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.

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