Saturday, June 23, 2012

Don't just assist, instruct

One aspect of the classroom tech craze is the growth of Augmentative and Alternative Communication  devices (AACs) in special ed classrooms. This raises concerns about whether today's today's schools are teaching language impaired children new linguistic skills as opposed to merely assisting their deployment of existing skills.

At the extreme, there are text-to-speech apps (as well as books on tape) that help make texts accessible to those who can't read, and speech-to-text apps that enable those who can't write to convert spoken words into text. These are especially appropriate for students whose disabilities may prevent them from ever reading or creating text fluently. But for those who do have the potential to read and write, among them many children on the autistic spectrum, such device should never become the be-all and end-all of their reading and writing activities.

Potential aside, teaching AS children can be quite challenging. This creates a strong temptation to turn instead to AACs.

In autism, the most commonly used AACs aren't for reading and writing, but for language--devices like the DynaVox, which gives users a menu of common vocabulary and phrases to select in order to communicate basic needs. The devices can revolutionize a child's basic functioning and psychological well-being, improving substantially his or her classroom behavior and teachability.

But no one should see AACs as a panacea for language instruction. However much they assist children in deploying their current language skills, it's far from clear that they actually teach them new ones.

DynaVoxs and the like may also give teachers (and parents) the illusion that the child is operating at a higher linguistic level than he or she actually is. This is because, across many domains of language use, non-linguists tend to confuse simple recognition of "key words" and set phrases with true sentence comprehension. For example, when the dog rushes to the door when asked "Do you want to go on a walk?", people tend to assume that the dog understands the question as such, when it's more likely to be simply the key word "walk,"or the set phrase "Do you want," that's cluing it in. Relatedly, many  software programs--from foreign language programs like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur to remediation programs like Laureate Learning--often end up teaching key word recognition rather than syntactic processing.

So, when a child pushes "JUICE" on his or her DynaVox, many may see this as the child's intended shorthand for a full-fledged grammatical sentence--"I want juice"--or question--"Can I have juice?"--when he or she hasn't actually acquired general subject-verb-object order or the syntax of question inversion. Clicking on preset key words and phrases rather than constructing one's own phrases and sentences from scratch may mean that one has learned simple associations between stimuli and sounds, but not the linguistic skills prerequisite for intentional linguistic communication and thinking in full-fledged propositions.

The ease of AACs, and how much the help teachers manage a classroom full of AS students, may sometimes breed complacency about the students' continuing needs for direct instruction in language. Managing AS kids is one thing, but, when it comes to meeting their legally-mandated educational needs, it is only the first step.

No comments: