Coffee talk: communication, reading and symbols

Camp ALEC is just two months away.  We’ve worked hard to create brochures and applications, send out emails and letters to families, post on Facebook, Tweet, write guest blogs and share the news of this program with friends, families, colleagues and organizations everywhere to fill the last few camper spots. We are finalizing some of the nitty gritty details related to scheduling.  We are still brainstorming on activities that will ensure campers take home stories of zany activities shared with their new friends.  All the while, I’ve also been trying to re- immerse myself in research regarding literacy assessment and intervention with children who have significant disabilities.

This week, I was asked by a friendly and unsuspecting coworker about my summer plans while we were refilling our coffee mugs. She probably expected to hear about our upcoming vacation or our next home improvement project.  Instead, she heard more about assuming competence, AAC and literacy than she bargained for.  I cannot rein in my excitement when I start talking about Camp ALEC.

Quite simply, many children with significant disabilities are not taught to read and write.  Their instruction never moves beyond readiness skills, such as letter and/or sound recognition.  Or they are taught to recognize a limited number of sight words. Their instruction never enables these students to read and write to gain or convey meaning.  Fortunately, things are changing — slowly but surely.   Expectations for children with significant disabilities are being raised across the country, driven by changes in education laws and savvy parents and educators who are hoisting the bar.

Here are just two tidbits about communication and symbols filling my brain at the moment:

Literacy IS language.  If your child struggles to be understood and understand what is said to him, this is all the more reason to teach reading and writing.  For children who are nonverbal or who rely on symbols to communicate, written language is the best way to communicate with the world because there are no limits!  No matter how many symbols we provide to represent spoken language, there is no way to provide a symbol to represent every single word.  Given the ability to spell (even creatively!), however, a child can communicate anything!

Symbols and pictures support communication and serve a very important role in visual schedules, instructions and navigating in the community, such as finding those public restrooms!  Often, educators pair symbols with text (sometimes every word or almost every word!) to make printed words more accessible. There are many software programs and apps available that do this.  To teach reading, however, those symbols inevitably steal the child’s attention from the text and make it difficult for him to read and comprehend the words, which is the goal, of course.  Further, these symbols make it impossible to determine whether the child is able to read the printed text with comprehension or is simply garnishing meaning represented by the syllables. Karen Erickson, PhD and her colleagues at the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies recommend that we avoid pairing text with symbols because there is no evidence this practice supports gains in reading comprehension. In fact, it makes it harder to learn how to read because those symbols distract from the reading process.  She recommends presenting text only, but keeping those symbols nearby in order to talk about what is being read.