Text-Based Aided Language: Making the Literacy-Communication Connection for Children with Autism

January 23, 2014 by - 2 Comments

Text-Based Aided Language: Making the Literacy-Communication Connection for Children with Autism
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We are so pleased to have this guest post by Alicia Garcia. She is the lead SLP at AAC Clinic at One Kids Place, in Ontario. You can read her previous post here. Today, Alicia takes us in a textual direction. Enjoy! 

When working with children with autism who have complex communication needs we have found it is not uncommon to see children who, despite having significant Text-Based Aided Language: Making the Literacy-Communication Connection for Children with Autismcommunication and language challenges, can read and sometimes type words. Their ability to decode written words is far superior to their ability to communicate their wants, needs and thoughts. Some of these children use AAC systems for their face-to-face communication and, in some cases, have a literacy program in place; they frequently have handy access to writing or typing tools. These children do not, however, use text to communicate with people. They have not made the Literacy-Communication connection.

We wonder… how do we help these kids make this connection; how do we teach them to apply their knowledge and interest in text into their face-to-face communication? With these kids we have implemented what we have called “Text-Based Aided Language,” or TAL.

What does TAL look like?

Text-Based Aided Language consists on demonstrating to the child communication with text during functional, incidental, face-to-face communication exchanges. When implementing TAL we, communication partners, type or write (print) key words of messages we communicate to the child. We use writing tools such as pen and paper, portable dry-erase boards, keyboards on communication devices, or keyboards on tablets or phones. We try using the same type of writing tool that we know the child can use. The child is a passive observer whose only job is to look at the board, paper or screen while we write or type. For example: 

  • when time for recess, the teacher says to the class “It’s time to go outside” while showing Riley a dry-erase board and writing “go outside”
  • during arts and crafts, the educational assistant asks Philippe “What colour marker do you want?” while typing and  saying “what colour” using the keyboard on his communication device
  • when Adam goes to the computer station and selects his favourite video clip from the Favourites drop-down menu, one of his peers tells him “Enjoy your Thomas video!” while typing and showing Adam the words “enjoy Thomas” on Adam’s iPad
  • when Ashley gets off the bus, her Educational Assistance notices she is wearing new footwear and tells her “I like your new boots” while typing on her phone and showing Ashley the words “new boots”

 When using TAL with children who use pictures to communicate, we initially combine regular picture-based Aided Language with text, for example: while telling the child “I heard you like eating at Denny’s” we point to the picture of “like” on their communication device and then type the word “Denny’s” using the device’s keyboard. We adjust the number of words we write or type based on the child’s interest, their language and literacy level. We recommend partners to gradually increase the amount of key words and complexity of written utterances as they get more familiar and comfortable using the strategy with each particular child.

With whom have we used TAL?

We have used TAL with children with ASD who have no speech or have limited speech; some repeat or echo few words; they all have difficulties initiating communication and answering questions. These kids have the following literacy skills:

  • Have strong interest in text: like books, look attentively to print, know the letters of the alphabet
  • Can read (i.e., decode) many words — out loud, silent reading, via eye or finger pointing (e.g. show me the word…); they usually learned to decode with minimal or no formal literacy instruction
  • Can and usually enjoy copy-typing tasks, some can type or write words independently and spontaneously using paper and pencil or a keyboard

So far, we have used TAL only with children with autism with this literacy profile but we think it could also be implemented in some capacity with children with different Text-Based Aided Language: Making the Literacy-Communication Connection for Children with Autismdiagnoses and communication-literacy profiles.

Why do we do TAL?

We do TAL for many reasons; most importantly we do it because:

  • We know that visuals aids facilitate language comprehension in children with ASD, and we think that when children read what they hear, they understand language better.
  • We all want children with complex communication needs to be able to generate novel thoughts AND to become literate…  what better context to demonstrate the use of literacy to communicate novel thoughts than real, everyday life situations? We think that natural, functional, meaningful, face-to-face communication is the ideal context to establish the Literacy-Communication connection.
  • We want to take advantage of the children’s strengths to teach them more challenging communication and language skills. Use of skills that the child already has and enjoys practicing–i.e., decoding and/or encoding words– may facilitate learning of new skills.
  • And last but not least, for the same reason that we use Aided Language: because we know that we need to model or demonstrate communication to children using the same communication mode that we want them to, ultimately, learn to use.
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This post was written by Carole Zangari


  • Kim Bender says:

    I had a “duh” moment reading this post. I always have a white board by my side during therapy, especially when I am instructing my students with autism. The flexibility of a white board allows me to quickly provide the words and pictures to improve my student’s understanding of target skills, concepts and expectations. So to this extent I was already a believer. – So why did I not think of using it for ALL communications including social language and comments. Did I think that poor comprehension didn’t extend to these aspects of language? This should have been a common sense extension of this strategy but it wasn’t. You can even bring the power of the white board to your iPad with an app like Doodle Buddy https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/doodle-buddy-paint-draw-scribble/id313232441?mt=8
    . Thanks for this post.

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Ha! Kim, we know just how you feel. And this is EXACTLY why we are thrilled when another clinician is willing to share their ideas and approaches. There is no substitute for seeing and hearing how other SLPs do the work of AAC. Using doodle buddy is a great idea. Time for MY ‘duh’ moment! Thanks for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated!

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