2004 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2004 Table of Contents 


Dr. Caroline Ramsey Musselwhite
Assistive technology consultant
Special Communications
916 West Castillo Drive
Litchfield Park, AZ 85340
Phone: (602) 935-4656 (year round phone)
Email: carmussel@mindspring.com

Deanna Wagner
Assistive Technology Specialist
Southwest Human Development
202 East Earll, Suite 140
Phoenix, AZ 85012
Phone: (602) 266-5976 (year round phone)
Email: dwagner@swhd.org


For students who use switch access for writing, output is typically s... l... o... w! This can affect both quality and quantity of production. Additional issues include fatigue, frustration, and reduced opportunities and expectations. Providing switch users with access to the alphabet must be done early and often, and with appropriate scaffolding. This workshop will cover strategies for alphabetic access through both light tech and high tech approaches.

The target population for this workshop is students who are switch users due to physical impairments such as cerebral palsy or traumatic brain injury. However, many of the ideas outlined in this workshop may be of benefit to students who are use direct selection for alphabet access, but slowly and with difficulty.


This paper presents strategies for using technology scaffolds to support students in generative writing using the alphabet. Since technology is only a tool, the technology is always described in terms of the task (Zabala, 1995) and with consideration of possible teaching supports. The framework used is the Six Traits + 1 model, an analytic model developed through the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory to support writing assessment and interventions. For more information: attend a workshop, visit their website (www.nwrel.org/assessment), and read their books (e.g., Culham, 1999a, b). For each teaching strategy, typically a number of technology scaffolds could be used, depending on factors such as:

Student Factors: issues to be considered when selecting technology include: physical access (eye gaze, single switch linear scan, single switch row-column scan, single switch directed scan?), positioning, visual-perceptual needs, fatigue).

Environment Factors: numerous issues must be taken into account, including: current technology skills of the facilitator, current availability of software / hardware, times of access to a computer, support personnel availability. (Note the focus on "current" skills/availability, etc. This reflects the belief that a means must be found to acquire appropriate hardware, software, and staff training. However, in the meantime, we must be prepared to "dance with the girl you brought" in terms of creative use of available materials and staff.)


Light Tech Strategies
Light tech? But I thought we were talking about a single switch user? Well yes, but remember that technology sometimes breaks down or is not available. While light tech alphabet access does not permit the independence of high tech access, it has the advantages of speed, simplicity, and availability. Several examples f light tech alphabet access are suggested, such as:

Alphabet Scroller. This approach, developed by Deanna Wagner, uses partner-assisted auditory scanning. A file folder is created with a "window" for showing one line of the alphabet. The alphabet page is pulled through the scroller so that only one line is visible at a time.

Eye Gaze Frame. This "Etran" approach uses two-movement encoding. The user looks first at the group in which the target item is included, then looks again to indicate the position of the desired item within that group.

High Tech Strategies
High tech strategies have definite advantages, with the primary advantage of independence. Also, the student typically gets a direct paper product, without the need for extensive support from a peer, professional, or parent. Disadvantages include: potential for technology breakdown, the unforgiving nature of timed switch activation ("but I meant to hit the J!"), and the need for technologically trained partners during the training phase. The potential for independence far outweighs the problems, but the problems must be considered and addressed. Numerous intervention strategies will be provided, broken down into

several categories:

Generative Writing Scaffolds: Limited Letter Sets
Limited letter sets can be a good way to support students who are struggling with scanning or with generative writing, as both the access and the choices are more manageable.

Limited Letter Wall. This activity provides the student with a small set of letters. When the student chooses a letter, a set of words beginning with that letter is presented. Sample Activity: Kelli writes a story about herself and her friends, using locked text and a letter bank. A partner either types in the text or moves the cursor to entry for locked text.

Letters of Name. This activity provides the student with the letters of his or her name. It should be used within a fun task, such as writing an "About Me" story with the student's name used repeatedly. Another option is to branch to a Letters of Name array at the end of a symbol / word construction task such as composing an e-mail or a thank-you note.

Making Words Set. After a Making Words activity (Cunningham & Hall, 1994), the letters can be presented as a limited letter set for writing. Again, fun and / or functional activities should be devised. Samples are: limericks, fill-in-the-blank poems, and Mad Libs.

Onsets + Rimes Set. Initially, it may be overwhelming to go from writing using symbols to totally generative, alphabetic-based writing. It is okay to take this in stages! For example, combine symbols and letters within a single overlay. The student can use symbols primarily, and can use a limited letter set to add generative words. For example, students could use five onsets plus the rime -og to create words within a story construction activity.

Story Construction Activity:
Generative Writing Scaffolds: Full Alphabet
Alphabet + High Tech Word Bank. For students who are slow spellers, copying can be incredibly frustrating. High tech word banks can offer these students the opportunity to write generatively for core words, but to quickly access "fringe words." Sample fringe word sets include: words related to student interest (dinosaurs,Pokemon characters), words pertaining to a subject of study (e.g., Middle Ages).

Word Prediction. For PC users, PenFriend can be used within Clicker 4 to permit word prediction.


Access to the alphabet is crucial for truly generative writing. This workshop provides a number of sample Clicker 4 Learning Grids and activities to help students move from structured to generative writing.


Culham, R. (1999a). 6 plus one! traits. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Assessment and Evaluation Program, 101 SW Main Street, Suite 500, Portland, OR, 97204.

Culham, R. (1999b). Seeing with New Eyes: A guidebook on teaching and assessing beginning writers.Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (http://www.nwrel.org/assessment).

Cunningham, P., & Allington, R. (1999). Classrooms that work. New York: Harper Collins.

Cunningham, P., Hall, D., and Sigmon, C. (1999). The Teacher's Guide to the Four BlocksŪ. http://www.thereadinglady.com/4blocks

Forney, M. (1996). Dynamite Writing Ideas: Empowering students to become authors. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House Publishing (800-524-0634).

King-DeBaun, P. (2003). As Simple as ABC - CD. http://www.creative-comm.com.

Musselwhite, C. & Hanser, G. (2003). Write to Talk - Talk to Write Cd. http://www.aacintervention.com

Musselwhite, C., & King-DeBaun, P. (1997). Emergent Literacy Success: Merging Technology and Whole Language. Southeast Augmentative Communication Publications / Creative Communicating (http://www.creative-comm.com).

Vanderheiden, G., & Lloyd, L. (1986). Communication systems and their components. In S. Blackstone (Ed.), Augmentative communication: An Introduction. Rockville, MD: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Zabala, Joy. (1995). SETT: Student, Environment, Tasks, and Tools. A presentation at the Arizona Expo, Phoenix, Arizona.

6 + 1 Traits Model: go to: http://www.nwrel.org/eval/writing

Clicker 4 can be purchased from
Crick Software
50 116th Ave SE, Suite 211,
Bellevue, WA 98004
Toll-free: 1 866 33 CRICK
Telephone: 425 467 8260
Fax: 425 467 8245
Website: http://www.cricksoft.com

IntelliTalk II
IntelliTools, Inc.
1720 Corporate Circle
Petaluma, CA 94954-6924
Toll-Free: 1 800 899 6687
Fax: 707 773 2201
Website: http://www.intellitools.com

Speaking Dynamically Pro
Mayer-Johnson, Inc.
P.O. Box 1479
Solana Beach, CA 92075-7579
Toll-Free: 1 800 588 4548
Fax: 858 5500449
Website: http://www.mayer-johnson.com 

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2004 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings

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