Revisiting “assisting” vs. teaching after WHYY TV drinks the Kool-Aid

A recent segment on Philadelphia’s local public TV station, WHYY TV, uncritically embraces a form of facilitated communication known either as Rapid Prompting Method or Spelling to Communicate. The story was also posted on WHYY’s YouTube channel, and you can watch it there.

Facilitated communication is an extreme form of “assistance” in which the facilitator, also called the “communication and regulations partner”,  unwittingly directs the messages that are attributed to the child.

It would have taken very little research for WHYY to discover that it was promoting a methodology that, all the available evidence suggests, is suppressing the voices of vulnerable individuals, and which professional organizations like the American Speech Language Hearing Association have advised practitioners not to use. 

And it would have taken just an ounce of skepticism for a responsible journalist to wonder how a boy who spent most of his early years in autistic support classrooms could have acquired the knowledge and spelling skills that he purportedly demonstrated the moment he started Spelling to Communicate. Asked to spell out the name of his facilitator, Spelling to Communicate “inventor” Elizabeth Vosseller, he typed (on the letterboards that Vosseller herself held up to him) “Elizabeth.” Asked about amber and resin, he typed “fossilized”–surprising his mother, if not Elizabeth Vosseller.

About 8 1/2 years ago, when I wrote an Out in Left Field post (re-posted today) about Assisting vs. Teaching, I had no idea that Spelling to Communicate was extending its tentacles practically into my backyard (the Philadelphia suburbs), let alone that my public TV station would ever get involved in promoting it.

The concerns I raised in that post regarding assistive devices are, where facilitated communication/Rapid Prompting Method/Spelling to Communicate are concerned, about a thousand times stronger. 

(And those concerns don’t even touch on the biggest concern of all: the suppressing of vulnerable autistic voices that all forms of facilitated communication are liable to… facilitate).

UPDATE: the reference to the Out in Left Field post is one of several dozen that disappeared after the blog was “permanently removed” over the weekend of June 4th. I am not sure what happened. If Google runs Blogger the way it runs YouTube, it may be possible for a single person (say a supporter of facilitated communication) to flag an entire blog and make it disappear.

Luckily, with that in mind, I have been saving everything I post. Since WordPress seems to be more supportive of free speech than Blogger is, I’ve decided to repost that post here rather than there:

“Assisting” vs. teaching

As technology provides ever more sophisticated tools for assisting students with disabilities, teachers need to be more careful than ever not to accommodate rather than instruct. They also need to be careful not to assume that students who successfully complete assignments using assistive advices have actually mastered the skills that are supposedly being taught.

The most basic assistive devices, long in existence, are relatively straight forward. They include books with large type for the visually impaired; FM systems that selectively amplify sound for the hearing impaired; and sign language interpreters that help deaf students access spoken English. These clearly assist students in learning academic skills without doing any of the learning for them.

More recent assistive devices go far beyond translation and amplification. We now have keyboards for those with penmanship challenges, smart pens for who have trouble taking notes; speech-to-text devices and text prediction programs for those with more general writing difficulties; text-to-speech devices, simplified texts, and picture cues for those with reading difficulties; and calculators for those who struggle with arithmetic.

(We also have a whole slew of Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices, which I’ve written about earlier.)

The problem with these devices is that they risk becoming excuses for schools not to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic*. Indeed, with the decline in intensive phonics instruction, the decline in direct instruction (and feedback) in grammar and spelling, and the decline in intensive drill and practice in arithmetic, and the near-extinction of penmanship instruction, this is precisely what’s been happening, more and more, for years. Were there ever as many dyslexic, dysgraphic, and dyscalculic students as there are today?

When it comes to note-taking in particular, students who no longer go through the process themselves miss out on opportunities to reinforce content. As many of us habitual note-takers can attest, the very process of taking notes, even when we never go back and reread them, helps us attend to, learn, and ultimately remember the material much better than we otherwise would have.

The brightest students, along with those whose extracurricular opportunities make up for what’s not happening in school, can still get by. But the weaker, less advantaged students will “get by” only with the help of assistive technology.

To the extent that it makes it look like they’ve learned a lot more than they actually have (as we’ve seen happen with kids on the autistic spectrum), this assistive technology plays another key role in furthering the decline in direct instruction. Not only does it gives schools an excuse not to teach; it also helps them get away with it.

And, increasingly, they’re getting away with it even when we look at what happens to kids later on in college. This is because colleges, too, are getting in on the game. Colleges are starting to allow students with “reading disabilities” to use text-tospeech devices that do the phonics for them, and simplified texts that allow them to avoid hard words and complex sentences. And it’s surely only a matter of time before colleges start to allow those with “writing disabilities” to use text-prediction software programs that correct grammar and spelling and offer suggestions on how to complete phrases and sentences*

*…and, in the case of alternative and augmentative communication devices, an excuse not to teach language.

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