Saturday, March 12, 2016

Knowing What to Say

This spring, I'm taking a course in Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) through the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). At our class last week, the teacher prompted us to write an answer to the following question:

What does it mean to know a word?

I spent a long time thinking about my answer. I believe strongly in Presuming Competence and I wanted to make sure that was reflected in my answer, that my answer did not reflect any unintentional ableist biases around being able to speak (in complete sentences) or perform academic tasks. What I came up with at the time was:

To be able to recognize a word when you hear/see it. To be able to take action based on the word.

That definition got me thinking about the over-reliance on vocabulary identification tasks in special education. My teacher mentor during my student teaching was actually very explicit about it. We were teaching a science unit about the life cycle and she told me, "The state thinks I'm teaching [science] content; really I'm teaching vocabulary." When I think about my own teaching, most of my vocabulary-based instruction is at the identification level. I spend time on identifying the symbol (picture or text) that corresponds to a given word, and on using words in context. I have lots of conversations with my SLP about how my students are so inconsistent in their identification, likely due to lack of motivation for the task, and how we will really be sure they know the vocabulary when they start using them in meaningful context. As emerging communicators using robust AAC devices, they are starting to do just that. This course I am taking is showing me in dramatic relief that I am missing a key middle step to supporting my students success in language and vocabulary aquisition. When I'm teaching symbol ID, I'm presuming knowledge of meaning. Yet, experience has shown me that my students will find the right symbol to express what they mean even if I haven't taught it explicitly. I need to presume competence: that they know what they want to say but I need to spend more time focusing on the middle stage of vocabulary learning -- meaning -- to make sure they know what words to use to say it.

Tiering vocabulary is a common practice in vocabulary instruction (though one I was unfamiliar with prior to taking this course.) Level one vocabulary are the common words that most people know. They're the ones that you can easily take a picture of. In AAC, these are mostly our basic fringe vocabulary. They're the nouns that many of our AAC learners never get past. In a robust AAC system, all these words should already be there. Tier 2 are the tricky words, the multi-meaning words, the pronouns, the phrases and idioms, the connecting words that are so hard to explain but absolutely essential to meaning. It's where most of our AAC core words are. They are the words that are hardest for English Language Learners (ELLs) to learn, and they're also the words we should be targeting with our AAC learners. They make up the bulk of what we need for comprehension. Then there are the Tier 3 words. These are the domain specific words that are needed for a specific text, unit, or subject. Some of these are fringe words, like our Tier 1 words. They're domain specific, so they can be explicitly taught in context, though they are more complex than Tier 1 words. We can go crazy trying to program this vocabulary into AAC devices for students to participate in inclusion or classroom activities using AAC. Kate Ahern has written a wonderful article about why we shouldn't and what to do instead.

So, I propose a four-staged model of thinking about vocabulary knowledge for AAC learners: awareness, identification, meaning, and usage. Our students can show knowledge of vocabulary at any step. A student might show awareness of a word by using other words to make a comment about it, by identifying related words, or by making meaning with other words. This allows us to continue to target our instruction at core words. It avoids what my professor called the "tourist vocabulary" and Kate calls "non-recyclables" - words we only visit once for a unit or maybe once a year and never use again, but still allows us to provide meaningful access to the content and that Tier 3 vocabulary. (What if that topic turns out to be an interest of the student that they want to pursue? Then it becomes a fringe word and into the device it should go! But we won't know that unless we teach it and give them a way to talk about it.) 

We can't just teach core words any more than we can just teach at the symbol identification level. We have to provide access to vocabulary, symbols and meaning, at all levels for students to have rich comprehension of material. That doesn't mean every word has to be in the student's device. That's not possible. We need to teach students the skills to talk about anything, including ideas that no one has ever had before, or we are limiting their communication. Focusing on teaching meaning of Tier 2 vocabulary is a means to that end.

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