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Dr. Caroline Ramsey Musselwhite

Thursday, August 8, 2013


I was floored at a workshop about a year ago when someone asked me if it really ‘matters’ that students with multiple disabilities have moved from being ‘precommunicative’ (i.e., making random marks and scribbling without meaning) to being ‘semiphonetic’ spellers.  According to Gentry (Monster Test,1985):

SEMIPHONETIC SPELLERS know that letters represent sounds. They perceive and represent reliable sounds with letters in a type of telegraphic writing. Spellings are often abbreviated representing initial and / or final sound. Examples: E = eagle; a = eighty.

My initial reaction was to say, ‘Of COURSE it matters!!’  Then I forced myself to let reason rule over passion, and to really think about it.  The question was asked in reference to a high school student, who had previously had no use of the alphabet.  Instruction was started at the end of high school, and he made great progress, being able to master most initial sounds in words.  But . . . did that truly make a difference in the quality of life for that student?  And would it matter for others??

I’ve been collecting ‘evidence’ for the past year, and the answer is a resounding YES, especially for students who use augmentative communication.

Here are a few examples of how learning to correctly represent initial sounds have supported some students I know (all names fictional to preserve privacy):

Elena, age 9, was able to:
• Name her doll, but first selecting the letter Q from an alphabet flip chart, then looking at multiple post-its with possible names (Queenie was the result!)
• Initiate conversation about a new hair color of a therapist by going to her alphabet flip chart, spelling R, glaring at the therapist until the partners guessed, then going to the device and saying LIKE, LIKE, LIKE
• And other examples way too numerous to mention

Jonathan, age 16, was able to use his device to give a general request, then use the alphabet page to be specific.  Samples include:
• DRINK . . . M D (Mountain Dew)
• FRIEND . . . L (Larry)
• MOVIE . . . SK (Shreck)

Many students in Mrs. Susan’s class are ‘Voting by Letter’ (see Tip of the Month at www.aacinterventioncom / February, 2010).  In this way they use first letters to vote for:
• Books (about volcanoes or hurricanes)
• Friend to sit with them at lunch
• What game to play
• What to do during recess (Walk / Gym)

A number of students have successfully learned Initial Letter Cueing in which the student who tends to omit or distort initial consonants uses a cueing chart to supplement oral speech by:
• Indicating the initial sound
• Tapping to show the number of syllables in the word.
See the August, 2006 Tip about Initial Letter Cueing at:  www.aacintervention.com
This has been so successful that after one frustrating experience at a fast food place, one 7-year-old told his Mom, “I’m never leaving home without my letter board.”

So, “Yes, Virginia, there IS a place for semiphonetic spelling!”

P.S. In my experience, most students who develop semiphonetic spelling go on to become phonetic spellers and beyond!!

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