The assessment of communication is more than simply noting what sounds the learner produces or words he uses or the pictures he can recognize. It must include gathering information about the learner’s understanding of his social and physical world and how he relates to it. Unfortunately, not every assessment is designed to provide such insight and therefore may be of limited use in planning meaningful instruction. In order to guide our teaching, assessment of communication skills must highlight the learner’s competencies beyond just the behaviors or forms they use to express themselves. It must consider what it really takes to communicate. The Communication Matrix (Rowland 2004) provides us with the means to look at communication through such a lens. It outlines 7 levels of Expressive communication development covering the reflexive/reactive period of the newborn and young infant to the level of emergent language where symbols are combined according to grammatical rules and used to communicate for a growing number of reasons. The interventions outlined in this guide are based on this assessment.
According to Werner and Kaplan (1963, 1984), “symbolic communication is an outgrowth of early relationships between infants, caregivers and the objects and events in their environment.” Put another way, they have described expressive communication as having four elements: sender, receiver, topic and means of expression. Let us consider this framework as we look at the development of communicative competence for our learners.
The sender is our student and he has much to learn about himself, about others and about the world around him. It has been suggested that a sense of self develops through interactions with people, a growing knowledge of the environment and a developing understanding that one’s behavior matters. To this last point, John Watson (1966) has stated that “the recognition of the association between one’s behavior and environmental outcomes is critical for future learning.” Yes, one’s behavior matters to others.
The others? That is us. We are the receivers in this process of communication development. We are the partners in this dance of social interaction. We must create a reason for our learners to want to communicate. There is no communication without engagement. So what does this require? We must be alert to the student’s behaviors and honor them through our responsiveness. Wilcox (1995) described some critical components of being a good receiver. These are sensitivity to recognize potentially communicative behavior, contingency in our timely responses to these behaviors and consistency such that our responses to these behaviors are the same over time and become predictable to the sender, our student. We can add another component to this list and that is expectation. We must look for and allow time for our learners to respond. We must believe that they can do so.
Miles and McLetchie (2008) describe the importance of a trusting and meaningful relationship as it serves as a center for our learners to explore their world. The suggestion here is that relationship is at the heart of developing competent learners, providing the sense of trust and safety needed to venture out and explore. Other terms for this include secure-base, life-space, anchor.
With this secure and responsive partnership, the world becomes less daunting, more exciting, and more accessible to the learner, providing access to topics to engage around and communicate about. The presence of sensory and physical disabilities may well impact their ability to learn about their world without your partnership. Without access and sufficient experiences, he may not develop topics for and the motivation to communicate. We learn about our world not in isolation but rather in the context of social interaction through these shared experiences. These shared experiences then provide a strong basis for the development for communicative intent and the emergence of symbolic communication.
The fourth element and perhaps the one most readily considered by many when talking about communication, is means of expression. Unfortunately, motor and sensory limitation may restrict the means for many of our learners. For this reason, we must be able to identify those behaviors the learner can produce with reasonable efficiency and predictability. This enables others to respond more consistently, shaping our student’s understanding of what it takes to communicate. Through these shared experiences, the means by which they communicate can expand.
The Communication Matrix along with these elements have provided us a framework for the construction of Communication in Action: a communication based guide to intervention for learners with complex communication needs. This website provides further explanation of the 4 elements of communication as they relate to planning and instruction to help a learner move through the levels of the Communication Matrix.