How to model AAC with our minimally speaking students?
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How to model AAC with our minimally speaking students?

modelling AAC

How should we start? Should we use prompts? What kind of prompts? hand-over-hand or just pointing? Should we wait, and, if so, how long? Introducing an alternative communication system (AAC) to our child is for many of us a confusing and sometimes scary prospect, but it needn’t be! Let me reassure you and share some tricks of my practice in this area.

Once we have decided to try for a picture based communication system, I usually start with a paper-based single page with between 48–88 core-words. I choose the number of words depending on where the child is developmentally and also verbally.

If a child does have a small handful of words already, I might start with the 88-cell board below. If, on the other hand, my student is completely non-speaking and still quite little then I might go for the 48-cell below here or I might have even less cells to start with. Again, sometimes I start with an electronic device in my clinic just to trial and introduce the idea and to see if, or how, a student responds. 

Below are some samples: a 49-cell board which I made for a child in a nursery setting

Below a Saltillo WordPower board that can be downloaded from the Saltillo website:

Example of a slightly more advanced board, again from the Saltillo Website

And here below one example of a board I made for a specific activity for a child who loves water and sand play:

It is perfectly possible to be very flexible and create a suitable board for any student, starting with as few as 2–5 cells and working up to over a 100 (very small ones) on a sheet of A4 or A3 paper.

So once we have a good board for our child, what now? How do we start introducing this into our daily life?

We can start by showing/pointing to the word GO within a play activity. For example:

  • a car run,
  • or a marble run,
  • or a spinner activity,
  • a wind-up toy,
  • anything that can be stopped and started easily.

How to start?

I will talk us through each of the steps using the example for the word ‘GO’.

First phase

The first phase is a TEACHING/ LEARNING PHASE. In this phase we do not expect our student to do anything, to copy us or to point to the board. If they do that it is of course a huge bonus and we will celebrate it.

Our job is to simply MODEL/SHOW/GIVE EXAMPLES of how we can use the board, by steadily and regularly pointing to the chosen word or words. We do so across the day and across settings:

  • play
  • meal time
  • getting dressed/undressed
  • bath time
  • going to the car/shops
  • etc

Once we can be sure that our student has been submerged and SOAKED in seeing the coreboard being used, say after some 3–4 weeks of using it consistently…

Second phase

We can begin to move into the second phase which is the PRACTICE PHASE. By now the student has seen the boards and he or she has seen the word GO (as a example) modelled many times.

Now we can start to see if we can tempt our student into trying this out for themselves.

What sort of TEMPTING are we talking about? Take a look at the Prompt Hierarchy below, which shows us what to do to get our student to be independently communicating as soon as possible. 

The PROMPT HIERARCHY: what sort of prompting should we do, should we expect something from our student or how should we view this stage?

  1.  TEMPT AND PAUSE

I have the AAC near to the toy and each time the child starts another round of the activity I say clearly ‘GO’ and I point to the picture as do so. I then pause and wait to see what happens. NOTHING? Then…

  1. USE SIGNS AND BODY LANGUAGE

Next time the child starts another round I might be very animated and do a Makaton sign for GO as I say ‘GO’ and I make a very over point to the picture again. Then I wait. STILL NOTHING? OK then…

  1. OPEN-ENDED QUESTION

Now I might say ‘GO’ and follow with: ‘OOH I WONDER IF THERE IS A PICTURE TO POINT TO…’

‘OH LOOK HERE IS GO!’ I then point to GO.

 STILL NO RESPONSE?

  1. ASK FOR A RESPONSE

I might say ‘GO’ followed by ‘LOOK! LET’S POINT TO GO HERE ON THE PICTURE.’

STILL NO RESPONSE? 

  1.  PHYSICAL TOUCH

Next time I say ‘GO’ I will try and take the student’s hand, help isolate their finger and help him or her to point to the actual picture.

REMEMBER: Prompting serves a very important function in scaffolding learning for students BUT if we are constantly prompting kids, then we are teaching them to only communicate when someone tells them to. We want our student to become as independent in speaking and using words as possible.

So once I have done Physical Prompting I will try and phase back down to number 1 where all I need to do is point to the picture or look at the board with the aim that the student will then point to the picture.

Take away points:

  • Keep the learning phase pressure-free and model without expecting our student to jump in. In other words, let’s model first without expectation. Later we can have a little bit of expectation.
  • After they’ve been exposed to and have been ‘soaked’ in plenty of AAC input, then, YES, we can create an opportunity to help them say or point to the word on their own.
  • We can model BOTH with and without expectation.
  • Only after LOTS of exposure, use the least to most prompting hierarchy and start creating opportunities for a student to become an independent communicator.

Do get in touch if you have any questions or comments or if you would like some practical help.

I am always pleased to hear from you.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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Bilingualism – should I speak only English with my speech delayed child?
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Bilingualism – should I speak only English with my speech delayed child?

Introduction

Bilingualism is a beautiful aspect of our diverse world. Growing up in a bi- or multi-lingual household is a wonderful gift, allowing children to communicate with a broader range of people and access many cultures.

My own two children grew up in a bilingual German-English speaking household. They have both been so enriched by this experience, not only language- and learning-wise but of course also culturally: their world has always been so open and colourful. Growing up in inner London and having their German family and mum’s friends as well, this has been a wonderful experience. Both my boys speak German well (not quite like native speakers but like very good second language speakers) and both have very easily learned 3rd and 4th languages additionally when in secondary school.

Whilst bilingualism has untold benefits, it’s not uncommon for bilingual children to take slightly longer to reach certain speech milestones. This should not be automatically mistaken for speech disorders but rather seen as a natural part of bilingual language development.

Bilingualism and speech delays

Sometimes, of course, we do see speech delays or disorders where a child’s speech development lags significantly behind their peers. We often see a delay in both languages equally, making it extra hard for to communicate effectively. BUT PLEASE KNOW the family speaking in multi-lingual languages never caused the delay/disorder!

If there is a delay or a disorder any number of other reasons could have caused it, such as:

  • hearing impairments,
  • reduced phonological awareness,
  • sensory processing issues,
  • reduced attention and reduced joint attention,
  • neuro-developmental delays or difficulties,
  • general or specific learning difficulties
  • or sometimes other genetic factors.

So, to say that the difficulty is due to a child being exposed to several languages is a red herring. (no offence to herrings!)

Speech therapy

Speech therapy can be powerful to help bilingual /multilingual children with speech delays unlock their full linguistic potential. By providing individualised assessments, targeted interventions, and involving families, speech therapy can bridge the gap between speech delays and bilingualism. It’s essential for the therapist and parents to work together to support the children in their unique linguistic journeys, helping them communicate effectively and thrive in both of their languages.

Happy Islamic family sitting on the floor
Image by Freepik

Speak your home language at home

Many parents report that they worry about speaking their home language at home and instead they have been focusing on just speaking English at home. They now rarely use their home language with their child. They fear that speaking a language other than English with their child will cause further delay and hinder their progress. All parents want the best for their child and often parents fear that their child won’t fit in or will be seen as ‘different’. So we can understand why parents feel that the English language is the only one worth having.

But the opposite is the case: it is crucial to speak in both languages freely, both at home and outside the home! Both languages will benefit your child, no matter what the delay or difficulty is. Acquiring a ‘mother tongue’ or native language is absolutely vital for children to have a good, solid linguistic grounding on which to build other languages. Bilingual children may mix languages during speaking and parents may equally mix their languages. This does not hinder language development and is a natural part of linguistic development.

Speak freely and naturally

What is far more important than the question: ‘which language should I say this in?’ Instead think: ‘let me speak freely and naturally, let me respond naturally, in good intonation and let communication flow freely to the child.’

Speech therapy can be a crucial resource for bilingual or multilingual children and their families.

We work on targeted interventions to address speech and language difficulties, helping your child develop essential communication skills. For home practice between therapy sessions, we can recommend tailored treatment plans to help you help your child in daily life. Our input could be focusing on articulation, phonological awareness, attention and listening, vocabulary development and grammar.

Family support is crucial in speech therapy. We like to work closely with parents to provide guidance and strategies for fostering language development in both languages at home.

If you have any worries about your child being delayed in a bilingual or multilingual household do get in touch and we will be happy to support you in your journey.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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How can we help practise speech targets with our children during the day, without it being an “extra tedious ask”?

How can we help practise speech targets with our children during the day, without it being an “extra tedious ask”?

Image by Freepik

Say, your child replaces the ‘f’ sound with a ‘p’ so they say PAN when they mean FAN or POUR when they mean FOUR. Now after one or two therapy sessions we have managed to get your child to “bite your lip and blow” and we are seeing a little ‘f’ sound right there! Result! But now we need to practise this so it becomes a habit, so that we can start building up some little words like FAN and FUR and FAR or FOUR….

Now, for older children, let’s say over 6 years old, we might just get away with saying: ‘darling come and sit down now and do your speech practice quickly before you go and play.’ But for the little ones, under 5 years old, it is often necessary to “package” the practice within daily activities.

Daily activities

So, our goal might be: produce an ‘f’ about 50 times a day. You might think: ‘oh gosh, I won’t be able to do that, it’s too much’, but wait! It can actually be done as part of your daily activities.

Here are some little examples and you will be able to think of some more for sure.

Morning

Before brushing teeth look into the mirror together and say ‘let’s practise our “bunny sound” quickly: bite your lip and blow: FFF FFF FFF FFF FFF FFF FFFF’. Look in the mirror, get as many done here as possible, 10-15, RESULT! Now brush teeth and done.

Mid-morning snack

A … muffin? Pop a little birthday candle on it and say: ‘let’s practice our Bunny Sound here quickly: bite your lip and blow and try and blow out this candle.’ FFF FFF FFF FFF FFF (you might have to re-light it a few times). Do 10-15, now eat the cake, done!

Play

Pretend to fly an aeroplane and say: “’oh look, I can make the ‘bunny sound’ and make a noise at the same time VVV VVV VVV VVV VVV. That’s cool, let’s try. Ten times?’

Lunch

‘Oh, that soup is a bit hot, let’s blow it, let’s do it with our “bunny sound”: FFF FFF FFF.’ Do ten and by now you have done most if not all of your repeats.

Book time

Select a book with a lot of ‘f’ sounds it in or a book with bunnies (your Speech Therapist will make suggestions). Read the book together with your child and each time there is a bunny or a fish practise the FFF FFF FFF FFF.

By now you will probably have exceeded your target of 50 times FFFs a day!!

Story telling

Now for something different like “Story Telling”: your child’s goal might be: “to talk about what’s first, then, next and finally”.

Examples:

Tooth brushing

Ask your child to think about what is first, what’s next and then last before you start brushing teeth.

Meal times

Talk about what did we eat the other day at Nando’s? ‘First, I had xxx then I had xxx. What about you?’ Or as you are about to lay the table: ‘what do we need to do first, then and then?’

Dressing

Pretend to be an alien who does not know what to do first, get it all wrong and have a laugh… ‘oh I think those underpants must go on my head?!’ Etc

Play time

Use figurines with farms or Lego houses or Playmobil and help your child make up simple little stories using first, then next and last.

Books

Share a book with a clear start, middle and finish and talk about the characters, who does what, who is first, then and then and finally.

At the end of each session with your child we will talk about what the targets for the week will be and together we can think about how you can incorporate your practice easily into your daily life, no matter how busy you are!

Be sure to bring this up next time you have your session, so that we can figure out together what will work for you and your daily schedules.

Together we can make it happen!

Sonja


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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Rethinking the PECS Approach
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Rethinking the PECS Approach

I want to talk about some concerns of SLTs, parents and increasingly autistic adults who explain to us how this communication method did not really work so well and why.

What is PECS in a nutshell:

PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) is based on the idea of exchanging pictures in return for desired items. For more advanced users, it is used to communicate different functions such as emotions, comments, negations using the exchange of a sentence strip. It was founded on the principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA).

How does that look in practice?

In my experience, having been trained in the approach myself, the overall aim is eventually for the child to spontaneously go and get their picture book (PECS book), open it, look through a range of pages to select the correct picture of what they want to have or say, then go and find their communication partner, and finally place that picture onto the communication partner’s outstretched palm to be rewarded with an item or with a response of some sort. Or the child selects a range of pictures to create a little sentence, such as: ‘the blue fish swims in the sea’, ‘the red bird flies in the sky’ or ‘I see a red bird’ for example. This can be part of a structured table top activity.

The system follows a series of phases, starting from simple picture exchanges to eventually construction of sentences using symbols. PECS’s aim is to promote communication initiation and reduce frustration for those who struggle with speech.

So far so good one might say, why not? Before I go into the various concerns, I would want to add my own working experience with PECS, and whilst it is my opinion, I would say I have NEVER seen a working PECS book being used spontaneously!

My experience

I have seen attempts of stages 1 and 2 done quite well, in schools, and where people knew that I was coming in “to have a look at how PECS is working with child X”. Yes, in those instances an effort was made of course to try and show me how it worked. I must add that have never been very impressed. I cannot recall it used for any other items than: biscuits/quavers/crisps/ raisins and bubbles/puzzle pieces or spinners.

If we want to see a child trained to exchange for these items in a structured setting, i.e., the child sits at a little table with the adult sitting opposite enticing the child with one or other item, then yes that can be done successfully. I have seen children exchange 25 pictures with a crisp on it, for said crisp and they might have asked for another 25 of those crisps given half the chance. Yes. Good. But. I have yet to see a child go to their PECS book and go through all the motions that I mentioned above to get a crisp. In school they don’t need to: they know that crisps are only available when the PECS book is being practised. Otherwise, let’s be honest, it’s fruit at 10.30 am!

So, they don’t get a spontaneous opportunity to ask for highly motivating items as that is not how school works, is it? ‘SIR! Can I have a crisp?’ At 10.02am, in the middle of maths? Didn’t think so… So in reality this does not get practised in my experience.

A few concerns in no particular order:

Limited Generalisation

One issue often raised is the limited generalisation of skills learned through PECS. The structured nature of the program may result in a child only being able to communicate effectively within the specific contexts where they were taught to use the system (as I suggest above: crisps: yes, please let’s do the PECS for it). This limitation can pose challenges when trying to apply communication skills in new or unstructured/spontaneous situations.

Lack of Spontaneity

Critics suggest that PECS can sometimes lead to scripted and less spontaneous communication. This is also what I have observed. Since the method is designed to follow a structured progression, there is a concern that individuals might struggle to initiate communication outside of the established framework, potentially hindering their ability to engage in more natural interactions.

Narrow range of communication functions being practised

While PECS is quite successful in focusing on requesting and naming items, there are many other important communication functions, such as expressing emotions, asking questions, giving opinions or greetings for instance. We can argue that a communication core board where we have a whole range of different core words available lends itself much better to practising a range of communicative functions.

The Pictures are movable

They are attached to the book via Velcro. They are constantly being picked and exchanged and then returned to the book. This means that the pictures tend to be always in different places. This goes against the motor planning that takes place when one is learning a new skill: imagine you want to learn to touch type and the letters always move and are at different places? How can you be quick about finding a letter? You can never get to “automatic” with this type of approach.

Communication is not taught via behavioural means

Only if you say “banana” in the way that I dictate that you should will you get a piece of banana. Who does that? Nobody. Typically, child points to the counter where there is a banana and says: ‘ba’ or ‘ana’ and mother/carer will look over there and say ‘oh banana! You want a banana? Ok there you go have a piece.’ Or something like it. Mother will not say: ‘SAY BANANA or else you won’t get it.’ Child hears mum saying ‘Banana’ each time and with time will point and say ‘banana’ or ‘I want-a-nana’ or something. This is how communication is learned: through the adult modelling it cheerfully all day long and the child hearing it and then gradually copying it.

One other gripe I personally have but I am reliably informed by all my parents that they share this about PECS:

IT IS SO LABOUR INTENSIVE!

There are 10, 50, 100’s of little pictures that first of all need laminating… then velcroing, then finding and replacing. As I said above, it’s a constant moveable feast for one, but also you LOSE them. Yep. You want to find the picture for “trampoline”. ‘Where is it? I saw it yesterday… We had it outside when we practised you asking for the trampoline. I am sure we put it back? Where is it??? Ok. We need to print off a new one.’

It is also labour intensive for the first stage where you need to have TWO adults to ease the exchange (pick up and release of picture into the communication partner’s hand). Who has two adults available for what can be weeks until the child is able to pick up and release by themselves?

YEP. So it’s really not for me you can tell! I much prefer Core boards (see my previous post on using one) or electronic speech generating AAC devices like GRID, or LAMP or TOUCHCHAT. These are all great to use and there is good support out there for introducing these.

Finding a Balance

While the concerns surrounding the PECS approach are valid, it’s fair to note that the method also has some merits. There is anecdotal evidence of many individuals who have successfully improved their communication skills and quality of life through PECS. But, finding a balance between using PECS as a stepping stone and ensuring the development of more comprehensive and SPONTANEOUS communication is key.

As educators and therapists, we need to extend the focus beyond requesting and labelling by incorporating symbols that represent emotions, actions, and more complex ideas. This expansion encourages a broader range of communication functions. When the time is right, gradually transitioning from PECS to more advanced communication methods such as Core boards or electronic AAC tools and speech-generating devices is the way forward.

We want to value all communication equally and our approach ought to be playful and child-led and to focus on intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic rewards and reinforcers.

If you have any questions or if you are looking for a therapist who endorses play-based and child-led therapy approaches, please do reach out.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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