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10 Minutes With: Developing age-appropriate vocabulary with students with multiple disabilities

Tips for helping students with visual impairments and multiple disabilities (MDVI) to develop age-appropriate vocabulary

boy sitting at desk

The development of vocabulary and an understanding of the patterns of language are essential parts in the development of literacy. “10 Minutes With” is a program which has enabled some of my students, who have multiple disabilities, to develop broader vocabularies and a greater understanding of patterns of language used in speech.  

This year I am working with a student who has Cortical Vision Impairment (CVI) and multiple physical disabilities. I won’t use his real name here; let’s call him Al. 
Al is in year 11 at a regional public school; he is 17 years old and has been in mainstream education for all of his schooling. Al has very little independent movement and while his vision programs since kindergarten have endeavoured to find a way for him to make and indicated choices, this has not yet been achieved. Al has a very limited vocabulary, he can say “Yeah” but says it more as “I heard you” than to indicate he agrees. However, he has a variety of tones in his speech that can indicate meaning. He can say a few other simple words to indicate people, and can say “Bye” at appropriate times.
Al is a sweet, funny person and I find it a pleasure to work with him. He loves being with people and listens intently and with great concentration when people speak to him or read to him. Throughout his school life Al has had the most wonderful class teachers, who have tried in every way to make his school experience meaningful. 

The Purpose of “10 Minutes With”

I was concerned that many of Al’s interactions at school are with adults and that because he needs to be fed in break times, students often find it difficult to approach and interact with him as an individual. It seemed to me that people often interacted with him through support staff (SLSO). As Al and his peers move into the final stage of schooling I was interesting in trying to give his peers experience in interacting with Al as an individual. I had this in mind when I thought about “Ten Minutes With”. Another aim in “Ten Minutes With” was for my student to develop an understanding of vocabulary that is more suitable to his age, and to provide him with an opportunity to understand what life is typically like for people his age in his town. 
When I was a High School English teacher part of our syllabus read “Students use literature to understand worlds other than their own.” I suppose I’m paraphrasing when I say my aim was for Al to use listening to understand his own world in a broader way. 
My original idea was that Al would spend 10 minutes with one of his peers during his English period. This would fit the speaking and listening outcomes of the stage 3 English Syllabus. The students would be left alone; adults would be within sight but not able to hear what students said. In that way students could talk about whatever they wanted, and in any way they wanted, but could still call for assistance if need be. Al is the best listener ever, he leans towards the speaker and responds with “Yeah”, and he is totally confidential. So students can feel free to talk to Al about anything. 
When I discussed Ten Minutes With with the class teacher, she was very eager to promote the program and asked if she could think about it for a while and meet again to make a plan. When we met she had a suggestion that actually made this program work. She suggested that two students, rather than one, sit with Al and chat. That way they could talk to each other as well as Al, and the conversation would flow more freely. I agreed and we began. 


What happened:

  1. I met with the class teacher to discuss and modify the program
  2. I discussed the program with the SLSOs who work with Al, explaining its purpose and the extreme importance of adults enabling the confidentiality by staying away from students. 
  3. I spoke to Al’s class about the purpose of the program; the class teacher and I both explained:
  • how this would benefit Al
  • how this would benefit other students (we talked about the importance in workplace and private relationships of being able to express ourselves clearly and explain ourselves, among other things). 
  • We emphasised the confidentiality of the conversations.
I must say here that I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the students, not only to Al, but also to me. They understood that I believe this an important part of Al’s learning and they treated it as such. They respect Al as one of them and that’s clear in their mutual enjoyment of the program. 
  1. The teacher selected a pair of boys who she thought would be successful in this program. She spent her lunch time playground duty speaking to them about what they might say and do with Al. (In fact, she trained them in the task before setting the task. I believe this step is essential in making the program work). 
  2. During English each Wednesday, 2 students went into the playground with Al, sat and chatted for 10 minutes. I and a SLSO supervised from afar. 
  3. Early in the program I talked to the whole class after each session, commenting on my observations of Al. It was the most engaged I had seen him, he was enjoying himself and I talked to them about understanding Al’s responses, which clearly showed how much he enjoyed himself. 
  4. From the beginning I had to run interference in the playground. Staff were so used to seeing Al with an adult that when they saw him with his peers they almost ran towards him, demanding to know why the students had him. (I think some of them believed he’d been kidnapped.)  I had to explain the program, and reassure them that this was a good thing. In some cases I was challenged about the language that his peers might be using. My response was – “He’s 17, what language should they be using?”
I soon sent out an email explaining the program and asking teachers to be understanding. Once they understood what was going on, staff became advocates for “10 Minutes With”. 

Things to Note:

  1. Many students had been at school with Al for years and they had a desire to interact with him, this program helped them to find a way. 
  2. The students really liked the class teacher and I am sure that this influenced them to participate enthusiastically in the project.
  3. All students in Al’s class participated in this program. The class teacher continued to encourage and facilitate participation.
  4. There is now a different teacher on this class and the new teacher has embraced “10 Minutes With”, so it continues. Students are on their second or third 10 Minutes. Recently a student asked if they could set up a Facebook account for Al.  


Hand-drawn faces showing different emotionsThis is the best thing I have done this year. Al loves spending 10 minutes with his peers and most of his peers really enjoy spending time with him. Many things are discussed, sometimes students keep their secrets, sometimes they tell me that they’ve talked about music, or played music for Al on their phones, some tell me that they’ve talked about gaming and Al was a bit bored. Sometimes Al is so engaged and excited that we can hear him yelling from our distant seats. 
I wish I could show a photo of Al at these times. He sits up straight, his facial expression tells that he’s listening intently, or laughing, or just enjoying himself.  The SLSOs who are with Al all the time report that students are more willing to have a chat with him in unstructured settings these days.   Al can’t use the words he hears from his peers but he is getting used to them and his experience of the world has been made broader by these 10 minutes. 

Other ways to use “10 Minutes With”

I’m sure that this program would work with many different kinds of students: and in many different kinds of ways. Here are some examples:
  • In a recent meeting one teacher suggested that “10 Minutes With” could be used by students to reflect on their learning within a subject. At the end of the lesson one student could sit with Al and explain what they’ve learnt that lesson. This would fit the stage 6 outcome “A student reflects on their own learning.”  
  • Another of my students is 11 years old and has cortical vision impairment, cerebral palsy and delayed speech development. Our aim was to help her develop speech patterns and vocabulary that are age appropriate and ways to interact with her peers without adult assistance. This meets the requirements of the stage 3 English syllabus in the speaking and listening section. 
  • Her class teacher suggested a modification to “10 minutes with” that suited well. 
  • Literacy groups are held daily with groups (of 3 to 5 students) doing a different activity each day. Each day my student joined a different group for 10 minutes. They had scripted questions provided by the teacher that were repeated for 2 weeks. My student asked each of the students in the group one question and heard their answers, then one student asked her the question and she answered. 
  • Questions such as “Do you have a pet?” “Do you have brothers and sisters?” were used in early sessions. Others such as “What are you looking forward to in High School?” came later. 
  • Words from “10 Minutes With” became part of my student’s reading and spelling word lists for the week.  
  • In this modification of “10 Minutes With” it was once again possible to see the development of vocabulary and language patterns. Students enjoyed the interaction and my student loved spending time with her peers.
  • I’ve also recently used “10 Minutes With” as part of a socialisation program with a student of mine. He is in year 2 and quite anxious. Recently 3 mature and self-motivated year 6 boys were asked to volunteer to spend 10 minutes once a week with my student during play time. My student loves this interaction and is learning positive behaviours and play by spending time with them. The older boys really enjoy having this opportunity to support him.  




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