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One of the newest AAC Learning Journey eLearning courses, The Descriptive Teaching Method, features a knowledgeable and highly respected instructor. Gail M. Van Tatenhove, P.A., M.S., CCC/SLP has been using the descriptive teaching methodology for many years. We asked Gail to answer a few questions about her experience with descriptive teaching. Here’s what she had to say.  

How would you describe descriptive teaching?

Descriptive teaching is a strategy that is naturally used by classroom teachers around the world. When a teacher describes (or defines) lesson-specific words using common, everyday words, that teacher is doing descriptive teaching. Once the teacher describes the content words of a lesson with common everyday words, the students using a speech-generating device (SGD) in the classroom are able to demonstrate what they are learning, using words already in their speech-generating device. It is a practical way to address lesson content, as well as a valuable strategy for students to learn and use their common, everyday words.

What makes this course on descriptive teaching unique from others that may be out there?

Most courses on descriptive teaching describe how teachers need to describe lesson-specific words with common, everyday words. The majority of the emphasis on these courses is on the role of the teacher. However, this course goes beyond that and teaches about the role of the AAC communicator. Specifically, the course teaches how to help AAC communicators become descriptive talkers, both in and out of the classroom. Specific communication skills are addressed so that AAC communicators are developing strategic communication skills that will last them a lifetime.

What aha moments have you seen when speech-language pathologists, teachers, and paraprofessionals use descriptive teaching?

The most common aha moments from people using descriptive teaching focus on how much easier and effective it is to teach students using SGDs when they apply the principles of descriptive teaching.

One teacher said the following, "Using descriptive teaching lets me focus on teaching the concepts behind a lesson. It helps me know what the student has learned. Before, I never knew if my students were actually learning the important points of a lesson. Now I know they are learning. How did I not know to do this before!"

One parent said the following, "Once the teacher started doing descriptive teaching, my child was much happier in the classroom. And so was I! I had tried to program in lesson-specific words and it was exhausting me. Now, we just focus on the common, everyday words. It's made life easier for my entire family."

One speech-language pathologist (SLP) said the following, "I'm tracking the students' language progress and seeing tremendous gains now that we're all focused on descriptive teaching. It focuses on learning core vocabulary and putting those words into phrases and sentences. I wish I had learned this 10 years ago."

What’s the one thing you want to make sure someone on the learner’s AAC team knows about descriptive teaching?

All teachers already do descriptive teaching; however, they generally only do it with the students who are able to speak. It is only a minor adjustment in their teaching process to help them do more and more descriptive teaching with students who use AAC systems.

What impact have you seen descriptive teaching have on academic success of AAC communicators?

Improved academic performance is a widely reported outcome when teaching teams implement the descriptive teaching method with AAC communicators. Prior to using the descriptive teaching method, most teaching teams focused on asking the AAC communicator a couple of simple, fact-based questions that could be answered with a single word. They documented that the student knew some facts, but not if they really understood what those facts meant. However, when implementing the descriptive teaching method, teachers ask questions that probe for understanding, application of information, and even opinions. Teachers report that the AAC communicator is more active and engaged in the lesson. Plus, the student's language output is growing, which resulted in improvements in reading and writing skills.

There is a long history to the descriptive teaching method that goes back in the field of AAC before the introduction of speech-generating devices. For students who could not spell adequately, it was historically what insightful teaching teams did to compensate for vocabulary limitations on a student's AAC system. In 2024, it is still a valuable teaching strategy for AAC communicators who have limited spelling skills and who need to be able to communicate words that are not pre-programmed in their SGD.

Learn more about descriptive teaching directly from Gail through videos and interactive materials that you can start and stop at your own pace from any location. You’ll understand descriptive teaching and how to implement it in your practice. Register for this new intermediate level course today!