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What is The Association Method?

The Association Method is a multisensory, phonics-based method which is highly intensive, incremental and systematic in its design, enabling seriously communication impaired children to acquire reading, writing, and oral language skills simultaneously. It was developed by Mildred McGinnis at the Central Institute for the Deaf and described in her book, “Aphasic Children” published in 1963. She named it the Association Method because she believed that the essential processes of learning attention, retention and recall — had to be integrated to acquire automaticity of language. Development of memory for learned language is critical.

The following are the underlying principles of the Association Method:

  1. receptive work follows expressive;
  2. teach one small element at a time;
  3. encourage success;
  4. build on previously mastered material;
  5. written form accompanies all that is taught;
  6. modification of temporal rate;
  7. all spoken items are associated with a visual symbol;
  8. complete recall is expected without teacher prompting;
  9. structure, repetition and sameness are considered in the childs environment;
  10. with all new material, children are expected to say, read, lip-read, listen and write.

The first principle, receptive work follows expressive, differs from traditional therapy. It is based on the Motor Theory of Speech Perception: speech production provides motor and acoustic feedback that will lead to understanding. Children do not approximate and blend sounds in the early stages of the Association Method. Rather, blending does not occur until a child has had much practice at reading and clearly articulating sequences of sounds, while also building memory for the sequencing of sounds. Additionally, the multisensory approach is crucial for building strong retention and recall skills. Many people ask if the writing piece is necessary. It is a critical component. The kinesthetic feedback the children get from writing is part of the multisensory information that leads to retention of the language learned. For some children, becoming proficient at handwriting is a difficult process, but the time must be put into teaching this skill to be successful.

The space constraints do not allow a description of all three levels of the Association Method, but I will start with the beginning level to give an idea of how the system builds speech, language and literacy.

Each child begins, whether verbal or not, at the phoneme level. Correct articulation of individual phonemes is taught and the Northampton phonetic alphabet is used. Once a child can accurately produce a phoneme, it is written six times on a page using different colors. Color differentiation is used throughout the Association Method. All writing is in cursive, for the fluid motion which allows the child to feel the sound and for the clear delineation of the beginning and end of words. (Ninety five percent of children transfer to print without a problem). The child will read the sounds, without prompting, trace or write the sound, learn to identify it from both lipreading and auditory stimulus only and be able to turn around and say it from memory. Once 8-10 phonemes are in the sound book, two sounds will be combined into a drop drill. The sounds are read sequentially and not blended, and the child says the two sounds from memory.

The child then moves to the noun stage. At this stage, the child learns to associate words with pictures and develop the automatic oral and written recall for the sequences of sounds using a picture stimulus or from dictation, requiring greater memory skills. Nouns are taught through a “cross drill” which is a presentation of various patterns of CV, VC, CVC, CCVC and VCC patterns using the phonemes the child has learned. The child will also learn the secondary spellings for phonemes at this stage. At each stage, the child is successful and does not move to the next stage until the material is fully mastered and integrated with previously learned material. Once the child has acquired 50 nouns, the child learns to accurately blend the sounds for each noun. Articles are taught, and the child then moves into the second unit of the Association Method.

The Association Method systematically teaches each piece of language at first in a very structured way, but gradually, as the children become confident in the language they have learned, they are guided to use it throughout their day in a more spontaneous way. At Magnolia, the Association Method is integrated throughout the 11 area curriculum, and language experiences are provided throughout the day to generalize what they have learned.

Language is taught up to a complex level until the children are learning language normally. At this point, they are transferred to textbooks and ready to return to the public school or the appropriate school of their choice. The goal is for the children to move into the grade for which they test on standardized tests and move from grade to grade toward a diploma without significant intervention.

The Association Method has helped children with the following diagnoses learn to communicate: receptive and expressive aphasia, dyslexia, traumatic brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, and hearing impairment. An excellent text on the Association Method is “Teaching Language Deficient Children” by Maureen Martin and Etoile DuBard.

[Melinda Kotler is one of the founders of TALK, Inc. (Teaching Autistic, Apraxic and Language-disordered Kids) and Executive Director of Magnolia Speech School Demonstration Program in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. The school is a replication of Magnolia Speech School in Jackson, Mississippi. Anne Sullivan, Executive Director, and Nancy Davis, Head of Language Disorders, in Jackson are mentors to the Berwyn staff. Melinda can be reached at (610) 249-9632 or