. (1991). The implications of Emergent Literacy Research for children with developmental disabilities. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 1(1), 38–44. https://doi.org/10.1044/1058-0360.0101.38
Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2009). Accessible Literacy Learning Program (All). DynaVox Mayer-Johnson, Inc.
Soto, G., & Zangari, C. (2009). Practically Speaking: Language, Literacy, and Academic Development for Students with AAC Needs (1st ed.). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.
Hannah Foley, B.A. is the Content Writer at Forbes AAC. She has over four years of experience in AAC education and implementation, in addition to over 24 years of personal experience using AAC and AT tools to navigate society as someone who has a (dis)ability. Hannah is dedicated to providing quality training and implementation resources to support teams to facilitate the integration of AAC into all of life's activities to maximize the communicative skill development and meaningful engagement of those who use AAC.