How speech and language therapists can incorporate apps into the classroom

Rebecca Bright

Rebecca is an experienced speech and language therapist who works with adult clients with neurological communication impairments. Rebecca became interested in finding a more mainstream “cool” AAC device. As an off-shoot to her successful therapy resource website Therapy Box, Rebecca has formed and with the feedback from fellow clinicians and AAC users has developed two applications for the iPad/iPhone, ‘Predictable’ and ‘Scene & Heard’, available from iTunes.

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The use of apps in the classroom is now commonplace. The challenge speech and language therapists face is knowing the best way to use apps in this environment. With the sheer magnitude of apps available, it can be difficult to sort through and find an app which targets specific communication goals. Many of the available educational apps can easily be incorporated into the therapy setting to collect data, record conversational samples, motivate students or be used as an augmentative assistive communication device.

Considerations as to whether the student can work using apps on their own, or need an assistant to monitor or provide prompts when using an app, need to be made. Some students will be able to work through an app if the app has a clear journey and the interface is intuitive. However, in most situations, the app would be better used with involvement from the speech therapist, who can not only monitor use, but also encourage and observe how the app is being used. Often, a student’s use of an app may provide interesting information about how they problem solve, their attention, and their memory of how to use the app.

Before choosing an app, therapists must consider a number of features:

  • Does the app offer record-keeping within the app? Can you keep track of progress in an activity?
  • Does the app offer customisation of settings – such as turning on/off reinforcement sounds; adjusting the voice; choosing errorless learning?
  • Is the app motivating enough to keep the student engaged for long enough to complete the task... but not so motivating that it makes it difficult to switch tasks or put the app away?
  • Does the app allow the student to move through various levels, or have enough content to keep it new or up to pace with the student?
  • Is the app age-appropriate? Is the app culturally appropriate?

It is important to consider the boundaries of using apps in the classroom. It may be necessary to allocate specific times for use and to teach about shared use. Guidelines for use of apps in the classroom need to be set, so that students use them safely and respectfully.

Speech and language therapists need to be up to date with the latest apps available. Many websites give you lists of the latest apps, which are often broken down into sub-categories (AAC apps, literacy apps, speech apps). If considering an AAC app, a therapist then needs to work with the student and their support team to determine what features would be necessary and desirable in an app for that individual. Using a feature-matching chart, such as the one developed at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, can be used to systematically work through each of the features your student specifically needs. It's also worth reading online reviews to get a more subjective view on how different therapists are using the app, and the features they do and don’t like.

Once an app has been chosen, it is important to then consider how the app will be used in the classroom. Realistic goals must be set which will enable the student to have success in communication early on, as an important motivation in continuing to use the technology. It is also important to continue to revise the goals, so that the student is able to grow with using their AAC system and look at how they may use the app to achieve goals beyond expressing basic needs or making requests; moving towards goals related to literacy and social skills. It may also be possible to use the app in ways it wasn’t originally intended, such as taking characters or settings from a game (e.g. an elephant in the jungle in a counting app) and using it in other tasks such as creative writing or art tasks. Parents may also like suggestions of how to use the apps at home on iPads, to promote carry-over and shared engagement on tasks.

Using apps creatively and confidently, and applying our evidence base, will add an extra string to speech and language therapist’s bows.

Photo credit: CERDEC

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