By Evelyn de Castro
(she/her), speech language pathologist, Langley
I’m a big fan of ramps. As an itinerant speech language pathologist (SLP) working at many school sites each week, my rolling cart is always in use. While I do not have a physical disability that prevents me from using the stairs, ramps make my work much easier. It’s hard to believe at one time ramps weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today. Not only do they make our schools safer, more inclusive, and more accessible, they benefit everyone, as is generally the case with accessible design. The same goes for learning.
Are there ways that we can create language and communication “ramps” in our classroom designs? And can such ramps create more equity in our classrooms by allowing all students to access the curriculum?
This is something that has been on my mind as I’ve been on a journey to incorporate the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) and multitiered systems of support (MTSS) into my practice as an educational speech language pathologist. Despite the disruptions and great stresses that have been brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been blessed to experience collaboration successes in partnering with educators to build communication ramps.
A communication tool for one student
Our communication ramp story started with just one student; we’ll call him Jordan. When Jordan first began Kindergarten last September, he was non-speaking and struggling with social interactions. As part of his communication intervention plan, I worked one-on-one with Jordan to build his language skills, focusing on using sounds, gestures, and words more intentionally to communicate.
I introduced Jordan to a resource called a “core board,” which is a laminated board with common “core words” and related pictures. Core words are the most used words that make up 75–80% of what we say in our everyday speech. Some examples of core words are go, like, me, and in. This contrasts with fringe words that are used much less frequently in casual, everyday conversation: for example, words such as elephant, purple, and pencil. To better understand the concept of core vs. fringe words, think about a tree. The trunk of the tree represents the core words, and the branches and leaves represent the fringe words. You can find many different versions of core boards online that are free to download.
We noticed Jordan loved walking, jumping, and riding the tricycle at school, so we used his core board to model how to comment and discuss these activities. We did this by highlighting the word as we spoke, emphasizing the word with more volume and varied intonation. We also simultaneously pointed to the core word picture on his board, so Jordan’s attention was drawn to the visual representation of the word. After several repetitions across different motivating activities, Jordan started to point to the core word and even say the word “go.” In time, his use of the core board became more purposeful and intentionally communicative.
We placed a classroom-sized poster version of Jordan’s personal core word board in a visible location in the classroom where all students could see and access it. Doing so allowed Jordan’s classroom teacher, Gerri-Lynn De Boer, to incorporate the core board in classroom communication.
Just a week or two after I shared the classroom core board, Gerri began to introduce a “word of the week” to the entire class. She also used the removable core board pictures during some instructional routines. For example, the class often used poems to learn new high-frequency words. Gerri adapted the poem to include Jordan’s core words and created a chart to display the written words alongside the core word pictures.
In addition, Jordan’s education assistant, Marijana Pismestrovic, found many creative ways to incorporate his core words into his daily one-to-one activities with her. One such activity was a popsicle stick activity where Jordan worked on his fine motor skills by picking up and inserting the sticks into slots on a container. Marijana wrote out a different core word on each individual popsicle stick to increase opportunities for her to model and encourage Jordan to imitate and learn the words.
Jordan’s peers took interest in this activity and would engage in taking turns with him, another opportunity for social inter-actions while providing multiple models for core word learning.
By the end of the year, Jordan was speaking more frequently using intentional words and even some short phrases. He was more engaged with his peers, who included and accepted him. And, his mother told me, he loves going to school.
A communication ramp for all students
As it turned out, many of the core board words overlapped with common high-frequency words in Kindergarten. So, Jordan’s core board was also supporting conventional literacy skills for all students. There were also several students in the class who were learning English as an additional language. The visuals on the core board were supportive to these students as well. Just like our physical ramps, Jordan’s core board became a communication ramp for the whole class, giving them all an opportunity to participate and learn language and literacy skills.
I’m so proud of my school team for the creativity and work they put in to build a communication design that benefited everyone. Next year, Jordan will continue working with an SLP, but one-on-one time is limited. Knowing the entire school team has developed resources and skills to provide intentional language supports for Jordan throughout the whole school day is amazing. And knowing that all students in the classroom will benefit from this encourages me to continue collaborating with other educators to introduce new tools and strategies in the classroom.
Strategies to build more communication ramps
- Integrate explicit and daily phonemic awareness activities to build sound skills that are important for decoding print language.
- Develop a classroom sound wall to support learning of letter-sound correspondences in primary grades. A sound wall can act as a visual guide during instruction to help students make connections between speech sounds (and how they are articulated) to the printed letters that represent those sounds.
- Provide SLP instructional lessons for Kindergarten or Grade 1 students on how to pronounce sometimes tricky speech sounds, such as “th” or “r.”
- Use semantic word maps to display connections between key vocabulary from a read-aloud or curricular unit and other related words.
- Introduce and use visual tools or graphic organizers to support both oral and written narrative skill development.
- Integrate mini-lessons on morphological awareness or word parts such as prefixes (e.g., dis-, un-, re-), suffixes (e.g., -ful, -ness) and root words (e.g., play).
Speech and language impairments affect 3–16% of children, depending on the age and type of impairment. Approximately two students in every classroom have a developmental language disorder, i.e., a disorder that is not due to a biomedical condition (radld.org). The need for speech language services is significantly increasing as more children are being diagnosed with speech and language impairments that require SLP support for complex communication needs. For more information about language impairments and the role of SLPs, check out Speech and Hearing BC’s letter of advocacy for speech and language services in BC schools: