Climbing the literacy ladder

This short paper relating to literacy acquisition by AAC users appears in the Symbol Talk section of Communicating Together, 1998, 15(4). Hopefully it will be of interest to those wishing to help Bliss users progress toward print literacy.

In Paul's Place, in the Summer 1998 issue of Communicating Together (Volume 15, Number 2), I described BlissInternet as our agent of change and promised to say more in a later issue regarding BlissInternet's capability to support Bliss users and Bliss alumni as they progress toward literacy. This issue's theme — Community Partnerships and Volunteer Involvement — provides the perfect context. My focus in this article is literacy acquisition for adults who use AAC. Many of the points, however, have application as well to literacy development in children who use AAC. Hopefully what I have to say will have relevance to those wishing to help persons of any age who communicate with Bliss, pictures or print and who wish to improve their literacy skills. The literacy program I am presenting has the acronym WRIB — Writing and Reading with the Internet and Bliss (McNaughton, 1998). "WRIB" provides an easy reminder that it performs a similar critical function in literacy acquisition as the ribs perform for the organs of the body. The rib case provides a structure to support and shield internal organs vital to our survival. WRIB provides a structure to maintain and support the further development of the individual's literacy abilities. And I use another analogy — considering literacy acquisition as climbing a ladder that depends for its stability upon a strong supportive platform. The literacy ladder has three rungs — pictures, Blissymbolics, print — each of which offers access to rich learning experiences. Only the top rung, however, opens the full world of literacy to the learner. It is a level to be highly valued, expecially for AAC users. For them print literacy not only opens the wide world available to all literate persons, but it also affords choices within many types of communication — face-to-face, with spelling/word boards and voice output communication aids (VOCA's); written, with many computer software options; telephone, with VOCA's; and computer-mediated telecommunications, using email and the internet. The supportive platform upon which the literacy ladder depends rests on four legs — (1) the learner's abilities and motivation, (2) knowledge of the factors involved in learning ro read, (3) a supportive instructional environment and (4) a committed instructor. I know of many situations in which one or two of the platform legs are in place, but one or more are inadequate — and the ladder topples! In those instances where all four legs are strong, the upward climbing of the ladder is a rich and satisfying experience for both the learner and the instructor.

Literacy Ladder

First, let's look at the literacy ladder. At the first rung, AAC users learn to use pictures or line drawings to communicate. At this level they can gain knowledge as they sequence pictures or line drawings to tell a story or to convey a message and as they interpret a series of pictures and drawings to gain information. The learner can derive lots of enjoyment and self esteem through participating in these "literacy" activities. As Detheridge and Detheridge (1998) describe this level of literacy, intellectual development is freed "from the constraints of writing and spelling, allowing language development to be successfully explored at an early stage" (p. 30). They report that many teachers claim, "by providing the means for structuring ideas and communicating knowledge it is possible that some learners will exceed expectations and will acquire higher levels of literacy than were initially anticipated" (p. 30). Their book, Literacy Through Symbols, contains many helpful examples of what can be accomplished through individuals participating in the domain of written symbols. As AAC users read and write with pictures, they can learn that graphic symbols convey meaning, that graphic symbols are sequenced from left to right and they can become aware of the arbitrariness of form-meaning connections. They can also develop a sight vocabulary through recognizing the words paired with their symbols. For a better understanding of the similarities in how pictures and sight words are processed, see the description of Type One (holistic processing) and Type Two (analytic processing) symbols in McNaughton (1993) and McNaughton and Lindsay (1995). But there is more to be gained at the second rung of the ladder, for this is where the language capabilities of Blissymbolics can greatly enrich the symbol literacy experience. Here, is where Type Two symbols (McNaughton, 1993; McNaughton & Lindsay, 1995) become available to the learner. As individuals "read" and "write" with the more arbitrary and rule-based Blissymbolics, the duality of this language system can add to the learning experiences acquired on the first rung of the literacy ladder. The language of Bliss provides two levels of structure in which discrete units can be combined. At the symbol (word) level, the meaning elements can be analyzed, or segmented and re-combined to form new symbols. The meaning of each symbol can be discovered through knowledge of its components. Families of symbols can be discovered — related to each other through the components they share. [See box insert.] As individuals gain fluency in analyzing the Blisssymbol elements, they develop an important skill for the print rung of the ladder that is waiting just above the Blissymbol rung. At the sentence level with the grammatical components Blissymbolics provides, learners gain more knowledge to support the reading of print. As individuals write with Blissymbols, they learn rules to enable the sequenced symbols to form statements or questions or commands, and to denote plurals, possessives, pronouns and verb tenses and negation. The combinatorial capability of Blissymbolics is so powerful that there is no limit to the number of symbols and sentences that can be produced. As learners read and write with Blissymbols, they gain experience with symbol elements and with syntax and they acquire the underpinning for the rules of their native language. They learn how to analyze symbols and sentences and apply this knowledge to creating new symbols and constructing original sentences. These experiences provide critical preparation for progressing to literacy fluency. For the speaking child this language foundation comes from their many years of talking and listening. For the AAC user, this language foundation must be acquired through the mastery and control of their expressive AAC communication being added to and refining their listening. This can be achieved through experiences with the dual structure of Blissymbolics. Duality provides the valuable additional learning opportunities at the second rung of the ladder. It's Bliss!
On the third rung of the ladder, AAC users read and write with words (print). Some of the words will be instantly recognized from seeing them along with their symbols or from books or from signs in the environment. These "sight" words can be "read" without having to analyze them or think about the sounds their letters represent. This kind of reading is similar to the reading that is done with pictures, when the processing is holistic and no analysis is required. The reading of sight words is possible, however, for only a limited number of words. Soon the learner will encounter many words that have not been seen before and for which analyzing and decoding skills will be needed. It is for this "reading" that the experience with Blissymbols at the second rung of the ladder can be helpful. Both Blissymbols and words require analysis and decoding. The analyzing to be done with words, however, differs from the analysis required of Blissymbols. Research has shown print analysis to be more difficult than Blissymbol analysis for early readers (McNaughton, 1998, pp. 131, 189). Because the analysis of a Blissymbol into its meaning parts is more easily learned at an earlier developmental level than the analysis of words into their sound parts, the second rung of the ladder offers a time for enjoying and learning about written language before climbing up to the more difficult demands of reading print. It is interesting to note that for both Blissymbols and words, the meaning or sound associations required of their elements are not always consistent — an important lesson to be learned! For example, In Blissymbols, the small circle sometimes means "mouth", but it is also used in the handle of the pictographic "scissors" and as a link in the chain denoting "combine". In print, the sound of the letter "c" is different in "cat", "cent", "child". One of the exciting breakthroughs in reading is in discovering what the associations are from the context of the full symbol (analyzing all its parts) or from the context provided by the full sentence (examining all its symbols or words). It is worth noting that knowledge derived from examining all the sentence elements can be gained at all levels of the literacy ladder — through reading and writing with pictures, Bliss or print. Only Blissymbols, however, provide experience analyzing symbol components prior to analyzing printed word components.

Literacy Platform

Now that we have seen what is offered by each rung of the literacy ladder, we need to examine what is needed to support the platform on which the ladder rests. For adults who use AAC, the first leg of the platform, the learner's abilities and motivation, may not be immediately obvious. Visual, auditory andd language abilities must be assessed to ensure that the learner can function within a graphic language environment. With regard to motivation, there are many reasons for it to be or appear to be lacking — repeated failure in the past, lack of energy, lack of knowledge as to benefits of literacy, the mistaken belief that writing and reading are not possible for persons who cannot speak (reinforced by a similar belief on the part of teachers and caregivers during the AAC user's formative years). This leg of the supportive foundation is the first to investigate. In order to know what to look for, we must consider the second leg of the supportive platform — the factors involved in learning to read. The mainstream reading acquisition research has identified many factors contributing to success in learning to read (Stanovich, 1986, 1991; Share, 1995). The factor that is primary and needs to be considered first is that of phonological recoding, defined by Ehri (1991) as "translating letters into sounds by application of letter-sound rules and then recognizing the identities of words from their pronunciations" (p. 107). A caution expressed by Adams (1990), is important to remember in considering phonological processing:
It is not working knowledge of phonemes that is so important but conscious, analytic knowledge. It is neither the ability to beat the difference between two phonemes nor the ability to distinctly produce them that is significant. What is important is the awareness that they exist as abstracuble and manipulable components of the language. Developmentally. this area seems to depend upon the child's inclination or encouragement to lend conscious attention to the sounds (as district from the meanings) of words.
Adam,, 1990, p. 65.
Important as it is, it must be remembered that phonological recoding is not the sole factor! To phonological processing must be added visual, language, memory and environmental factors. Above all, the instructor must be aware that literacy must be considered as but one component within the language learning process, developing gradually from infancy onward. AAC user's abilities and their past language learning environments are all of interest in determining their instructional needs. Many ways have been developed to assess the individual's abilities. Whether this be done formally or informally, the instructor has to be aware of the learner's strengths and weaknesses in all of the areas affecting literacy acquisition. Perhaps another Symbol Talk can be devoted to an assessment protocol that has proven helpful to this writer. For now, I will assume that the first two legs of the Literacy Platform are in place — that the learner has the skills and motivation for literacy learning and that knowledge concerning reading acquisition can be accessed by the instructor. The references below offer readings for those who wish to know more. It is the last two legs of the literacy platform that I wish to emphasize here — (1) the supportive instructional environment of BlissInternet and (2) the volunteers who can contribute so much as instructors. BlissInternet provides a medium for the transmission of both Blissymbol and print messages between individuals wherever they have access to a computer and telecommunications. The BlissInternet software is readily available from the two addresses listed below. It affords the experience to acquire the conscious and analytic knowledge of print, identified as critical by Adams (1990). It provides a means for interacting with a resource instructor whenever needed. As an example, a Bliss user in southern Ontario is exchanging messages, stories and "homework" assignments with a Bliss user in northern Ontario. Each partner is learning from the other as they take turns and exchange roles as tutor and learner. A resource teacher makes suggestions as the interaction proceeds. Stories, containing a "friendly" blend of known and unknown words, are being written and shared. They relate to topics of mutual interest. Questions are being asked in Bliss for responses in English and vice versa. Activities are being created and engaged in to give practice in consciously analysing the elements in both Blissymbols and words. Fluency in decoding and spelling tricky words and in processing difficult phonological units is the goal. The learning is fun and satisfying. Direct links are being made between the skills already acquired at the second (Bliss) rung of the ladder and those to be learned at the third (print) rung. And now, the reason for this article fitting so well in this issue of Communicating Together with its theme of volunteering and community involvement! Most important of all to the success of WRIB is the fourth "leg" of the literacy platform — the committed instructor who ensures that attention is directed to the sounds of words and that the other factors related to print acquisition are considered. Without the assistance and interest of this individual, the entire ladder falls. Here is where volunteering is needed. This role can be filled by a friend or a family member or a caregiver who can donate his or her time to helping an AAC user on a regular basis. It can be filled by a teacher who "volunteers" additional time beyond classroom teaching to help the AAC user who needs extra attention. It can be filled by a more advanced student who wishes to gain experience in teaching. Whatever the reason for the involvement, the volunteer can make all the difference! For time is what is needed. Time for the volunteer and the AAC user to climb the literacy ladder together, with the help of other Bliss users or Bliss alumni and with assistance as needed from a resource teacher — a role I thoroughly enjoy! The climb is a satisfying one. Each rung of the ladder brings its own unique pleasure and accomplishment. I would always welcome hearing from volunteers who would like to know more about or who would like to become involved in WRIB. Do send me an email message if you're interested! I promise a quick response!


Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Ehri, L.C. (1991). Development in the ability to read words. In, R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, (Vol. II, pp. 383-417). New York: Longman.
Detheridge, T., & Detheridge, M. ((1998). Literacy through symbols. London: David Fulton Publishers McNaughton, S. (1993). Graphic representational systems and literacy learning. Topics in Language Disorders, 13 (2), 58-75.
McNaughton, S. (1998). Reading acquisition of adults with severe congenital speech and physical impairments: Theoretical infrastructure, empirical investigation, educational application. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. McNaughton,
S. & Lindsay, P.H. (1995). Approaching literacy with AAC graphics. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 11, 212-228.
Share, D.L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55, 151-218.
Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360- 407.
Stanovich, K.E. (1991). Word recognition: Changing perspectives. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, (Vol. II, pp. 418-452). New York: Longman.

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