District: Wayne Trace Payne Elementary School • Location: Payne, OH
Leaders: Debbie Brigner, Title I Reading and Phonics Teacher
Debbie Brigner, Wayne Trace Payne Elementary School in Payne, Ohio wrote to us about her experience with Don Johnston’s autobiography, Building Wings.
Teaching Words as Symbols for Students with Autism. A Learning Progression from Pictures to Word Prediction
Advancing the Use of Assistive Technology in Schools
Daniel McNulty is the Northeast Coordinator for the Indiana PATINS Project (Promoting Achievement through Technology and Instruction for All Students). This statewide assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) program works to improve access to general curriculum materials and to move toward a UDL educational environment within the Indiana public school system.
Throughout his vocation, Daniel has learned firsthand the challenges of teaching children with disabilities and particularly those with autism. He worked as a paraprofessional, then a behavioral consultant and therapist in private practice. His teaching career began with young children with autism spectrum disorders. In a small rural public school, his first teaching assignment was working with K-6 graders who had moderate to severe special needs. Daniel took what he learned in his clinical practice into his classroom. Soft-spoken, with a big heart, Daniel worked with students who were non-readers using a learning progression from pictures to word symbols to word prediction assistive technology to help students learn to read and write. What he accomplished was more than anyone had anticipated.
This rural school had few computers and fewer teachers who used computers. Some teachers deemed Daniel’s class, ‘a big challenge.’ They told Daniel that these students would not likely become readers or writers. The teachers suggested that Daniel teach communication with pictures. Because these students would never be able to phonetically decode words or recognize letters, they felt pictures were the only way to teach students with severe disabilities. Daniel had other plans.
“Words are symbols too,” said Daniel. “I knew from past experience that these students were capable of reading and of expressing themselves in written form. I kept thinking how can I get them to recognize that a word is a symbol? I wondered how to help my students make connections from words as symbols to the written word.”
Keeping Students on Task
In Daniel’s class, routine was very important. Students with cognitive, social and learning disabilities like to be organized, so Daniel created a giant wall-sized tempo-loop board and each student had a column representing their school day. Every 15 minutes a student’s schedule held a picture symbol indicating the next activity. Students would pull off each item as their task was done. After one semester, Daniel decided to take a risk and replace each picture in his classroom with a text word. At first, the event seemed confusing for students, but Daniel knew that new things take time. “After one semester, all the pictures were gone and in their place were words,” he said. “Students were recognizing the words and their meaning; a breakthrough!”
As Daniel added new sight words, he watched his students look at their board in anticipation. This strategy motivated and engaged them. His students knew what activity or task to anticipate next, which also gave them a feeling of accomplishment. Students were not necessarily reading words as some might define the process; they were not phonetically decoding, but they were recognizing the shape of the words or the picture the words formed. These words had become ‘sight-words’ for Daniel’s students.
In a given week, students would see 30 to 120 new words, (symbols) on their schedule. As students began to recognize that some words started with the same letters, Daniel tried word prediction software to see if students would be receptive to using a computer and seeing the letters, words and symbols on screen. Daniel had 4th, 5th, and 6th graders who had never written more than one or two words on their own. For the first time, some students were writing sentences and paragraphs using the word prediction tool.
Skeptical at first, Daniel thought word prediction might be a crutch. More than anything he wanted his students to be independent. What he realized was without the word prediction assistive technology tool, many of his students would never have written their first word.
Word prediction changed how Daniel approached instruction materials for students with disabilities. Soon after the introduction of word prediction, Daniel tried an experiment.” I used word prediction for a semester and then took it away,” he said. “I found that students had retained some words and knew how to write them. They were not dependent on the technology, but rather were learning to spell.”
Prior to using word prediction, students who could not spell became frustrated with writing and gave up. Daniel realized that word prediction removed students’ frustration associated with spelling. Students now had a tool that allowed them to partially overcome the barrier of spelling in their written content. “The word prediction tool kept my students writing,” Daniel said. “They didn’t get hung up on spelling. When a student can express their thoughts they improve in other areas including behavior, social interactions, and confidence.”
Students who had spelling difficulties were exhibiting a new-found expression that increased their ability to participate with their general education peers in meaningful ways. They approached their classes in writing, research, and history with more enthusiasm and involvement. These youngsters behaved differently in social interactions.
Creating Independent Learners
Through this experience, teachers in this rural school gradually started to use more technology and advocate for UDL (Universal Design for Learning) where each student benefits from different kinds of learning approaches based on learning styles and individual strengths.
Daniel said, “The coolest thing that happened was that one of my students, Johnny, would demonstrate what he learned on the computer for other general education teachers. I’d pull them aside and ask them to observe Johnny writing on the computer, using interactive whiteboards, podcasting, and blogging tools. Teachers started to call my room and ask for him to come to their room for help. My students became leaders in the school. They rarely, if ever, experienced being in a leadership role for others.”
Daniel believes that taking a risk in his classroom to use words as symbols paid off. He hopes to encourage other teachers to use sight words as symbols and make progress in using assistive technology tools, like word prediction. In the end, Daniel’s students achieved higher results than what had been expected of them. Being open to new approaches is something Daniel will remember throughout his teaching career. This challenge was an all-time home run for Daniels’ students with autism, their parents, his teaching colleagues and this rural school.
Special thanks to Mr. Daniel McNulty for the work he does on behalf of his students and for sending us this informative article about the benefits of word prediction.