Barriers to Participation in Kindergarten Literacy Instruction for a Student with Augmentative and Alternative Communication Needs (summary)


Many individuals who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) have been found to have difficulties in developing reading and writing skills. This can lead to difficulty in effectively participating in mainstream education activities.

What was the aim of the study?
The author looked at whether it is possible for a mainstream reading programme, Building Blocks, used in the United States, to meet the needs of a young child using AAC in a mainstream setting. She aimed to identify the literacy activities used in the programme, to describe opportunities for the child to participate within the activities and to record how the AAC user joined in within the classroom routines.

She also considered barriers to the development of the child's early literacy skills in terms of: a) access barriers – related to the AAC users own needs, skills and abilities and b) opportunity barriers – imposed by others policy, practice, attitude, knowledge and skill.

What did the authors do?
A seven year old boy with mild cognitive and severe speech impairment and challenging behaviour was observed in a mainstream classroom over eight months. The child had a split placement attending both a mainstream setting and a special educational needs classroom.

At the beginning of the study the child used a range of communication behaviours many of which were non-symbolic, including facial expression, body movements, pointing and vocalisations. He was beginning to use some symbolic communication which included a small number of signs which were mainly used for requesting when prompted, and some communication boards using Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) to label objects and answer activity-specific questions.

The author collected information about the child's participation in Building Blocks activities over 25 sessions, 14 in the mainstream setting and in the special needs classroom. Unstructured interviews were also carried out with teachers in both settings and a classroom support worker in mainstream, along with a semi-structured interview with the mainstream teacher at the end of the study.

What did they find?
Over the period of the study the child made very limited progress in the development of new literacy skills within the Building Blocks programme. This was found to be due to a combination of access and opportunity barriers.

The three main access barriers were identified as: lack of functional speech, challenging behaviours, fine motor impairment. As these areas were not addressed they led to many opportunity barriers. A lack of joint working between school staff resulted in minimal planning and preparation for the child's integration, there was no identification of roles and responsibilities of key school staff, the mainstream teacher had no training or support to integrate an AAC user in the classroom. Additionally the child was not provided with the support he needed to participate successfully in the mainstream class; he did not have an appropriate AAC system or effective training and his peer group were not prepared or trained about how best to communicate with and AAC user.

The child's non-symbolic communication attempts were not recognised or acknowledged by either his teacher or classmates. He was better able to participate when supported by a trained AAC support worker but this was not regularly available to him.

As a result of these issues the child was not encouraged to follow the same classroom routines as his peers even when he would be able to do so and his challenging behaviour was not addressed in mainstream. This led to a decrease in social integration and learning opportunities.

He often had no appropriate means of responding to open-ended questions and multiple choices were not offered. His communication boards were noun based and did not include social vocabulary, verbs, adjectives, prepositions or places.

Therapy sessions meant that the child was often withdrawn from school sessions, the author suggests that it would be helpful if these could be integrated into the classroom reducing time missed from education and offering learning opportunities for the class teacher.

The single participant study in only one setting means that the findings cannot necessarily be generalised to other children or places. Further research might be beneficial

It is suggested that in order to successfully include pupils who use AAC mainstream teachers need specific training about their communication needs and time for planning and evaluating progress. They also benefit from classroom assistance from trained workers or classroom assistants.

The author suggests that there is no evidence that students who use AAC acquire literacy skills differently from typically developing children, but need to be provided with high quality teaching, adapted materials and an effective AAC system.

Things you may want to look into:

AAC and developmental difficulties

Supporting the Communication, Language, and Literacy Development of Children with Complex Communication Needs

Teacher literacy expectations for kindergarten children with cerebral palsy in special education

Evidence-based literacy instruction for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication: a case study of a student with multiple disabilities

Added to site July 2014