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Reading or Decoding, It's Learning : Symbols Help Handicapped Kids Survive in Real World

April 22, 1987|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

CARLSBAD — Fifteen-year-old Josh Trax pilots his electric wheelchair up and down a shopping mall in search of a store that sells the kind of wallet he favors, the ones that fasten with Velcro flaps.

Disabled by cerebral palsy, Josh is unable to speak, spell or read. But that doesn't prevent him from communicating freely with sales clerks at three stores before buying a $2 wallet at Sweats and Surf.

Josh's link with the rest of the world is a soft-covered blue binder full of color-coded symbols that allow him to order food, seek directions and aid, and make purchases on his weekly trips to Plaza El Camino Real with other students and teachers from the Santa Fe-California School in Vista. He has memorized scores of tiny pictures depicting different places, questions, feelings, objects and verbs that comprise an efficient pidgin language for someone without the power of speech.

"My name is Josh Trax. This is my communication book," it says on the cover of the binder stowed in a satchel behind Josh's wheelchair. "I can communicate with you by pointing to whatever I want to say in this book. Please help me by turning the pages if I have trouble."

Nearby, the same system is in use by some preschoolers at the Palomar College Child Development Center in San Marcos. Too young to read, some are nevertheless deciphering and composing children's stories with the 200 symbols at their command.

Adapting the System for Youngsters

The link between these two very different worlds is a Palomar College educator named Jane Mills, who came up with the idea of adapting the symbol system used by disabled people for the enrichment of young children.

The idea has developed into a set of six children's stories of increasing complexity containing words and symbols. Mills and partner Larry Johnson, a free-lance writer, are marketing the Read-a-Bol stories to families and schools for both disabled and preschool children.

Featuring the adventures of a youngster named Arnie, the tales have sold about 300 three-book sets since they were published last July. Five more books featuring Arnie's female counterpart, Abby, are being written.

"So often, the atypical kids have to try to fit in the typical world," Mills said. "Here, we took something

that worked for them and said, 'Here, typical world, here's something that can work for you.' "

Having taught in elementary schools and served as a consultant to United Cerebral Palsy Assn. of San Diego County in Escondido, Mills realized the similarities in the language used by the two groups about three years ago. To test her idea, she pasted small pictures over words in her 3-year-old son's books and read the stories to him.

"He was matching up his visual skills with his auditory skills and learning much more quickly how to read those books," she said.

She then introduced the idea in the preschool at Palomar College with a handful of children selected by teacher Ronna Mahan.

They also took to the idea, first learning the symbols for various words from flashcards, then stringing the pictures into sentences and stories. Some children have begun to "write" their own stories, dictating the plots to teachers who write them down and paste symbols over the words.

"We have taken a typical kind of child's story and made it accessible to them," Mills said.

Practicing Skill That Parallels Reading

In the strictest sense of the word, the children are not actually reading but developing a skill that parallels reading, Mills said. They are, however, practicing many of the skills that will be needed when they are ready to read printed words.

They are learning to decode the symbols, which is the essence of reading, and practice left-to-right sequencing, another part of the skill, she said. Memorization is also enhanced.

"I don't expect that, at the end of this, the children will read these words," she said. "I expect that at the end of this, they have had an experience that parallels reading, that readies them for the reading tasks that will be expected of them down the road."

They are also developing the confidence, at an early age, that reading is a skill easily mastered. Suggest reading to a preschool child and the typical response is "I can't read," Mills said. But present him with a series of pictures he already understands, and the task becomes much more manageable.

"After 10 minutes, they're decoding," she said. "That's what reading is, decoding."

Rebuses, which are somewhat similar to Mills' concept, have been used successfully in children's books for about 150 years, said Dorothy Hewes, professor of child development at San Diego State University. Though she has not seen Mills' stories, Hewes said the idea sounds like one that could help build children's confidence in their ability to read.

But Hewes said that preschool children are a little young to be worrying about left-to-right sequencing, and can learn decoding skills from regular picture books.

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