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Email Interactions of Preservice Teachers and Adolescents with Special Needs







Amy Williams, M.Ed.

Educational Leadership Program

Appalachian State University




David Koppenhaver, Ph.D.

Language, Reading and Exceptionalities Department

Appalachian State University


124 Edwin Duncan Hall

828-262-6074 (O)  828-262-6767 (fax)


Barbara Wollak, M.S., CCC/SLP

Saint Paul Public Schools

Saint Paul, MN

















There are approximately two million people in the United States who use augmentative and alternative forms of communication (AAC) because they have severe communication impairments (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2004). These include individuals with a wide variety of special needs such as cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, or traumatic brain injury. People using AAC communicate in both symbolic and non-symbolic ways. Non-symbolic forms of communication include gestures, vocalizations, and facial expressions, while symbolic forms of communication include sign language, pictures, icons, and traditional orthography. Because of concomitant disorders, people with severe communication impairments often communicate slowly, in idiosyncratic ways (e.g., using sign language approximations), or in ways unfamiliar to classroom teachers and the general population. The literature suggests that students with severe communication impairments are passive participants in classrooms who seldom comment or ask questions, typically are asked only for yes/no or labeling responses, and rarely initiate communication (e.g., Beukelman & Mirenda, 1998). As a result of their communication difficulties, these individuals typically develop a very limited set of social relationships restricted to family members and professional service providers.


Literacy learning difficulties are widespread in individuals with severe communication disorders with perhaps as much as 90% of this population reading and writing at levels substantially lower than nondisabled peers (Koppenhaver & Yoder, 1992). Specific struggles include every aspect of written language learning from letter-sound correspondence to vocabulary meaning, reading comprehension, and writing (Smith, 2005). Because of their communication impairments and concomitant disorders, these students often receive very limited opportunities to compose text in school (Koppenhaver & Yoder 1993; Mike, 1995).


While the No Child Left Behind legislation has meant that the literacy learning needs of such students are receiving renewed attention, in-service and preservice teacher preparation is a significant concern. Few reading professionals are equipped to address the needs of children who cannot speak (e.g., Erickson & Koppenhaver, 1995). Likewise, few speech-language pathologists or special educators have the training or experience to address written language, particularly in children who cannot speak. A single organization, the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offers the only undergraduate or graduate level courses worldwide specifically addressing literacy assessment and instruction with students who require AAC. 


Preservice teachers are ill-prepared for the task of educating the student with severe communication impairments. Because of their inexperience, undergraduate students often have limited views of literacy, beginning reading processes, teaching, and technology, and “literacy optimism” (Lloyd, 2006). That is, they believe the “needs” of children with significant special needs are different than those of other children and do not believe these students are capable of literacy learning, at least in comparison to their typically developing peers. At the same time, many of these preservice teachers are not avid readers themselves and consequently conceptualize reading as a task that is learned in school and engaged in only when required by others (Applegate & Applegate, 2004). Writing is often viewed in the same vein and as something to be avoided.


In response to some of these points, the third author of this paper initiated an email partnership three years ago between beginning level readers with a wide variety of developmental special needs and undergraduate students in elementary and special education. The partnership was conceptualized as a motivating experience for improving written language of students with special needs and a chance for undergraduate students to learn firsthand about the capabilities and learning characteristics of students with special needs. Email seemed that it might offer an accessible communication medium for both sets of students.


In this study, we report on our initial explorations of the impact of email on the attitudes and skills of two adolescents with severe communication impairments and the undergraduates in a teacher preparation program who were their email partners. In the following sections of this article, first, we outline methods used during the study. Then, we share results, followed by a discussion of our findings that include implications for classroom practice.






Adolescents with severe communication impairments. Two adolescents with severe communication impairments participated in the current study. Both experience significant difficulties in face-to-face communication and receive speech-language services from the third author. Krissy (a pseudonym) now 17 years old, has been identified with autism spectrum disorder and was served in a self-contained classroom for similarly labeled children until the age of 13. Then, she began receiving services with other students who have severe communication impairments in a junior high school. Prior to her arrival in that program, her face-to-face communication was limited to use of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS, Bondy & Frost, 2006) for the purpose of making requests. She now uses a DynaMyte (DynaVox Technologies) communication aide, which is a dedicated communication device with dynamic display and picture-based communication symbols on the main screen. The screen is linked to a keyboard with six word prediction buttons. When Krissy types a letter, the words she most commonly uses and the most commonly used words in the English language appear in the word prediction boxes. 


When she began working with the third author four years ago, Krissy had a sight word vocabulary of 150 words, and her writing program consisted entirely of copying tasks.  Now, she uses written language as a means of processing oral language (i.e., communication partners write their questions or comments, and Krissy reads them in order to understand what they are saying before she responds orally or with her DynaMyte). To assess her reading abilities, Krissy was administered the Basic Reading Inventory (Johns, 2001) four years ago when she entered the junior high school program. Her word identification abilities on word lists were assessed at first grade level, and she was unable to reach criterion during listening comprehension or silent reading assessments. Four years later, similar assessments placed her at a sixth grade level for word identification and silent reading comprehension, and at a primer level for listening comprehension.



Davy (a pseudonym) is 17 years old and has Down syndrome with mild/moderate cognitive delays and severe communication impairments. While Davy is able to speak, his speech is very difficult to understand; his speech is approximately 40 percent intelligible to familiar listeners in known contexts as assessed by the third author using informal measures. While he has an AAC device with voice output, he is reluctant to use it. He seldom initiates communication and instead uses initial letter cuing (i.e., pointing to the first letter of each word he is speaking as he speaks it) to successfully clarify communication when prompted to do so. Upon arrival at the junior high school four years ago, Davy received instruction with sight words and his writing instruction was limited to copying tasks. Results derived from Basic Reading Inventory (Johns, 2001) placed him at pre-primer level on word identification, and like Krissy, he failed to meet criterion during silent reading or listening comprehension assessments. In fall 2006, Davy performed at second grade level during word identification assessments and at first grade level during silent reading comprehension, and listening comprehension assessments.


Teacher preparation students. Email partners for the adolescents with special needs were undergraduate students in introductory reading methods courses that the second author taught during four consecutive semesters at two universities. These students were elementary education and special education majors, typically in the third year of their baccalaureate degrees, and would be student teaching during one of the two semesters following the reading methods courses. Each semester a new undergraduate student was partnered with the adolescent participants with special needs.




Directions to participants. Permission letters were sent to the parents of the adolescents with special needs explaining that the students would be emailing with undergraduates preparing to become teachers. The purpose of the study was explained in the letter: to improve the adolescents’ written communication skills. It was also explained that the third author would monitor all emails and that printed copies of all the emails would be shared with the parents. Parents signed permission forms allowing their children to participate in the study. The Appalachian State University Institutional Review Board approved the permission forms, as well as the administration of the participating junior high school.  


The adolescents initiated the email exchange with a letter of introduction each semester.  The adolescents were taught by the third author to: (a) begin their emails with a greeting, (b) answer any questions their pen pal had asked them in previous emails, (c) provide new information about their activities or interests, (d) ask at least one new question of their pen pal, and (e) conclude the email with a closing and their name.


At the beginning of each semester, the undergraduate teacher education student participants were informed of the email project and the purpose: to help them get to know an adolescent who struggled with literacy through email exchanges. They were instructed to: (a) reply to all emails received from their partner within 24 hours, (b) they could initiate emails to their partner at any time, and (c) observe their partner’s email letter closely and write back at approximately the same level of sophistication, (d) click “Reply” to each email, so that their partner’s original message was linked to their response. This last directive was intended to enable teachers supporting the adolescents to have the necessary context to assist them with any reading and writing difficulties. Undergraduates were told also that they needed to get to know their partner, not just to understand the literacy struggles and special needs of adolescents who struggled with literacy, but also because they would be creating a personalized, digital multimedia text for them. The undergraduate teacher education student participants were provided no further information about their adolescent email partner.


Student writing. Again, Krissy and Davy were taught a specific structure for their pen pal correspondences: begin with a greeting (e.g., “How are you?”); answer the pen pal’s questions; ask the pen pal a question; and close with a salutation. For the first semester of the email project, Krissy used Clicker 4 software (Crick Software) grids created by the third author and Krissy’s classroom teacher. Clicker is a multimedia software tool and writing support that enables the user to write with whole words, sentences, or pictures. Clicker presents students with an onscreen keyboard consisting of combinations of pictures and/or words. When a key is selected, it produces text in an onscreen word processing window. Krissy’s grids were organized in what speech-language pathologists refer to as “Fitzgerald Key,” with the grammatical written structures of subject/action/object or question/action/object, which were in columns matching oral language structure. Krissy’s grids consisted of 20 to 24 structural choices. 


To complete an email interaction, Krissy had to complete multiple grids. Her first grid allowed her to choose from six or seven greetings in addition to making a choice of a follow up question. Next, Krissy would use a second grid to create a statement about an event in her life.  Specific procedures were created to assist Krissy in composing this portion of the emails. Krissy’s mother would email the third author and discuss their family’s activities. The third author would later show a written question to Krissy about their activities. For example, Krissy would choose a subject for the sentence (e.g., I, we, she, he), choose an action (e.g., went, traveled), and then choose from a selection of objects (e.g., swimming pool, store). As Krissy became familiar with the process, a follow-up grid to her initial statement was created to prompt Krissy for additional information. For example, if Krissy chose to write, “I went to the store,” the follow up grid would consist of a connector, such as, “and bought” with a list of four to five choices for  Krissy to choose from. Figure 1, below, shows a grid that Krissy used to write about the foods that she liked and disliked.


Figure 1.  Sample Clicker Grid



Krissy would then continue to another grid consisting of up to five questions and select one question to pose to her undergraduate pen pal. Once the salutation was selected from a list of choices, Krissy would then copy and paste the resulting text message into her email.


 During the email project Clicker was gradually phased out, and Krissy began making selections from a handwritten list of approximately five sentences and questions, which she then typed in Write:OutLoud (Don Johnston, Inc.). This software is a talking word processor that reads the writer’s text aloud. Through communications with Krissy’s mother, the third author was informed of the family’s weekend activities and would write a question to Krissy about her weekend (e.g., “What did you do this weekend?”). Krissy would read the question aloud to herself.  The third author would then provide a sentence stem such as, “This weekend I. . .” and then provide a list of written choices, such as: friendship club, gymnastics, the grocery store, and shopping for shoes. Next, Krissy would circle her response(s) on the paper. The third author then combined the responses in sentences such as, “This weekend I went to Friendship Club, gymnastics, and shopping for shoes.”

Krissy would also choose from a list of questions to ask her pen pal provided by the third author. Krissy learned to complete this process of combining with a verbal prompt from the third author such as, “Write this to your pen pal” without having to copy the written model. Krissy began typing the greeting, asking the pen pal how s/he was, and the salutation into the word processing document without written or oral prompting. Over time, Krissy began to read the written list of questions and statements silently rather than aloud. The third author also introduced Krissy to the cloze procedure with Cloze Pro software (Crick Software). Krissy was asked to read and complete the cloze statements, which was a way to check her comprehension and support her growing understanding of written syntax.


Davy also used Clicker 4 (Crick Software) grids created by the third author and Davy’s classroom teacher for the first year of the project. Similar to Krissy’s grids, there were 20 to 24 pictures with words and isolated words on the grid. Although Davy had a sight word vocabulary of approximately 50 words, he nonetheless benefited from the picture support of the Clicker grids to get him started with writing concepts. For example, to write a sentence to his pen pal, he would choose from the subjects (e.g., I, we, he, she), choose a verb (e.g. like, have) and then choose an object (e.g., horse, dog, cat).  Davy was taught to copy and paste from the Clicker word processing window into email. Likewise, when he received emails, he pasted them into Clicker to have the emails read aloud to him by the software’s voice output feature. Davy chose to customize his greeting to his pen pal with the use of the Spanish word for hello, “hola.”  In addition, Davy enjoyed telling and hearing jokes. The third author would provide Davy with a list of approximately five jokes to choose from. Davy would select a joke and then type it into his email.


By the             end of the second year of this project, Davy began using a combination of Clicker 4 and Co:Writer (Don Johnston) and finally Co:Writer exclusively to compose his emails.  Co:Writer is a spelling prediction software. When the first letter of a word is typed, the program provides a list of up to nine words for the student to select from. With a second keystroke, the student can then choose the word rather than spelling it. Davy chose from a list of seven words.  This provided Davy enough support that he could write emails independently toward the end of this study.  A Co:Writer sample is provided in Figure 2 below.


Figure 2.  Co:Writer Support of Email Composition




Data Collection


Undergraduate participants forwarded a blind copy of each email they sent to the adolescent participants to the second author. This was originally planned as a means for protecting both the adolescents with special needs and the undergraduate email partners should any ethical or privacy questions arise. This procedure also yielded a rich data source for analysis of the communications. The second author electronically saved each email, named the resulting file the date it was sent, and filed each in a folder labeled with the first names of the members of each email dyad.


Data Analysis


Burbules (1993) proposed that teaching is a form of dialogue that exists along two dimensions: situations and partner attitudes. Situations can be either divergent/convergent or inclusive/critical. Convergent situations assume a single correct answer while divergent situations assume multiple possible interpretations. Attitudes of partners in a dialogue can be either inclusive or critical. Inclusive attitudes require partners to: (a) view each other as equals,  (b) assume truthfulness in their interactions, and (c) to work toward a goal of consensus through their interactions. When one or more partners are critical, then there is a questioning attitude, or an attitude of skepticism. Authority influences the resolution of questions when partners have critical attitudes; in other words, the partner with the most power relatively (e.g., a teacher in a classroom discussion) is viewed as the authority. By crossing these two dimensions, Burbules proposes that there are four prototypes of pedagogical dialogue, which he identifies as conversation (divergent/inclusive), inquiry (convergent/ inclusive), debate (divergent/ critical), and instruction (convergent/critical). Thus, a conversation could be characterized as a social experience with mutual understanding among participants. Further, inquiry involves asking and responding to specific questions in a cooperative, tolerant, and social environment. Debate involves a skeptical, questioning attitude by one or both participants that challenges the dialogue partner. Instruction is outcome-oriented and leads to a single, specific, correct conclusion.


An earlier study by Trathen and Moorman (2001) demonstrated that Burbules’ model might be applied as an analytical framework. Trathen and Moorman had studied listserv interactions as a form of pedagogical dialogue. In similar fashion, we conceptualized the email interactions resulting from our project as another form of pedagogical dialogue, because undergraduates preparing to teach were engaged in written dialogue intended to help them get to know junior high and high school students more broadly as people before they are learned about their special needs. 


We applied Burbules’ (1993) pedagogical dialogue model in coding each topic of conversation within each email. In order to engage in this coding, we first assembled each email and arranged them chronologically by dyad and semester. Two raters then independently coded each message from each partner and then compared codes. Interrater agreement was calculated by dividing the number of agreements by the sum total of agreements, disagreements, and omissions. A percentage of agreement was calculated overall and for each of the four pedagogical dialogue types. Reliability coefficients were .99 overall, 1.00 for conversation, .99 for inquiry, and .67 for instruction (only three instances identified). No examples of debate were identified in participant email exchanges across four semesters. Word counts were also conducted as an estimate of relative participation in the dialogues.




Krissy and Davy, with the third author’s support, and both of their email partners engaged nearly exclusively in conversations (i.e., divergent and inclusive pedagogical dialogues) and inquiry (i.e., convergent and inclusive pedagogical dialogues). All partners engaged in a greater percentage of conversation, talking about interests and activities and relating them to one another’s similar shared information, than in inquiry. Davy had the greatest range, a low of 39.6% inquiry to a high of 58.5% conversation. No examples of debate were identified in either dyad across four semesters (see Table 1).


Table 1

Percentage of Dialogue Prototypes Identified in Emails



























            A word count was performed of the email messages to assess the relative balance or imbalance of each partner’s contribution to the dialogue each semester. A striking difference was identified between these written dialogues and face-to-face interactions, in which speaking partners have been found to dominate conversations with individuals who use AAC systems (von Tetzchner & Martinsen, 1996). In these written dialogues each semester, the undergraduate email partner contributed more words per email and a greater percentage of the words in the overall conversation, but the adolescents with severe communication impairments contributed substantially to the dialogic interactions with the multiple supports provided by technologies, the third author, and the email communication environment. The contribution of the adolescents ranged from a low of 30.9 words per email to a high of 44.7 words per email and a low of 23.8% of the dialogue to a high of 40.5%. The range in Krissy’s email was 31.6 to 44.7 words per email and 23.8% to 35.3% of the dialogue. The range in Davy’s email was 30.9 to 38.7 words per email and 26.9% to 40.5% of the dialogue (see Table 2).


Table 2

Average Words Written Per Email and Percentage of Total Email Exchange Represented Across four Semesters.


Sem #1

Sem #2

Sem #3

Sem #4


W/M (%)

W/M (%)

W/M (%)

W/M (%)



34.0 (23.8%)

108.8 (76.2%)

40.2 (35.3%)

73.7 (64.7%)

31.6 (35.2%)

58.2 (64.8%)

44.7 (35.1%)

82.5 (64.9%)



38.7 (40.5%)

56.8 (59.5%)

36.6 (26.9%)

99.7 (73.1%)

30.9 (27.1%)

83.1 (72.9%)


W/M= words written per email message

%= percentage of the dialogue


To assist the reader in better understanding what these codes, word counts, and percentages mean, a transcript of one email exchange between Krissy and one of her partners and between Davy and one of his partners is provided below with codes marked as follows:



Sample #1


[Hi, hope your week is going well!  No, I have never been to Minnesota, but I am sure I will make it there one day.  ID] [Have you ever been outside of Minnesota, to another state?  IC] [My favorite place to visit in North Carolina is the zoo.  It is located in my hometown so my family and I go often.  I just love animals so the zoo is the perfect place to go. ID] [Have you ever been to a zoo?  IC] Take care and have a great week!

Your Friend, Diana  :)


Hi Diana,

[I like zoos, too. We have two zoos close to us. The Minnesota zoo is big and Como zoo is small. Last year I went to Arizona with my mom and my brother Robbie. I have been to Disneyworld in California. I like to go to my grandparents' cabin. ID] [What do you like to do in the fall? IC]

Your friend, 


Sample #2

Hola Barbara, [My favorite subject is math. I really like baseball. I like playing with my dog Buster. ID] [Do you have any pets?  IC] [What did the hot dog say when it won the race? I'm the wiener!  ID]

Adios Davy


Hey, Davy,   [I laughed out loud in the computer lab when I read your email.  I like to sit with my cat, Shadow.  I wish I could think of something funny. Oh!  I have a joke for you.  Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?  He didn't have the guts.  ID]["Hola" and  "Adios" are Spanish words aren't they?  I only know how to count to ten in Spanish, but I would love to know more.  Why don't you write me a joke in Spanish and then in English, and I will try to learn some new words.  I look forward to your emails.   Adios mi amigo (is that right?)  CC] Barbara

Hola Barbra [Knock Knock. Who's There? Boo. Boo Who?  Why are you crying? It is only a joke.  I like your joke.  It was funny. ID] [Nino means boy in spanish. Nina means girl in spanish.  CC] Adios!  Davy

ID= Inclusive/ Divergent (conversation)

IC= Inclusive/ Convergent (inquiry)

CC= Critical/ Convergent (instruction)

CD= Critical/ Divergent (debate)





Across two very different adolescents with severe communication impairments and seven different communication partners, a dialogic pattern of inclusivity was created and maintained. Both the adolescents and their undergraduate teacher education email partners shared information about their interests and activities and inquired about one another in open and non-judgmental ways. The inclusivity of the written dialogues was observed not only in the dialogic patterns, which were primarily conversation and inquiry, but also in the substantial and substantative contributions of both email partners to the total dialogue.


The most striking finding of this study is that email provides an apparently more leveled playing field than face-to-face interaction environments. Since the groundbreaking study of Harris (1982), it has been observed that speaking partners in general, and teachers in classrooms specifically, dominate interactions with individuals who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Students who use AAC seldom initiate communication, rarely ask questions, communicate infrequently and when they do, it is typically to label something or provide an answer to a yes/no question (see, e.g., von Tetzchner & Martinsen, 1996). It has been proposed that this persistent interaction pattern is a major contributor to the limited narrative skills and novice writing qualities observed in adolescents and adults who use AAC (see, e.g., Smith, 2005). 


In the current study, however, two adolescent participants with severe communication impairments engaged in extended and extensive written dialogue across multiple semesters.  With technologies and teacher support, they initiated communication, asked questions, elaborated responses, and, while not equal partners in strict word counts or previous characterizations of the writing process, were substantial contributors to the ongoing success of an elaborated written conversation. It appears that written language environments, in this case email exchanges, offer supports to communication often not available in face-to-face interaction. With assistive technologies that aid spelling or message construction and significantly reduced time pressures (i.e., “listeners” are willing to provide almost infinitely longer “wait time” in written dialogues than in face-to-face interactions), these adolescent students who used AAC seemed more able and willing to communicate their thoughts. The long-term impact of such interactions, not just on written but also face-to-face interactions, has yet to be explored, but it is reasonable to surmise that substantially increased opportunities to engage in motivated written communication exchanges may lead to more advanced oral communication skills.


One of the participants, Davy, was able to transition from the highly structured supports of Clicker to more independent composition with Co:Writer spelling support. In doing so, little decline in the quality, quantity, or nature of his email composition was noted. The augmentative communication literature suggests that picture-based communication systems support comprehension but not word identification or spelling (Bishop, Rankin, & Mirenda, 1994; Rankin, Harwood, & Mirenda, 1994). While picture-supported writing is widely used with children who have severe communication disorders, it is important for professionals to continually explore supports that might transition such students to more independent communication of their own thoughts in their own voices.


Email was an effective method to motivate communication in this study and should continue to be explored by educators as a regular component of the writing curriculum, particularly for struggling learners. Websites such as ( offer student email accounts in a safe environment. Audio email and video email, and many other motivating and free information communication technologies, are available that can further enhance learning opportunities for all students: blogging (audio or video); instant messaging, Internet telephone, and audio and video conferencing. Technology environments in some cases may offer a more leveled playing and social environment for students with special needs.


Implications for Research


The current study suggests a promising application of email technology in enhancing the written communication skills of adolescents with severe communication disorders. However, given that the results are reported from just two such students, a good deal of research is required to explicate just how and for whom and in what ways email and assistive technologies may support written language learning and use. The current study explored the nature of written dialogue between the participants. It is important to also investigate the scaffolds that may be supportive in enhancing the writing of either partner. Is, for example, the assumption that undergraduates would interact in richer, more normalized ways by not knowing the nature of the students’ special needs supported by data?  Would teacher preparation students perhaps be even more supportive if they knew their partners had severe communication impairments, or would their messages take on more of a didactic tone or structure?  Would a didactic structure be more or less supportive of motivation to write or progress in learning how to write? These are questions deserving further investigation.


The current study did not explore written language instruction but rather a particular and apparently supportive writing opportunity. The types of instruction that may increase the quantity and quality of individual writing or rate of improvement in writing skills in this environment remain to be explored. Likewise it will be important to study the kinds of technological, material, and interactive scaffolds that will be optimally supportive of enhanced writing, and, particularly given the individual diversity of individuals with severe communication impairments, to consider frameworks or systems of scaffolding. It is particularly important to explore ways of increasing the more independent and less structured supports that will give struggling students greater access to their own ideas and voice. Danny’s transition to greater independence suggests one method worthy of further exploration.


Finally, the current study was conducted by engaging undergraduate teacher education students in email exchanges with adolescents who have severe communication disorders and beginning literacy skills. Whether such a structure and technology might work equally well with younger students or other populations require careful examination. Whether other technologies that incorporate written language (e.g., listservs, blogs, instant messaging, text messaging) might be more or less supportive in increasing learning or motivation is a subject worthy of study. 


What we learned from the current study is that email as a written language technology was easily incorporated into frequent and regular authorship opportunities. These opportunities were motivated by the responses of a real audience. The nature and quantity of the resulting written products suggest the importance of incorporating this and other purposeful writing into the curriculum of adolescents with severe communication impairments. The email communication environment afforded the students in this study was supportive and productive and worthy of further exploration by teachers and researchers. 




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