2000 Conference Proceedings

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Software Selection for Seven Stages of Cognitive and Language Development

Madalaine Pugliese
Instructional and Assistive Tech Specialist
5 Bessom Street, Suite 175
Marblehead, MA 01945
Voice: (781) 639-1930
Fax: (781) 631-9928
Email: pugliese@mediaone.net

Dana Bertrand
Assistive Technology, Inc.
7 Wells Ave.
Newton, MA 02459
Voice: (800) 793-9227
Fax: (617) 641-9000
Email: dbertrand@assistivetech.com

This session presents STAGES, a structured framework from which to categorize levels of language and cognitive development for individuals with developmental delay, and to select appropriate software for each level of development. This session is designed for special education school-based team members who serve students with developmental delays. Participants learn software selection strategies along a diagnostic/prescriptive continuum designed to create just the right supportive learning environment. Instruction includes guidance for creating long range plans to address computer-based needs for learners of developing skills. Handouts include prescriptive recommendations for both hardware and software through a continuum of language and cognitive development. Demonstrations include sample activities to assist learning guides in placing students along the continuum of development as well as sample programs from the recommended selections.

The original concept for STAGES was developed in conjunction with Take Control! Assistive Computer Center, featured in Abilities Expo and in several state-level assistive technology special projects. Based on feedback and guidance from parents, educators, and therapists all over the country, STAGES has been revised and enhanced to serve as a screening tool and information resource for those seeking to select appropriate software for learning.

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Seven categories of development will be defined in terms of the levels of language and cognition experienced by each group. The range of levels are defined as: Cause and Effect; Language Readiness; Emerging Language; Early Concepts; Advanced Concepts and Communication; Functional Learning; and Written Expression. Individuals who are in the process of transition from one level to the next (or use material from multiple levels) are included in the preceding group for ease of presentation.

Stage One, Cause and Effect, is defined by the learners' ability to focus on the target or object on the computer monitor. The learning objective is to develop an increasingly sophisticated understanding of controlling the computer with an input device such as a switch. For example, when the user initiates an interaction, a color might change on the screen or a sound might occur. The learner is only required to respond to visual and auditory feedback from the computer and instruction is focused on the learners' needs in terms of prompting from the instructor or software program. In order to develop these skills, it is important to select software programs that are designed to help develop a level or awareness and attention to task. A range of evaluation activities that target these skills created with Companion(TM) software, a multimedia authoring tool, will be introduced. A selection of software appropriate for this population will be recommended and reviewed.

Stage Two, Language Readiness, targets the learner's exploration of receptive vocabulary through interactions with the computer. Exposure to language patterns and new vocabulary is experienced through software programs that present a wide range of vocabulary and model appropriate language use. For example, some programs provide scenes with animation and passages that describe actions and attributes on the screen; others may present drawings or photographs of objects and identify them for the user. Key features for learning guides to look for in selecting software for this group are reviewed along with software demonstration from the recommended list. Customized applications created with Companion feature a variety of activities that may be used for screening purposes as well as for drill and practice exercises for adults and students.

Stage Three, Emerging Language, is similarly rich in content and is characterized by an increase in the range of targeted vocabulary and language exploration. Software at this stage contains a range of attributes that the learner may need to see and learn in order to make generalizations about an object (e.g., a ball might be different colors, have various textures or sizes and still be a ball). Stage Three activities require that the learner identifies his/her skill acquisition in an appropriately accessible environment. The learning guide has increasing opportunities to make adjustments to the way in which information is presented to the user. For example, there may be preference settings that optimize the presentation medium so that a learner better sees, hears, or understands the material. Similarly, the physical environment around the learner may be enriched or adjusted in order to promote appropriate access. Again, customized activities and a selection of software appropriate for this group are demonstrated and reviewed.

Stage Four, Early Concepts, marks the transition toward traditional academic and social readiness in the learner. Readiness for reading includes such skills as: letter recognition, sounds of letters, retelling or sequencing stories and matching pictures to their initial letter sound. Readiness for math includes such skills as: recognizing numbers, counting, patterns and exposure to math vocabulary. Software programs at this stage target skill development in these areas and present opportunities to explore academic and social concepts through supportive learning environments. Activities also target social development and facilitate developmentally appropriate interactions for the learners through accessible electronic play environments. Customized activities are characterized by academically-oriented explorations of beginning number, letter and color concepts. Related software is demonstrated and reviewed.

Stage Five, Advanced Concepts and Communication, targets increasingly complex skills including word recognition, understanding prepositional phrases, performing simple arithmetic operations and correctly following a set of directions. For example, asking the learner to select an item whose name you spell requires her to translate the spelling into a word, locate the correct object on the screen and select the object with the access device - a three-step sequence. Selected software should include opportunities for choice making as learners at this stage often demonstrate decision making skills. Guidance from the instructor also considers the emotional side of learning as learner confidence continues to be an important consideration at this stage. Appropriateness of the software is critical and is highlighted in reviewing the activities and recommended software at this stage.

Stage Six, Functional Learning, targets real life skills such as telling time, making change, and appropriate dressing skills. The content of software at this stage is nonacademic, though it emulates real world skills necessary for independent living and vocational proficiency. Frequently, activities at this stage target specific skills that are explored through a traditional drill and practice approach. The use of commercially produced programs as well as customized applications are appropriate at this stage as clients may have both general and specific needs. Avenues for access using overlays for alternative keyboards or custom set ups for keyboard and mouse emulators are suggested. Appropriateness in the presentation of materials continues to be an important consideration at this stage.

Stage Seven, Written Expression, focuses on written literacy development and the development of written communication skills as an extension of the learner's growing confidence as a reader. At this stage, it is expected that learners will be expressing original ideas with correct spelling and appropriate grammar. Learners in this group typically use a combination of software programs to provide the most efficient method and range of communication materials. Many software programs featured in this group incorporate auditory feedback for multisensory learning. A comparison of such "talking" writing programs is presented along with screening activities and recommended software solutions.

In summary, this workshop presents a framework within which to place learners along a continuum and introduces a wide range of recommended software solutions for each stage. Participants have opportunities to ask questions and engage in discussions with the presenters as time allows.

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