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Building Connections with Personal Narratives

The first week of school has officially come to an end! It has been such a busy, but fun start. Our school is going through some big changes, which means that almost everyone has a new classroom or office this year. It has been hectic, but our new speech therapy office is awesome! There are 13 speech-language pathologists in the department, and fortunately we have enough space in our new location. Beyond our physical location changes, our school has lots of new employees, new students, new school-wide positive behavior initiatives, and other new policies. As someone who doesn’t *love* change, I can say that I have felt slightly overwhelmed. However, all of the changes being made are being done with our students’ best intentions in mind and that gives me peace of mind.

We have tried to prepare our students for all of the new situations and environments they would experience this year, but it’s difficult to anticipate everything! I think for my students, seeing a familiar face in their new classroom makes the transition a little bit easier to process. I have been making a point to stop by to visit my students whenever possible this week, and it has been really cool to see how everyone is acclimating and adapting to the changes.

A few posts ago, I talked about why it is important to talk about feelings and physical states of being with our students with complex communication needs. It can be empowering for our students to learn how to express the way that they feel. In addition to being able to advocate for themselves, it is vital for our students to be able to communicate about events in their lives. In today’s post, I want to discuss how we might encourage our students with complex communication needs to develop basic personal narrative skills.

Over the years, I have heard parents, caregivers, and teachers voice concerns about students being able to report what is going on around them. Parents and caregivers like to know what their child is doing in school and school-based staff members are interested in what their students are doing while at home! Many classroom teams use daily notebooks or online programs for back-and-forth communication, which is wonderful and necessary! But, I wonder- how can we involve our students with complex communication needs in these interactions?

I have a student named Kyle* who uses a high-tech AAC system (which we refer to as his talker) to communicate. Kyle is very intelligent and has great reading and spelling skills. He uses his talker often throughout the day. While Kyle has a relatively large noun vocabulary, he almost never uses verbs. For example, he will approach a staff member and say “Super Why” which is the name of his favorite TV show. He doesn’t ask to “turn on”, “talk about,” or “watch” Super Why. So, every time he produces this label, it is responded to as if he is requesting Super Why and Kyle is either denied or given access to watch the show.

For Kyle, communication opportunities rarely extend beyond basic requesting. Without verbs, Kyle communicates for a very limited number of functions. Sometimes, when given access to the show (or other preferred object he requests), Kyle does not appear to be satisfied. In these situations, it seems as though he really wanted to do something else with the show or object but that he was unable to specifically express.

We knew that we needed to teach Kyle to use verbs to communicate. But, we weren’t sure where to start. Should we choose a list of target verbs and have Kyle label pictures? We could, and it would probably be a therapy task that we would practice from time to time, but was that really the most authentic way? As a team, we brainstormed ideas for how we could teach Kyle to use verbs to produce novel utterances related to his experiences. We knew that it would take more than just labeling pictures in individual speech therapy sessions. It would have to be functional and meaningful to Kyle.

While brainstorming, my SLP friend and colleague Alisa asked what Kyle’s visual schedule looked like. Kyle’s schedule was made up of noun labels for different activities and times of the day (e.g. snack). Alisa suggested changing Kyle’s schedule words to include verbs so that he would be exposed to the action words as they occurred. This was such a simple, yet powerful suggestion because it was something so do-able that could have a big impact.

Schedule on the left shows Kyle's original schedule. On the right, you can see that with minor changes, we were able to add verbs.

As we know, exposure to language is essential for learning. We knew that in order for Kyle to learn to use and understand verbs, he would have to start hearing and seeing them consistently. We wanted to encourage Kyle to learn to communicate about events in his day, so we created a very basic, personal narrative plan for this student, which was as follows (I left out the criteria, etc):

Long Term Goal: Using multimodal communication (high-tech AAC device, writing on paper, typing on keyboard, etc.), Kyle will produce a personal narrative consisting of three simple sentences to tell about events from his day.


1. Complete a sentence using a verb from a word bank to describe event at the end of an activity.

2. Produce a simple sentence to tell about an event from the end of the day.

3. Use simple sentences to tell about two events that happened prior to lunch.

4. Use simple sentences to tell about three events that happened prior to dismissal.


We wanted to make this goal as functional as possible, so rather than just working on labeling verbs, we decided to target actions in meaningful contexts. We started with the following:

1. We provided Kyle with the following worksheet to supplement his schedule. On this worksheet, Kyle practiced identifying/choosing correct verbs to describe activities that he participated in.

2. We focused on verbs that were part of Kyle’s routine. We modeled the verbs and taught them as they happened. So, rather than asking Kyle “do you want a snack?” we started to model “Let’s PICK a snack” and “I am eating a snack.” We wanted to teach the verbs within contexts that would be meaningful for Kyle.

3. At the end of activities, we worked with Kyle to produce a simple sentence to describe what happened. We did this immediately following experiences so it would be fresh in Kyle’s mind. For example, at the end of speech therapy sessions, Kyle and I would fill in the blank or produce a sentence such as “I read book at speech.”

4. After transitioning back to the classroom from speech therapy, Kyle and I would use his AAC system to tell his teacher what we did in speech therapy. It gave Kyle a great opportunity to practice delivering a message about an experience!


While we wanted this goal to be as functional as possible, we also recognize that students learn by having fun! To make this goal fun for Kyle, we are using the following strategies:

1. Emailing Family- Kyle’s parents provided a list of their emails, as well as the email addresses of Kyle’s grandmother and siblings. Now, at the end of activities, Kyle and I send emails about his day to his family. It gives Kyle a fun and functional way to work on personal narrative skills, and it gives Kyle’s family something to talk to him about when he gets home! He seems to really enjoy this. Here’s an example of an email that Kyle sent to his mom:

Hi mom

I am at speech

I looked at pictures from home

I had fun jumping and climbing with Uncle Bobby

I looked at pictures of me riding elevator With daddy I feel happy

From Kyle

2. Personal Photos- Kyle’s mom and dad email me pictures of Kyle doing things at home with his family. Together, Kyle and I look at the pictures and talk about what he was doing. Kyle LOVES looking at pictures of himself (*who doesn’t*)! Today, when looking at a picture of Kyle’s puppy, Kyle spontaneously said “kiss” on his talker and proceeded to kiss the photo. So SWEET!

3. Giphy App- If you follow @talktomewithaac on Instagram, you might have seen my post about Giphy! This app was mentioned on the Talking with Tech podcast and it is so fun! You can search any word and you will be shown tons of Gifs (animated images). Kyle really liked describing clips of his favorite characters using action words! He also liked acting out the verbs!


At this point in time, Kyle is making great gains with using verbs. He is making progress towards being able to communicate about his day. This is still a relatively new goal for Kyle, but we are really excited to see all of his fantastic progress this year!

As I wrap up this post, I want to share a little update about Kyle’s verbs. Today, he was asking repeatedly for Super Why (as usual-it’s his favorite!). I modeled “watch” and “talk about” but Kyle shook his head no. Then, Kyle spontaneously typed “copy” on his talker. I was a little bit confused, so I sat back and watched as Kyle pulled up a picture of an episode of Super Why on google. He said “copy” again. I asked him if he would like to print the picture; he said no. Then, I asked if he wanted me to copy the picture onto a paper by drawing it, and HE SAID YES! I *immediately* got out a piece of paper and got to work!

The whole time I was drawing the picture, Kyle was making comments about what colors he wanted me to use and what parts he wanted me to draw next. Kyle was smiling and laughing and having a great time. This is what language therapy is all about- building connections and honoring students on their communication journeys!

*Student's name was changed to protect identity.