I was listening to Carrie’s Clark’s most recent Storm of the Brains podcast (about unresponsive children with ASD) this week. Carrie mentioned using Minecraft characters in a simple progress chart to be used to motivate a child to do something (request bubbles or follow an instruction, for example) more than once. This reminded me that I’d been meaning to make something like this for a little while, so I’ve put some together, featuring Minion Stuart and Steve from Minecraft. Obviously I don’t own any rights over Stuart and Steve, but it’s for the kids, right! You can download a pdf here for free.
If what we try to treat to develop children’s comprehension skills is anything to go by, then there are four main components to a child’s ability to understand what is said to them:
- The quality of their phonological form – how well they know the words, how well they listen and watch what you say to them, and the speed at which they are able to rifle through the ‘mental rolodex’ and select the word they heard.
- The depth or connectedness of their ‘semantic tree’ or lexicon. What is fired off when they hear a word? How deep is their knowledge of the concept that has been triggered? How sure are they that they know what they know? How good are they at integrating one concept along with the concept(s) that they have just heard? Furthermore, how much information from other associated concepts can feed into the concept that they’re dynamically pulling together, as far as is relevant, given the quality of the logical structure of their lexicon?
- The level of dynamism inherent in their language parser or ‘sentence-builder’; as it goes about slotting heard words in and out of the growing representation, scrubbing nonsensical interpretations, making judgements on shades of interpretation, inference and effect, and helpfully leaving semantically blurry holes for words that weren’t heard, or words that weren’t understood.
- Their working memory / limitations that arise from their ‘auditory scratchpad’. How many words / concepts are they able to recall and act upon at once?
Assessment often indicates that any one, or more, of these four areas is impacted. Of course, lots of other things play into a child’s understanding as well – their attention control, whether they are ‘on the same page’ as the speaker, their tiredness, and so on. But the areas listed above are the ones that are linguistically mediated.
My sense is that the ‘auditory scratchpad’ is not a thing in-and-of itself, but rather that limitations that stand out here actually follow from limitations with other aspects of the child’s phonological and semantic representation, as well as limitations that they might have building a whole from the pieces they hear.
Not that there is no such thing as working memory – famously our working memory for numbers is limited to 7, plus or minus 2, which is why we often struggle to recall a phone number that we have to hold in mind for a few seconds. Familiarity is everything though. A musician, asked to sing back a series of 7 entirely random notes would probably struggle greatly. However, write and play for them a well-structured melody, and they will be able to recall much longer phrases from the same kind of exposure.
A musician is not going to improve by spending time parroting back entirely atonal phrases. Neither is a language learner going to get better at understanding what is said to them by playing endless games of ‘I went to the shops and I bought…’.
And yet we do spend a lot of time on these kinds of games. Lots of resources exist to support working memory – for example Black Sheep Press have their Working Memory pack (25% off until the 12th of April), their Barrier Worksheets and their Barrier Concepts packs to tackle this area. I’ve worked on it quite a bit, and I will say this much – it’s not exactly fun for the adult or the child.
To me, exercising the brain, as if it were a muscle, using only fairly familiar concepts (big, red square, etc.), seems to miss the point. Gains made here are not going to mean anything when it comes to making interpretations of less familiar concepts, or under less ideal conditions. I would say instead that we need to boost the form, and then the ability to represent the form will improve.
This is why I have been trying to develop a task for children who struggle to listen to instructions in the classroom, and who have demonstrably poor processing and comprehension skills. This week I’ll be talking about the task I have been working on for children who have poor logical form. Next week I’ll talk about the parallel task I have been developing for children with poor phonological form.
I started off using pictures from the Black Sheep Press Categories pack. I wanted a two-step instruction that would challenge a child’s memory, while stretching their knowledge of features and categories. The idea was to emulate the type of classroom-based instruction where the children had to recall the second part of the instruction while they went about the first part.
For my first run at this, I placed five pictures, face down, and said something like ‘find me an animal [only one of the five was an animal], and if it’s a scary one, post it [it was to be posted 50% of the time]’; or ‘find me a toy, and if it belongs outside, post it’. The problem with this was, one child I was trying this out with (a year 1 child) started, very reasonably, to make predictions about what he was looking for (i.e. a lion, or a ball, in these cases) and this became the task for him. It stopped being a two-step instruction. Also the second part of the instruction was fairly obscure and meaningless.
I changed things around, putting six or seven pictures down, and asking questions such as ‘find me all the animals [there are always three] and put them in order of size’ and so on. This seems to be a much better task, it has some meaning in the end, and the children do genuinely forget what the second part of the task is. I work with children in pairs, and encourage them to prompt each other, and they do this in a very natural manner. Using the Black Sheep Categories pack, these are some of the distinctions I am using to get the children make as they classify and rank the objects.
Toys – how big, how expensive, how noisy, how heavy.
Animals – how big, how noisy, how scary, how good at climbing trees, how good they are at swimming, how useful they are, how easy they are to ride, how cute.
Clothes – in the order that you put them on / take them off, thickness / woolliness.
Food – how juicy, how big, how healthy, how good they are for breakfast.
Transport – how big, how fast, how high they go, how noisy, how many people use them at once.
The ‘kid who liked the cardboard box more than the toy’ cliché must have been played out somewhere in England this Christmas Day. And who can blame that child. Is there anything more soulless than the adult-sanctioned, plastic-moulded, beeping and buzzing brand of imaginative play that gets dreamed up in focus groups full of stone-hearted creatives?
What good is a Toyrific Market Stall if there is no-one playing with you to request your pretend money, to get flustered when your toy dog knocks something over in the shop, and to tell you “put that down – that isn’t for sale!”
When I think to set up a shop in imaginative play with a child (usually in response to the child saying they need more food for their toys), I turn the Sindy bath upside down, roughly stack some toy food on it, put a puppet behind it, give a little basket to the child, suggest they might want to buy some bits, and then wait to see what they come up with.
Exhibit B is the Peppa Pig Cleaning Trolley. Has there ever been a more monumental waste of physical and mental space?
Yes, cleaning up is a staple of pretend play, but what is far more interesting to children is what has happened to create the mess. A dog has knocked over a cup of tea – won’t someone put him outside and get a cloth? And why has that cheeky little girl just squirted shampoo all over the floor? She will have to clean that up herself. Oh, and watch out little boy, or you’ll get chocolate all over your…. oh dear. And now the dog is licking his shoes. Stop that! And – – ugh – – what’s that cat doing out there in the garden? A cloth and a shared train of thought is all that is required to get these sorts of ideas off the ground.
I joined the Let Toys Be Toys campaign last year. Their petition led to many high street shops pulling down their “Boys’ Toys” and “Girls’ Toys” signs (although it’s still easy to find the junk that is intended for girls, as it is primarily made out of pink / purple plastic, and plastered with princess propaganda).
They released a very interesting analysis last week, a distillation of the language used by TV advertisers to entice girls and boys into buying their tat. Here are the highlights, along with the word clouds.
- Boys were shown as being active and aggressive, and the language used in adverts targeted at them emphasises control, power and conflict.
- Ads targeted at boys were mainly for toys such as vehicles, action figures, construction sets and toy weapons
- Girls were generally shown as passive, unless they were dancing. The language used in the ads focuses on fantasy, beauty and relationships.
- Ads targeted at girls were predominantly for dolls, glamour and grooming, with an overwhelming emphasis on appearance, performing, nurturing and relationships. Out of 25 ads for toy vehicles, only one included a girl.
- Ads that featured boys and girls together were usually in categories such as action/board games, art/craft materials, interactive toys and soft toys.
- Some ads that featured boys and girls together showed them as adversaries, for example the girls screaming and running away from the boy’s Wild Pets remote control spider, or the boy trying to break into a girl’s secret journal.
This is depressing stuff, if entirely unsurprising.
I play in basically the same way with boys and girls. Younger boys, while they do enjoy bashing toys together and going ‘raah’, do respond to nurturing-type play and cleaning up and so on. They need a bit of encouragement to venture into it at times, but this seems to me to be mostly down to difficulties they have with arousal levels (the younger boys that I end up working with often need to learn to calm down). Young girls enjoy slapstick and fighting just as much as their brothers do.
Older boys can be more technical in the way they play, in my experience. More super powers are awarded to the toys, other toys have more sophisticated defences from these super powers, the toys are more likely to be incarcerated, and so on. How much of this comes from the conditioning from the media, who can say. There are certainly no hard and fast rules, and all children’s ideas need to be listened and responded to.
I’ve posted my imaginative play handout here before in parts, but here is the whole thing to download, for anyone who’s got this far through my little diatribe.
I received a delivery this morning: 10 massive balloons. I’ll take the elastic bands off before I use them. These were just £2.29 from Amazon. They’ll last hundreds of sessions of language stimulation.
I use these in much the same way as I use my bubble trumpet: to elicit basic words from children who really want to make things happen. So this is words such as ‘balloon’ to request for me get the balloon out of the bag, ‘blow’ or ‘bigger’ before each breath for me to make them bigger, and ‘ready, steady go’ for me to let the balloon go for it to jerk dramatically around the room.
This represents a great deal of language from one piece of rubber. The child has to go via me to get what they want, and most children really do want to see the balloon whizz around (I do remember one child who dry heaved while I began blowing the balloon up… I tried something else with that child). There is also an element of cause and effect with the balloon – the child that requests ‘go’ without first asking ‘blow’ will just see me drop an uninflated balloon on the floor.
This type of approach (holding off before you give something motivating, and always expecting a little more from the child who is attempting to request) is ideal for children with autistic spectrum disorder and more generally for those who lack experience of directing the behaviour of others through language. These children are all, to one degree or another, inexperienced or disorganised with using language to request. They might look at your hand, pull your hand, get frustrated, go inert, do a shake of their body, and so on. They might use words, but at the wrong time. All of this can be seen as being partly intentional behaviour. The therapist’s job is to model the words (or in some cases, the signs), and wait for the child to make the leap and use them.
What is this abomination! A chicken with the head of a horse? A pig with wings??? This is my version of Build a Beetle, which I use as a turn taking game to keep children involved during phonology exercises.
It’s pretty simple really – they say the sound / word / phrase that they’re working on, and I get them to pick a piece of animal out of a bag. The child I worked with here wanted to play the ‘horrible hybrid farm animal’ version of the game – you can also do it in a more sedate manner and race to complete your own animal.
At the end, we build our animals, and invariably they end up fighting: “Give me my face back!”, “You stole my tail”, etc.
These packs (you can get Farm Animals, Jungle Animals and Dinosaurs) are made by US company the Learning Journey. They used to be available in TK Maxx for £4.99 but it seems that TK Maxx are more interested in their products that are more explicitly educational these days (e.g. rhyme bingo, that kind of thing). My previous copy of these had fallen apart so I have just imported them from Amazon USA – costing me around £12 per box. Still worth it.
These are available in my imaginary toy shop in Nottingham high street by the way.
I’m not totally anti-iPads and other tablets for children – and I’ve realised from looking around recently that there are some clever and useful apps available to support children’s language development, as well as a huge amount of time-wasting rubbish.
I’ve gone through the Play Store and the App Store, and here are a couple of apps that I can recommend. Both of these are suitable for ages 3 and above with the right amount of adult support.
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Android link – http://tiny.cc/svoapp. The pictures are designed to prompt sentences such as ‘the girl is feeding the cat’ and ‘the boys are playing soccer’. For each picture, the app asks “wh-questions” one at a time (‘what is the girl doing?’, ‘who is feeding the cat?’, ‘who is she feeding’), before asking for the whole sentence.
Turn the sound of the game off (it speaks American English) and ask the questions for your child as they appear at the top of the screen. When your child answers the question, point to the written word he has said and get him to touch that word. He is then asked ‘can you make a sentence from the picture?’. Get him to say the whole sentence with you, and to swipe the words into position (with your help). Model the sentences lots of times. Make it fun, and make sure your child is speaking and listening lots and lots while playing with the game.
This game has four other types of constructions (e.g. subject – verb – place: ‘the boy is reading on the beach’), but to access these you need to click on ‘Full Version’ (£5.27 on Android). Unfortunately there is a bias towards American vocabulary in this app, and some of the pictures are not going to make much sense for young children. The majority are good though. It’s a shame that there’s no mode that uses pictures of the objects / people etc rather than the words.
With the full version you get the chance to build sentences around your own submitted pictures (probably only really useful for therapists, of course).
It will help to develop your child’s sentence structure, their verb knowledge, their use of function words (like ‘is’ and ‘the’) and possibly even their attention skills.
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Android link – http://tiny.cc/sortingapp. This is a subordinate category sorting game. In the free ‘theme’, the child has to sort (swipe) pictures of foods into their correct subcategory (fruits, vegetables and desserts). For 59 pence you get access to two further top-level categories – animals (subdividing into farm, water and jungle animals) and things found in the home (subdividing into things found in the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom). You might be advised to turn the sound of the app off (it speaks American English) and speak about the items together, however there might be some value in leaving your child to play with this one on their own.
IOS link – http://tiny.cc/sortingios. The two additional themes are available for 79 pence for the iPad and iPhone. You could also try the following superordinate category sorting game – http://tiny.cc/sortingiphone (i.e. sorting objects into animals versus clothes, etc). This costs just under two pounds.
Developing their category knowledge will develop a child’s vocabulary as well as the logical structure of their lexicon. It makes them better at learning new words as well.
There are lots of picture resources available for free on the internet for people wanting to develop a child’s articulation and phonology. I find that many of my colleagues aren’t aware of some of the sites that I use, so here are some links and reviews to save you lot the job of searching around. If you’re a parent planning on using any of these on your child, you should get the advice of a speech and language therapist first.
Caroline Bowen is the undisputed queen of online speech and language resources. Unfortunately her website is difficult to navigate. The link above takes you to the ‘Resources Index’, and the picture resources are linked towards the bottom of the page, under the heading ‘Worksheets; Pictures and Words’. The bulk of the pictures are found in ‘Worksheets: Consonants, Clusters and Vowels‘. Word medial pictures are on a separate page, as are minimal and maximal opposition pictures. (Incidentally, some good advice about using maximal and multiple oppositions in therapy can be downloaded from David Newman’s excellent speechlanguage-resources.com).
This is undoubtedly the most comprehensive set of resources on the internet. The documents are presented as pdfs. Caroline’s pictures all come from free clip-art sources, so they are somewhat inconsistent in style and quality. Some sets of sounds have bigger pictures than others, as she has changed the way she makes the sets over the years. Word choice is a little haphazard – low and high frequency words sit next to one another, as do long and short words. Some of the pictures are more aimed at older children, and there is an evident American (actually Australian) slant.
The /f/ word initial words are: Fiona, feel, feast, feet, feed, Felix, fever, female, fiesta, Fiat, field, feely bag, fat, food, four, five, fig, fan, farm, fish, fork, fox, phone, fern, face, foot, fairy, fight, feed and funny. The pictures look like this – with 6 pictures to the page for /f/.
Odd name, magnificent word selection. The therapist who runs this site has focused on CVC words, and then very helpfully presented the words that include the earlier-developing sounds first. The words are good for young children. The pictures are a mixture of clip art and photographs, and to be honest the style is a little over-saturated for my liking. The pictures come up rather small (15 to a page), and the documents are presented as png image files. These words are ideal for therapists trying to work with children who have multiple substitutions because it is so easy to identify which words the child will have a chance of saying (i.e. fan is much easier for a child to say than fish or fall).
Pictures are provided for all sounds (except /ng/ and /zh/, which don’t feature at all) word initially and word finally. Clusters are not here in huge numbers, but they are represented. There are a few word medial sets, and a couple of sets of minimal pairs, but it’s not what you’d come here for.
The full list of /f/ word initial words is: fan, fat, feed, feet, fin, food, foot, fun, fight, foam, phone, face, fez, fig, five, fizz, fog, fuss, fuzz, fall, fang, feel, fell, fetch, fish, foal, foil, fall, fudge and fall.
Thanks ‘mommy’. I always expect these images to have disappeared, since they plainly use Widget Communications’ images. I won’t tell them if you don’t. As such, the images are consistent, simple, and rather beautiful. They are very small (20 to a page) but they scale up very well in the photocopier. The word choice is mostly good. There are pictures for all sounds in all positions, but it is quantity over quality at times, particularly for the word medial pictures (for example, /f/ word medial has /fr/ clusters such as ‘afraid’, three syllable words such as ‘elephant’, and words with /f/ in very complex contexts such as ‘blindfold’).
There are no minimal pairs pictures, but there are some for the simple clusters word initially. There are pictures for most of the sounds in some rather forced sentences, I don’t personally see a lot of use for these. The pictures are presented as pdfs.
The /f/ initial words are feet, fingers, fairy, fork, farm, fire, fox, feel, fast, food, fish, fair, fan, fight, fall, face, find, first, fat and family.
Much more of a resource for teachers of literacy than speech therapists, there are still some gems to be found here. Firstly there’s a page of well thought-out resources to develop Phonological Awareness. There are also 94 workbooks for different rhyming ‘word families’ (words ending with -ed, -ook, etc). These workbooks have a lot of games, puzzles, etc, but there are around 12 -20 fairly decent pictures to extract from each set. The pictures are drawn especially for this series, so they’re consistent and quite clear. It all looks rather American, and it’s not a style that appeals very much to me. The workbooks are indexed on the bottom half of this page.
Because of the literacy focus, digraphs (ch, sh, ph) get their own workbooks (listed on the top half of the above-linked page), and so, most importantly, do clusters. I often come to Carl’s corner for her cluster resources – there are workbooks for word initial /bl/, /br/, /kl/, /kr/, /dr/, /fl/, /fr/, /gl/, /gr/, /pl/, /pr/, /sk/, /skr/, /sn/, /sp/, /spl/, /spr/, /st/, /str/, /sw/, /thr/, /tr/, /tw/ and /shr/.
My current job, working directly for schools, has enabled me to focus on the way I do therapy. It’s a rare opportunity, because the administrative side of the job for community SLTs can be overwhelming. I do very little but therapy, and I can’t help but get better at it. So here’s a couple of things I do now, that I didn’t do before.
I work on speech and language at the same time
The last picture of my most recent post demonstrates that I tend to work on everything at once. If I’m working on the /k/ sound, for example, once the child has started to use it at single word level, I’ll get my soft toys out, act out some scenarios (e.g. teddy dropping a car) and ask the child ‘what’s happening’. I’ll use my Colourful Semantics pictures, combined with Jolly Phonics pictures, to help the child to structure her sentence. Teddy will drop it over and over again, start saying things like ‘the car hurt my foot’, ‘it’s a heavy car’, and so on, and the child is expected to say some phrases for herself. I’ll also throw in the occasional semantic task when I’m working on phonology because it is both the phonological and the semantic features of a word which anchor it to others, and make it accessible during sentence-building.
I have found a way to support language and play for children in small groups
The single best way to support a child’s language development (children under 6, who simply lack linguistic experience, or speak English as an additional language) is to play with them, patiently following their lead and providing the language that matches their thoughts. Supplement, augment, and mildly dramatise what they’re doing. Repeat words and structures over and over again. And don’t ask lots of pointless questions. This approach has the added benefit of developing a child’s attention skills, play skills and their ability to interact purposefully with an adult while enriching their receptive and expressive language.
However the problem we face in nursery and reception classes is so enormous that education staff and SLTs working together can never be resourced well enough to provide this level of input per child. That’s why what I do is to take the best bits of that optimal ‘modelling language in play’ experience, and adapt them into a group session.
I conduct phases of sentence building (essentially picture description, see example pictures below, using the Colourful Semantics system) followed by phases of adult-led play, where toys identical to the toys in the pictures ‘make it happen’. The child whose turn it is is encouraged to get involved in a defined manner, and language is modelled and stimulated like mad. Then that phase is over, the toys go back behind a barrier and then the next child starts sentence building from a new picture.
This is the essence of what is a very involved and fiddly system. I even draw speech sound targets into this if appropriate (see the fifth picture below for a cheeky way I do this). I’m working very hard on putting together a pilotable version of my programme at the moment, then my plan is to publish it, along with the toys (different toys, and pictures, of course). In some kind of massive suitcase. It’ll be a monster, and, if it ever gets made it will be phenomenally expensive (if the eye-watering £360 for the rather basic Symbolic Play Test is anything to go by).
So this is what the little slices of play that I set up for my kids look like…
Anyone who has seen me lurch in or out of one of the 7 schools I currently work in will know that I carry a lot of stuff around on my back. Arguably much too much stuff.
- A ladder man cause-and-effect toy
- The orange, phonology bag contains a huge amount of speech sound-related pictures, assessments and games (including a build-a-cactus game and ‘Billy’, my always useless puppet)
- The Newcastle Sage Gallery bag is the perfect size to fit my barrier/wall thing, along with lots of language picture resources and a few small assessments
- The two brown bags in the middle are full of stickers and paperwork
- The lovely leather satchel houses my laptop
- There’s a white bag (almost hidden) with a huge number of musical instruments used in group activities and in one-to-one intensive interaction sessions
- Then it’s my imaginative play bag, which itself contains a number of bags, including a hand-made bee-skin faux-fur bag full of amazing soft toys, a similar ladybird-skin bag full of toy food and crockery, an actual sofa, chairs, toys for the toys to play with, a plastic fly to land on their food when they’re having a picnic, a crocodile to spoil their sleep – you name it, it’s there.
- Then the magnificent spotty bag contains my fishing game, my Mr Potato Head, bubbles, balloon, kaleidoscope, puzzle and my favourite lift-the-flap book.
I often go through my bags, thinking I’m going to thin it out a bit, but I always end up adding more pictures and toys.
A new addition for the Spring Term has been a velcro ball game, which I use during phonology input training. Here the daredevil Billy holds the targets that the child has to aim at (he gets extremely angry if they miss).
I took a picture recently, one hour into one of my mornings. Sometimes things get this messy. I tidied up soon afterwards – if I find it distracting then I can only imagine what it’s like for the children I work with. Here it is though – a horrible, enjoyable mess! (Click for full size).
I’m no longer contributing to the under-employment problem in the UK. It’s a bit of a shock to the system to be honest. I’m working one day a week alternating between two Staffordshire schools, and on the remaining four days I work for five Nottinghamshire primary schools (paid out of their pupil premium money) via the NHS.
It suits me so much better than community NHS work. In the community, if a child fails to attend an appointment, you will probably attempt to contact parents, the school or the health visitor; offer another appointment; send letters of ultimatum or discharge; complete a discharge report, which is sent to other professionals, who invariably resend the referral, etc. It just goes round and round.
When I work for a school, if the child is in school, I get to see them. If they are not in school, that isn’t really my problem. No paperwork is generated. I just see them next time they’re in.
Along with the school team, I get to decide who I will see that day, and I don’t have to contact parents multiple times to remind them about the session, nor indeed do I need to contact health visitors to get them to remind the parents about the session. I just see the child. I get to build strong relationships with the schools’ teaching assistants, and I can trust them to do the work that I set for the children. I get to focus on therapy in a way that, sadly, very few therapists do.