Friday, April 4, 2014

“Once Upon a Time” at a Speech/Language Convention

Last week, toward the end of an exceptionally rainy day, three of my first grade speech students (all boys) came bounding into my classroom, overflowing with unspent energy. I had an appealing speech game laid out on the table, ready for this exuberant group, but as we started the activity, their wiggling bodies and wandering eyes made it obvious—their minds were not fully engaged. And so, with a quick sweep of my hand, I gathered the articulation pictures, folded up the game-board, and stood. They looked a bit worried when the game disappeared but their wrinkled foreheads cleared and their eyes sparkled when I said, “I think we need a story.” I had their full attention from the moment I spoke those words and their minds didn’t wander through the rest of the session.

Stories are powerful. Whether the students are listening to them, reading them or helping create them, I can’t think of a better way to reach a child or help a child reach their goals. Since that has long been my belief, I was delighted to find two story-related courses at the California Speech, Language and Hearing Association Convention last week. I guess I’m not alone in my desire to use literature with my students. The massive ballroom at the San Francisco Hilton was packed with speech therapists during both courses.

The first one, entitled Narrative Intervention: Teaching “Once Upon a Time” was taught by Teresa A. Ukrainetz, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Wyoming, in the division of Communication Disorders. From her first PowerPoint slide, I knew I had found a kindred spirit, or mentor, or story-telling guru, (after all, she has a Ph.D and has written numerous research articles on the subject.) But back to that first slide. Under the bold printed title, Why Narratives?, she listed, among other things,

            Bridge between orality and literacy
            Teaching language and literacy through stories
            The magic of story

Parents and professionals, both, will easily catch the direction of her research findings. Stories build a bridge. What child, after hearing a good story, does not want to decipher those letters and watch them turn into words, then lift off the page to become unicorns or castles or wild horses running through their imagination? As Dr. Ukrainetz indicated, literature provides a perfect avenue for teaching speech, language and literacy skills, and that is when the magic happens.

Later that same day, I attended a course by Dr. Shari Robertson, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This one was entitled, The Best of Both Worlds: Using Children’s Literature to Meet Oral and Written Language Goals. Once again, I was hooked by her first slide. This course was in the afternoon and after a heavy lunch, but I had no problem staying alert, even when she pulled out a picture book and read, what easily could have become, a bedtime story.

In the course description she stated, “Put some evidence-based zing into your therapy sessions by using books to target oral and written communication development.” Dr. Roberson put some zing into her entire presentation, and if I hadn’t already been enthusiastic about using literature with my students, I would have come away committed to doing so. As it was, I came away with fabulous new lists of books to use with my speech and language kids, one of which is a picture book written by Dr. Robertson herself—Capering Cows—the story of a sleepless child who counts cows instead of sheep.

CC Cover

This book, illustrated by Alexandra Crouse, is perfect for children who need practice with their “k” or hard “c” sounds and it is full of descriptive words and rhyming stanzas, like this one:

Cows that are cowardly
Cows that are brave.
Cows that have ears that waggle and wave.

The book includes tear-out flash cards for vocabulary practice and story extension activities. And at the back, you’ll find instructions on how to effectively use the book to address several National Reading Panel targets.

Dr. Roberson introduced other books produced by her publishing company, Read With Me! Press, which support language and literacy development. Speech therapists will especially appreciate the stories in their “Word Menders” series, which target specific phonological processes.

You don’t need to be a speech therapist or to understand those processes to read these stories to children. Elizabeth Redhead Kriston’s Go By Goat, charmingly illustrated by Gary Morgan, will help children listen to and pronounce the final consonants in words.  Since this sound often disappears when some of my younger students speak, I’ll be putting the book to good use.

And when my exuberant speech group comes in for their next session, I’ll be armed with several new stories that are certain to delight them as we work toward their goals.

I received these books for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own, based on my experience. I was not financially compensated for this post.

Friday, March 21, 2014

How to Be a Pirate (and Still Address the Common Core Standards)

I’ve had a productive blogging break. My middle grade novel is progressing well and now I’m letting it rest before my next round of revisions. I love the writing process (most of the time.)

I’m glad I’m not the only one who enjoys it. Over the last couple of months, I’ve found some wonderful books for my students. Books that would not be nearly as wonderful if their authors hadn’t taken time to polish their prose. This week, the kids reveled in the story, language, and illustrations in How to Be a Pirate, by Sue Fliess, illustrated by Nikki Dyson.

Of course the subject matter was appealing from the start. I haven’t met too many children who don’t adore a good pirate story. The students' eyes never strayed from the page as I read,

“Ahoy, landlubber!
Come with me.
Board me ship upon the sea!

Not a pirate?
Don’t know how?
Ye can learn to be one now!
Come in closer—
I don’t bite.
A pirate ye shall be tonight!”

My language students had fun correcting a few pronoun errors when those rascally pirates used “me” instead of “my”. They also had a chance to practice their rhyming skills by identifying and predicting rhymes in the text. I was afraid the story would be too “young” for my second-grade speech students, but I was wrong. When they saw the book on my shelf, they let me know they didn’t want to miss out, so I grabbed the story and put it to work. It was a perfect match since I’d started targeting “r” sounds with this group. The kids were delighted to help the pirates say, “arrr matey!” And with all the “r” words in the text, like “pirate”, “crossbones”, “swagger”, “buccaneer” (just to name a few), they had plenty of words to use for practice.

To accompany the story, I found a variety of parrot coloring pages on the Internet. My younger students each chose one to decorate. Take a look at the pirate parrots:

The second grade kids got very creative with their artwork. These are their own designs:

These lessons were a lot of fun for me and for the students but if you think we were merely having a good time, you’re mistaken. We addressed various Common Core State Standards (CCSS) while using this book. For example, in the Reading Standard: Foundational Skills K.2, kindergarteners are expected to “recognize and produce rhyming words” and in the Language Standard 1.1, first grade students are asked to use correct pronouns and past tense verbs. They had a lot of practice as they identified rhymes, retold the story, and caught pirate language errors.

The standards apply to my articulation groups as well. From “Listening and Speaking” to “Reading; Foundational Skills,” speech therapy fits neatly into several CCSS areas. The kids might not recognize the standards we’re addressing in speech but my “r” group knew exactly which sound they were working on with How to be a Pirate. As they created their artwork, I heard excellent pirate growls, “arrrrr,” from all around the table.

This story turned out to be an inspired choice for motivating my students. When Zayd left my classroom on Tuesday, he turned and said, “This is cool. Can we work on our r’s again tomorrow?” That was an easy “yes.” We followed up the next day with a review of the story and I heard perfect “r” sounds exploding all around the table. I have high hopes for all these eager pirates, both those with language delays and those with simple articulation errors. I’m certain their enthusiasm will lead to growth in the coming weeks and more good stories will likely fuel that enthusiasm.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Happy Holidays!

There’s definitely a holiday spirit around our school this week. Take a look at some of the artwork from our halls and classrooms:

Our school librarian, Allison Brown, added to the festive spirit by producing over 300 elegant stars. They decorate our halls, classrooms and library windows, creating a holiday atmosphere. But she didn’t hang them merely to adorn our school; these stars are lighting the way to new books for our shelves.

Parents, students, and teachers alike, are snatching up the stars for a mere five dollars, and all the proceeds are going to purchase new books—like the one Alison read to our students yesterday:

Over the winter break, I plan to read some new books myself, sitting in front of a crackling fire with a cup of hot cider in hand. Our family will celebrate Christmas together and perhaps make a few more ornaments to commemorate the year. Like this one we made in honor of our trip to San Francisco to watch the Nutcracker several years back.

Or this one we created of our red Toyota on one very memorable trip into the woods to cut down a tree. (We were lucky to make it safely home.)

I’ll use some of my winter break for writing projects. If you’ve been following my blog, you may remember, I didn’t post during the summer in order to concentrate on a middle grade novel I was writing. The first draft is finished but it’s hard to fit in revisions with a full-time job and a weekly blog. And so, I’ve decided to take a break from posting until I’ve completed another draft—or two, or three. I can hardly wait to dig in! I’ll be back posting from my speech room later in the school year and fill you in on my progress.

Happy holidays! Thank you all for reading and I’ll see you in 2014.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kids Can Make a Difference

A couple of weeks ago, I received a review copy of Let’s Make a Difference: We Can Help Protect Mountain Gorillas, 
by Gabriella Francine with Solara Vayanian, illustrated by Phil Velikan. This week I had the opportunity to introduce the book to a couple of my speech and language groups and they were glad I did.

Some of my students are working on “g” and “k” sounds at the conversational level. They are able to pronounce these phonemes correctly when naming pictures, but once they are chatting in a more spontaneous manner, they slip back into using “d” for “g” and “t” for “k”. (We call that “fronting” in speech therapy circles, because the kids move their tongue forward instead of back, where it belongs for these sounds.) The children got a lot of practice as we talked about Pikoe, the baby gorilla, and his father, Kunga, a “silverback,” named so because of the gray hair on his back.

In the language group, we had a nice vocabulary lesson with words sprinkled throughout the text like, “foraging,” “species,” and “endangered.” The authors supplied some of the definitions as they used the words in the story.

        “ ‘Endangered’ means that if people don’t help them, the mountain gorillas will someday disappear.”

The kids weren’t the only ones to glean information from this book. I didn’t realize there are less than 900 mountain gorillas still living in the wild. Their home is in the cold, misty Virunga mountains of Africa, where they forage each day for leaves, vines, bark, shoots and roots. Gorilla mothers gather food with their babies clinging to their backs. They start looking for food early in the day and then take a nap before searching again. It is no wonder they take a long time to find enough food—

     “Because mountain gorillas are so big, they need to eat a lot! Pikoe’s father, Kunga, has to eat 75 pounds of food every day.”

Phil Velikan illustrated what that amount of food might look like: pizza, watermelon, broccoli, chicken, a carton of milk, kabobs, and other edibles, create a mountain of food on a bathroom scale in the middle of a kitchen. The drawing shows a child reaching up to place a peppershaker on top of this pile that is larger than the child himself!

The blend of illustrations and photographs appealed to my students. They loved the expressive faces on the animals, especially the baby gorilla in the veterinarian’s arms. The infant seemed to look into the eyes of the “Gorilla Doctor” with a mixture of trust and a question, “will you take care of me?” That picture captured the hearts of my students, and they decided they’d like to help that little one and all the other (less than) 899 mountain gorillas living in the wild. They don’t want these animals to disappear from our planet.

Fortunately, the book has suggestions on how they can make a difference. The last page lists organizations that are working to protect mountain gorillas and their habitats. We didn’t have time to visit the websites but the kids wanted to share the information with their classmates and families so I sent them off with website addresses.

While I read the book, and we discussed the plight of the Mountain Gorillas, the kids drew some pictures:

Zayd is going public with his. He plans to decorate a box with small gorillas on the side, cut a hole in top for coins, and hang his picture above it on a local restaurant wall.

He certainly took the title of this book to heart. Let’s Make a Difference: We Can Help Protect Mountain Gorillas. I believe he will.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Giant's Sneeze

With Thanksgiving around the corner, our school walls are covered with beautiful fall and holiday-themed artwork. It makes me realize how thankful I am for my artistic coworkers.

One I’m particularly thankful for is Susan Joyer who loves art, loves kids and loves children’s literature. That is a winning combination in my book, in fact that winning combination is in one of my books—The Giant’s Sneeze

I wrote this story to give my students an entertaining way to practice their “ch” sounds, a fairly common speech error. Since my artistic talents are limited, Susan Joyer volunteered to illustrate the story so we could both use it with our students to encourage pre-reading skills along with articulation.

Speech and reading skills are interdependent and children make leaps toward literacy when those skills are taught together. It so happens, this practice fits in nicely with one of the Common Cores Standards—Reading: Foundational Skills (RF.1.3) where students are expected to,

“Know the spelling-sound correspondences for common consonant digraphs (two letters that represent one sound).”

Like “ch” for example.

I had a chance to read our book to a couple of classes yesterday. It was fun to watch the kids’ enthusiastic response to Susan’s illustrations and to the story. They chimed right in when the giant gave his mighty warning of several “ch” sounds before each sneeze. They laughed at the blustering sneeze-breeze that turned milk into cheese and scattered millions of bees. They were especially entranced with the honey tornado caused by the gusty sneeze when it, “rounded up the scattered bees, and funneled their honey far into the seas.”
Marcia Douglas' Class - some are showing how to make the "ch" sound.

Gabe, one of the first grade students, wondered if the giant put bread on his honey. That sparked some lively discussions about what the honey tornado might look like with thick slices of bread stuck to the sides. By the end of the story, the students had no problem identifying the sound represented by “ch” and they had no trouble showing me how to articulate the sound clearly. We’ll probably need to review the information after the holiday break, but that should be an easy job. I’ve already heard students say, “Read it again, read it again!”

Thanksgiving will be here soon. I can almost smell the turkey cooking and apple cider simmering on the stove. There will be ten of us around our table and I’m grateful for each one. When I return to work on the following Monday, fall decorations will start coming down and winter snowflakes and snowmen will begin to make an appearance. My Thanksgiving attitude will linger as I watch the transformation brought about by many of my coworkers who use their artistic talents to create an inviting learning environment for our students, and an inviting place to go to work each day. And I feel especially grateful to Susan Joyer for using her artistic talents to bring The Giant’s Sneeze to life.

Happy Thanksgiving! May it be filled with good food, friends and family.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


There was no school on Monday of this week in celebration of Veterans' Day. With the three-day weekend, my husband and I left straight from work on the preceding Friday and headed up the coast for a mini-reunion with friends. Our group rented a house somewhat midway between those furthest north in Washington and those furthest south in California. We arrived late at night and settled into an oceanfront rental for our third annual reunion with three other couples. 

We’ve known all but one of these friends for over thirty-years but we lost contact for at least 25 of those years. Our friendships started in Southeast Alaska where we all lived: young, single, and in the beginning stages of new professions. 

One of our friends brought this one, taken the day
my husband and I met! Can you guess which one is me?
During our reunions we’ve caught up on all the major life events, poured over old photographs and shared our stories. I especially enjoyed reminiscing about the ones we have in common, like our hike along Salmon Creek, visits to the Mendenhall Glacier and camping at Denali.

Our trip to Denali 

Phyllis reminded me that during one hike she stepped on a rotting bridge and her leg went right through, landing her in the creek. She started back to work as a classroom teacher with a fat lip and a suspicious principal. 

This may seem like an "off-topic" subject for a speech therapy/kidlit bog, but I don't think it is entirely unrelated. In my work, whether I'm teaching students to articulate sounds, formulate a sentence, learn the fundamentals of social language (pragmatics) or increase their vocabulary, one of my ultimate goals is to help them become better communicators so they can have healthy long-term relationships and so that they can tell their own stories, the stories of their lives.

This past week I haven’t had a chance to read books with the kids. Report cards go home next week (along with IEP progress reports) so I’ve been busy testing and writing reports. It seems somewhat tedious but the time is well spent. I can see tremendous growth in some students and it is obvious, by their smiles and the glint in their eyes, they recognize their growth. A couple of the students, who were almost ready to be dismissed from speech at the end of last year, are now fully ready. 

I have mixed feelings about letting them go, but it is time to do so. I feel good knowing their speech and language skills have grown stronger and my hope is that these new skills will help them form friendships like those I cherish. Perhaps, one day, they’ll enjoy reunions with old friends and be able to share life-enriching stories of their own.