Creating Communication Opportunities for the ‘Older’ Learner

July 13, 2013 by - 1 Comment

Creating Communication Opportunities for Older Learners
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boy reading to dogThe Strategy of the Month involves AAC and the ‘older learner’.  The ‘older learner’ involves a range of ages (We are ‘older learners’ for way longer than we are children)  as well as a wide range of functioning levels.  Even with this variation though, we know that ALL older learners can learn.

There are challenges with ‘older learners’ that need to be addressed in order to facilitate spontaneous and generative communication and language. The challenges may result from years and years of going to intervention (some of it effective, some not), from perceived failure by the learner and/or the professionals, or may even just be related to that ‘teenager or adult’ independent streak.  These challenges can definitely be overcome in order  to help develop a functional and robust communication system for ALL learners. Just remember respect the learner as a competent teenager or adult (e.g., think what a typical language user might say or do).

One of the first things that we need to do is create meaningful communication opportunities. This is often the fun part as the opportunities can involve things we ALL like to do and learn about.  To get started with creating communication opportunities, there must be the mindset of presumed competence. This is often more true for this group of learners than any others.

Begin with the philosophy of PRESUMING COMPETENCE, Communicate Accordingly and Create Communication Opportunities:

Communication Opportunity Foundations 

  • The communication opportunity must be meaningful to the learnerBelieve it or not, this is often hardest to do, because what is meaningful to the learner might not at all make sense to you. However, it is really important to being effective. ‘Older learners’ tend not to do things just because you want them too, or if they do they do not put in all that much effort. So think about what is really meaningful to the learner. Just as ‘older’ varies in age and level, so does what is meaningful. Some examples  include:  “being left alone”, socializing by saying “hello” to many people, playing only with balls, drawing, opening presents, playing with a ‘baby toy’, having a friend, not having a friend, science, photography, and the list goes on.
  • The communication opportunity must be authenticSet up ‘real’ ways for the opportunity to be available to the learner. Make the situation and materials fit the opportunity.
  • The communication opportunity must look and feel age appropriate-  This may seem obvious but sometimes interests do not coincide with age appropriateness. If the toy or materials are for younger learners, you can categorize them as that and put them into a context of the older learner (e.g., writing a book about ‘barney’ or making a video about ‘barney’.). If you are doing science make sure the pictures, experiment, materials look adult like even if the response mode is at the one word/symbol level.

Beginnings to Creating the Communication Opportunity

  • The communication opportunity may begin with choices We all do better with choices and each choice is a communication opportunity. Even if you are offering the choice of  playing alone at the table or on the floor you are presenting a communication  opportunity. Other choices can include:  topics to ‘talk about each week’ in a month, vocabulary words to work on, materials to write with, who to talk to, etc…the list of choices is  limitless.
  • The communication opportunity may need to be a communication temptations Communication temptations are structured situations designed to entice communication. Communication temptations may involve lock boxes or cabinets, enticing pictures, leaving out key ingredients or utensils, being absurd, and much much more. The only difference between communication temptations for younger and older learners is the acting skills and creativity of the facilitator.
  • The communication opportunity should be cool.  The ‘cool’ factor is important for everyone. It needs to seem cool for the learner. The pictures/materials, etc need to ‘spark’ excitement in anyone who sees them.  Even if the ‘cool factor’ is boredom, that could be the enticing communication opportunity (e.g., “math is soooo boring”).

Sample Communication Opportunities

 icecream with locked top   boom box     tempting science  calendar example

Communication opportunities can be derived from things or information depending upon the individual learner. The possibilities as said before are limitless.

Strategies to Facilitate Learning from the Communication Opportunity

  • Think Aloud Strategy– Speaking about your thoughts as you work through different communication processes gives the learner insight into how you solved a problem, how you experienced an event, how you are thinking and helps them learn how to as well. 
  • Aided Language Input (ALI)Use AAC when you talk. ALI is modeling AAC Style.
  • Turn Taking as Speaker & Listener- Participate in the activity, be a communication partner rather than always telling the learner what to do. Always try to make the project, do the experiment as this serves as a model but also allows the learner to see you think the activity is worth doing.
  • Decrease QuestionsQuestions are a demand for all of us. No one likes to have demands and pressure placed on them to communicate. Check out 5 Ways to Elicit Language without a Direct Question by Carole Zangari for ideas and strategies to do this.
  • Wait & Signal- Use the expectant pause often as a way to show the learner you expect them to take a ‘conversational turn’
  • Following Learners Lead- This means be willing to diverge from topic at times when something more meaningful to the learner comes up. Be flexible, sometimes the communication opportunity is talking about the ‘mean girls’ in class, other times and levels may mean it just is a request for break kind of day. We would always prefer the communicative opportunity asking for a break 20 times per session versus fighting for compliance with an older learner (only true though if requesting so many breaks is not typical).  An example of this happened recently with a 17-year-old we see. All of a sudden he stopped wanting to surveys around our clinic. It was a little bit of a dilemma because mom wanted him to socialize.  However, since it was so out of the ordinary, we honored a break and a different activity choice. Then a week later we found out that ‘Mikey’ had a back injury and did not want to get up and walk around. We were very glad we honored following his lead.
  • Repetition with Variety- Keep presenting communication opportunities that work in a variety of setting, with different materials, with different people, etc. The more repetition with variety of prAACtice, the more likely for the language to generalize.

Please share your fun ‘older learner’ communication opportunities.

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This post was written by Robin Parker

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