Saturday, December 29, 2012

Using the Nonverbal Approach to Promote Literacy

I came across this Power Point presentation a few weeks back and have since found a couple of research studies on the "Nonverbal Approach to Reading (NRA)".  When I attended the "Literacy and AAC" course put on by Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver in May, they spoke of the goal of reading instruction being that of "reading silently (in your head) with comprehension".  Seems logical but for students who do not talk what does this mean?  From everything that I've read what it means is that we need to be explicit about teaching them to read silently in there head.  We need to actually talk to them in the teaching process about what they are hearing in their heads while reading. 

I'm excited to begin trying this NRA method with a few of my students after Christmas.  I am using a modified approach to Patricia Cunningham's "Systematic Sequential Phonics They Use: For Beginning Readers of All Ages" with three of my students and have now created NRA Power Points to go with the word wall words that are introduced with this program.  One of the research articles that I read talked about including a motoric prompt to go along with steps of the NRA approach as they were then able to tell when students transferred the skill and were using the approach with other words.  I'm excited to add in this NRA piece.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Interactive to Independent Literacy: A Model for Designing Literacy Goals for Children with Atypical Communication

I knew immediately that this article was to like this article when I read the quote that it opened with: "Researchers and professionals need to work actively to reverse the forces at work in our culture that lead to the ostracism of children who are different." 
Over the past year and a half, my views about literacy instruction for the students that I have on my caseload have changed quite a bit.  I have been fortunate enough to take workshops and/or courses form Linda Burkhart (PODD Communication), Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver (Literacy in AAC Course) and Caroline Musslewhite (Literacy Workshop and Communication Circle Workshop).  I have also participated, along with two different teachers from the school I work at, in the Literacy for All project last year and this year.
It is not that I didn't believe in literacy instruction for "my" students so much as I was thinking of literacy as a series of lock step skills that needed to be mastered.  Sadly, a drill based approach to literacy still seems to be a reality for many with disabilities even against that fact that so many classrooms have moved to approaches that are much more comprehensive and interactive.  The functions of literacy skills seem go quickly get lost in this approach and these students are then faced with the added challenge of low motivation on top of the challenges presented by their disabilities. Without the context of what one is doing, it is hard to stay motivated to to do it. 
"For all children to bcome members of their literate communities, we must consider reading and writing not as end products but rather as socially communicative practices that begin to emerge early in childhood as other communicative abilities do. Both oral and written language are thus viewed as primarily communicative practice, and an intervention to achieve that end is best viewed as situated practice."
This article goes on to present a model for five level literacy instruction that is influenced by the Social Interaction Model, the Participation Model and the Situated Pragmatics Model along with possible goals for each of the five levels. 
It reflects the path that we have started down with the students that I have on my caseload over the past couple of years.  It is not always an easy path as it is slow and the focus is on interactions and the process rather than individually produced products.  The model is based on interaction to create understanding in the emergent stage and only moving on to conventional literacy when there is a deeper understanding.  The reality is that we can push students in to the emergent stage long before understanding and get the paper products that some would equate to learning so much quicker. 

What is the benefit of this approach?  How much research has been done?

It's all still so new and when it's about students with complex communication needs it is sometimes hard to measure these things.  Sometimes we need to just assume that these students will develop literacy skills in much the same way as others but they will require more time and because of limitations, they will also require others to be more deligent of keeping it all going.  I believe in the end the benefit will be motivation.  The article itself speaks to the benefit being that focusing this way also focuses in communication and interaction and these two things result in an increased quality of life for anyone. 
What I know is that making this shift has resulted in increased levels of interaction and engagement both with others and with literacy skills.  I know that I am imagining going places with letter by letter generative reading and writing that I had never imagined before with some of my students.  I know that I can see a deeper link between communication and litearcy and have found new ways to teach both in the crossover between the two.  I know that these skills we are working on are more authentically transferable then what we had worked on in the past. 
Finding this article was exciting for me because it framed so much of the learning journey about literacy and communication that I've been on (and will continue to be on) over these past couple of years. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Literacy for All Pilot Project Update

Way back at the beginning of the year, I posted about the "Literacy for All" pilot project that our school was going to a part of for the 2011-12 school year.  The project involved bringing educators from across the province of Alberta together to examine literacy learning for students with significant disabilities. In this past year we have met face to face, met online, participated in a online community, and used and examined the resources "MeVille to WeVille" and "Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four Blocks Way".  The project was built upon the premise that ALL students can learn literacy.  Being part of this project has given me the opportunity to further explore what it means when we say that we are going to teach literacy skills to students with significant disabilities and ultimately culminated in a desire to learn more.  It is evident that there is much that we can do by way of teaching literacy to students in this population and I'm excited to take what I've learned this year and continue to expand on it in years to come.

As the project wraps up, a wiki has been created to share information about literacy learning for students with significant disabilities.  My understanding is that the wiki will continue to be updated.  Check it out at

Monday, May 21, 2012

Literacy in Augmentative and Alternative Communication

This past week I traveled to Toronto for a "Literacy in AAC" course that was delivered by Karen Erikson and David Koppenhaver (the authors of the book "Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four-Blocks Way").  The focus of the course was on developing literacy skills in students who have complex communication needs. 

I do believe in literacy learning for all students but this course challenged me to further redefine what "literacy learning" is for the students that I teach.  I have been moving towards an understanding of generative reading and writing over the past couple of years but coming to understand that and actually having a plan of action around how to make that happen are two different things.  I came out of this course feeling like there is now an action plan and that plan is rooted in ensuring that the students that I am responsible for have a comprehensive literacy program that includes interactions related to each of the four blocks of literacy during the course of their days.  For the elementary and junior high students that I have this will mean using curriculum overlapping as they will be in inclusive settings for a large portion of their day.  For the elements that are more important to do directly, we will do a pull out intervention time to work on this.  For the high school students that I have I am looking at creating a literacy class that is equivalent in time to a five-credit course as well as finding another time in the day for students to do self-selected reading.

With some of my students we will be starting at the beginning and for others we will be building on the emergent skills that they already have.  Being part of the Alberta Education "Literacy for All" Pilot project this year has put us in a situation where we have built some of the foundation that we can build on with this new information.  

I would have a hard time summarizing all that I have learned so am hoping to do it over time in reference to what we learn as we implement different aspects.  Where we start is to rethink the need for exploration and interaction without limits related to reading and writing for all of the students that I teach.  So that means using alternate pencils to "write" in the same way that preschool students "write" (i.e. scribble a bunch of letter like figures) without correcting or trying to direct - but rather just naming letters and exposing the student to purposes for writing.  A couple neat suggestions around finding purposes for writing included using remnant books (which I have tried using in the past to create opportunities for communication) where everyone in the students life adds pictures and items to the book related to some thing that happened in their life.  Whomever adds the picture and item also adds a sticky note with a brief description of what it is about.  Then when it is time to write, the student picks which item in his/her writing book that he/she wants to write about and then he/she writes using an alternate pencil.  Here is where what we would have traditionally done needs to be rethought.  Instead of showing the student how to use the alternate pencil to write the words that you want to write about the the thing that he/she has picked to write about, you allow the student to just write - put down whatever letters he or she says he/she wants to put down when writing and you talk to them about their writing - in the same way that you would look at your toddlers picture with scribbles under it and know that is his/her writing at that time.  They did say that it is okay to to pull out one letter and write a word related to the topic but to not do it in a way that corrects and to not take away or direct their writing at this point.  As students are exposed to a comprehensive literacy program, their writing evolves as a result of the interaction of the components of the program.  A second idea was to put "captions" on pictures - again not correcting or directing but allowing for exploration and interaction.  It is a bit of a shift.  I'm excited to get started.  

This is obviously only a small piece.  As I start to figure out how to take all of this stuff that is spinning around in my head and put it in to action I am sure I will be writing more.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

COACH3: Choosing Outcomes & Accommodations for Children: A Guide to Educatoinal Planning for Students with Disabilities

Planning for the 2012-13 school year is in full swing as we are looking to move all of the students that I have on my caseload to their age appropriate schools this fall.  I will continue to oversee their programs at each of the three schools.  There is still a lot in the air around what things will look like exactly (we have ideas but because they are new we will need to be flexible and responsive to situations and students).

One of the shifts we are trying to make is for the starting point to be what the individualized goals are for these students and then to build their individual programs, including where each aspect of those programs will be delivered, based on that.  This is really the way it should be done but somehow we have gotten caught up in putting them in to a program based on a diagnosis or perception and then building a program that ensures they fit in to the program as it exists.  It was never intentional. I think we just sometimes get stuck in things because they seem to be more efficient.  But really we should be looking for efficient and effective and sometimes that means sacrificing a little bit of the efficient.

Here is where the COACH3 model comes in.  Where are starting with planning individual programs for next year is to work through the COACH3 (Giangreco, Coloninger & Iverson) with parents so that we can discover what the learning priorities they have for their children are. It will be interesting to know if they match with what I think they are.  It will also be helpful as we continue to plan for what their programs will look like next year in their new settings. 

The family interview and figuring out what the priority learning outcomes in that meeting is just the first part of the process.  The next thing we do is look at supplemental outcomes based on what other team members feel is important and then look at the general supports that will be in place.  This information is then used to create annual goals, short term objectives and a program-at-a-glance.  Ultimately all of this is used to create the student's IEP.

I'm excited to try the model as I looked long and hard at both this one and "The Beyond Access Model".  In the end I decided on this because it is a little bit more laid out and right now we kind of need that.  As we continue to move forward we will continue to evaluate what the best tool to plan for programming for these students is.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Raymond's Room: Ending the Segregation of People with Disablities by Dale Dileo

There are so many people in this world who are passionate about ending segregation of people based on disabilities.  It is always wonderful to read stories of people who dedicate their lives to this very worthy cause.

The book starts with a story of the author working in an institution and the horrid conditions that one of the people there lived under.  It describes Raymond's room and how he was viewed as being so dangerous that he needed to be locked away in a room living in conditions that we cannot imagine.  Dale Dileo moved from this experience to dedicating his life to changing "institutional thinking".  He has seen much progress but the book challenges readers to recognize that although much progress has been made, there is still a lot of "institutional thinking" in the world.

A few parts of the book that really resonated with me include:

Group Mindset: I like the approach to thinking not only about institutionalization but also institutional thinking.  When we group people together based on a disability label we do many things.  The book pointed out a couple that we need to be very aware of.  First, other people will notice what is common to the group of people - so they notice the disability as opposed to noticing the person.  For people to be seen as individuals they need to stand as individuals.  If we put someone with the disability in the middle of people without disabilities, people again notice what is common to everyone - which is that they are human.  The second point that is made about group mindset is that when there is a group of people there is far less social interaction with others then when people are on their own.  Expectations change when there is a group.  Getting rid of institutions is not enough.  We also need to get rid of institutional thinking. 

Pre-requisite Skills: I really liked the analogy made in this book about being required to have a certain set of skills before a person with a disability is allowed to do something in the real world. People with disabilities are expected to learn skills in simulated environments while others are given the opportunity to learn these same things in the middle of real life situations.  Perhaps what hit home with me the most was when the author spoke of the time when we move away from home for the first time.  Did we really have all the pre-requisite skills needed for living on our own?  I know I didn't.  I phoned home to find out how to do my laundry.  I had to learn to budget by getting to the end of the month and realizing there was more month left than there was money.  I learned that I had to pay my bills on time when I lost phone access because I didn't stay on top of things.  I gained skills through the experience and through the need.  This is tied in to the concept of "dignity of risk" and something that all people have the right to.

Real Jobs: This is one that is near and dear to my heart as it is important to me that Mikey (my son) eventually have a real job rather than work work in a sheltered environment or spend his days in a "day program".  One key point from this section was related to thinking about the context of a job.  There is one story about a man who has the "behaviours" of swearing and spitting and they are worried about placing him in a job.  He ends up getting a job at a shipping dock and succeeds there partially because many of the other people who work there spit and swear.  In this context, it is not a "behaviour".  The other thing I found important in this section was the discussion around the need to fit in to the social fabric of a work environment and how someone who is supporting the employment of a person with a disability should focus on helping them to fit in rather than breaking down the tasks in the work environment.  Once a person fits in to the work environment, those around them tell them the tricks of the trade.  I like this approach as it mirrors what I feel is the most important first step with my students.  We need to get them looking to and interacting with other students to figure out what to do next as opposed to relying on adults for that.

Lots of other great things in the book. Well worth the read and lots that motivates and inspires related to ending of institutional thinking.  I think it also helps frame the idea of looking at individual needs and desires when planning.  This means there may be some things that are done individually - but that is not the same as "in isolation".