Independent Reading: Using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and Project Core

This is the final post in the six part series on using AAC, Speak for Yourself, Project Core to promote emergent literacy. If you’re just joining in, you may want to start with the first post. 

The impetus for this series was a presentation by the Project Core team at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in January called Using Core Vocabulary In Emergent Literacy Instructional Routines.

This week, we’re talking about independent reading. Do you remember when we talked about independent writing and the goal was to have the children enjoy it and want to keep trying it because they feel successful? The goal with independent reading is really similar. However, there is one exciting and awesome exception…now they can apply the other emergent literacy skills you’ve been teaching them!

Here’s the Independent Reading Self-Evaluation form from the Project Core Implementation Resources:

What Are You Teaching With Independent Reading?

Little hands holding the Clara Cow Wraps Up Warm book from the piles.

When I think of independent reading, I picture our sustained silent reading (SSR) times in elementary school. Everyone is sitting silently with a book of his/her choosing. No talking allowed. That is NOT what independent reading looks like as an emergent literacy strategy. No one is expecting you to hand a child a copy of Harry Potter and watch as they sit and read it independently…not yet anyway!;-)

Here are some examples of things your child(ren) can be expected to learn as an  emergent independent reader.

To prepare to use this framework with a student, I gathered a collection of books that were appropriate for the age, interest, and attention span of my student. Choose some books that have repetition with variety. As a side note, all of these Project Core activities were done with the same little student. I wanted to have a consistent example throughout the posts. Plus she already loved books!

Learning to Predict Consistent Patterns

I excitedly entered the room and announced that we were having a “Reading Party!” Incidentally, if you want to do an activity that a child may be hesitant to try, adding the word “party” works wonders. It also works for adults. Think of all of the painting that gets done for free and silver jewelry and leggings that get sold under the guise of a “party.”

Anyway, I set two piles of books on the floor and let my four-year-old student go through them until she chose one. When she held it up, I said, “Great choice! Read it to me!” She looked at it and pointed to the word, “brown.” I said and modeled “brown.” Then I said, “You picked Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” She nodded and said, “Help read.” I read the first couple of pages, modeling “see” and “me.” On the third page, I stopped and looked at her expectantly after I said, “Yellow duck, yellow duck, what do you_____?” And she smiled and said “see.” I pointed to the word “see” in the book. Then I said, “I see a purple cat looking at _____.” I looked at her and she said, “me.” I pointed to the word “me” in the book.

As we went through the rest of the book, I’d point to those words on each page and she would say them. When the book was finished, I said, “You were reading words in that book!” And she beamed…and danced a little. She doesn’t know all of her letters. This little student didn’t sound out those words. She knew what to say when I pointed at the letter combination in a book.

Recognizing Combinations of Letters that “Match” (sight word recognition)…

She looked at the pile of books and excitedly picked up Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? She pointed to “brown” and nodded, then she said “brown” on her device. “YES!” I clapped. “It says ‘brown’ just like the Brown Bear book!” We read through part of it, until she closed it and said, “done.”

…And Also Have Meaning

When she looked at the choices, she pointed to the cow on the front of Clara Cow Wraps Up Warm and laughed. I said, “Oh my goodness, it’s a brown cow just like the Mr. Brown book!” She said, “moo” and handed it to me. In the book, Clara has a cold and all of her friends give her clothes to keep warm (all of the clothes have different textures which is engaging). She sneezes on almost every page. The author has the sneeze written very distinctively, as you can see in the picture.

A page from the Clara Cow Wraps Up Warm book showing the sneeze written with a combination of letter “Aaaaa-tishoo!”

The first few times I dramatically fake sneezed, I pointed to that combination of letters. As I was reading, she started pointing to them and saying “ah shoo!” I said, “You do the sneezes.” I stopped and pointed to the letters on each page, and she would pretend to sneeze. She’s learning that letter combinations have meanings.

Little index finger touching the “more” button of Speak for Yourself. The iPad mini is resting on the “Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?” book. The message window reads, “read more sticky sticky.’ She’s adding a final “more” to drive the point home. (She was referring to the “If You Give a Pig a Pancake” book.)

When you’re targeting independent reading, you’re teaching a child to enjoy books and giving them confidence that they will learn what those words say. You’re teaching them to pay attention to letters and the shape of words. They’re learning that they can look for ways to help read the book.

When you’re targeting independent reading, you are showing a child that she can cross the bridge from being a passive listener to an active reader. And you’re setting the larger, lifelong expectation for literacy.


Posted in SfYandProjectCore | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alphabet and Phonological Awareness: Using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and Project Core

Foam (12 inch square) puzzle letters arranged in QWERTY order on the floor.

This is the fifth post in a series of emergent literacy posts. We’ve been talking about using AAC and Project Core to promote literacy. This week, we’re talking about the alphabet and phonological awareness. If you are just joining this discussion, you may want to start with the first post.

The Project Core information comes from a presentation about Using Core Vocabulary in Emergent Literacy Instructional Routines at the Assistive Technology Industry Association  (ATIA) conference in January. The observation/self-evaluation form below is available to print from their website under implementation resources:

Let’s take a more detailed look at the alphabet and phonological awareness. What are we actually trying to teach? Here’s are the targets, according to the Project Core team:

Alphabet Knowledge:

  • Letter-shape recognition (52 symbols)
  • Letter-name recognition (26 letter names)
  • Relationship between upper and lower case
  • Letter writing/selecting abilities
  • Letter sound knowledge

 Phonological Awareness:

  • Distinguish between words
  • Recognize syllables
  • Word beginnings and ending

Getting Ready

Here are some of the planning recommendations from the Project Core presentation:

  • ALL students have an individual communication system that meets their access needs
  • Lessons focused on the alphabet include letters in a format that is accessible to ALL students (e.g., high contrast; large print; braille)
  • The lesson connects to the theme or a topic being studied in some way.

Personally, I had a difficult time early in my AAC career incorporating the alphabet and phonological awareness. I used to look at the children and think there was so much functional language they needed to learn that I didn’t have time to spend on letters. I had been watching my little students with complex communication needs (CCN) sitting in cubicles and learning to touch whichever letters were being targeted. Then learning to match the uppercase and lowercase letters to mastery. And then, they had to go back through all of those letters and learn the sounds. Some of the students were ten years old and had been working on the same few letter targets all year. When I did the math, I calculated that they would be out of the school system before they started to target spelling. Not to mention, it was boring.

During my second year as a speech-language pathologist, I covered a preschool caseload for children who were verbal, but had speech and language impairments. The teacher was phenomenal! She incorporated letters, sounds, phonological awareness, and writing across activities all day.

If you’re having a difficult time prioritizing for your students using AAC, here is the realization that changed my approach…You don’t have to choose between communication OR the alphabet and phonological awareness. Make your alphabet and phonological awareness activities motivating enough that they spark communication.

Some Real Life Ideas

There are a ton of Pinterest and blog ideas to teach the alphabet and phonological awareness. Here’s a post from Angela at OMazing Kids with some great ideas and additional links.

Here are some examples that I’ve seen work in real life that you can do this week:

Use Auditory Bombardment:

If the unit is “apples,” the letter of the week is “A” and the adults in the classroom try to use as many “A” words as they could in their conversation and directions, with an emphasis on the sound. Once you start doing it, it’s a lot of fun for the adults and it’s complete auditory bombardment for the students. As you’re saying them, model core words with the targeted letter on the child’s device. If you’re sticking with the Project Core words, and you’re targeting the letter “A” (for example), “are” and “all” are Project Core words that are on the main screen of Speak for Yourself.

Sing Simple Songs: 

My favorite phonological awareness song dates back to my son’s early magnetic Leap Frog musical toy. When he put a letter into the toy, it would start to sing. It’s catchy, fun, and easy. A word of advice, when you make the sound, try to isolate the sound without vowels following it. Some will be easier than others. Here are the words to the song, which may be familiar to many of you:

The N said /n sound/

The N says /n sound/

Every letter makes a sound

The N says /n sound/

Find words in the device: 

The Speak for Yourself AAC app screen with the search feature open and showing the keyboard and a list of “G” words.

If you have an “extra” device for the classroom, your verbal students may enjoy this also. Here’s a quick story. I was working with a preschooler using Speak for Yourself, who was included in a general education preschool classroom. The class was giving the teacher words that started with “G.” I showed the student the search feature and he found and pressed “G” on the keyboard. When all of the “G” words appeared in the list, his eyes brightened and he scrolled through the choices. He raised his hand, and said, “galaxies.” The teacher said, “Wow, that’s a great word!” The student next to him whispered, “Can I use your talker?” and my student smiled and leaned it towards him to show him how to use the search feature. He chose “gallbladder” and the entire class laughed.

The teacher said that she started pulling out the classroom iPad during their literacy time. She picked five students who got to find a word with the letter of the day, using the search feature.

Target Language with Fun Alphabet Manipulatives: 

Foam letters and an open alphabet book on the floor. We were trying to find the matching foam letters as we read the book.

Combine your goals. If you want your student to use core vocabulary, combine it with a fun activity that involves large foam letters. Model “WHERE H?” and then model, “PUT ON head.” In that brief moment, you’ve modeled a question, used 3 of the project core words, given them an opportunity to find the letter “H,” used a word that starts with the /h/ sound, and given them an opportunity to follow a 2-step direction (find the H and put it on someone’s head). You’ve also probably made them laugh if you let them put a big foam “H” on your head. Learning doesn’t fit into clean data columns. Be creative. The more you practice creativity, the easier it gets.

Posted in SfYandProjectCore | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

We Are the Lucky Ones

I wanted to take some time to reflect on how lucky we have been: individually as speech-language pathologists and as a company. People in business sometimes get offended if you talk about luck playing a role in their success. They feel like it minimizes the amount of effort and education that went into their life’s work.  Of course, we’ve worked hard and put a lot of ourselves into creating…and protecting the Speak for Yourself app.  We weren’t “lucky” in the chance sense of winning the lottery. Nothing fell into our lap. We have been lucky in a Butterfly Effect kind of way. The Butterfly Effect is when a small change in a system (like a butterfly moving its wings) results in a significant change later.

 The Day We Met, I Didn’t Feel Lucky…until we met

On the day Renee and I met, I was annoyed that she was there. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t know. She was coming into the autism classroom where I spent five mornings a week to do an AAC re-evaluation.  The little guy was denied a device the year before because he didn’t like bubbles. My student didn’t ask for bubbles so the evaluator said he wasn’t ready to use AAC.  He had to wait an entire year for a re-evaluation.

I had spent the year priming the initial AAC Evaluator, convincing her that this little guy was capable. I taught him to enjoy bubbles by pairing them with things he already liked…walks outside, popcorn, the swing. But the district decided to use a different AAC Evaluator. I was crushed.

As luck would have it, Renee was the AAC Evaluator that walked in that day. Despite my post traumatic AAC evaluation stress, I liked her instantly. She was friendly and smart. I didn’t have to convince her that my little student was worthy of a device. Renee was going to try devices until she found something that worked for him. I knew he was in good hands, and I left our first meeting relieved. We talked as easily as lifelong friends immediately.

Heidi and Renee of Speak for Yourself outside at the ATIA Conference 2017.

Renee likes to tell people that she stalked me to come work with her. It wasn’t really stalking. She called me a couple of times. She gave me her supervisor’s phone number. But the timing was right for me. The kids I had worked with for two years were all going in different directions. I had grown to love AAC in those two years. I wanted to make sure kids didn’t have to wait for a device because they had bad luck and got the wrong professional. So, I was lucky…I got the position as an AAC Evaluator/Consultant and started working with an incredible friend and future business partner. I’m thankful every day that Renee walked into my life that morning.

We Were Lucky to Find Our Developer

We created the blueprint for Speak for Yourself in Panera Bread. We used PowerPoint because we were AAC-specific in our programming skills, but we knew how to use PowerPoint. We asked our local Apple representative if we would be able to do coding for an app by ourselves. She laughed at us. We asked if she knew any good developers who wouldn’t charge a lot. She said for that kind of app, it would be expensive.

There were two people I knew who had significant computer knowledge. One was a friend from middle school who had just started his own company. He wasn’t in a position to wait to be paid, and the cost was much more than we could afford.

The other was a friend who I had been playing recreational volleyball with on Tuesday nights for a few years. I knew he had done something with computers. When I got an iPod Touch a couple of years before, he had been interested in it. I had taken it to volleyball and showed him how it worked. As we all walked out of volleyball one night, I asked him if he knew anyone who could do iOS programming (the Apple lady told us that’s what it was called). It was starting to snow so I quickly told him about the language app we wanted to make and asked him to let me know if he thought of anyone.

I got in my car and started it. Just before I pulled away, he tapped on my passenger window. When I rolled it down, he said, “I feel like I’m missing out on an opportunity. I’m going to learn how to make the app.” I said, “Okay, that would be great.”

Mark, Renee, and Heidi at ASHA 2016.

People say they’re going to do stuff all the time. They say they’ll call back, and they don’t. People plan to meet for drinks, and it doesn’t happen. We were lucky…Mark is good to his word. He learned how to do iOS programming, and he wrote the code for Speak for Yourself…every last character. He’s still the lead developer. After the development of an app as complex and involved as Speak for Yourself, he’s an iOS miracle worker.  We are so lucky.

We are lucky to know you

When we pushed the button over five years ago that made Speak for Yourself live on the App Store, we knew it was a strong AAC option. We knew people could use it to develop language. However, we didn’t know if anyone actually would…but you did. Professionals were instantly interested. Parents contacted us, asking for more information.

The idea that it would help people who couldn’t afford expensive dedicated devices drove us throughout the process. Thinking of parents who would be able to put AAC in the hands of their child, motivated us to make it user-friendly. We were so busy planning for the development and the actual language system. Our time was spent figuring out how to make a Facebook Page and what to post that would help people using Speak for Yourself, and AAC in general.

Along the way we built a community together. You helped us build support with your questions and suggestions. We didn’t realize we would gain friends. We didn’t know that so many of you would take time to share pictures, videos, and stories of the difference that Speak for Yourself is making for your families. You’ve been there through the early, dark days, and we share the joy in every hard-earned milestone and new skill. Thanks to each of you who have made the slightest movement of a butterfly wing in our direction and changed us and Speak for Yourself for the better. We are so lucky to know you.

Speak for Yourself pizza party picture in Maryland/DC area September 2015.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Autism Acceptance Sale Dates: Speak for Yourself Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) App

The Speak for Yourself app will be on sale for 50% off ($149.99 USD) from March 31st through April 4th, 2017 (Friday through Tuesday) in honor of Autism Acceptance Month.

There are a large number of individuals on the autism spectrum who use the Speak for Yourself app successfully to communicate throughout their day. We love that we get to personally spend time with many children from toddlers to high school students who use Speak for Yourself to tell us who they are…and often tell us what to do! There is also a growing number of autistic adults who use Speak for Yourself to augment their verbal speech. They report using it in times of high anxiety, illness, overwhelming emotion, or situations that are taxing to the sensory system. This group has also been incredibly helpful in improving the Speak for Yourself app with their valuable suggestions and feedback. We are truly honored to be part of so many lives in the autistic community.

If you’re not sure if Speak for Yourself is the right choice for you, here are some posts with additional information.

The Evidence-Based Research Behind Speak for Yourself This post reviews the experience-based features and evidence-based research that went into creating the Speak for Yourself AAC app.

The Difference Between Speak for Yourself and… This post details some of the things that make Speak for Yourself unique.

How is Vocabulary Organized in Speak for Yourself? We get this question a lot, and it might be helpful in your decision-making process.

Of course, if there’s a more individual question you have about the potential AAC user(s) in your life, you can get great feedback from parents and professionals who have been in your position in the Speak for Yourself Users Group. You can also call me (215-605-0508) if you’re someone who prefers phone conversations and would like to talk to a speech-language pathologist who loves AAC… and knows the Speak for Yourself app really, really well. 😉

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Independent Writing: Using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and Project Core

This is the fourth post in a series about using Project Core with the Speak for Yourself AAC app. If you haven’t read the others, here’s a link to the first post. 

We’ve been talking about emergent literacy and using the evaluation forms from the Project Core website. Information is also being shared from the Project Core team presentation on Using Core Vocabulary in Emergent Literacy Instructional Routines at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) Conference in January.

Independent Writing

This week, we’re working on independent writing! Writing gives your students/children access to “unlimited expression.” Speak for Yourself has a large 5000 word vocabulary. But as many of you know, we forgot some words. As many of you also know, there is a QWERTY button in the bottom right hand corner, no matter where you are in the app. (This can be locked for the little ones who pop the keyboard up and down or who hit it accidentally and are frustrated when they can’t get out of it.) We knew we would forget some words because words are infinite. It’s important for individuals using AAC to be able to access that infinite amount of language. They need to be able to say a word, even if it’s not programmed. Writing provides the key.

It sounds so easy, right? If you’re reading this as you’re administering a tube feed or suctioning a tracheostomy, you might be thinking, “Oh sure, Heidi, I’ll just add ‘teach my child to write’ to my to-do list for tomorrow.” Even in my presuming-competence, most-idealistic scenario, that’s not going to happen. However, there are some things that you CAN do tomorrow to put your child on that path.

Let’s Get Ready

Before you put a pencil in the child’s hand and tell him to write, there are a few things to prepare. Here are the independent writing planning steps from the Project Core presentation:

  • ALL students have an individual communication system that meets their access needs. This is a first step for all of the emergent literacy activities.
  • All students have an appropriate pencil. This may not be a “pencil” in the traditional sense of the word. If young students are able to hold a pencil in their hand, even if they’re not yet forming letters, I give them an actual pencil and paper. Whether they are able to physically write letters or not, I give them a chance to type. We all type with the technology constantly in our hands. If you’re not sure or your child is not physically able to access a pencil or keyboard, this free module from Dynamic Learning Maps may give you some ideas.
  • Prepare a variety of topic choices. Hint: Choose things the person likes!
  • Determine an accessible format to present topic choices. Use pictures, actual objects, or a written list read out loud to the student.

Here’s the self-evaluation form from the Project Core website for Independent Writing:

Real-Life Example

Planning: I tried this with a 4-year-old who loves paper and pencils. So I had colored pencils, but I also had a separate iPad with her Speak for Yourself vocabulary with the keyboard showing. She has not been using the keyboard on her device because she accidentally pops it up and then gets frustrated that it’s there. (This is also why I chose to use a separate iPad for the typing part.)

Pink horse head with child’s hands wrapped around the stick looking outside. A small child’s hands are on the window.

Choosing a topic: I presented several pictures of favorite items and activities. I also pointed to objects in the room that she enjoys, and told her she could choose any of them. She pointed to a horse head on a stick. She stood up and wanted to “ride” it, so she did. We “galloped” (which was actually fast walking), we neighed, and we laughed.

She leaned the horse against the wall and the heavy head fell next to her foot. I said, “Did you see that!? She tried to eat your foot!” and pretended that the horse was eating her foot. She laughed and verbally said, “One more!” The horse ate her foot again, and we both laughed. This went on several more times, until we were both tired and ready to sit for a little while. Choosing a topic may take some time.

Talk About It!

Once you figure out the topic, encourage communication about that topic. Model language using AAC. Use open ended conversation starters and wonder out loud (Tell me about it, Hmm, what could we say about ____). Give them enough wait time and encourage anything they tell you. The idea is to do some pre-writing brainstorming using the student’s AAC system. Acknowledge anything they tell you and help them by modeling some of your own ideas.

Real-Life Example:

Message window of Speak for Yourself reading, “horse more horse.”

When we sat to have a conversation, my little student used the device to say, “horse more horse,” and then verbally said “funny.” She verbally said “neigh” and we talked about how the horse neighed. It was a pretty short conversation as she eyed the additional iPad and paper and pencil. She asked for stamps and we used some stamps on the paper first. (You’ll notice some faces and eyes stamped in the photo of her pencil writing.)


Keep in mind, this is meant to be independent writing. If the child doesn’t make a single recognizable letter in her scribbles, it doesn’t matter. Find a way to relate it back to the topic she chose. As the child types, say each letter.* If the child types a line of letters and you don’t recognize any words, pick out a letter and relate it to something from your conversation. You’re shaping the writing and making it meaningful. The goal is not perfect spelling. You are teaching the child that when she presses those letters, they go together and mean something. You’re giving him a chance to scribble, in the same way you let him babble to learn his device.

*If the child is slapping his hand on the keyboard and it’s jumbling all of the letters together, model keyboard use by typing the child’s name, slowly and purposefully, saying each letter as you touch it.

Real-Life Example:

I said, “Okay, now we’re ready to write about the horse,” as I handed my little student her choice of pencils. She chose orange and wrote this:

Picture of orange colored pencil on a paper. In my writing in the top left is “Eat 3 more.”

I pointed to the part at the bottom of the scribble and said, “It looks like you made a “S” and horse ends with an “s” sound. Horsssssse.” Then I said, “It looks like you also wrote..” and she interrupted and verbally said, “E.” So I looked and pointed to the far right side of the “main scribble” and said, “I can see it right there!” And she said, “Eat three more.” I said, “The horse eats three more?” and she held up her foot. Of course. She eats 3 more feet. ( I wrote on it afterwards so I would remember what she said.) Incredible.

I put the iPad with the keyboard in front of her and said, “Is there anything else you want to write about the horse?” The keyboard in Speak for Yourself speaks each letter as it’s typed. She typed this:

Photo of the Speak for Yourself message window with typed text: ai imonn

I said, “Look! You typed the first letter of your name!” (and pointed to it) and she smiled. Then I said, “And you typed ‘I’ and a ‘M’ and ‘O’. It looks like maybe you were typing ‘more.'” She looked at it, and then said, “Done.” And so we were.

Giving Feedback

The feedback that you give to the child is important. You’re not “fixing” it for them or correcting what they wrote/typed. Try to avoid general praise that doesn’t connect to the topic they chose (i.e “Good writing,” “You typed a lot of letters.”). Relate what they wrote to the topic.  You want the child to feel successful so they want to try it again.

Real-Life Example:

Shortly after she said, “done,” the occupational therapist arrived. My little student ran over to the horse excitedly and grabbed it. She said, “horse!” and the OT said, “I see your horse!” I said, “We were riding it.” (Because that’s a cool new physical skill.) The student said, “eat,” and put the horse’s mouth by her foot. The OT said, “Oh no! The horse eats your foot?!” And the student nodded vigorously and said, “three more.” The OT said, “Okay three more times?” And the student beamed with pride. She told her story. And someone understood it out of context.

Posted in SfYandProjectCore | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“I Like” Predictable Chart Writing: Using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and Project Core

If you’ve been following along, we’ve been talking about emergent literacy. This is the third post about using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with Speak for Yourself and Project Core. If you’re just jumping in, you may want to start from the first post. However, even if your child/student is not yet engaging in shared reading, I’d still encourage you to give predictable chart writing a try.

We talked about shared reading last week, and I said I love it. It’s true. I do love it. But loving emergent literacy strategies is like loving children when you have more than one. I love them all the same, but differently.  While most parents say they don’t have a “favorite” child, predictable chart writing is my “secret favorite” emergent literacy strategy. We just connect on a special level.

Predictable Chart Writing and Project Core

The Project Core Team that presented Using Core Vocabulary in Emergent Literacy Instructional Routines at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference described five steps to predictable chart writing which are carried out over 5 days. Keep in mind that as you do this, you will modify parts of the process to work for your classroom/student. There is flexibility in how you use predictable chart writing. The key learning principles for you to keep in mind are outlined in the Project Core evaluation form. Use the evaluation form provided in the Project Core Implementation Resources to guide your activity:

The 5 Steps with an “I like” Example:

Step 1: Write the chart

Start by choosing a topic that is motivating and age appropriate with the goal being to get each student commenting. The sentence stem is the part of the chart that you are going to write. The sentence is going to start the same for each child in your group. Each word in sentence stem is one of the 36 project core words. Some examples are: Stop,  I like, I can put on, Can I go, I want some, Do you like. Of course, that’s for the Project Core piece. If you have more advanced communicators, incorporate the core words you’ve taught them. The idea of using the same sentence stem is to use repetition with variety. In this example, the sentence stem is “I like.” Give a model by doing the first one.

The “I like” chart that was created with a 4-year-old’s help. She did the blue writing. My thumb is covering her sister’s name.

Step 2: Reread and work with the chart

Point to each of the sentence that you wrote on your chart during the previous day/session. Touch each word as you read it. Model the sentences on the student’s device. For this part, I suggest finding some pictures of your student’s responses and pairing them with the written sentence. By doing this, you’re teaching them to read the sentence stem (the core words), but also giving them a way to read the entire sentence if  “Santa” isn’t readable by the entire class.

Step 3: Work with sentence strips

Type and print the sentences in the chart for each student or cut the chart (if it was an individual activity). Cut the sentences in strips and ask the student how he wants the sentence cut. Find all of the same words (i.e. find all of the “I”s, find all of the “like”s). Have the child put the sentences in order and glue them on paper.

Sentence strip reading “I like Santa” waiting for child to point to where it should be cut.

Know your goals:

If your goal is to target literacy, according to research, you should use only words (no symbols). However, if your goal is to target communication using AAC, symbol support is beneficial.

One of the things that the Speak for Yourself app allows you to do is to save a cropped photo of the message window. If you want to create sentence strips with symbol support to encourage AAC use or to give classroom aides a “cheat sheet” for modeling, you can also create the strips with symbols. You can also use them in a language activity so that your expressive language and writing targets are parallel. Here’s an example:

Step 4: Play be the sentence (game)

Act the sentences out. What does “I like cookies” look like? (picture Cookie Monster eating cookies). “I like Santa” had us saying “ho ho ho” while holding our bellies and laughing. We pointed up at pretend castles and covered our mouths in awe. This should be fun and may take some modeling by the adults in the classroom for the kids catch on that you want them to act silly. But maybe not. “I like baby” (which ended up being on the next page of our chart when we realized – with panic – that we forgot it:), had us holding a baby in our arms and looking at it with love.

The finished page of “I like baby,” with the screen and message window of Speak for Yourself also reading, “I like baby.”

Step 5: Make the book

Read each sentence and put a picture with it. Put the book together and make a copy for your classroom library. Send the child’s book home for practice or keep it with their classroom items.

Little hand glueing Santa where she wants him next to the page that reads, “I like Santa.”

Getting to know Predictable Chart Writing

Here are some of the reasons Predictable chart writing is my favorite. (Since it’s not a secret anymore.;)

Predictable chart writing is low maintenance compared to some of the other strategies we use as speech-language pathologists (SLPs), teachers, and parents. You can make it as elaborate as you want or you can do it sitting on the living room floor of a four-year-old on homebound instruction. You can use it with one child or with an entire class of children. You can use it with preschoolers or you can use it with high school students. Predictable chart writing seamlessly allows you to differentiate instruction to meet children where they are.

Predictable chart writing makes everyone feel successful. When you’re starting to use it, start with an error-proof stem. For the example I’m including in this post, I used “I like.” When you use something general, the child can pick pretty much anything and be “right.” Are you going to argue with a child who says he likes the “Golden Gate Bridge?” Nope. You’re going to write it down and find a picture. Are you going to tell a child who says she likes “Santa” that it’s not Christmas anymore and she has to try again? No way! You’re going to write it down and find or draw a picture of Santa.

Predictable chart writing provides the perfect framework for the key AAC practices woven throughout implementation: Encourage communication, attribute meaning, and model!

Predictable chart writing promotes writing AND reading. In five sessions you create a book that was written BY your student(s) and can be read BY your student(s)! You are helping your student(s) to create a familiar library of core vocabulary-based books. Every book you create is going to have something in it that was added by each student. Remember in the beginning of this post, I suggested to try predictable chart writing, even if your student isn’t a shared reading fan? This is the reason. You may be able to “back in” to shared reading with books that the student helped to write. She’ll know that the “I like” book has a picture of the thing she likes most in the world. With that knowledge, she may be willing to spend a little shared reading time with you.

This week, take whatever small step you need to start predictable chart writing. Even if it’s not perfect. Even if your students need a lot of support initially. Give them an opportunity to surprise and impress you. Think of a parent’s reaction to your note saying that their child is working on writing a book. Imagine the feeling as you walk out of the classroom on Friday knowing that you worked on literacy this week. Give predictable chart writing a chance to be your favorite emergent literacy strategy too.

Posted in SfYandProjectCore | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shared Reading: Using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) with Project Core

Shared reading: A young boy is sitting with his mom and pointing to a word in a book. His device with the Speak for Yourself app is visible on his lap.

I love shared reading! When children enjoy books, it is one of my favorite augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) activities. Don’t misunderstand…I love to jump up and down on command, push cars across the floor, and run back and forth across the room. I love messy sensory play and crafts that are truly done by the students.

However, when you can sit down with a child and a book, there is so much more that happens. Shared reading, even if it’s a short book, promotes joint attention and literacy. It also provides an opportunity for students using AAC to see their communication system as more than a requesting machine. When you can engage a child in shared reading, it gives you a chance to talk about something. It gives context to you and the student by providing a visible, tangible point of reference.

Project Core, Shared Reading, and AAC

This is the second post in a series about using Project Core with Speak for Yourself. The first post is linked here. It also applies if you’re using a different robust Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) system. My goal in writing these posts is that you have something quick and “actionable” so that you can work on literacy this week!

In my last post, I mentioned that I attended several presentations at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) Conference in Orlando. A presentation was given by the Project Core team and entitled: Using Core Vocabulary in Emergent Literacy Instructional Routines. One of the components that I really like about the Project Core resources is that they are “instructor” centered. If YOU are trying to incorporate literacy into your classroom, therapy room, or home, the evaluation and data keeping is on what YOU do, not the student. Here’s a link to the self-evaluation forms to download the PDF.

Project Core Self-Evaluation and Observation form

Making Comments

Some core vocabulary rich books and an iPad mini with Speak for Yourself. Books from top to bottom: Go, Dog. Go!, If Big Can…I Can, and Go Away, Dog

Most of us comment naturally when we’re reading to children. The focus of the shared reading module is to plan those comments ahead of time for our AAC users. If you plan some core vocabulary comments for yourself before you read to the child, it takes the pressure off in the moment. One of the suggestions made during the presentation was to follow the C-A-R approach (from Language is the Key) during shared reading. Essentially, you COMMENT and wait 10-15 seconds. Then ASK for or invite participation (i.e. “What do you think?”) and wait 10-15 seconds. Then RESPOND by repeating what they say or adding more to it. If they say nothing, that’s fine. Invite them every time. If they say something and it doesn’t make sense to you, try to relate it to what you’re reading or ask for more information. Everything they do is an opportunity for you to teach and engage.

An example with Go, Dog. Go!

I chose Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman because it’s pretty common and it has a good amount of core vocabulary. I also like it because it’s short and there are very few words on each page, but there is a lot happening in the pictures. Here are some photos with sample comments that could be used during shared reading with a young student. Even though the idea is to plan comments, take the child’s lead. If he points to something in the book, comment on that. Even if it’s just to model “Look!” and then ask him to tell you about it.

One last word of advice: If you have to choose between focusing your attention on your planned structure or engagement and social interaction, choose the interaction. Happy reading! We’d love to know how it goes!

Posted in SfYandProjectCore | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Using Speak for Yourself with Project Core: Non-Instructional Routines

Last month, we attended and exhibited at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, Florida. One of the reasons that the ATIA conference is my favorite – besides the “work trip” to sunny Florida in the middle of the cold Northeastern winter – is that the exhibit hall hours and sessions are coordinated. This means that exhibitors are able to attend sessions when the exhibit hall is closed. It also means that attendees don’t have to miss sessions to visit the exhibit hall. It allows for longer, high quality booth conversations with professionals around the world who have a higher than average level of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) knowledge and experience. They also serve wine, beer, and appetizers in the exhibit hall which creates a very casual atmosphere. Its’s a different dynamic than any other conference when someone sets down their glass of wine to check out Speak for Yourself.

Anyway, one of the sessions I had the opportunity to attend in our “free time” was presented by Dr. Penny Hatch, Dr. Lori Geist, Dr. Karen Erickson, Dr. Claire Greer, and Lisa Erwin-Davidson about Project Core and Emergent Literacy Instructional Routines. If you’re looking for a structured way to build literacy into your core vocabulary instruction, I definitely recommend checking out the Project Core website.

If you’re NOT looking for ways to build literacy into your core vocabulary instruction, let this post be a gentle nudge in that direction. Presume competence for your children or clients in communication and also in literacy. Expect that they will learn to read and write and provide the support to give them the opportunity.

Wait…if you’re going to stop reading because you don’t think your child is ready for literacy yet, please continue! There are things you can do, even if your child is an AAC beginner!

As I took notes and pictures of slides during the presentation, I made a note to myself that Speak for Yourself could easily be used with the Project Core goals. It could actually be used pretty easily with any AAC language system that has a strong core vocabulary. I believe that is the intention of the Project Core team. I LOVE when presentations can be easily converted to clinical applications!

There was a lot of information covered in the presentation, and everyone is busy, so here is my idea. I am going to write a post for the next five weeks (posted on Monday morning beginning February 27th, 2017) that will discuss one of the Project Core modules for emergent literacy and give some examples of how it can be used with the Speak for Yourself app. (If you’re using different but robust AAC, the information still applies.:) By the end of the 5 weeks, you’ll figure out where your learners are in terms of their literacy abilities. You can target those areas and then be ready to take the next steps!

For next week, let’s start with non-instructional routines!

Non-Instructional Routines

Speak for Yourself main screen with Project Core words open.

During the short hour and a half presentation, the presenters covered five emergent literacy instructional routines. Prior to that though, they discussed how they had guided support personnel in the school to start incorporating more core vocabulary modeling and overall AAC use by looking at non-instructional routines.

First, you may want to print a poster of the main screen with the Project Core words opened to use for aided language input opportunities.

Here’s an example of how you can get started during non-instructional routines at school (the presenters asked the teaching assistants in the school to do this):

  1. Choose a non-instructional routine (i.e. morning arrival, snack time, getting ready for lunch, lunch, packing up to go home, waiting for the bus…).
  2. Write down the things you typically say to the student during that time.
  3. Highlight the core words on the page.
  4. Looking at your list of what you usually say, are there any places where you could use core vocabulary instead of a fringe word?
  5. Hang that paper up in the area where that routine occurs.
  6. Have the device available and model the core words as you speak to the child during that routine.

Here are some examples of core vocabulary (using the Project Core words) that can be modeled. The Smarty Symbols used in Speak for Yourself accompany each core word in the examples below. This likely goes without saying, but just in case…If your students have more vocabulary opened on their devices, don’t remove words.

In the morning:

Good morning modeling template with core vocabulary using Smarty Symbols in Speak for Yourself.

At Snack Time:

Snack Time core vocabulary modeling template using Smarty Symbols in Speak for Yourself.

At the end of the day:

Time to go core vocabulary modeling template using Smarty Symbols in Speak for Yourself.

Thanks to the Project Core team for all of the work that went into creating a versatile resource to target literacy for students using AAC and sharing it for free online!

Posted in SfYandProjectCore | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Presuming Competence in Practice

Jess, a 25 year old with Angelman Syndrome, waiting anxiously for the Mamma Mia musical to begin on stage.

“Presume Competence” has become a mantra of many excellent parents and professionals who are implementing augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for individuals with complex communication needs (CCN). I’ve also experienced some misunderstandings in person and in online groups suggesting that presuming competence is not evidence-based in its idealism. So I’ve been paying attention to the things that people who presume competence do in practice.

Presuming competence is not idealism. Idealism ignores that there are challenges or barriers to overcome. The very definition is that the ideals are often “unrealistic.

Presuming competence is a philosophical difference. It’s a belief in socializing students for courage instead of compliance.

It is more than an ideology because when you start from the mindset that someone is capable and can grow, your actions start to reflect that. There are concrete, evidence-based ways that you can presume competence.

Provide comprehensive, robust AAC early

If children are not developing verbal speech, when you presume competence, you acknowledge that they still need a way to access language. Children typically start saying their first words when they’re a year old. Children who have CCN also need to have the opportunity to access first words, and the opportunity to choose what their first word is. If they’re given a limited AAC system, and they have to work their way up to a larger vocabulary variety, they may not be motivated by the available vocabulary. Give children with CCN the ability to explore, just as verbal children have the opportunity to babble until they can use words purposefully.

Look for success

We see what we look for…and often miss what we don’t. There is quite a bit of research about visual attention. When we presume competence, we look for students to be successful and build on those moments. Recognizing that we are all subject to cognitive biases such as confirmation bias. We look for evidence that agrees with what we already think. Look for the moments where students show you their intelligence. When you look for them, you will find them.

Take the “blame” if the child’s telling you something and you’re not understanding it

Take it upon yourself to be a better listener. If individuals with CCN are taking the time to try to tell you something you can be pretty sure of 2 things: 1. That it’s important. 2. They are trying their hardest and using every tool they have. Make sure that that they know you’re reciprocating that effort.

Have high expectations and provide whatever support is required to meet them. Consider the barriers and obstacles and problem solve to overcome them without placing blame on the child. When you can look at the environment, communication partner, access or activity as the reason for a communication breakdown, you can make changes. If you say that the child is the reason, you haven’t left room for modifications to support success.

Limit physical prompts

Eliminate hand over hand prompting for students who don’t physically need help. Instead of taking a child’s hand and pulling it to the button you think they want, use aided language input or gestural prompts. When you presume competence, you’re giving the individual the benefit of a respectful interaction.

I’ve seen some research to support the idea of using least to most prompting strategies this week, which is exciting! There are links to two studies here and here.

Take a look at this 14-second video.  We had been playing music. I thought she was stuck and having a hard time finding music. I was wrong. If I had hand over hand prompted her to say “music” and then played it, she wouldn’t have had an opportunity to tell me what she really needed.

Click to play

Value individual communication preferences

If your colleague waved to you in the hall as you walked past her, you wouldn’t grab her and insist that she look at you and verbally say, “Hi” to you. If someone chooses to wave to you, you can wave back or you can say, “Hi, how’s it going?” We use universal gestures to communicate, and we accept that as humans in a society.

When you’re trying to teach a student with CCN to greet people, you can presume competence by modeling different options as you greet them, but accepting their nonverbal greeting as you would from any other child. It’s also important to recognize that greetings often aren’t reinforcing for kids. And sometimes, separate from the CCN, kids are shy…especially when they’re put on the spot.

Topics of conversation also vary by individual preferences. Imagine someone at work starting to tell you about their children or a favorite show that just had a shocking plot twist. Would you ignore them? If your second grade niece started talking to you about American Girl Dolls, would you refuse to acknowledge her interest and instead start giving her math problems to solve?

Presuming competence is more than believing that a child is competent of thoughts, ideas, and learning. It is also the practice of making sure people – ALL people – have the right to talk about what THEY want, even if it’s not the topic we planned.


Listen with all of your senses. You know those annoying “whole body listening” posters? The ones that show the child sitting quietly in a desk with a closed mouth and feet still on the floor, hands folded in front of them, eyes looking in the direction of the speaker…yeah, not like that. Listen to understand, whatever that means for you. Watch their movements and look for patterns. Listen to the words they’re repeating over and over. Consider that it may not be “stimming” or a lack of understanding of AAC. Figure out what they’re trying to tell you.

I worked with a little guy in a preschool classroom a couple of years ago, who has since become verbal. He was apraxic and was using Speak for Yourself and able to put 3-4 words together.

One week, I went in to visit and the teacher said, “Every time I hand him the device, the only thing he says is ‘all’ the entire time.” The device was sitting on the bleachers while he was at gym. When I looked at the device history, he had, in fact, said “all” 512 times in the last 10 days.

As soon as he saw me, he ran over to the device, and said, “all.” When I said, “All of what?” he repeated it a few more times. Then he touched the upper right corner of the device where the Babble button (which opens ALL of the words in the Speak for Yourself app) SHOULD have been…but someone had locked it. I said, “You mean ALL of the words!” I went into the app settings and unlocked the Babble feature. He toggled all of the words “on,” smiled at me and said, “all.” I added and modeled, “all (the) words.” He was thrilled…he stopped saying “all” incessantly. His problem was solved.

He tried to get his point across over 500 times before someone was able to figure it out. (The teacher and staff were excellent, and I don’t know if I would have figured it out if he didn’t give me the extra clue. I also have the advantage of knowing the app really, really well:) Isn’t it amazing that he kept trying?

Also, accept that a student may not be able to listen like the cartoon posters. For some of our students, it takes so much focused energy to hold their bodies still, that if they are doing that, it’s unlikely that they’re able to listen attentively.

Acknowledge that People are Complex

There are things that we just don’t know. We spend a lifetime learning about ourselves. It is impossible to know everything about another person.

Presuming competence isn’t about belief in students in the absence of evidence. It is a belief in their right to access the communication to demonstrate their abilities as humans. You’ll never gather evidence without providing opportunity. So when you’re marking down minuses on data sheets, ask yourself, “Is it possible that there isn’t an adequate way for them to show me that they know this?” When you do that, and acknowledge that there are a range of variables between a plus and a minus, you start to problem solve for your student(s) instead of testing them.

Presuming competence is giving students the opportunity to learn literacy, math, science, and history regardless of their disability.

It is providing the chance to build relationships. It’s exposing students with CCN to leisure activities and allowing them to decide if it’s something they enjoy.

Presuming competence gives children a chance to explore and make mistakes without penalty. It gives them time to learn with support rather than testing or criticism.  When you presume competence, you give the child a safe place to fail and the ability to learn from those small failures and try again. It’s how we grow. That growth and the confidence students gain from overcoming challenges gives them the courage to keep moving forward and develop skills to demonstrate their competence.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Tiny” Speak for Yourself Coming Soon to iPhones!

Owen looking at his vocabulary on the Speak for Yourself AAC app on an iPhone for the first time.

Owen looking at his vocabulary on the Speak for Yourself AAC app on an iPhone for the first time.

We have a few announcements to make…Two pieces of good news and one necessary business decision.

First, the business decision: Effective with the release of the 2.6 update, the price for the Speak for Yourself AAC app will be $299.99 USD. We reduced the price to $199.99 USD in October of 2012, and that’s where it has remained for the past four years. With added licensing costs for voices, updates and ongoing development, it’s necessary to increase the price at this time. If you already own Speak for Yourself, or if you purchase it prior to the next update (version 2.6), this will not affect you.

Second, effective in the next update, we are eliminating the in app purchasing of multi user slots. This means that you will be able to store up to 40 different users within the Speak for Yourself app with no additional cost! Most importantly, you will have access to those multiple user slots with no need for any additional App Store downloads.

Finally, we announced last week that the Speak for Yourself Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) app is going to be available on the smaller iPhone/iPod screens! Once you own Speak for Yourself, getting the iPhone version will be just like downloading SfY from the cloud on any device. Tiny SfY will be part of the Speak for Yourself app. There will be no additional cost.

A Closer Look at Tiny Speak for Yourself 

Speak for Yourself on an iPad Pro 12.9", iPad Pro 9.7", iPad mini, and iPhone 6s

Speak for Yourself on an iPad Pro 12.9″, iPad Pro 9.7″, iPad mini, and iPhone 6s

When we were initially developing Speak for Yourself in 2011, the iPhone of the day was the iPhone 4. It was amazing! It had TWO cameras! “Selfies” were new and exciting! There were AAC apps at the time that were available on the iPhone (and there still are), but when we looked at the small buttons of the Speak for Yourself app and the relatively quiet speakers of the iPhone, it didn’t seem to be a viable option for us. The screen was 4.5 inches high and 2.31 inches wide. We anticipated that phones would get smaller, and accessing 120 buttons on a screen would be unrealistic. “Maybe we’ll create a more limited vocabulary for the smaller screen down the road,” we thought. (Not so fun fact…Developers have to program/code separately for iPads and iPhones).

But our technology forecasting was wrong…The iPhones actually got BIGGER! We started discussing the usability of the iPhone as an AAC option.

So last spring, for fun, our developer put a rough version of Speak for Yourself on his iPhone, and it felt like Christmas! It was usable! The TinySfY buttons were twice the size of the keyboard buttons that we use to text and email everyday! Without any vocabulary limitation at all, we could accurately touch the little buttons. We tried it with a few of our trusted, local Speak for Yourself users, and they were immediately able to use it. We had our proof of concept.

As I wrote on our Facebook page:

My iPhone 6s in its LifeProof case measures 5.75 inches high by 3 inches wide, and there’s the larger “plus” options for an even larger display size. Many of us have our phones permanently, comfortably attached to our hand. We’re always ready for a quick social media update, text or Google search.

Now, Speak for Yourself users and the people who love and support them can be just as ready to make a quick comment, convey urgent medical information or correct a misunderstanding.

By the end of this year, if you’re using Speak for Yourself, your iPhone or iPod Touch will be able to put 14,000 words in the palm of your hand! The Speak for Yourself app is currently in beta testing for use on an iPhone/iPod.

The buttons are small, BUT they are twice the size of the keyboard buttons that we all use, including our students who flawlessly use mom or dad’s phone to search for videos on YouTube. Many of our users will be able to access Tiny Speak for Yourself (Tiny SfY), but even if they are not able to access it, having the app on an iPhone also puts the ability to model seamlessly into the hands of parents, professionals…and siblings. That may be the biggest game changer of Tiny SfY.

Take a look at Owen exploring his vocabulary file on an iPhone for the first time:

Jess (whose mom Mary writes the You Don’t Say AAC blog) thought it was pretty cool too! I handed my iPhone to her to explore while I was trying to put Speak for Yourself on her mom’s iPhone before her trip to Maui. Jess said “attempting” using Tiny SfY.

Jess exploring Speak for Yourself on an iPhone.

Jess exploring Speak for Yourself on an iPhone.

During a recent visit to NJ, Nathaniel’s mom and dad mentioned that they would like to be able to use it on his phone. So, when it was approved for beta testing, they were given the chance. Nathaniel’s mom, Kim wrote about it in her Hold My Words blog. Nathaniel’s brother snapped this great picture:

Nathaniel checking out Speak for Yourself on an iPhone. Photo credit Josiah Rankin originally posted on Hold My Words blog

Nathaniel checking out Speak for Yourself on an iPhone. Photo credit Josiah Rankin originally posted on Hold My Words blog

Our plan is to have the iPhone version released and available to EVERYONE by the end of 2016! Stop by and visit us at ASHA in a couple of weeks to check it out!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment