Pictures of a new language
Remember that TV commercial where the man goes around taking mobile phone photographs of all kinds of familiar objects and scenes, including his own toilet? All becomes clear when we see him in Tokyo coping with his language deficiencies by showing his pictures to passers-by.
Of course, the idea isn't new - my neighbour, desperate for anything resembling "proper" bacon in France, flourished a picture of a pig that was so badly drawn I hate to think what sort of meat he eventually ended up with. However, for pictures to be a useful aid to communication for anyone who has problems with speech, the system needs to be much more sophisticated - and clear and simple symbols are only the beginning.
THE WHOLE PICTURE
What my neighbour really wanted to convey wasn't just "bacon" but, "I know there are good things here, but right now, I just fancy a bit of bacon."
The step from one to the other is a quantum leap into the realm of real language.
This is where speech and language therapist Clare Latham comes in. With 14 years experience in a school for children with severe and multiple learning difficulties, and now working with a wider audience through the ACE (Aiding Communication in Education) centre, Clare has thought hard about using visual symbols to help young people with communication difficulties. In particular, she's interested in helping them progress beyond the noun-based simplicities of "drink" and "biscuit".
"What people find difficult isn't finding symbols for simple requests but developing a language," she says.
Latham's solution is in the form of a small book in ringbinder format (rather like a personal organiser). Called Developing and Using a Communication Book, it models, with examples and instructions, a way by which teachers, therapists and parents can help learners with communication difficulties.
The key to the book lies in the way the symbol pages are laid out as double-page spreads. On the right-hand page there's specialist vocabulary - so for snacks there are names and pictures of food, and symbols for words such as "eat" and "yummy". On the left there is what Latham calls "core vocabulary" - words and ideas used over and over again - "I", "go", "more".
Then, instead of just pointing to "chocolate", the user, with one or two quick points, can express sentences such as, "I'd like to go and buy some chocolate," or "Help me (to) go (and) buy more chocolate."
(This example is taken from the book's first stage of five: the level of sophistication, both of vocabulary and structure, increases stage by stage, introducing descriptions, time, numbers, places and concepts that require words such as "because", "if", "might" and "but").
The idea is not so much to use the book itself - though it's perfectly usable, with plenty of vocabulary that could easily be extended - as to use it as guide to making a book targeted to the needs of an individual learner. For example, some may want a larger format or a different pictorial system (the symbols in the book are Picture Communication Symbols, but other systems are described in the "making your book" section, together with details of suitable computer software).
What's really important - and Latham emphasises this - is that the communication book, when it's done, isn't just something to hand over to the user. The intention is that it's a shared enterprise between the learner and a "communication partner" - in the school setting, a teacher, teaching assistant or volunteer, though other pupils will often want to take part, too.
That's why her book, as she points out, has more guidance for the partner than it does for the learner. For instance, at stage four there are nine bullet pointed "aims for the learner", including "to begin to negotiate" and "to begin to reason".
At the same stage, however, "aims for the communication partner" has more than two pages of suggestions, including: "Introduce reasoning by using the 'because' symbol. For example, using the literacy page, say, 'Let's start again (point to symbol) because (point to symbol) we (point to symbol) made (point to symbol) a mistake (point to symbol)."
At that level, clearly, what's emerging is a language - and learning a language implies conversation and negotiation.
"The partner needs to get a grip on the language first and then they can model it," says Latham. "Learners have to experience a large number of the people around them using it first. Imagine being asked to speak French when you never hear it spoken or being used."
It is important that a communication book supplements other media - speech, signing, writing and computer software. It isn't a substitute, but it does fill specific needs. For example, it has features not present in signing.
"Some children find the transitory nature of a sign difficult, so for them the stability of the picture symbol is helpful," says Latham. The concept is total communication - making use of every conceivable tool to help the learner express and absorb meaning.
The book has been developed for learners with difficulties. It's clear, though - and experience in pilot classrooms bears this out - that children of all abilities enjoy using it. There's increasing interest in matching classroom work to different learning styles, and Latham's book represents an approach to language development that many mainstream teachers will find useful.
Developing and Using a Communication Book costs pound;15 and can be ordered from the publications section of the ACE website (see box, left).