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Low-Tech Resources

Communication in every Classroom - Low-Tech Resources

by Sandra Thistlethwaite

How do we fully include children who are non-verbal or who have complex communication difficulties in the curriculum? How do we know they are learning if they can't communicate?

In this age of technology it is almost instinctive to look initially for high-tech solutions to communication problems. Indeed, the advance in technology has meant that many children are now able to speak with an independent voice, instead of being reliant on their listener's interpretation skills.

However, it is with caution that we should rely completely on gizmos and gadgets to meet these children's needs at all times. There are a number of other arguments for using non-technological solutions; we can all work them (without reference to a manual), you can be spontaneous (no need for programming), and it's easy to rectify if you get it wrong or it goes missing.

So what do we mean by 'low-tech' communication? In the classroom, it's all about creating opportunities for the child to make choices, make their opinions known and demonstrate their understanding.

No Tech Communication

If you've no time to make resources (there is never enough time!), you can do this using no props at all:

• Give choices by holding your hands up for the child to eye point to - quick and easy for yes/no answers (just be aware of the complexity of your question), or from a choice of two possible answers (e.g. does this animal have two legs or four?). If you know a few signs, make your hands into the appropriate shape for the word to help differentiation.

• Provide multiple choices by speaking out up to four possible answers. Ask the question again and repeat the choices, this time expecting the child to indicate the one they want. For many children, this may be a lot to remember, but simple props such as a piece of paper with '1, 2, 3, 4' on it can help some children remember the choices as they are presented and enable them to indicate their choice.

Simple pictures or line drawings can be really helpful if you want to provide the opportunity to use a larger vocabulary. In real life, it is not always possible to prepare these in advance, so draw them spontaneously as the activity unfolds. Don't worry if you feel you cannot draw: if you do them with the child, they will get some meaning out of them. Why not try using a laminated sheet with dry markers? If the vocabulary is just for this specific activity, you can wipe the sheet clean ready for next time. If the vocabulary can be used again you could photocopy the sheet at the end of the lesson or make a more permanent activity board using appropriate pictures and symbols.

Making Resources

Making resources spontaneously is fine for the occasional situation but it is useful to build up your resources in school so that they are readily available for any child needing alternative and augmentative communication (AAC).

Making Resources

I might have to mention technology at this point. only because using symbol producing software such as Boardmaker or Communicate: SymWriter (the successor to Writing with Symbols 2000) is a great deal easier than copying, cutting, colouring and gluing hundreds of squares of paper! (Believe me, I used to have to do this.)

If you are going to use symbols, it is worth spending time deciding on the type of symbol system you are going to use.

If you are new to the idea of using symbols try visiting www.communicationmatters.org.uk and look for their 'Focus On' leaflet, "Using Symbols for Communication".

The other really useful bit of kit for making resources is a digital camera. These are now so widely available and used so extensively for providing meaningful communication resources; I am not sure what we did without them!

Try gradually making and collecting resources such as these for your school:

• Take and store digital photos of all key staff.

• Take photos of all main areas in the school.

• Take photos of regular activities, e.g. snack time, singing, circle time, swimming, assembly, literacy time.

• Choose a few key stories or texts at each curriculum stage and make vocabulary cards for each.

Communication Board


You could also make a generic communication board for book reading that can be used with a variety of texts, with words like 'turn page', 'what', 'who', 'funny', 'bad', and so on. (See Bookreading Communication Displays - Musselwhite 2005.)

• Make vocabulary cards for common activities, e.g. water/sand play toys and actions, pictures of clothes/characters for the dressing up corner, cooking utensils and actions for food technology, colours and materials for art activities, etc.

• For play activities done on the floor, you can add symbols to a play mat with Velcro. E.g. for car and garage play - 'fill it up', 'nee nah', 'crash', 'fast', 'I'm the winner'.

• For lunch time, make a place mat with appropriate vocabulary such as 'more please', 'yummy', 'yucky', 'I've had enough', 'Wait, I'm still eating'. Don't forget to add some chatty words too - we all like to socialise at mealtimes, e.g. 'What have you been up to?', 'Have you any gossip?', 'I've been doing something exciting', 'Did you watch telly last night?'. It is useful to put the symbols in a horseshoe shape so that they are still accessible when a plate is used on it. Don't forget to laminate, so it can be wiped clean.

Laminated Lunch Mat

Laminated lunch mat made using Boardmaker v6 software and PCS symbols.

• The playground can be a difficult place to use alternative communication. Put pictures or symbols on key fobs or wristbands so that they can be carried around easily. You can take digital photos of the choice of play equipment if appropriate, but again, don't forget to put some chatty words on there too. For the best ideas on what vocabulary to choose for the playground, go and listen to the child's vocal peers to see what 'the youth' are talking about in the playground.

Inclusive Labelling

All well-organised classrooms have labels to help the children find and put back (!) classroom equipment. Adding a symbol or picture to labels can help add more meaning to text, aid incidental learning of symbols and give value to this method of communication.

If you have children in school with a variety of sensory/learning difficulties, your labels can also include objects of reference (objects, usually miniature, that represent a word or concept, e.g. a book to represent the library, a spoon for the dining room), and a 'talking' label using a low-cost voice output aid. You'll be surprised how much more notice the children take of their surroundings and your displays if they roar like a lion or say a child's name and what they have been up to. After all, our displays should be meaningful to the children and not just look pretty for parent's evenings.

Inclusive Labelling Inclusive Labelling

Room labels used in Fairfield school, Huddersfield, with objects of reference, symbols and a Talking Symbols Notepad to speak out the room name.

Motivational Magnets

Making resources magnetic can make activities more fun and easy to manipulate. Magnetic symbols and pictures are perfect for using on choice boards and a symbol timetable can be easily changed. They are also great for matching, sequencing or story telling activities and even simple jigsaw puzzles.

Inexpensive tea trays can be used for individual work (commercial magnet trays are also available) or you could use filing cabinet/fridge doors. Magnetic paper for printing on is available from computer shops/stationers. Commercially made character magnets (such as Tweenies, Doctor Who) can add motivation - use them in sentence building or word/picture matching. Completed activities can be photocopied and used as a record.

Make it Personal

In addition to thinking of vocabulary used for specific classroom activities, you could start building up the child's personal vocabulary that can be used in various situations. How this should be displayed, organised and updated is worth thinking about right from the start.

Many children with communication difficulties would benefit from having a personal communication passport to help their communication partner 'tune in' to how they communicate, what they like to talk about, important things that are happening in their lives etc. These can be particularly useful in times of transition to help new people interact with the child more successfully right from the start - a great prop for opening up a conversation with a relative stranger.

Some of the best examples I have seen have been made with a great deal of family input and very low-tech. Pictures cut out of catalogues and magazines, food labels, hand-written notes and drawings and photographs of events special to the child have made each one unique and as such very valued by the child and those communicating with them. If you are new to the idea of communication passports you might like to visit the CALL Centre's website http://callcentre.education.ed.ac.uk for hints, tips and templates to download, or get hold of their publication "Personal Communication Passports: Guidelines for Good Practice".

Visual Scene Displays

Along a similar train of thought, there has been a lot of talk about using 'Visual Scene Displays' or VSDs for people with learning and communication difficulties. Research in the USA, which is still ongoing, has found success using visual 'scenes' (rather than isolated symbols or pictures) to represent meaning and support navigation in high-tech voice output communication aids. Researchers note that the features that make scenes a desirable option for use in high-tech aids also make them attractive for consideration in the development of low-tech communication strategies.

VSDs make use of contextually-rich images: that is, photographs or other images that represent situations, places or experiences by showing people or objects in relation to one another, the environment and the central action. It should be personally relevant to the child, allowing them to talk about more than one thing. The listening partner should have access to additional information to help support the conversation.

Here is an example of a low-tech visual scene and how it might be used in a low-tech communication book:

Visual Scene Displays

• All my family and me went to the park.
• My favourite thing in the playground is the roundabout.
• My sister kept falling off. She has a cut on her knee.
• I also love the zip slide and the climbing frame.
• We had a picnic on the grass and then we got ice creams.

Partner; to get started please ask me about:

• What I did at the weekend
• My favourite things in the playground
• What happened to my sister?

In a traditional communication grid layout the child would have to access words from various categories, e.g. people, places, actions and food, to portray the information in this photograph. This may be cognitively/linguistically too complex and in such cases a Communication Passport and VSD approach may be more relevant and useful.

For more information on using 'low-tech visual scenes', download templates and to find out more, visit www.aac-rerc.com.

Choosing Vocabulary

Other children may cope well with more extensive personal vocabulary and it is often difficult to know where to start and how to progress. It is useful to think about vocabulary in two categories:

Core vocabulary - a relatively small set of words that is based on normal language development, has a range of different functions and can be used across a broad range of activities. A speech and language therapist will be able to advise on which early vocabulary to choose and how to teach and encourage its use. Some very useful lists and information on core vocabulary selection can be found on Gail Van Tatenhove's website: www.vantatenhove.com.

Fringe vocabulary - a larger extended set of words more specific to the individual or environment. These tend to be mainly nouns, verbs and adjectives. It can also be useful to break fringe vocabulary into two categories:

- Common Fringe - word groups commonly used by individuals, for example, people, places, time or descriptions.
- Activity Fringe - words relating to a specific topic or activity, for example, the Victorians, gardening, science or horse riding. Activity fringe vocabulary should be kept near the activity it is used with.

Core and common fringe vocabulary should be kept in a book, folder or board for the child to access at all times. It is useful to think of how it is going to be carried around - if it needs to be very portable, you might want to think about credit card or Filofax size books. For a wheelchair user, you will need to think about how it will be transported and how the child will be able to access it. A variety of options are available and you could check out stationery stores for inexpensive or trendy alternatives.

There are many ways to organise vocabulary in a communication book, which will depend on the likely size of vocabulary and how the child will access it. For guidance and ideas, see 'Developing and Using a Communication Book' from The ACE Centre, Oxford and Scope's 'Supporting Communication through AAC - Foundation Stage AAC Programme' or Inclusive Technology's 'Inclusive Communication Handbook'.

Here is an example of the kind of vocabulary you might want to use with very young children or people just starting out with a low-tech communication system:

Core Vocabulary

Common Fringe Vocabulary

Activity Fringe Vocabulary

Hi, bye-bye, more, stop, no

Favourite activities e.g. going to the park, swimming, watching Pingu DVD.

Key adults e.g. Mum, Dad, brother, teacher, bus driver.

Special things (objects, activities, sayings that are special to you) e.g. my cuddly toy dog, I like talking about lights, I like being called 'budgie'.

Vocabulary to go with switch toys e.g. "blowing bubbles", "brm brm".

Visual Scene Displays of toy choices, nursery activity areas, etc.


Can we use technology now?

For a few children, low-tech strategies may continue to be their main method of communication throughout their school career; it may always be simpler and easier to use than any piece of technology. However, many children will gain a great deal from also having their own 'voice' in the form of a voice output communication aid.

Now that you have spent time choosing appropriate vocabulary for the classroom and for personal use and sorting out how it could be organised and accessed, selecting an appropriate aid should be a relatively easy task. You will also know what vocabulary will be most useful when you first introduce an aid - the main ingredients for enabling children to become successful, independent communicators.

Sandra Thistlethwaite is Specialist Speech and Language Therapist at Inclusive Technology.


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