Sunday, October 29, 2017

Why Routines Work for Building Language (no matter what mode of communication is used)

We often talk about using routine activities to build language skills.  There is a good reason for this; routines are predictable and…. well, routine.

As far back as the 1960’s and 1970’s, Hart & Risely were using routine activities of daily living (ADLs) to increase language skills.  

In 1995 they published the results of a study that found that 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their agemates from professional families. This difference has been called the “30-Million-Word Gap” and “The Great Catastrophe.” 

The biggest predictor of a child’s success in school is his vocabulary.  Some parents just have a better idea of what to say and do, especially when reading to their children. They know their child needs to hear words repeated over and over again in meaningful sentences and questions.  Sociologists Farkas and Beron studied the research on 6,800 children from ages 3 to 12, and found that children from the lower SES were far more likely to arrive at school with smaller vocabularies (12-14 months behind) and they seldom made up the loss as they grew older.

Hart & Risely’s key findings: 
1. The variation in children’s IQs and language abilities is relative to the amount parents speak to their children.
2. Children’s academic successes at ages nine and ten are attributable to the amount of talk they hear from birth to age three.
3. Parents of advanced children talk significantly more to their children than parents of children who are not as advanced.

So, what’s so key about routines?
Well, these are often the times when parents speak most to their children.  And what they say is often repeated over and over again, using the same words and in the same order every time.  This repetition and predictability help their children build their vocabulary and their schema for how their life is organized.

Hart & Risley spearheaded other research, as well, about how to teach language skills.  They used incidental teaching - modified - to teach language skills in context. 
In their 1975 study, where they used “incidental teaching” of compound sentences, “increases in unprompted use of compound sentences were seen for all the children, first directed to teachers, and then to children, in accordance with who attended to the children's requests for play materials. The incidental teaching procedure also stimulated spontaneous variety in speech, and appears to have general applicability to child learning settings.” (Hart & Risely, 1975, JABA)

The premise of Incidental Teaching is that all interactions must be child-led.  This can be problematic with children who do not initiate interactions, but if teachers take advantage of “teachable moments,” they can overcome this ‘barrier’ by taking note of what motivates the child, what his interests are, what he engages with when left alone and then “sabotaging” the environment so that these things are just out of reach.  This provides those teachable moments by creating needs for him to communicate.

Hart and Risely also contributed greatly to the research on use of time delay and “expectant pause.”  Their research can be directly applied to AAC (although the technology was not yet available and AAC was in its very infancy) by looking at their levels of prompting in incidental teaching.  They wrote specifically about asking the child, “What do you want?” and waiting with an expectant pause.  Their next level of prompt was to ask, “What is this?” and pausing again.  At the level of most prompting, the partner models the response for the child, “Red ball.” 

This research was applied later by Gail McGee and her colleagues at the Amherst integrated preschool program in the 1980’s.  Her group, along with several other researchers studied not just incidental teaching, but also the impact of the environment on language development. (author’s observation of that program)

Children with disabilities, who are known to be vulnerable to environmental conditions, can have specific impacts of environment on development.  Caregivers have considerable impact; with studies showing that the quality of their interactions has specific impact on children’s development of language skills.  

Additionally, the quality of interactions within more educated families provided more complex language, resulting in preschoolers with greater vocabulary; an indicator of literacy development.
Importantly, incidental teaching, “must not request skills that are presently beyond his or her reach.”

Incidental teaching can play a large part in extending the language within daily routines.  Parents and others engage often in routines with children that demonstrate how the world is organized, what words people use in those organized routines, what people’s roles are in routines (who says what when) and how to interact with others in these routines; even before they can participate in the conversation.

So, let’s go back to our use of modeling in AAC - or in language development more generally.  Does that last statement ring any bells?  Does it sound a lot like how we provide Aided Language Stimulation?  At or 1 step beyond the child’s current level of language use?

Typical children learn the meanings of words by having caregivers say the words within routines over and over and over again.   By having those caregivers respond when he begins to communicate (which may begin simply as pointing), he learns an appropriate way to ask for something rather than screaming or crying.
But when we want children to move beyond pointing, and they do not have verbal words to use, we must present an alternative mode of communicating.

By providing pictures for communication for the child, we put ourselves in a position of having to model that “different” language system, just as we modeled use of speech for our neurotypical children. 

For our atypical children learning language takes a similar path, but a slower one that requires some modification of our planning interactions and modification of their expressive mode.

For example, break routines down into smaller component steps.  Help to ensure that the child understands the sequence of the routine.  And say the same things every time at every step.  In this way, the child becomes familiar with the words you use.

Be flexible. Follow the child’s lead, but rather than denying him some off-topic or off-sequence behavior, make it a contingency that he do what is involved in the routine in order to gain access to what he wanted to do.
Make sure to use appropriate language to label or describe what catches the child’s interest, as well as what is involved in the routine.  By naming and describing what caught the child’s interest, you provide input of vocabulary that is motivating.

Think outside the box.  While we want the child to learn the structure and attending language of the routine, we also want to take advantage of those moments when the child’s interest is piqued by something else in the environment.

Also consider that a routine can be made out of any repeated activity.  Think about the things that the child and caregiver do together.  No matter how small or extended, a routine can be a pivotal part of the child’s language intervention.

So, if you’re looking for ways to implement core vocabulary with your AAC user, you need look no further than the everyday routines.

If you’re looking for ways to implement the 200 opportunities per day that are the minimum needed for your AAC user to become competent, look no further than the routines in his or her life.

McGee, G. G., Morrier, M. J. & Daly, T. (1999). An incidental teaching approach to early intervention for toddlers with autism. JASH , 24(3), 133-146.
Risley, B. M. & Risley, T. R. (1978). Promoting productive language through incidental teaching. Education and Urban Society , 10, 407-429.

If you're going to the ASHA Conference next month, stop by and say, Hi."

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Top 3 Ideas for Planning Lessons with Core Words

Core words are the high frequency words that we use repeatedly to generate our messages.  They often have multiple meanings, and can be used different ways for different functions.

I get asked all the time how to plan lessons around core words.  After all, if they are high frequency words we use all the time, how hard can it be to plan on using - and modeling - them in class and intervention settings.

  1. Plan to do descriptive teaching; rather than referential.
  2. Observe what is going on around you - and the student.
  3. Look for ways to adapt simple stories - especially folk and fairy tales that your students are familiar with - for core words.

Descriptive Teaching: Gail Van Tatenhove has, over the years, discussed this a lot. When we use referential teaching - as we most often do - we ask the student to respond to a question with a specific referent, or word.  For example; “Which planet has 2 moons?” is a question that can only be answered by using the planet’s name.

But, if I ask the student to describe or tell me about Mars; then he can use words like: “next to us,” and “small,” and “red,” and “cold.” 
All of those words are already in a robust AAC system, and do not need to be specifically programed into a system - especially when Mars isn’t a typical topic of conversation that this student will need again.  And there is the added benefit of needing to use higher order language skills - for those rigorous CCSS - in order to tell what the student really knows about Mars.

Observing what is happening in the classroom or other environment can also yield opportunities to interact.  “What is he doing?” can be asked about any other student or staff, and the verb for answering a “what doing?” question is most likely in the system.
Other questions can include “How does she feel?” and “How can you tell?” along with “What happened?” and “Look at that! What do you think?”

If you are working on pronouns, questions such as “Who is wearing a green t-shirt?” can be found in abundance, using the others in the room..
If you are working on prepositions, “Where is the pink notebook?” can also be constructed using whatever is in the environment.
You get the idea.

 Who is washing?  He is.

Where is the green one? There it is.

Adapting stories is my favorite way to talk about words.  Trade books (children’s books from the store) offer rich vocabularies and a wide array of topics, characters, and settings.
Stories are our hallway from oral language to literacy. 
I often start with books made at home, or together in intervention, that utilize pictures of the student in various locations or activities.  Co-constructing these and reading them together allows a “connection to me” that makes a big difference for these kids.
And you can start with a single word - or 2 - per page: I jump.  I walk.  I swing.
Those are all simple core word phrases (or just use the verb) that go a long way to fire up some motivation for looking at core word books.
Gradually we expand these books to move from those heaps - collections of words - to more of a cohesive narrative.  This is a multi-step process.
And finally, we move to simple stories and talking about them with our core words (with some fringe words sprinkled in as needed).
Try looking at some of the stories on This can help give your students ideas for stories and what they can look like.
Then look at story books (tradebooks) to find core words.  Rewrite the stories with your students to use more core words.  This can be a lot of fun, as our AAC users hunt through their systems for the words they want to use.

So, there you have it; my top 3 ways to implement core vocabulary.  I’ll be back next week with some more ideas.  In the meantime…………keep on talking.

If you're going to the ASHA Conference next month, stop by and say, "Hi."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Ready for More Vocabulary Fun? Six More Ways I Can Use These Words!

Vocabulary instruction for students with language delays or impairments needs to be multi-faceted and to provide repetition, repetition, repetition.
In any unit students need to be provided with multiple ways to see, hear, and use new words.

Accessing background knowledge can be difficult for some of these students. They often have far fewer “real world” experiences.  They don’t go out as often or to as many places as their typical peers; making learning new vocabulary even more difficult.

What are some ways we can bring the knowledge to them in a variety of formats?

interactive books:  There are many forms interactive books can take; from single words per page with a matching interactive piece to add, to more complex sentences without an actual symbol:symbol match. This gives students something to do besides fidget. 

cloze procedures (fill in the blank): This is another way to work with vocabulary that can be as simple or complex as your students need it to be. You might have a 3-word sentence, with students filling in the last word with text or a picture symbol.  Or you could create a multi-sentence body of text with a missing word to be filled in.

worksheets with multiple choice responses: When I was a young speech-language pathologist, it was frowned upon to use worksheets.  I was told those were for older or lazier SLPs.  But the harsh reality is that we Do. Not. Have. Time.  There is not enough time to prep materials, organize them for the day ahead, do all the laminating and cutting and velcro sticking.  And well-made worksheets provide another interaction with the vocabulary.

cut & paste activities: These are usually more worksheet formats but with interaction between student and materials.  Again, this gives students something to do besides fidget, and add another dimension to vocabulary interaction.  Cut & paste activities can also be good for sequencing the steps or events, and choosing in a multiple choice format.

self-made books: Students can be involved in making their own books using flip book templates, or tabbed book templates, or other interactive notebook type of manipulables.  Student may be ore invested in books they help to create.

word searches or crossword puzzles: For students with literacy skills, these can be another fun way for students to interact with the words.  They don’t have to be excellent spellers, as long as they can read the words in a word search.  And crosswords pull in those higher level skills; having to think of the word after reading or hearing a clue.  

As an example, I have an Under the Sea interactive book that I have made and sell in my store.

Included in the resource you will find:
    • A 17 page interactive book with a repeated line naming sea animals. Have students “read” the repeated line(s). Velcro the matching animal at the bottom of the page. A communication board is provided for nonverbal students, using Smarty Symbols; all rights reserved.
    • 17 picture cards with the same sea life that can be used to play a Memory-type card game to practice vocabulary. (Make 2 copies of these pages.) Students name the animals as they turn them over.
    • A 12 page interactive book, with repeated line, telling what the sea animals eat. Images are also provided to velcro to this book’s pages. There is also a Venn diagram to use to sort plant from meat/fish eaters.
    • An underwater barrier game for practice with giving & following directions and descriptions.
    • A following directions coloring page.
    • A writing activity page. Students color the fish and write, “If I were a fish I would be….”
    • 36 colorful fish cards for playing Go Fish or Memory type games. Students practice providing descriptions as they ask for the card they need, or that they have turned over.
    • A life cycle of the sea turtle worksheet and matching small book with real photos that you can make for each student.
    • A fish puppet to cut, color, and use for language or play.
    • A sorting/categorizing activity for ocean v. land animals, along with an exclusion worksheet.
    • A sorting activity for big v. little sea animals.
As you can see, there are multiple ways to interact with the vocabulary included in this resource.
What would I add if my students were more literate?  That final word work piece.
Fortunately, my friends at have me covered.  Check out this sea life crossword puzzle.  It would be a great addition to any Ocean or Under Sea unit.

Listening to descriptions and finding the correct vocabulary word to write in is a great vocabulary target.
What’s an even better way to use crossword puzzles? Provide the puzzle filled in with the answers, and have students write the clues.  This is a much harder and higher level thinking skill for students.
Given the word “starfish,” can your students come up with an accurate descriptive clue; like the one used in this puzzle: “a sea creature in the shape of a 5 posted star.”
Grab a copy of this puzzle by right clicking on the image to download it.  On a Mac you can just click and drag it to your desktop, too.

Keep on talking - even underwater!

If you're going to the ASHA Conference next month, stop by and say, "Hi."

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Let’s Talk About Vocabulary

One of the things we’ve discovered with students who need to build their language - especially vocabulary - skills is that they need more repetition and more opportunities to interact with new words than typically-developing students.

One hurdle in speech-language therapy and special education is getting sufficient repetition for the students to truly master the concept.  
While general education students can usually learn from an experience or activity that relates to a skill and don’t need a lot of practice to learn what they need to know about a topic;  students with special needs need quite a lot of repetition to practice the skills they need and to understand and talk about the topic.

In addition, we often face the problem of getting students started with basic core words, and then not knowing where to go from there.
SLPs with little experience working with AAC users will often work up to the 2-3 word phrase level with students, but then don’t know what to do next.

I’m fond of reminding SLPs that language therapy is language therapy.  That we don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or materials to teach AAC users specifically.  They can be involved in any intervention activity you have planned for your other students; just the mode of response is different.

However, in reality, this can be more difficult than it sounds.  Many of our AAC users are also students who don’t experience the same life experiences as their typical peers.  They don’t go to as many places in public.  Their motor issues keep them from playing games and sports, or knowing how it feels to throw a ball or sled down a hill.

One of the ways to bridge this gap is to provide role playing activities that are “mock-ups” as it were of real life experiences.  I’ve done a lot of this with my Activities and Games to Teach Core Words and Teach Me Core Words resources.
In these resources, I’ve combined a variety of role playing situations that allow structured practice of what to say and what words to use; such as communicating at a birthday party, or a trip to an ice cream shop, or just playing with toy cars and a flat road map.

Another way to bring more core practice into intervention with a little bit of fun are adaptations of games that now use core words.

One game has students take turn picking cards, locating the item in the AAC system, naming an appropriate verb to go with the item, giving clues to peers so they can guess the item, or having peers ask questions (20-Questions style) about category, size, shape, function, etc. to guess the item.

The next game is a dice roll game.  It includes printed, adapted, and hand-sized custom dice - or there are directions for regular dice, too.
The words are grouped by parts of speech, so that rolling them provides greater opportunities for constructing phrases and sentences.

The 3rd game is a build-a-sentence game.  Years ago when I was doing therapy with severely language impaired students, I had a game called “Scrabbble, Jr.” that they liked to play.  It was easier than Scrabble, in that they did not need to know how to spell words to play.  Instead, tiles were words and players built sentences rather than single words.

Using core word tiles, students in this game need to build phrases and sentences to play.  You determine how long or complex those need to be when you set the ground rules.

If you’d like to save yourself the time and trouble that it takes to make all of these materials you can buy them individually, or in a set of all 3 here.

Have fun, and……..keep on talking!

If you're going to the ASHA Conference in LA next month, stop by and say "Hello."

Sunday, October 1, 2017

How Many Ways Can I Use Wordless Videos with My AAC Users?

Just a couple of weeks ago, YappGuru University and Speech Science presented an awesome, free, on-line AAC conference for a week.  There were some terrific presenters from the cream of AAC researchers crop.

In between those illustrious presenters those of us from Speech Science added some tips and actionable ideas in a fun, entertaining and sometimes silly way.

Since I think the presentation Rachel Madel and I did offers some good advice with real things you can do and models of how to do them, I want to share it with you.
I chose several wordless video clips that I found on YouTube that I thought would be great for modeling how to do Aided Language Stimulation.  

We provided both simple single word responses and slightly more complex language use for AAC users at a 2-3 word phrase level, using a couple of different systems that offer voice output.

We had a lot of fun, and I hope everyone felt it was fun to watch AND gave them good ideas to use in intervention.
So, here is a link to the video recording, so you can check it out for yourself, if you missed it.

More next week. Keep on talking!

And if you're going to be at the ASHA Conference in LA next month, stop by and say "Hello."