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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