Independence through Literacy- Never too early, Never too late!

How do literacy skills impact on our lives? I see a close link where literacy skills can contribute towards independence. Being able to spell allows you to speak your mind. It allows you to interact and connect with others, like sending an email or posting on Facebook. Being able to read gives you access to information- reading a novel, a bus timetable, a bill, or a funny email! Information is powerful and can allows us to make informed choices! Being able to write allows you to share your story and your ideas like writing a poem or a letter of complaint. But are we considering literacy goals when we are supporting others to make choices and planning goals for the future?

In July this year, as one of the ILC staff scholarship recipients I was fortunate to be able to attend the 2014 AGOSCI Literacy Intensive. AGOSCI [http://www.agosci.org.au/] is an inclusive member organisation interested in enhancing the participation of all people with complex communication needs.  AGOSCI also aims to build the capacity of society to achieve their vision, that people with complex communication needs participate fully in all aspects of life. The AGOSCI Literacy Intensive is a 5-day instructional course which covers theoretical and practical aspects of literacy instruction for children and adults with disabilities, including complex communication needs. This course has only been run a few times in Australia and the opportunity to attend alongside parents, teachers and speech pathologists provided a wonderful mix of ideas, experiences, expectations and discussions throughout the week. The course was presented by world renowned researchers and clinicians- Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver.

This course raised and answered so many questions for me as a Speech Pathologist working with people with complex communication needs. It challenged me to review the emphasis that I place on the development of literacy skills in my AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) and assistive technology interventions, when working with children and adults.

David and Karen highlighted to us that most competent AAC users, will spell out 50% of their messages,  and for the other 50% they may rely on symbols, whole words and pre-programmed phrases. As therapists, this tells us that we need to be equally focused on literacy and language development. We were encouraged to review our focus on finding the perfect communication device, with the perfect vocabulary set, and consider more closely how the AAC user could access the alphabet to learn to generate their own words and messages! Often there is too much focus on the technology, and we need to remind ourselves of the well researched links between the development of language and literacy.

Emphasis was placed on the importance of positive, meaningful and successful literacy experiences from an early age. One of the reflections at the course that really stuck with me was thinking about “how many years does a child scribble before they start formal writing instruction?” Many children are playing with a pencil, chalk or crayon and drawing on their bedroom walls for years before they are expected to be able to write the letters of their name. What about the children we work with who might have difficultly using their hands, or can’t hold a pencil or have vision difficulties? Often these children are not provided with an accessible or alternative pencil until they reach school and this is when formal literacy instruction begins. These children need early access to an accessible pencil that suits their needs and lots of opportunities to scribble with it.  This might involve a large keyboard, alphabet flip chart or eye gaze alphabet frame. A key message that was really emphasized was that all students need access to ALL 26 letters of the alphabet every day.

alphabet flip chart Big Keys KeyboardEye Gaze Alphabet Frame

The importance of these early literacy experiences is crucial, but on the flip side we know that it is never too late to start to focus or refocus on learning literacy skills. Just last week I met a proactive young man who came to an ILC Tech appointment with a goal in mind! He wanted to learn to read and write. He had clear ideas about what this meant to him. He knew that being able to read and write would help him at work, at TAFE and might even be the key for him to be able to apply for his learners permit to learn to drive. Providing age appropriate materials and literacy instruction for young adults can be a challenge but the literacy intensive that I attend highlighted strategies and methods to overcome this. Have you heard of the website Tar Heel Reader? It’s free and provides access to thousands of online books for beginning readers of all ages. http://tarheelreader.org

As therapists, we are often considered to be one of the earliest educators for children with disabilities. Are we building early goals to support emergent literacy considering its close link with communication? As planners, coordinators and support workers, we play a part in supporting adults with disabilities in their personal goal setting. Is further development of literacy being considered a potential goal? When it comes to literacy…. it’s never too early and it’s never too late to start to develop these skills which just might lead to increased independence. Acquisition of literacy skills is within reach for all!

For more information, these websites are worth looking at:

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