Work Smarter, Not Harder

Posted on January 01, 2012
Amy Peters - Early Childhood Specialist

Amy Peters - Early Childhood Specialist

Within Early Childhood settings, buy I am frequently impressed and amazed by the amount of effort preschool teachers and related service providers, story such as speech-language pathologists (SLP), are willing to exert to plan and execute a single lesson. It raises the question:  Is it possible to work smarter, not harder? This question becomes paramount in times of reduced budgets and support staff in classrooms.

When preschool aged students have significant disabilities, it can be very challenging to plan group lessons and provide these students with meaningful ways to participate. Many times these young students do not yet have a functional method for communicating. It is often a beginning goal in the educational setting to develop an individualized system for each student to provide him or her with a way to communicate basic wants and needs.

Methods for communicating can include things like using the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), an augmentative device or signing. Although important, teaching communication skills are labor intensive. Teachers and therapists have to plan for the vocabulary words that will be available if using PECS or an augmentative device for a specific lesson. Vocabulary words need to be taught. This process requires many repetitions and response opportunities in order for students to learn them. Given these constraints, we need to think more critically about the vocabulary that we plan to teach.

Consider how teaching the hard way may look. Minutes before a given lesson the SLP and teacher are running around in a mad dash. One is preparing manipulates for the lesson such as paint, paper, glitter, shapes or cut-outs of pumpkins or other seasonal items. The other stands in the corner and frantically attempts to record the necessary vocabulary on an augmentative device for the day’s lesson. When all is ready, the lesson is taught and the student is encouraged and reinforced for using the day’s vocabulary. However, many times that is where it ends. The result: lots of work and effort on the part of the staff, but little application for improving the vocabulary knowledge or use for a student with a significant disability.

Now consider another smarter not harder option. Staff spends time developing a list of “core vocabulary” words for a given student. There are many options from which to choose. A few possibilities include choosing nouns from lists of “typical 1st words” or “most common words used in the English language”. Staff can evaluate various lists and pick appropriate vocabulary for the specific student with whom they work.

There are many benefits to using this type of approach. As Gail M. Van Tatenhove presented at the 2011 Utah Augmentative Alternative Assistive Communication and Technology (UAAACT) Conference, vocabulary that is functional in nature is taught. Repetition, when used as a teaching strategy, decreases the time needed to program devices or print out picture vocabulary words. Undesired outcomes are also avoided. These may include limited communication initiated by the student outside of the planned activity, learned passivity, prompt dependence to take a conversational turn or an inability to locate or use constantly changing vocabulary. Gail Van Tatenhove stated, “The philosophy of the Core Vocabulary Classroom (CVC) is all about proportion and power. Core vocabulary is emphasized. Extended vocabulary is not ignored, not considered bad, but is not as critical as core vocabulary. [Educators] have to guard against slipping into the habits of [using] temporary noun vocabulary for temporary activities controlled by others.”

Preparation time can be focused and instruction can be improved and streamlined by choosing the most critical vocabulary for a particular student. During every lesson that is taught, only the words that were chosen as critical for that student are emphasized. Naturally, the student is exposed to the other vocabulary that is used in a lesson, but not with the goal of teaching it to the student. This eliminates the extra preparation and pre-lesson craziness. It benefits the student by providing many more practice opportunities with vocabulary that is more applicable to their lives both inside and outside of the school setting. For young students with limited communication skills, perhaps the initial goal of the educator is to use less variety and allow for more repetition of important words.


Author: Amy Peters, Program Specialist, Utah Personnel Development Center (UPDC)