Written Conversations Help Neurodivergent Learners

Neurodivergent learners are those who have brains that work differently than many of their peers. This can affect how they interact with others and how they learn.

Autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder), ADHD, dyslexia and other non-typical ways of thinking and learning are included in this group. 

These individuals (of all ages) can benefit from using more visual supports in their communication.

Conversation challenges

Usually, these students can talk, but their challenge is "having conversations." Here's what happens.  They may say the same things over and over. Perhaps they ask the same questions repeatedly. Their conversations don't seem to "move along" in a way that happens for others.

Keep in mind, they are interacting with you and taking their turn in conversation (unless they do all the talking and don't give you a turn.) But they seem to be "stuck" on the same topics or questions or giving the same information.

An unfortunate response

Some communication partners try to remedy this communication pattern by ignoring the student or "shutting them down" in some way. They don't understand that this can be part of a different pattern or a different way of learning language. Writing things down can help.

Try having a written conversation

I LOVE having written conversations with students. This style of communication has helped me get to know students on a more personal level. It’s fun. It’s interactive. And it teaches students the power of written language in a way that is different from our traditional literacy training.

A written conversation is exactly what it sounds like.  Instead of just talking, you use a pencil and paper or a computer to extend what you are saying with your mouth.  I think that the combination of  talking and writing it down can provide a perfect opportunity for better conversation skills to emerge.

Written conversations are particularly helpful for:

  1. Encouraging extended social interaction This is a perfect activity for social conversation when you have some time to “sit and chat.” The written interactions will help extend the social interaction time.Written conversations are a way of helping the student learn to communicate more information about a topic. They encourage more balanced turn taking between the student and his communication partner.
  2. Clarifying communication and expanding the amount of information shared. Written communication provides the opportunity to go back and re-read or repeat. This format helps clarify understandings or misunderstandings. It is a tool to teach more vocabulary and help students express themselves more effectively.

What reading level do students need to participate in written conversations?

Students do not have to be highly skilled readers. They do need to have some interest in the written word.

Literacy for communication is different from the reading and writing that are a part of traditional academic programs. Students tend to comprehend written conversations in a different way than academic reading because they are interactive and they are about the student's personal life.

Exactly how do you have a written conversation?

This is not difficult to do. There are many different ways that this activity can be structured so the students will benefit. It does not need to be complicated. Consider these options:

  1. Use pencil and paper, a computer or cards with words already written on them.
  2. Try to engage in simultaneous communication. Write down what you say. Ask questions, give information, or whatever communication you need to engage in. Just write it down, too.
  3. If the student has some ability with written language, encourage him to take his turn in writing. Students frequently love engaging in this type of activity on the computer because they love computers. Don't worry about things like spelling or complete sentences. Just focus on the ideas that are communicated.
  4. If the student can't generate enough written language, try writing down some choices to give him an opportunity to choose an answer.
  5. Try fill-in-the-blank type sentences to provide the structure to get more information.
  6. Don't forget that drawing simple pictures or capturing pictures from the internet can help communicate that written message. Pictures work for those students who don't read yet. They also enhance conversations for students who do read.

When do you recommend using this technique?

When you need to explain something to a child or give them information, tell them, but ALSO write it down.

This is a technique that you can use for one-minute connections or half-hour interactions. Use it for big things but don't forget to use it for little ones, too. Keep a pencil & paper handy for spontaneous conversations.

Here's one example

PROBLEM: Dennis walked into the room with a huge bandage on his finger. The teacher was trying to find out what had happened, however, Dennis was reciting commercials and was not giving adequate information.

CAUSE: Although Dennis can talk, he has a difficult time relaying specific information. He talks with a lot of delayed echolalia, but there is little content or context.

SOLUTION: Engage Dennis in a written conversation in an attempt to get more information. After getting the information in writing, it will be possible to

  • Write it in a story form.
  • Keep the written conversation so Dennis can go back to read it later.
  • Use the written information to prompt a verbal conversation about the event.

Here's another example

Lee stayed home from school and the teacher was trying to get more information.

Written communication

What about Sketch Chats?

There are many ways to write things down to support conversation. A Sketch Chat is another variation of a written conversation. Get the details here.

Written conversations are slow

I once had a workshop participant complain that writing things down takes too much time. I responded by telling her that is exactly the point!

Our world moves quickly. Sometimes busyness and distractions in classroom or home environments impair good communication. What can help? Try having a written conversation.

They take more time than verbal exchanges. That is one of the reasons they are successful for our targeted students. They allow a student to utilize his visual strengths. The slower pace gives him the time he needs to process the information and retrieve the language he needs.

This is not an activity for all students

Some will be too young and others disinterested. However, you may be surprised by the interest some students show for this type of communication interaction. Remember, it is visual!

Consider engaging in written conversations with students who demonstrate an interest and awareness of the printed word. Let the student's interest and participation determine how this strategy is used.

Here's an Idea

 I remember getting into trouble in elementary school because I was writing notes to my friends. That was considered bad.

Let's change the way we think. Note writing is good! Teach students to write notes to each other. It is a unique way to promote social interaction in a format that many of our targeted students have the potential to be successful.

P.S.  Keep your written conversations in a 3-ring binder or notebook.  You’ll be surprised how you can go back to refer to a previous conversation.  I have had students who love to “read” their old conversations like reading a book. It’s a different way to build language and memory skills.

Just remember that the student is attempting to engage you and have a conversation. Ignoring them is not a good teaching strategy. Instead, teaching them to take their turn in a variety of ways and communicate more different things helps them learn to be more effective in their attempts to interact with you. 

Written conversations are an excellent way to help neurodivergent learners acquire better communication skills.

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