Language Matters #3: The Principle of Total Communication

Why does language matter anyway?

For most people, language is their primary way of interacting with the world and one another.

It is a way to make our thoughts visible for those around us and, as a way of making sense of our inner workings too. It is important to note at this point that not everybody communicates verbally and, although this little series will be focusing primarily on spoken language and the impact that it has on the way we think, this effect is not restricted to those who don’t use spoken language as their primary means of communication (because the language we use informs the way we think, which in turn affects the way we behave both at a conscious and subconscious level, which ultimately impacts those around us).


The Principle of Total Communication

Total Communication is an approach that holds all methods of communication as equally valid. It broadly sections communication into three areas: non-verbal, language-based and symbol systems.

Non-verbal communication is anything from a person that doesn’t require vocalisation. It can include eye pointing, temperature, smells and other sensory input, as well as body language.

Language-based communication can mean speech, but also includes Braille, Makaton, BSL and any other communication system that uses features of language. 

Symbol based communication refers to all of the communications that require symbols, such as communication boards, pictures, photographs, real objects for reference and Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).


Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC)

A Total Communication approach that leads us to AAC must remain student-centred. There are plenty of approaches to try in order to improve accessibility for our students and we should allow ourselves to be led by their needs and preferences, rather than, for example, enforcing Makaton use because it’s the most comfortable AAC for the tutor.

As with anything, an all-or-nothing approach is not the way to go here.

Some students may benefit from a communication board during craft activities but not during a reading activity, or a communication book to help them meet their needs in terms of snacks, toilet breaks and changes in activities. Trial and error will, in some cases, lead you to the best solution. So don’t be afraid to try something new, the Zone of Proximal Development applies to us as tutors too!

Ultimately, when working with our students, my view is always communication over compliance.

If we can support our students in expressing their needs, we will equip them with skills that will allow them to thrive outside of their time with us, when compliance may be more heavily enforced.

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