Health and Human Development

Web sites help improve language, literacy for special-needs children

University Park, Pa. -- Two Web sites launched by members of the Penn State faculty aim to support the development of language and communication skills in children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other disabilities. The focus of each site is on children with complex communication challenges who would benefit from augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which is the term for the various tools and approaches used to enhance communication. Examples of AAC include word approximations, gestures, signs, communication boards with pictures and speech-generating computers.

Each Web site contains strategies to help family members, teachers and professionals improve children’s communication. Additionally, the sites feature videos, pictures and success stories of people benefiting from the strategies.

“Too often research results do not get put into practice because they are not disseminated effectively to the stakeholders in the community,” said Janice Light, distinguished professor of communication sciences and disorders. “The sites are intended to be easy to use for both parents and professionals from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines.”

Early Intervention, at online, coordinated by Light and Kathryn Drager, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, is an online, five-step intervention to introduce AAC to enhance the language and communication skills of infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The site targets children with complex communication challenges, such as children who do not talk at all, children who may be slow learning to talk, children whose speech is difficult to understand and children who are at risk for communication difficulties for a variety of reasons.

“Intervening early can improve a child’s language and social development, and also reduce some of the communication-related frustration children may feel as they get older,” said Light. “We’ve successfully introduced infants as young as 6 months old to AAC, but it is never too late to start. Even though this intervention targets younger children, it can be adapted to help adolescents and adults, too.”

The five steps of the intervention highlight several important factors for effective language development, including vocabulary, environment and interactive activities. Each step also addresses questions frequently asked by parents (how to set up opportunities for communication, how to introduce new vocabulary, how frequently new words can be introduced).

The second site, AAC and Literacy, at online, was coordinated by Light and David McNaughton, professor of special education at Penn State, and provides guidelines for teaching literacy skills to learners with special needs.

“Historically, many individuals with special needs have been excluded from literacy instruction,” said Light. “Most of the literacy curricula that are used in the schools require learners to say words or letter sounds out loud. Learners with complex communication needs have difficulty participating effectively in this type of instruction.”

The site provides information, instructional tasks, goals and examples that help learners improve their literacy skills through the use of AAC. The site addresses many aspects of literacy development, from basic skills (grouping sounds together to form words, or breaking a word apart into its sounds), to reading sentences and reading comprehension.

Improving literacy does more than help children read books, said Light.

“By helping children learn to read and write,” she said, “it can enhance their cognitive development, promote increased participation at school, facilitate social relationships and foster personal expression. In children with disabilities, literacy also can improve their communication skills and self-esteem.”

Each site was developed as part of the Augmentative and Alternative Communication Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (AAC-RERC), a collaborative research center that is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Last Updated February 10, 2010