Looking for Some Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Modeling Motivation?

How many times have you heard that using aided language input is a key strategy to teach the augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) learners in your life? If you follow AAC blogs and groups, participate in AAC professional development, or read AAC articles, the answer is probably “a lot.”

We ran an AAC modeling implementation intention “experiment” the first two weeks of May for Better Hearing and Speech Month (#BHSM). For more details, check out this link.  As part of the “Make Room for AAC Modeling ‘Experiment,” each day for the fourteen day challenge, we shared a #modelingmotivation on the Speak for Yourself Facebook page.  For those of you who weren’t able to participate in “real time,” I thought it might be helpful to have some modeling motivation any time you want it! SO here is the information that was shared over the two week “experiment.”


Today’s motivation is the Jane Korsten quote that many of you may have already seen. (I’m attaching the graphic that Rachael Langley created.)

If you’re reading this quote for the first time, many people (especially parents) say they feel overwhelmed…Like they’ve already lost years of language exposure for their child.

But instead, let it motivate you to start increasing their exposure to an expressive language system now. Your children have been listening. They hear language all day, every day. They know the words.

Based on Jane’s numbers, if you have a six year old, he has heard 17,520 hours of spoken language. That time hasn’t been wasted. He’s been listening.

Using aided language input on an AAC system makes expressive language accessible. It provides a way for someone using AAC to participate in the conversation happening around them.

Show them how it’s done…and start today!

Day 2

If you missed yesterday in the Make Room for AAC Modeling “Experiment,” start today! I’ve left a few days between the end of the experiment and the survey to allow for a back up plan. 😉

Today’s #ModelingMotivation is a post I wrote more than 3 years ago. It gives a detailed explanation about how to model one more word than your child/student is using independently.

You don’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Have fun and enjoy the time talking with your child!

“One of the more common, and important, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) implementation strategies is Aided Language Input or modeling.  It would be overwhelming to use your child’s/client’s device to model EVERY word you are saying verbally…for you and the child!  Here’s the good news, you can successfully use Aided Language Input without overwhelming anyone!”

Day 3

How is everyone doing?

My time spent with students is generally already carved out for aided language input, but yesterday, I knew the class was going on a walk during the time I would be there. It’s not a walk around the school. It’s a walk through the town to a store. There are traffic lights, crosswalks, dogs, cars, and other people. There’s a lot going on and it’s usually a difficult time to model.

In the spirit of this challenge, I planned to do it anyway. Everyone else was talking as we walked down the street. The student’s 1:1 aide is excellent so the student’s safety was covered.

The “place” I planned to model was when we stopped. So I modeled things like “waiting,” “red light,” “go now,” “need stop,” “walk school.” The student vocalized and watched the cars and lights changing.  She didn’t seem to care about the modeling, but she also didn’t tell me to stop (which she does if she wants me to stop:).

She never used the device herself as we were walking, but she didn’t clear the message window either (which she does pretty vigilantly).

Occasionally, as she was walking she’d slide her hand down to the device hanging at her side. Without looking at it, she’d touch the message window, causing the device to speak the modeled words.

Something important to remember about AAC modeling is that you’re not always going to get immediate results. She didn’t use any of the words I modeled yesterday independently. BUT she seemed to enjoy walking and talking.

Using aided language input lays the groundwork that communication is a positive experience, and you can use AAC anywhere. Take the pressure off of yourself and the AAC learner. Know that when you use aided language input, you’re not only teaching words. You’re teaching them that you want to hear their voice…everywhere.

Day 4

Today’s #modelingmotivation is a throwback post from PrAACtical AAC. 

“Everyone can do it. This is not a strategy reserved for highly trained professionals. Some of the best implementers I’ve ever seen of this strategy were paraprofessionals and family members. Even peers can get in on the action. Learning from friends? Yes, please!”

Day 5

If you’ve been getting “stuck,” today’s #modelingmotivation might help you problem solve your aided language stimulation approach. This is a quick 2 page hand out from Assistive Technology Australia.

If you’re having a difficult time modeling or feel like you’re in a rut, consider changing something in one of the areas they mention. The more you do it, the easier it gets!

Day 6

Today, I’m sharing some phrases you can model. Today.

This post contains lists of two, three, and four word core word utterances that you can pretty easily apply at some point throughout every day. This is our most often pinned post on Pinterest. I hope it gives you the #modelingmotivation you need today!

Day 7

We’re halfway through the 2 week plan to carve out the time and place to model AAC for the people in your life who are using.

For those of you who are motivated by evidence-based research, here is a research article.

“The most important clinical implication of this study is that a 3-week intervention program in aided language stimulation was sufficient to facilitate the comprehension of at least 24 vocabulary items in 4 children with LNFS (little or no functional speech).”

Day 8

As we begin the second week, today’s #modelingmotivation is a post by Kate Ahern about the importance of language rich immersion in AAC.

“Even if they were adults with full receptive language, a lifetime of experience in the world and average cognitive abilities AND they spent ALL 30 hours a week at school fully engaged in AAC learning (including during transitions, meals and hygiene activities) it would take approximately six months to get to basic communication mastery.”

Day 9

Today’s #modelingmotivation is a research article looking at a naturalistic approach and modeling. 

Here are some of the key takeaways from the article (in case you don’t have time to look at the full study).

The third one is my favorite…even if the child doesn’t use the SGD, YOUR use of it can result in language gains!

* “using an SGD within an effective naturalistic developmental behavioral intervention may facilitate longer and more frequent reciprocal communication interactions, leading to gains in verbal and nonlinguistic communication skills” (p. 11) in 5-8 year-old children with autism.

* In the SGD group, significant differences were seen in spontaneous communicative utterances and initiating joint attention.

* “…the gains made by children… could be explained by the therapist modeling SGD use, with or without child SGD use” (p. 12).

Day 10

This article has a lot of great information for #modelingmotivation!

“The attitudes, beliefs and knowledge of the student’s communication partners are pivotal in the success story of any kind of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).”

Day 11

Today’s #modelingmotivation is a post that has a couple of videos of me using aided language input. Sometimes it helps to actually see it happening (and see the things I do imperfectly:).

This post also talks about the layers of modeling and how students sometimes need a lot of exposure before they decide to reach out and touch the device.

Feel free to link your favorite AAC modeling videos in the comments (it doesn’t have to be on the Speak for Yourself app).

Day 12

Here are some new ideas, as we’re winding down to the end of this 2 week challenge/experiment.

So, for today’s #modelingmotivation, this is an older aided language stimulation information sheet. It has some great suggestions and some more in-depth details about variation in modeling approaches.

If you’re feeling like your modeling has become a little stagnant, check it out!

Day 13

Today’s #modelingmotivation is this video by Christopher Bugaj that explains modeling and gives some good examples of phrases to model.

It’s also easy to understand if you’re trying to explain why aided language input is important to peers, siblings, and people who may not be familiar with AAC.

Day 14

For today’s #modelingmotivation this is a great summary handout that explains aided language input, gives some examples of how you can model, and cites research.

We made it! Today is the final day of the two week challenge/”experiment” about modeling implementation intentions!

Thanks to all of you who have participated and shared your experiences! Stay tuned for the results!

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Survey: Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Modeling Implementation Intentions

Predictable chart writing on a dry erase board went in a slightly different direction. Teaching anything requires flexibility.

Yesterday, we wrapped up our two-week Make Room for AAC Modeling Implementation Intentions “Experiment.” 

This post includes a link to the short survey to see if using the research on implementation intentions was helpful to increase the use of aided language input for our AAC learners. The survey also includes questions about your size and where to send the t-shirt being given for participation*. The survey will be open from 9:00 AM EST on Monday May 15th, 2017 until 11:59 PM EST on May 20th, 2017.

If you are reading this after May 20th, 2017, feel free to use the format of the “experiment” to plan for your AAC modeling. Choose two weeks and commit – with specifics – to using aided language input.

Thank you to all of you who have participated and shared your stories, either publicly or privately. It’s nice to know that you’re out there and find the information helpful!


*Shirts are only being sent within the United States to the first one hundred respondents. We apologize for any disappointment.

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Make Room for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Modeling “Experiment”

Two children sitting in the field each looking at their own device in front of them.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) modeling is important. Ask any AAC-knowledgeable speech-language pathologist, teacher, researcher, parent, or AAC app developer. Aided language input is common ground in the field of AAC, regardless of the language system you’re using. So if you support someone who uses AAC, this “experiment” applies to you.

If you use AAC, the aided language input piece may not be applicable, but feel free to choose something you’d like to improve within your AAC use and target it using this approach.

As I write this, I have that butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling. This is out of my comfort zone. I’m not a researcher, but I am a research fan and follower. I imagine it’s the feeling that a Garth Brooks fan would have if he/she were suddenly thrown onto stage at his concert and handed a microphone. Well, maybe not that extreme. Even if you sing “Friends in Low Places” really well on karaoke night, it doesn’t make you Garth Brooks.

Here’s my disclaimer: This isn’t a perfect scientific research experiment. If you’re an excellent researcher, there are going to be glaring things that are wrong with my design or my method, or the survey. Please forgive all of that because my goal in this is not to be a renowned researcher. All of that being said, I’m loosely using the words “research” and “experiment.”

My goal is for parents and professionals to find a way to support the people they know and love who use AAC. When I hear about strategies that work in other areas, I try to apply them to real life. Research in any field is only six degrees of separation* from AAC for me.

So it should come as no surprise that when I heard James Clear talking about implementation intentions on a podcast about social science, I immediately thought of AAC implementation intentions. (I wrote about the implementation intention research in this post in more detail earlier in the week.)

It sounded…easy. If this research works, AAC modeling will increase with a quick, minor change in your routine. Pretty exciting, right!?

Here’s the Plan!

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month (BHSM), and the theme this year is Communication: The Key to Connection. Let’s do a little research about modeling AAC using motivation and planned implementations.

Here’s what I’m asking of you

Give AAC modeling a place to live within your day. Carve out the time to show your child/student(s) that communication is a priority. Put it in your schedule. We’re asking you to plan to communicate and connect with your student(s)/child(ten) who are using AAC. If you’re already doing that, that’s wonderful!

  1. Commit to modeling for (at least) 15 minutes a day for the next two weeks.
  2. Decide on a time and place that *should* give you 15 minutes of modeling time with the AAC user(s) in your life.
  3. Decide on a contingency plan. Unexpected things happen all the time. Plan around them for success.
  4. Complete the form below. Write it on your dry erase board in your kitchen. Put it in your calendar. Put a sticky note near the place you plan to model. Whatever you decide,  publish your intention so that you will see it every day for the next two weeks.

Modeling intention form to put your plan in writing.

The second thing we’re asking is that you keep track for 2 weeks (May 1st-15th, 2017) and complete a brief survey letting us know if it worked or not! Once you complete the survey, you’ll get a free t-shirt** for your time! You can use this weekly calendar to check off if you modeled or not, or you can do it in a way that works best for you.

Modeling implementation intention weekly calendar.

Here’s what I’m going to do

  1. Every day, for the next two weeks, I’ll post a “modeling motivator” on the Speak for Yourself Facebook page. I’ll share a post about aided language input, a success story, or a research article that reminds you that modeling is important.
  2. On May 15th, I’ll post a survey asking for your results. When you complete the survey, we’ll send you this t-shirt.** (The survey will include size options and mailing address information for t-shirt sending purposes only. We won’t use your identifying information for any other reason.) The survey will close on May 20th, 2017 at 11:59pm EST.
  3. Write about the results and post them by the end of May!

Blue t-shirt that reads: I (heart) when we speak AAC.

Thank you all so much for your excitement and participation! I can’t wait to see how it goes!

*If you’re not familiar with it, six degrees of separation is the idea that everything in the world and all living things are only six or fewer steps from each other.

**T-shirts will be sent to the first 100 survey participants ONLY. Due to shipping costs, t-shirts will only be sent to participants within the United States. I apologize for any disappointment. The shirts are meant to add fun and incentive to the project.

T-shirts can be purchased (at the same price we’re paying) here. If you need children’s sizes, they can be purchased here.

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I Meant to Model Today: Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Implementation Intentions

Jess looking at me with high expectations of a good alternative to live theater.

It happens to the best of us. You have every intention of using some amazing and advanced aided language input. You imagine this wonderful interaction between you and a captive augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) user, soaking in the model of expressive language you fluently provide. But the day passes, and before you drift off to sleep, you realize that it didn’t happen. Life is busy. You got interrupted. Or maybe you were just having fun and enjoying the moments with your child. Whatever the reason, modeling intentions get pushed to the next day. You close your eyes and think, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Here’s the thing…tomorrow is going to be busy too. You’re going to get interrupted. And hopefully, you’re going to spend some time in everyday moments having fun and enjoying your child or student. What if the research about implementation intentions could make your aided language input intentions a more consistent reality?

As a field, professionals and researchers generally agree that aided language input is a crucial strategy in AAC implementation. Let’s see if we can use research in another area and apply it to increase the aided language input we provide!

I Meant to Model, but…

I recently spent some time hanging out with Jess, who you may know from her mom’s blog, You Don’t Say AAC. Jess is a twenty-five year old young woman who has Angelman Syndrome and uses Speak for Yourself. We had a fun day planned that was packed with her decisions. She initially wanted Burger King, but as we were driving, she decided on lobster for lunch. Sure! Ice cream? Why not?! Dried apples from the orchard market. Of course! (I had to veto Mamma Mia and Les Miserables because they weren’t playing near us.) She settled for Beauty and the Beast at the movie theater. Here’s a video of that conversation:

I intended to load her vocabulary data setting on my iPad and spend some focused time using aided language input, but two things happened. First, I picked her up in a whirlwind of excitement and ended up in the car without a wifi connection. Second, she was so talkative throughout the day that I didn’t feel like there was a good opportunity to take her device, connect it to my hot spot, and then email her user vocabulary to myself. I didn’t do it.

I modeled on her device while we sat in the car outside of the restaurant. We talked about what we could do in the hour between lunch and the movie. I modeled in the restaurant when we were figuring out the choice of sides. When her device battery died, I pulled out my iPad and modeled on the unpersonalized vocabulary in my app before handing it to Jess to use. But when the day ended, I thought, “I meant to model today.”

Implementation Intention Research

My modeling “failure” reminded me of something I had heard about research on implementation intentions. I had saved the research article, which talked about exercise. Part of the reason I saved this article was because it made me think of using the strategy in the article for implementing aided language input.

The researchers randomly divided people into 3 groups. The control group was asked how often they exercised. The second group (“motivated group”) was asked how often they exercised and also given motivational materials about the benefits of exercising. The third group was given the motivational materials and also asked to fill out a form with the “when, where, and how” of their exercise plan. After two weeks, the researchers found that there was not much difference between the control group (38% engaged in exercise) and the “motivated” (35% engaged in exercise) group. However, the third group with the clear intention plan, had 91% of the participants follow through on their exercise plan. This is not the only research about implementation intentions. This research supports an already strong body of evidence in this area.

I Tried It For This Blog Post

My MacBook screen with two sticky notes. The first (orange note) reads: “I will write uninterrupted on Thursday (4/20) from 9-11 am in the shedquarters.
The second (blue note) reads: “If I am interrupted, I’ll add that time after 11.”

…and it worked! I’ve been thinking about this blog post for at least a few weeks. I keep intending to write it and then something else takes my attention. Today, I made it a priority. I wrote it down and made a commitment to devote a couple of hours to actually doing it. And I did.

What’s the Possible Implication for AAC?

I don’t know, but let’s find out! May is Better Hearing and Speech Month (BHSM), and the theme this year is Communication: The Key to Connection. We’d like to do a little research about modeling AAC using motivation and planned implementations. It will be a better experiment with your help!

Here’s what I’m asking of you: Give AAC modeling a place to live within your day. Carve out the time to show your child/student(s) that communication is a priority. Put it in your schedule. We’re asking you to plan to communicate and connect with your student(s)/child(ten) who are using AAC. If you’re already doing that, that’s wonderful!

The second thing we’re asking is that you keep track for 2 weeks and complete a brief survey letting us know if it worked or not! Once you complete the survey, you’ll get a free t-shirt for your time! I’ll post a blog with all of the links and details on Friday April 28th, 2017, and we’ll officially get started on May 1st!

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The Aftermath: Emergent Literacy in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

Avery sitting in a waiting room with books spread out in front of her and a baby doll by her side.

Just over two months ago, I walked into Avery’s house with an armful of books. I boldly told her and her mom that we were going to work on reading and writing. Avery had just turned four, and her mom unflinchingly said, “Sounds good to me.” Avery gasped with excitement as if I’d walked in with a new puppy or a bushel of balloons. We had been doing a lot of shared reading, but I had a fresh plan for literacy. Avery was completely on board.

I returned from the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference with renewed excitement. It is the kind of enthusiasm we hope to gain from professional development experiences. I attended a session called Using Core Vocabulary in Emergent Literacy Instructional Routines presented by the Project Core team. It resonated with me. I appreciated the framework for targeting and encouraging emergent literacy for users of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Their plan put the responsibility on the instructor rather than the student. It also fit well with the Speak for Yourself AAC app.

That hour and a half session inspired a six part series of blog posts addressing literacy using AAC and Project Core.

In case you missed it…

For those of you who have busy lives and haven’t been able to follow along every week, I thought it might be beneficial to round up links to all of the posts. So here they are:

Using Speak for Yourself with Project Core Non-Instructional Routines 

Shared Reading: Using AAC With Project Core

“I like” Predictable Chart Writing: Using AAC and Project Core

Independent Writing: Using AAC and Project Core 

Alphabet and Phonological Awareness: Using AAC and Project Core

Independent Reading: Using AAC and Project Core

I read a lot of research, but not just for the sake of reading it. The value of research is in the application of it. When I read research in any field, I think how does this apply to my life?, which generally ends up translating to how does this apply to AAC? So when there’s a framework that really smart researchers take the time to establish, it makes sense to listen.   It makes sense to try it.

The Aftermath

As clinicians, we know that what works for one child may not work for another. Even if it’s been researched. But what I will say about these emergent literacy strategies is that they were not difficult to try. They didn’t take long. And most importantly, they generalized seamlessly. It does help that Avery was already interested in books when we started. It helps that as soon as her occupational therapist knew about it, she jumped in with writing activities too. It also helps that her home is a “book rich” environment. However, none of those things are pre-requisites for literacy to emerge. You can start with one small act. Put books in your environment. Start reading out loud to your students using AAC. Model some of the words on their device. Like so many things, it starts with a first step.

Sometimes we implement things and we don’t get to know if they “worked” immediately. We don’t always get instant results and as clinicians we accept that. Our work is for the long term. But sometimes, we’re fortunate to see the impact right away. Avery’s mom texted me the picture in the beginning of this post and a short video last week (and graciously gave permission to share them). She had a doctor’s appointment, in an office full of toys (which she also used), but guess how Avery decided to spend her time…better yet, she can tell you herself! (Listen to her use of core vocabulary!)


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Speak for Yourself and VocaliD Bring Cutting-Edge Custom Voices to the iPad

Lemmy looking at his Speak for Yourself screen with excitement.

We just released version 2.7 of Speak for Yourself! This version is very exciting for some of you, and for others, there will be no difference in the app.

For us, it’s pivotal! This update allows VocaliD voices to be used in the Speak for Yourself AAC app! I know we’re not the first augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system to offer access to VocaliD voices. However, we are the first – and as I write this, the only – AAC app that has this option.

Lemmy (in the adorable pictures) and a few other individuals who chose to purchase VocaliD voices will be receiving those voices shortly.

We announced that we would be incorporating VocaliD technology in this post when we first decided to work with Rupal Patel and the VocaliD team. This was in May 2015, almost two years ago. Shortly after, I wrote about the ever-evolving voice option in AAC. In that post, I said, “When I first heard about VocaliD, it was through Rupal Patel’s TED talk . I watched with excitement. When it was over, I emailed it to Renee and our developer with a simple “I want this!” message, like a five-year-old with a Toys-R-Us catalog.”

Making it Happen

We are early adopters of this technology. When we agreed to make it available to the individuals using Speak for Yourself, we didn’t have an elaborate plan. We did it with a “whatever it takes, we’ll make it work” approach. When I say we are early adopters, I mean that Speak for Yourself users will be within the first 15 people in the world to have access to their custom VocaliD voices.   Prior to this update, these custom voices were only available to users of traditional AAC devices from device manufacturers.

Our goal when we developed Speak for Yourself was to offer a high-quality language system that is financially within reach. We knew the iPad would be the only chance that some people with complex communication needs (CCN) would have to get their hands on AAC. Throughout the more than five years that Speak for Yourself has been on the market, our mission has been to make sure that the people who depend on Speak for Yourself to meet their AAC needs, have access to dependable, high quality communication. With this update, we are able to provide the option of a custom VocaliD voice to anyone using Speak for Yourself.

Lemmy choosing his words with intense concentration.

Thank you to Mark, our phenomenal lead developer, and to the team at VocaliD who worked diligently to make this possible. This is just the beginning. It is exciting to be part of new technology and to be able to bring it to the iOS (iPad, iPhone, and iPod) platform. We can’t wait to hear Lemmy and the new voices in Speak for Yourself!

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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. 😉

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