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Do Our Therapy Goals Make Sense or How to Create Functional Language Intervention Targets

In the past several years, I wrote a series of posts on the topic of improving clinical practices in speech-language pathology.  Some of these posts were based on my clinical experience as backed by research,  while others summarized key point from articles written by prominent colleagues in our field such as Dr. Alan KamhiDr.  David DeBonnisDr. Andrew Vermiglio, etc.

In the past, I have highlighted several articles from the 2014 LSHSS clinical forum entitled: Improving Clinical Practice. Today I would like to explicitly summarize another relevant article written by Dr. Wallach in 2014, entitled “Improving Clinical Practice: A School-Age and School-Based Perspective“, which discusses how to change the “persistence of traditional practices” in order to make our language interventions more functional and meaningful for students with language learning difficulties.

Image result for geraldine wallachDr. Wallach begins her article by describing 3  fairly typical to the schools’ scenarios.  In the first one,  a group of second graders with narrative retelling goals are working on a sequencing activity (“First the soup is on the counter, next it is opened, then it is cooked on the stove, last it is put in a bowl and ready to eat.”).

In the second scenario,  a group of fourth graders are working on following directions presented to them by the clinician (“Pick up the red triangle before you touch the large, green circle.”)

Image result for ambiguous newspaper headlinesIn  the third scenario,  a group of middle schoolers  are working on interpreting  newspaper headlines (“Jazz Helps Lakers Become Mellow in Victory.”)

Dr. Wallach then poses several overarching questions:

  • Do these goals make sense in the current context of research pertaining to language, learning, and literacy?
  • ‘Are the targets relevant to language and academic contexts beyond the “speech room” (i.e., are the choices, curriculum, and classroom relevant)?’
  • ‘Are they relevant to language learning in general?’
  • ‘Is the intervention’s focus encouraging performance (short-term learning that is context-bound) or long-term and context-independent learning?’ (p. 128)

She then delves deeper into where these goals come from as well as presents some suggestions regarding how these goals could be altered in order to make them more functional.

She begins by explaining that labeling SLP  provided school-based services as “speech” “creates artificial barriers, inaccurate perceptions, and inappropriate intervention recommendations that exacerbate an already complex situation, that is, meeting the language learning and literacy needs of students across a changing landscape of required knowledge and skills needed to succeed academically.” (128)

From there,  she explains why targets in the first two scenarios are inaccurate and not functional.  She explains that while working on improving narrative abilities is functional,  working on isolated sequencing abilities is not functional since in the context of her present scenario the child was not retelling an actual story. Furthermore, ‘the clinician’s focus on sequencing as an underlying skill comes from sources that are unknown’ and ‘the “transfer” to producing and comprehending temporal and causal narratives from the soup scenario is an assumption that research fails to support” (128) She adds, that  “Duke and Pearson (2008/2009) mirror these notions when they state that the “transfer [of taught skills and strategies] decreases as a function of distance from the original information domain” (p. 113).”    Then, of course, there is the usage of “expository text (i.e., a sequential text) rather than narrative text,”  further indicating that the goal is not functionally transferable.  The second graders are receiving a message that we are working on storytelling skills,  when in reality that is not what is taking place in the session.

To balance the above criticism, Dr. Wallach does describe a number of positive elements involved in what her fictional clinician in her scenario is doing: (e.g, using expository text knowledge, talking about language, etc.), but she also asks: (1) Is the activity developmentally appropriate? and (2) Are the metalinguistic task aspects too complex for children that age? (129).

Now, let’s move on to multiple step commands, a persistent intervention meme, created because our students have difficulty understanding instructions, paying attention in class, as well as processing and completing classroom assignments.

The problem is that the processing of multistep directions is influenced by a number of contextual, semantic, and linguistic factors.  By far, not all multistep directions are created equal. Some are far more contextually related and semantically constrained than others (e.g., “After you open the book, turn to page 120” vs. “Pick up the red triangle before you touch the large, green circle.”) (p. 129). Consequently, “following directions” is not a simple task of “memorizing the steps”, rather it is a complex process which involves activation of available semantic and syntactic knowledge, comprehension of sentences with a variety of clauses, as well as numerous other linguistic factors.

Unfortunately, the provision of decontextualized directions will not meaningfully assist the students with comprehension of school work and navigation of the classroom environment. As such, rather than teaching the students multiple step directions which will not meaningfully transfer to other settings it may be far more appropriate to teach the students how to request clarification from their speakers in order to break up complex instructions into manageable chunks of information.

In contrast, the goals and procedures in the 3rd scenario (see pgs. 127-128 for full details ) are actually supported by research in developmental disorders.  The SLP is helping students to be actively involved in language by activating their background knowledge, use new strategies, reduce competing resources, heighten the students’ metalinguistic abilities, as well as incorporating aspects of both language and literacy into sessions, making her intervention highly relevant to the curriculum.

Dr. Wallach then moves on to provide constructive suggestions regarding how intervention services can be improved in the school setting. This includes: “(a) creating intervention goals that are knowledge-based and help students connect known and new information; (b) balancing content knowledge and awareness of text structure in functional, authentic tasks that optimize long-term retention and transfer across grades and content-area subjects; and (c) matching students’ language goals and objectives to the “outside world” of curricular and classroom contexts.” (p. 130)

First, “research suggests that engaging students in prior knowledge activities increases the comprehension and retention of information” (p. 130). In other words, “when too much is new, comprehension and retention suffer; something has to “give” or be modified to facilitate learning” (p. 130).  She suggests using a familiar high-interest topic to teach a discrete amount of new information.  Here, the role of background knowledge is hugely important when it comes to learning. “Engaging students in prior knowledge activities that include questioning and other meaning-based strategies encourage them to use and express what they do know, talk about what they need to know and become more actively involved in interacting with spoken and written text (Wallach et al., 2014)” (p. 131).

To illustrate, Dr. Wallach provides an example from a ninth-grade science textbook, laden with complex information. She then explains how to “use of evidence-based strategies including self-questioning and clinician-led discussions to guide students” in better understanding the material via use of various frameworks (e.g., K-W-L) (p. 131). She also emphasizes how within a collaborative framework SLPs can focus on aspects of text structure to ask relevant questions about content.

From there she segues into a fifth-grade history text and explains that  “No kit or program from the hundreds that appear in ASHA Convention exhibit halls year after year will come to our rescue” (131), As such, SLPs need to teach their clients both macro (text organization) and micro (syntax, morphology, etc.) components of language so they could successfully navigate complex texts. A number of researchers (e.g., A. Kamhi, C. Scott, M. Nippold, B. Ehren, etc.) have highlighted the fact that our middle school and high school students lack the comprehension of complex morphosyntax. Hence, explicitly teaching it to out students will significantly improve both our clinical practice and their academic outcomes. Here, Dr. Wallach also recommends the work of “McKeown and her colleagues (e.g., Beck, McKeown, & Worthy, 1995McKeown et al., 2009McKeown, Beck, Sinatra, & Loxterman, 1992) when trying to understand the complex interaction between content and structure knowledge.” (p. 132)

After that Dr. Wallach segues into a discussion on how our clients’ language goals can be better aligned with the academic curricular demands. She states that SLPs need to delve deeper (or at all) into disciplinary literacy (teaching our students subject-specific comprehension and vocabulary). Here, collaboration with content-area teachers is very important. “For example, science involves many technical terms and definitions and requires clear and concise cause and effect thinking (Fang, 2004Halliday, 1993). “The noun phrases [in science texts] contain a large quantity of information that in more commonsense language of everyday life would require several sentences to express” (Fang, 2012, p. 24). ” (132). “Alternatively, social studies involves being able to put events into a context, comparing sources, and understanding the biases of the writer. Unlike science, authorship is important in history.” (132)

Dr. Wallach suggests a number of questions clinicians can ask selves about our students when determining therapy targets:

  1. Can they handle complex syntactic forms that are more common in written language than spoken language?
  2. Do they have an understanding of word derivations?
  3. Do our students know how to write a compare and contrast expository piece?
  4. Are they able to evaluate sources information?
  5. Do they use prior knowledge and experience to help them comprehend new information?

She then offers SLPs valuable ideas on how to create a thoughtful balance between general and subject-specific language targets (see pg 133 for complete details).

Dr. Wallach concludes her article with the following points.

  • Students with language learning disabilities are at a disadvantage in school due to having reduced/limited background knowledge and language proficiency as compared to typically developing peers. Hence “school-based SLPs must consider ways that students’ language abilities influence and interact with their academic success (Wallach et al., 2014). Our intervention should be seen as developing a set of language initiatives focused toward content-area learning (A. S. Bashir, personal communication, 2012; Wallach et al., 2009). ” 
  • Staying focused on the continuum of change across the grades is an important aspect of clinical practice in the school years. Likewise, as suggested by many authors, connecting our preschool endeavors to the horizon of school-age demands underpins our work over time
  • As we look to changes in service delivery models in schools including research that supports response-to-intervention (RtI) models (e.g., Wixson, Lipson, & Valencia, 2014), we can be optimistic that less relevant and nonfunctional practices will die natural deaths.” (pgs. 133-134)

There you have it! Numerous practical suggestions as well as functional clarifications from Dr. Wallach so SLPs can improve their treatment practices with school-aged children.  And for more information, I highly recommend reading the other articles in the same clinical forum, all of which possess highly practical and relevant ideas for therapeutic implementation.

They include:

References:

  • Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Worthy, J. (1995). Giving text a voice can improve students’ understanding. Reading Research Quarterly30, 220–238.
  • Duke, N. K., & Pearson, P. D. (2008/2009). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. Journal of Education189, 107–122.
  • Fang, Z. (2004). Scientific literacy: A systematic functional linguistics perspective. Science Education89, 335–347. 
  • Fang, Z. (2012). Language correlates of disciplinary literacy. Topics in Language Disorders32, 19–34. 
  • Halliday, M. A. K. (1993). Some grammatical problems in scientific English. In Halliday, M. A. K., & Martin, J. R. (Eds.), Writing science: Literacy and discursive power (pp. 69–85). London, England: Falmer.
  • McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., & Blake, R. G. K. (2009). Rethinking reading comprehension instruction: A comparison of instruction for strategies and content approaches. Reading Research Quarterly44, 218–253. 
  • McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., Sinatra, G. M., & Loxterman, J. A. (1992). The contribution of prior knowledge and coherent text to comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly27, 79–93.
  • Wallach, G. P., Charlton, S. J., & Christie, J. (2009). Making a broader case for the narrow view? Where to begin? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools40, 201–211. 
  • Wallach, G.P. (2014). Improving clinical practice: A school-age and school-based perspective. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45, 127-136
  • Wallach, G.P., Charlton, S., & Christie Bartholomew, J. (2014). The spoken-written comprehension connection: Constructive intervention strategies. In C.A. Stone, E.R. Silliman, B.J. Ehren, & G.P. Wallach (Eds). Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders (pp. 485-501). NY: Guilford Press.
  • Wixson, K. K., Lipson, M. Y., & Valencia, S. W. (2014). Response to intervention for teaching and learning in language and literacy. InStone, C. A., Silliman, E. R., Ehren, B. J., & Wallach, G. P. (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders (2nd ed., pp. 637–653). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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Improving Executive Function Skills of Language Impaired Students with Hedbanz

Image result for hedbanzThose of you who have previously read my blog know that I rarely use children’s games to address language goals.  However, over the summer I have been working on improving executive function abilities (EFs) of some of the language impaired students on my caseload. As such, I found select children’s games to be highly beneficial for improving language-based executive function abilities.

For those of you who are only vaguely familiar with this concept, executive functions are higher level cognitive processes involved in the inhibition of thought, action, and emotion, which located in the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe of the brain. The development of executive functions begins in early infancy; but it can be easily disrupted by a number of adverse environmental and organic experiences (e.g., psychosocial deprivation, trauma).  Furthermore, research in this area indicates that the children with language impairments present with executive function weaknesses which require remediation.

Image result for executive functions brain

EF components include working memory, inhibitory control, planning, and set-shifting.

  • Working memory
    • Ability to store and manipulate information in mind over brief periods of time
  • Inhibitory control
    • Suppressing responses that are not relevant to the task
  • Set-shifting
    • Ability to shift behavior in response to changes in tasks or environment

Simply put, EFs contribute to the child’s ability to sustain attention, ignore distractions, and succeed in academic settings. By now some of you must be wondering: “So what does Hedbanz have to do with any of it?”

Well, Hedbanz is a quick-paced multiplayer  (2-6 people) game of “What Am I?” for children ages 7 and up.  Players get 3 chips and wear a “picture card” in their headband. They need to ask questions in rapid succession to figure out what they are. “Am I fruit?” “Am I a dessert?” “Am I sports equipment?” When they figure it out, they get rid of a chip. The first player to get rid of all three chips wins.

The game sounds deceptively simple. Yet if any SLPs or parents have ever played that game with their language impaired students/children as they would be quick to note how extraordinarily difficult it is for the children to figure out what their card is. Interestingly, in my clinical experience, I’ve noticed that it’s not just moderately language impaired children who present with difficulty playing this game. Even my bright, average intelligence teens, who have passed vocabulary and semantic flexibility testing (such as the WORD Test 2-Adolescent or the  Vocabulary Awareness subtest of the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy ) significantly struggle with their language organization when playing this game.

So what makes Hedbanz so challenging for language impaired students? Primarily, it’s the involvement and coordination of the multiple executive functions during the game. In order to play Hedbanz effectively and effortlessly, the following EF involvement is needed:

  • Task Initiation
    • Students with executive function impairments will often “freeze up” and as a result may have difficulty initiating the asking of questions in the game because many will not know what kind of questions to ask, even after extensive explanations and elaborations by the therapist.
  • Organization
    • Students with executive function impairments will present with difficulty organizing their questions by meaningful categories and as a result will frequently lose their track of thought in the game.
  • Working Memory
    • This executive function requires the student to keep key information in mind as well as keep track of whatever questions they have already asked.
  • Flexible Thinking
    • This executive function requires the student to consider a situation from multiple angles in order to figure out the quickest and most effective way of arriving at a solution. During the game, students may present with difficulty flexibly generating enough organizational categories in order to be effective participants.
  • Impulse Control
    • Many students with difficulties in this area may blurt out an inappropriate category or in an appropriate question without thinking it through first.
      • They may also present with difficulty set-shifting. To illustrate, one of my 13-year-old students with ASD, kept repeating the same question when it was his turn, despite the fact that he was informed by myself as well as other players of the answer previously.
  • Emotional Control
    • This executive function will help students with keeping their emotions in check when the game becomes too frustrating. Many students of difficulties in this area will begin reacting behaviorally when things don’t go their way and they are unable to figure out what their card is quickly enough. As a result, they may have difficulty mentally regrouping and reorganizing their questions when something goes wrong in the game.
  • Self-Monitoring
    • This executive function allows the students to figure out how well or how poorly they are doing in the game. Students with poor insight into own abilities may present with difficulty understanding that they are doing poorly and may require explicit instruction in order to change their question types.
  • Planning and Prioritizing
    • Students with poor abilities in this area will present with difficulty prioritizing their questions during the game.

Image result for executive functionsConsequently, all of the above executive functions can be addressed via language-based goals.  However, before I cover that, I’d like to review some of my session procedures first.

Typically, long before game initiation, I use the cards from the game to prep the students by teaching them how to categorize and classify presented information so they effectively and efficiently play the game.

Rather than using the “tip cards”, I explain to the students how to categorize information effectively.

This, in turn, becomes a great opportunity for teaching students relevant vocabulary words, which can be extended far beyond playing the game.

I begin the session by explaining to the students that pretty much everything can be roughly divided into two categories animate (living) or inanimate (nonliving) things. I explain that humans, animals, as well as plants belong to the category of living things, while everything else belongs to the category of inanimate objects. I further divide the category of inanimate things into naturally existing and man-made items. I explain to the students that the naturally existing category includes bodies of water, landmarks, as well as things in space (moon, stars, sky, sun, etc.). In contrast, things constructed in factories or made by people would be example of man-made objects (e.g., building, aircraft, etc.)

When I’m confident that the students understand my general explanations, we move on to discuss further refinement of these broad categories. If a student determines that their card belongs to the category of living things, we discuss how from there the student can further determine whether they are an animal, a plant, or a human. If a student determined that their card belongs to the animal category, we discuss how we can narrow down the options of figuring out what animal is depicted on their card by asking questions regarding their habitat (“Am I a jungle animal?”), and classification (“Am I a reptile?”). From there, discussion of attributes prominently comes into play. We discuss shapes, sizes, colors, accessories, etc., until the student is able to confidently figure out which animal is depicted on their card.

In contrast, if the student’s card belongs to the inanimate category of man-made objects, we further subcategorize the information by the object’s location (“Am I found outside or inside?”; “Am I found in ___ room of the house?”, etc.), utility (“Can I be used for ___?”), as well as attributes (e.g., size, shape, color, etc.)

Thus, in addition to improving the students’ semantic flexibility skills (production of definitions, synonyms, attributes, etc.) the game teaches the students to organize and compartmentalize information in order to effectively and efficiently arrive at a conclusion in the most time expedient fashion.

Now, we are ready to discuss what type of EF language-based goals, SLPs can target by simply playing this game.

1. Initiation: Student will initiate questioning during an activity in __ number of instances per 30-minute session given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

2. Planning: Given a specific routine, student will verbally state the order of steps needed to complete it with __% accuracy given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

3. Working Memory: Student will repeat clinician provided verbal instructions pertaining to the presented activity, prior to its initiation, with 80% accuracy  given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

4. Flexible Thinking: Following a training by the clinician, student will generate at least __ questions needed for task completion (e.g., winning the game) with __% accuracy given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

5. Organization: Student will use predetermined written/visual cues during an activity to assist self with organization of information (e.g., questions to ask) with __% accuracy given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

6. Impulse Control: During the presented activity the student will curb blurting out inappropriate responses (by silently counting to 3 prior to providing his response) in __ number of instances per 30 minute session given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

7. Emotional Control: When upset, student will verbalize his/her frustration (vs. behavioral activing out) in __ number of instances per 30 minute session given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

8. Self-Monitoring:  Following the completion of an activity (e.g., game) student will provide insight into own strengths and weaknesses during the activity (recap) by verbally naming the instances in which s/he did well, and instances in which s/he struggled with __% accuracy given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

There you have it. This one simple game doesn’t just target a plethora of typical expressive language goals. It can effectively target and improve language-based executive function goals as well. Considering the fact that it sells for approximately $12 on Amazon.com, that’s a pretty useful therapy material to have in one’s clinical tool repertoire. For fancier versions, clinicians can use “Jeepers Peepers” photo card sets sold by Super Duper Inc. Strapped for cash, due to highly limited budget? You can find plenty of free materials online if you simply input “Hedbanz cards” in your search query on Google. So have a little fun in therapy, while your students learn something valuable in the process and play Hedbanz today!

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App Review and Giveaway: Sequencing Post Office

photo 1Sequencing information in order is a very important problem solving skill. It assists children with understanding the chronological order of events, the procession of time, as well as with the organization of verbal output. This is why I am excited to review today the Sequencing Post Office app by the Virtual Speech Center.

Much like it there other apps it’s incredibly easy to set up and use. Click on the Start button, add a student, select the sequence(s) you’d like for them to work on, and start putting things in order.

The 65 sequencing tasks are divided into 2-step, 3-step, and 4-step sequences.  You can  tap the 2, 3, or 4 numbers on top of the screen to modify the directions.  The sequences include numerous functional activities: daily household routines (making food, doing chores, performing daily ablutions, etc.),  seasonal activities (such as making a snowman, a sand castle or carving a pumpkin, etc.) holiday related activities (dyeing Easter eggs, decorating the Christmas tree, etc.) or even life cycles of plants and animals.

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To complete the activity students need to drag the pictures in correct order. While there is no sound to narrate on the activity in each of the cards, this is the perfect opportunity to get the students to verbalize regarding what’s happening in each of the cards.

This app can also be programmed (in settings) to include games after a set number of responses (5, 10, etc.) are completed correctly.

Other capabilities include:

  • Working with several students at a time
  • Audio recording responses
  • Performance tracking
  • Emailing results at the end of the session

What I like:

  • Numerous functional sequences of activities
  • The fact is that the app can target  receptive, expressive, and problem solving abilities in young children (point to the ______, explain what the ________, why does ______ go before _________)
  • The fact that the children can record their story and play it back for feedback
  • The ability to change number of sequences (from 4 to less) in each activity (versus in select ones) only.
  • The usefulness of the life cycle sequences for the core curriculum subjects such as science

Room for improvement: 

  • It would be nice if the child was able to tap on a particular picture card and the receiver verbal feedback/model of what was happening in the picture
  • Also, real life photographs may be a welcome addition for children with cognitive disabilities as well as concrete thinkers

All in all this is a nice inexpensive app (under $5) with functional sequences of activities which can be used with a variety of 2 to 4 level sequences.

You can find this app on iTunes for $4.99, or thanks to the Virtual Speech Center you can enter my Rafflecopter giveaway to win a free code.
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