2001 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2001 Table of Contents


Rick Hohn, AAC Consultant
DynaVox Systems, Inc.
1125 Cottontail Road.
Vista, CA 92083
Phone: 760-598-8336
E-Mail rickstalk@juno.com

Developing good literacy skills has always been a challenge for parents, teachers and speech-language pathologists when teaching children and adults with severe communication disorders. Rick Hohn, a proficient DynaVox user, has seen changes in special education since the 1950’s and believes that AAC since it was brought into existence should do far more to promote literacy skills.

The data from Kirsch, I., Jungleblut, A., Jenkins, L., and Kolstad, A. (1993) indicate that 44% to 47% of adults with physical impairments and 53% to 55% of adults with significant speech difficulties perform at the lowest levels of literacy proficiency. Without access to literacy skills, an individual is significantly limited in the educational, vocational, and social opportunities found in almost all activities of daily living (Light & Smith, 1993). Many educators will agree that the ability to read, write, and spell is the most important life skill a student will learn while in school. However, the development of literacy skills among individuals with severe disabilities has become a topic of much discussion. Research suggests that individuals with severe disabilities often demonstrate decreased literacy skills (Dahlgren Sandberg & Hjelmquist, 1996; Light & Smith, 1993). These individuals may demonstrate a variety of physical, fine motor, language, cognitive or visual impairments that can be detrimental to their ability to access literacy activities. Therefore, it is necessary to consider these factors when designing implementation strategies to provide alternate access to literacy activities (Beukelman & Mirenda, 1998).

This presentation will focus on how AAC can be used to foster literacy skills and will introduce strategies for using an augmentative communication system to help someone learn to read and write.

Participants will first hear of Rick’s struggle and how he learned to read from his first typed words on a typewriter at 15 years of age. Seeing how words were spelled and formed on the typewritten page picked up his reading skills dramatically. He learned by doing.

The learning-by-doing principle is vital and is now aided by augmentative devices – replacing the typewriter. An AAC device shouldn’t be only for communication purposes but also used as a tool towards establishing good literacy skills. Rick will point out that communication, if it at all possible, must be followed by education instead of leaving individuals at the beginning stages of conversational interaction. The real world is also based on reading and writing requirements.

Such a learning-by-doing program is The Literacy for Children with Dysarthria project developed by Carol Civils, M.A. CCC-SLP, Marie Williams, M. Ed., and Judith Oxley, Ph.D. CCC-SLP. With this concept, character strings can be placed into buttons on a keyboard page. When these buttons are pressed, an auditory cue of the phoneme that represents the grapheme will be provided. As sounds are put together to form a word, the entire word can be spoken. Thus, a teacher sounds out a word followed by a student accessing a DynaVox or a DynaMyte with a phonetic page to spell the word. This program will be demonstrated and discussed.

The means for an individual to "sound out" words is important in the learning by doing process. Dahlgren Sandberg and Hjelmquist (1996) cite a study by Yopp (1988) in which the phonemic awareness tasks presented in the study required a "subvocal analysis" of the words and their sounds. This highly suggests that speaking children are at an advantage because they have the ability to "sound out" the representations, to solve the awareness tasks.

Simple communication is made possible by dynamic display pages. There is a danger, however, in leaving an augmentative communicator at this beginning level of communication instead of attempting to graduate him or her to a system that will allow the generation of novel statements. Word prediction is one method that allows this kind of freedom to spontaneously interact with people. It opens a whole dictionary up not only for communication purposes but also to advance literacy skills.

Word prediction greatly aids spelling especially if the first character is known. AAC users have a choice of words to select from. Although word prediction assists in spelling, a discussion will take place about at what point, if at all, should children learn how to spell whole words without this feature being used. If so, what graduating process should be used to introduce word prediction?

Rick will discuss the importance of challenging the augmented communicator to read without the symbols at appropriate opportunities, for example during structured reading instruction. There is a delicate balance that has to be achieved by educational professionals and parents as to when to wean children from symbols. Sensitivity and discretion must be used. For there is nothing worse than anyone wanting to communicate a need but is prohibited out of a goal to teach literacy skills. And yet, symbol dependency is an easy way out, leaving young augmentative communicators unprepared for the real world later on in life.

The presenter will tell how symbols could have been an-easy-way-out for him if they were available when he went to school. With this in mind, a discussion will follow of what graduating process should be used to introduce the use of symbols.

Once a user isn’t dependent on symbols, they can speed communication up. Rick will discuss how to introduce symbols to children – providing an easy recognition of words just as landmarks provide drivers with an easy way to get to their destination. An explanation and demonstration will be given to customize symbols so they will be even more recognizable.

Rick still has a slight reading disability so he will discuss strategies for both children and adults that can benefit from. One such method is word processing cut-and-paste techniques that he uses in having both his DynaVox 3100 and DynaVox for Windows read to him. Because of his significant speech disorder, he needs this alternative auditory feedback. In using this method, he is a better writer since he can hear what he has written - a method that can be shared by other augmentative communicators. Rick will also share how these techniques has decreased the time spent on reading text by having material read to him on either his augmentative device or computer.

Rick will explain how by using word processing cut-and-paste features a broad range of information from and the Internet can be transferred to the device in seconds. If a scanner is available, books and magazines can be read with also the ability to speak specific paragraphs and control the speech rate. This makes it possible for augmentative communicators to read to others the things they wish to share – thus being on the giving end.


Kirsch, I., Jungleblut, A., Jenkins, L., and Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult literacy in America: A first look at the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office.

Dahlgren Sandberg, A. & Hjelmquist, E. (1996). Phonological Awareness and Literacy Abilities in Nonspeaking Preschool Children with Cerebral Palsy. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 3, 138-154.

Light, J. & Smith, A. (1993). Home Literacy Experiences of Preschoolers Who Use AAC Systems and of Their Nondisabled Peers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 1, 10-25.

Beukelman, K. & Mirenda P. (1998). Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Management of Severe Communication Disorders in Children and Adults. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Yopp, H. (1992). Developing Phonemic Awareness in Young Children. Reading Teacher, 45 (9), 696-703.

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2001 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings

Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.