During the 2019-2020 school year, my first year as a Speech-Language Pathologist, I spent a lot of time modeling language on AAC (augmentative-alternative communication). “Modeling means you point to words on the AAC tool as you speak,” according to https://www.assistiveware.com/learn-aac/start-modeling, which has a lot of great tips on modeling AAC. Modeling AAC is important because it helps children learn language so that they can communicate independently. Modeling isn’t something that only SLPs can or should do. Anyone who interacts with a student throughout their day -- teachers, instructional aids, and maybe most importantly, parents - can learn to model AAC and incorporate communication into everyday activities and routines.
There are lots of resources on how to model AAC, so I won’t try to explain what experts or more experienced clinicians have made available. But I can offer what my personal experience taught me about modeling AAC this year.
Be Willing to Learn (and keep learning)
When I entered a self-contained classroom, in which all the students had some sort of device, for the first time as an SLP, it was my first experience with device users. The teacher and instructional aides knew the devices and the students fairly well. I had to become comfortable with learning basics about the devices or signs that the students used to communicate from these incredibly dedicated staff. I continued to learn from them in one way or another throughout the year because no matter how much time I spent in the classroom, they were with the students far more than I was.
Modeling Can Happen Anytime, Anywhere
There is an opportunity to model in most activities or situations. In addition to working directly with the students, I modeled AAC usage in activities that it wasn’t always incorporated into naturally. One of my personal favorite activities was modeling AAC when the therapy dogs came to visit the classroom. We modeled phrases such as, “You like her,” and “Look at him go!”
One of the silver linings of school closures due to COVID-19 was the experience of collaborating with parents and teachers over Zoom. I learned so much from the parents, and was able to suggest new ways to incorporate modeling AAC into their daily lives.
There were times when modeling AAC felt a little futile. Maybe a student was having a bad day or having difficulty paying attention. But if you keep at it, progress can happen even if you’re not there to see it. A prime example is a parent who recently reported their child spontaneously started to produce two-word combinations, such as “go outside.” Hearing that and seeing how happy the parents were made all of the time I spent modeling “go” verbally and on the child’s device so worth it.
I plan to continue modeling AAC with my students, and working with staff and families to encourage everyone to model AAC. The more often “we” - family members, teachers, SLPs, and instructional aides - model AAC, the more often we are teaching students the language they need to communicate. If we all model AAC throughout the day, that adds up to significant learning opportunities for our students.
Author: Margaret McManus, MS CF-SLP