My First Month Teaching Writing to an AAC User
Normally when I turn from the front passenger seat to check on Nathaniel in the backseat, he has his AAC device or a book on his lap. Not last Friday. For the entire two and a half hour ride to his sister’s house, he carefully held the story he had written that morning. He had carried the paper around the house most of the afternoon waiting to show Daddy when he got home. Nathaniel didn’t have it in hand when I told him we were going to see his sister and her family, but he immediately told me he wanted to take it along. He retrieved it from the dining room table and brought it to the car an hour later when we were loading. Multiple times I offered to put it somewhere safe for him so he could look at books or play with a toy. No, thank you. His writing felt safest in his own hands.
As a fellow writer, I understand that feeling. I write something and ask my husband to look at it. But it is hard to leave my creation with him. I sit close. Sometimes I don’t even offer to let him hold the paper or computer. I keep it clenched in my own hands, read my writing aloud, and like Nathaniel turn it outward to show the pictures I picked to help tell the story.
Putting our words and photos on paper or screen is a vulnerable and risk-taking act. Everything about how I approach teaching Nathaniel to write will tell him something about the practice and about himself. It feels very important because it will be his ultimate tool to share his thoughts, heart, and feelings with the world. I start there. I place the highest value on what he wants to share.
For Nathaniel the what has been cars and trucks. The where has been Mom and son side by side using an iPad, Bluetooth keyboard, and AAC device. The when would be first thing in the morning if left up to Nathaniel. Here’s how I’ve taught writing to my six-year old AAC user in the last month since I attended the workshop on Comprehensive Literacy Instruction for Students with Significant Disabilities and Complex Communication Needs.
We start by getting out our tools. I ask Nathaniel, “What would you like to write about today?” His answer determines what type of photo we will look for in a Google image search. His answers have changed over the last month from simply “car” or “truck” to “red car, nascar, fast” or “truck, black, big wheels.”
Google offers plenty of choices. I will be honest, the time invested in scrolling through page after page of black trucks with big wheels can feel wasted. Black trucks with big wheels all look the same to me. But for a little boy who can not make the rectangle and circle needed to personally draw a truck, picking the preferred image is a literacy practice that mimics the time typical six-year olds spend drawing pictures for their writing. So we scroll and consider. He uses his AAC device to add more descriptors when dissatisfied with the choices. If he expresses any interest at all in a photo, I take a screen shot of it. Once there are three or four photos saved, he looks at those and makes his choice.
Next, I set up a new Google document for the day’s work. I insert the photo, increase the font size, and put the cap locks on. Then I turn the keyboard over to him to write. Sometimes I offer letter by letter text to voice and say aloud the letters he is typing. Sometimes I just wait quietly. Sometimes I drink coffee. If he jams up the operations of it all, I fix it. I talk through what I think went wrong and what I’m doing to get him going again. When he is finished, I model typing his name. I select print. He runs to the printer to get his writing. I drink more coffee. Then we talk about his writing using his AAC device. He puts the printed paper somewhere safe to show Dad. Or he carries it around all day.
My goals for writing this last month have been basic:
establish the daily habit
let Nathaniel have control of the topic and photo selection so I can learn what he wants to write about
find meaning in what Nathaniel writes by connecting his written text to the chosen picture when discussing his printed writing
distinguish between letters and non-letters in his printed writing
offer audience by providing opportunity for him to share his writing with his dad
Looking at Nathaniel’s printed writing only, one might describe it as gibberish or nonsense. There are no distinguishable words. That hasn’t changed in a month. I didn’t expect it to. But the end product is not the complete literacy practice. What happens from the time we get out the tools until the printed product no longer holds his interest all matters. It is all a part of his literacy experience and offers opportunity for literacy instruction and growth. As I mentioned above, Nathaniel has expanded the descriptions of what he wants to write about. But other areas of Nathaniel’s writing has changed in the last month too.
He has modified his typing from all ten fingers on the keyboard going a hundred keystrokes a minute to deliberate key selection. In his writing yesterday he intentionally stared at Q and hit every letter in the top row until he got to P, then moved to A and did the same until he got to L, and then added the bottom row. He missed just two letters. This slowly down and purposeful letter selection is a huge change from pretending to be mommy or daddy at the computer to thinking about the letters and their location on the keyboard.
He no longer has any non-letter characters in his writing. If he accidentally hits a key with a number or symbol, he uses the delete key to get rid of it before going on. I am not quite sure when and how he learned about the delete key. I didn’t purposefully teach him about using it. I was probably drinking coffee.
He’s dividing his letters into clusters to create words. Some are long. Some are short.
He’s learned a little about periods as ending marks. I can’t figure out how to turn off the feature that automatically adds them when Nathaniel hits the space bar twice. He went through a stage of wanting to delete these, but they would reappear when he spaced again. I explained why the computer was doing it. I pointed out end marks in the books we read. He no longer tries to delete them.
He contributes meaning to his writing. When he brings his writing back to our school room from the printer, he turns to his AAC device and starts to tell me about it. Often his explanation is similar to the describing words used to find the picture. But he has started adding new information like, “black truck Ben go get wheels big.” Ben is his brother who used to manage an auto parts store.
This daily writing work is supported by other elements of literacy. We review letters sounds and phonemes. We find letters within words. We work with words both as sight words and as clusters that rhyme. We build words with individual letter cards, take them apart, and build different ones. We use the words we are learning to write sentences together on the white board. This is a time when I model writing for Nathaniel. I see carry over in our learning about the period as an end mark during his writing time; he likes to use the dry erase pen to add one (or more) to the sentences I write. And of course, we read. Simple books with the words Nathaniel is learning and much more complex stories. We use his AAC device to talk about what we read and to let him share in the reading. Sometimes we just sit very close and read, sigh at the end of the book, and marvel at the amazing places we can go together through literacy. In a black truck with big wheels and coffee mug holders of course.
For more insight on my first writing with Nathaniel after attending the workshop presented by Drs Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver, check out Encouraging Emerging Independent Writing Skills in an AAC User.