The brain is often compared to a filing cabinet. As we know, the key function of a filing cabinet is to organise information in a way that makes it easy to find.
As someone who isn’t known for their organisational skills, this has always secretly worried me- I have visions of my brain as a mass of scattered, loose pages…!
Thankfully, our brains are generally quite good at sorting information in a tidy fashion that doesn’t involve too much spring-cleaning! In fact, fMRI images have shown that our brains have a kind of ‘vocabulary map’ in which similar words are clustered together- there appear to be areas devoted to logical categories such as animals, transport, verbs, etc.
Children who use communication books or speech generating devices experience using this vocabulary map in a more physical sense. While we may mentally rummage through our filing cabinet to search for a word, someone using AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) must physically flip through pages or screens to locate specific words.
If you work with children who use AAC, you will know how important core vocabulary is. Most communication systems will display core words on the home page or will provide constant access to them. These words are the building blocks to any sentence.
However, to complete a sentence, a child will often have to delve deeper into their communication system to find words from specific categories…..And I’m not just talking about noun based categories (e.g. toys, food, clothes) but also pragmatic categories (e.g. greetings, questions, comments), verbs, adjectives, etc.
Today, I’m going to share a few ideas as to how we can support navigation, specifically thinking about how the words are stored within the child’s device or book.
1. Model, model, model!
This is always rule number 1!! If you want a child to be able to locate vocabulary within their communication aid, the main way they will learn to do this is by seeing someone else use their device or book.
We must verbally talk the child through the process e.g. “We’re talking about your aunt. I’m going to go to your people page. Now I’m going to go to your family page”. By verbally labelling each page, the child begins to understand the logic behind the process.
2. Set navigation targets
As much as we need to model using the child’s entire communication system, we also need to consider SMART targets when it comes to navigation. This means that we may hone in on specific pages that the child will access independently
e.g. “X will independently access his question page 2/3 times when verbally prompted during a group activity”.
When setting a navigation target, I try to consider it from a functional perspective i.e. what pages does the child need to access most frequently to communicate functionally?
For other children, navigation targets may be more achievable if they are based around accessing the pages that motivate them most. For example, a young boy I work with can easily locate his food page but finds it more difficult to access his verb page; so we’ve made accessing his verb page more motivational by playing games like ‘Simon Says’ or by using it during activities such as playing with a ball. He loves directing me to ‘throw’, ‘roll’ or ‘kick’ the ball to him…possibly because my hand-eye coordination is terrible and this makes him giggle!
Once a child has mastered navigating to a few key pages, we can begin to target new pages or work on moving between pages to formulate a sentence.
3. Consider cueing
When a child is learning to navigate to new pages, a ‘cueing system’ can be a gradual way to decrease direct support. We can specify the type of cue that we will use in the child’s targets.
My hierarchy of cues generally goes something like this:
1. Direct Model- Just as I mentioned above…we take the child to the page but talk them through each step.
2. Direct Verbal Prompt + Physical Prompt- We verbally label the page that the child needs to find and guide them to the general area by pointing e.g “We’re talking about pets. You can use your animal page”.
3. Direct Verbal Prompt- As above but removing the physical support.
4. Indirect Verbal Prompt– This involves providing a bit of a ‘clue’ but not specifically naming the page e.g. “I wonder what page we might need to use at the cafe?”
As we gradually withdraw prompts, we need to make sure we give the child plenty of time to find the page that they want before we jump in!
4. Category games
One of the games the kids I work with enjoy the most involves a bag and a selection of symbols…it doesn’t get easier than that!
I place the symbols in the bag and then each child takes it in turn to withdraw one. They then have to find the symbol within their device or communication book. Again, I can use the cues listed above to support them as and when required.
Another vocabulary game that works well involves giving the children a series of clues so that they can guess and then find the word that you are talking about e.g. “I’m thinking about something that’s in the kitchen. It’s something cold. You keep yoghurts and milk inside it”, etc.
The element of competition can also certainly motivate some of the children! But the main aim is that all of the children involved in the game succeed in locating vocabulary within their individual communication system.
5. Teach how to ask for ‘help’!
This is sooo important! There will always be the occasional word that will be very difficult to find. Let’s face it; we’ve all been there- you’re modelling a sentence using a child’s device and then you can’t find the word you need!
This is why the word ‘help’ is so important! Teaching the children who we work with to say ‘help’ or ‘oops’ if they access the wrong page, can help to repair potential communication breakdowns!
Navigating through a communication system is initially a bit like travelling to somewhere new- the first time you go there, you might get lost or it may take you a long time…But the more times you visit that place, the easier it is to find. Eventually, it becomes automatic. Let’s give our children using AAC plenty of opportunities to navigate through their communication systems. We can initially act as their Sat Nav until they no longer need our directions!