Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Post-Christmas Musings

The lights still shine on our Christmas tree, boughs of pine and cedar are scattered around the house and the fragrance of Christmas lingers. The carols on our stereo remind me – on Christmas Eve, my husband and I sat in front of our fireplace listening to music, sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Away in the Manger began to play on the radio and for some reason I was startled by the words, “ . . . the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

I put down my fresh-brewed cup of coffee and turned to my husband, “I think he did.” My husband looked a bit confused and said, “who did what?”

“I think Jesus cried when he was a baby – how else was he going to communicate?” I went on to say, “crying is an infant’s first form of communication. They cry to let people know they are hungry, they need to be changed, or they just need to be held! Crying is not a bad thing. Besides, it’s right in the Bible. One of the shortest verses says, “Jesus wept.” Of course he was all grown up then, but he did cry. He probably still weeps over the suffering of others - those without jobs, those who have lost loved ones & those who are hurting just because they need to be held.

My husband picked up his not-so-freshly brewed cup of coffee & said, “I think I hear a blog-post coming on.”

He was right. He often is but he doesn’t always hear those words from me.

As December draws to a close and the New Year approaches I hope your life is filled with love, joy, peace, hugs and excellent communication.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Holidays

Winter vacation! I love it – and so do my students, I’m certain.

Yesterday was my first official vacation day. You can’t really count weekends when school isn’t in session anyway. Well, to start the vacation off right, I strapped on a backpack chair and hiked out to the bluffs, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This chair is not the kind you’d carry on backpacking trips – it is much too big and bulky for that. It is the kind with shoulder straps and a huge pocket you can fill with an army of books, blankets, and a thermos of hot tea, which is what I did.

Here, take a look:

Hanging on the back of the chair is one of those fabulously soft, fuzzy blankets and in the thermos is a spicy-sweet cinnamon tea. What you don’t see is my journal, a book of poetry, a devotional, a grown-up novel and a children’s book. And which one did I read – the children’s book, of course. You see, as I made my way down the trail to the bluffs, I happened upon a small brush rabbit. He led me through a tunnel of vegetation before he hopped off the trail into a rounded hole in the brush. It made me think of Alice in Wonderland and my thoughts turned toward children’s literature.

As I went further down the trail, the vegetation opened up and I heard a whole community of birds chattering in the blackberry brambles and pyracantha shrubs, gathering their breakfast and sharing a bit of morning gossip – at least it sounded that way to me. I guess working with children rubs off on my imagination - I am grateful to them.

Here are a few of their smiling faces.

I have parent permission to post this picture of course and in future weeks I hope to add more pictures and videos of my “speech stars” hard at work. But for now, this will do – we’re on vacation after-all!

I hope you enjoy the holidays.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Traditions! I love them. Yesterday we made our annual pilgrimage to a Christmas tree farm and looked at every tree on the acreage, at least twice. When we narrowed it down to a tall and dramatic (but prickly) spruce and a smaller, soft-needled fir we trampled back and forth between the two several more times before settling on one. In the end, we thought it would be easier to decorate the smaller, gentler tree and so now it stands in our living room bedecked with homemade ornaments.

Unwrapping those ornaments is one of my favorite traditions. It brings a flood of memories and stories as we recount momentous occasions from our past. For many years, our family made salt dough ornaments – one each – to commemorate some important event, hobby or person in our lives from the year. Those hand-made decorations now adorn our tree. They might not create a magazine-cover-elegance, but the result is memorable. 

We’d taken our boys to see the Nutcracker Suite the year I made this ornament.

One of our boys was captivated by Duplos the year he made this one. I love remembering his chubby toddler hands at work!

Here’s one my husband named, “Little-Stickel-Number-One”. He made it when I was expecting our first child. That was thirty-one years ago! As you can see, it needs a little touch-up paint and another dipping in shellac.

None of us will ever forget the year we drove our little Toyota up a snow-covered mountain to find our Christmas tree. We came close to losing our way as we trudged along that snowy hillside, searching for the one and perfect tree.   Ultimately, we managed to find our tree and strapped it to the roof of the car. It extended over the hood and trailed past the back bumper!

You may well ask what this post has to do with speech and language development. Good question. Of course you’ll have plenty of opportunity to enhance your child’s vocabulary as you talk about the activities you do during the holidays. But I also believe our traditions (whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or our own family customs) communicate the stories of our lives. And communication is what speech and language development is all about.

I’d love to hear of your traditions – and your stories.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Figuratively Speaking

This evening my husband and I went out for dinner with friends. When I ordered a fajita salad the waiter said, “It’s a little spicy.” I like a “little” spice but his use of the word sounded like a warning. I started to ask for clarification but in the end decided to be adventurous and placed my order. The dish was delicious but from my point of view, it was very spicy.

I was able to pick up on the subtleties of language and was forewarned but many of my students would have had a difficult time weeding through the words to understand the waiter’s intent. That first bite of fajita salad would have been surprising to them!

Many words and phrases have a variety of meanings and children sometimes struggle to interpret what is actually being said. Imagine the picture that might pop into a child’s mind when he hears a parent talking about a decision to be made and then says, “I’m on the fence.” In school it is all the more important that children comprehend the words they read and hear if they are to succeed academically.

A wonderful way to teach the meaning of figurative language is by reading books with your child, books such as the Amelia Bedelia stories. They are plentiful and I’m certain you can find a few at your local library. You and your child will laugh at the misadventures of this very literal-minded housekeeper who, when asked to, “dust the house”, sprinkles dust all around the living-room and when baking a sponge cake – well, I bet you can imagine the first ingredient.

Speaking of ingredients, I could use a little ice water to cool my mouth after the little spice from my fajita!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Post Turkey-day

Thanksgiving is over, the company has left and now I’m back at work, enjoying the stories my students tell of their holiday. Turkey was a huge topic as was pumpkin pie, ice cream, peanut butter sandwiches (go figure) and visiting relatives. Some of my students; however, could not tell any details of their week away from school. Their faces lit up when I asked about their vacations but that was about as far as their communication skills could take them.

Communication problems come in a variety of packages. There are those adorable little errors when children say “fwee” for “three”, (adorable when a child is three but not so cute as they grow older). There are language delays where children find it hard to put their thoughts into coherent sentences and say things like, “Me goed to store.” And there are those frustrating language disorders where children have trouble processing information, organizing thoughts, and following directions.

One afternoon I saw such a student walking around the campus looking very lost. He was trying to follow his teacher’s directions but he had no idea where he was expected to go and he didn’t have the skills to ask for clarification. He just meandered around the campus, apparently hoping something would turn up. He certainly looked relieved when I spotted him and helped him find his way. The same student used to pop into my room three times a day and ask, “Is it time for speech?” He has speech/language therapy two times a week, after his lunch recess but he’d check in with me every day after every recess. His teacher solved the problem by giving him a visual schedule so he can always see what is happening next. He’s only 6 ½ years old and has plenty of time to learn life management skills but his teacher is giving him great supports for the classroom. Many children would benefit from a picture schedule so they can better manage their day – I don’t know how I’d function without my appointment book!

I’m glad my student is able to follow his schedule, but I must admit, I miss that little face peeking into my room three times a day. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

The fragrance of apples, cinnamon and cloves drifts up from my kitchen as I write. Earlier today I turned on our crock-pot, filled to the brim with chopped apples and spices. I love the smell of apple-butter cooking almost as much as I love the taste when it’s finished. This might not seem to have much to do with communication but the aroma of holiday cooking and baking communicates plenty to me. Holiday time provides abundant opportunity to build your child’s vocabulary as he helps you shop or prepare food, count the silverware (I mean before the company comes, not after they leave!) or clean up when the meal is over.

One activity from my book, Talking Time is perfect for this time of year and I’m happy to share it with you.  

Activity 88
Baking Cookies

If you are willing to take the time and put up with a little mess, you can make baking time a great learning experience for your child. Have him help make cookies. He can pour in the measured ingredients, mix and roll out the dough, and listen for the oven timer. Baking provides a good opportunity to talk about “wet” and “dry,” “fast” and “slow,” and “full” and “empty” as you mix and stir the ingredients; numbers by counting as you pour out the ingredients, and shapes as you cut the cookies in various shapes. Kneading the dough helps your child improve fine motor skills. You can also talk about how the cookies smell and taste.

I hope your Thanksgiving is full of good things – fun, family, friends and fabulous food. I’d better stop writing and go downstairs to stir the apple-butter.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Social Communication

One of my autistic students was doing so well in school he didn’t seem to need my assistance any longer. His reading skills were outstanding, he could answer questions about what he read with amazing accuracy and he was at the top of his class in math. His communication skills were stronger than most of my students (even though his voice quality was a bit robotic.) The other second-graders seemed to like him (who wouldn’t, he didn’t bother anybody!) I was in a quandary when it came to writing goals for him; he met all of his previous ones. He seemed ready to be dismissed from speech. But first I decided to watch him in a few social situations and so I observed him on the playground. A group of second-graders were crowded around the swing sets. My student stood a few feet back, staring at the swing he obviously wanted to use - obvious to me that is. Other children rushed right by him and formed a line leaving him off to one side. He didn’t know how to read the social “rules” of the swing-set group. Since he didn’t like standing close to others, he stepped back, away from the forming line. He stood so far back that he never made it into the line let alone to the front of it. He needed help navigating the social norms. It could also be said; the others needed help in reading his unique way of communicating.

There are times we all could use a little help communicating our needs and wants, and help in reading the subtle communication of those around us, so that no one is left off to the side.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Eyebrow-Raising Errors

A few years back, a young mother dropped by my office. She was concerned because her son, Nick, could not pronounce his “tr” sounds. I assured her she shouldn’t worry since he was only 3 ½ years old, and many children can’t pronounce “r” sounds before they’re seven. She didn’t seem comforted by my assurances - not at all. She went on to explain that when he tried to say “tr” it came out “f”. “Well that’s different,” I agreed. “Nick is reducing the cluster ‘tr’ to one sound. He probably reduces other clusters. Does he say, ‘top’ for ‘stop’?”
            “Yeeess” she drew the word out like she was reluctant to agree. I could tell I wasn’t giving her the help she was looking for.
“That is a phonological process,” I told her, “‘cluster reduction,’ most children go though a similar stage. He’ll probably outgrow it by the time he is four.”
“But, you don’t understand,” she had a pleading look on her face. “I don’t think we can wait until he is four. He always says ‘f’ for ‘tr’.” Her face turned red and she lowered her voice. “And he loves to talk about trucks.”
There are other phonological processes that cause parents concerns but this particular error raised a lot of eyebrows! I gave Nick some help with his “t” sound and soon he was saying “twuck” for “truck”. He wasn’t ready to pronounce “r” but the improvement eased some of his mother’s stress.
A few weeks later she asked if I could help Nick with his “s” sounds. I explained that like “r” the “s” sound is a later developing consonant so she shouldn’t worry. “But he uses a “d” for “s”. Once again, I admitted that was a different sort of problem. “That’s the phonological process called ‘stopping’. He’s stopping the airflow so his “s” sounds like ‘d’. Does he say ‘berry’ for ‘very’?”
“Yes, but I’m not worried about that. Could you just correct his ‘s’ so it doesn’t sound like a ‘d’? He really needs help – his brother’s name is, Sam!

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Aaauuuuurrrrrggggggh! My hard-drive crashed! Three years of data disappeared in a cloud-white screen. Awwwwough  (Try to imagine the anguished sound of wailing which I have no idea how to spell).

What does this have to do with speaking and reading you might ask? It has a lot to do with communication, which entails speaking and reading. It also had a lot to do with my ability to post a blog, read my emails, and generally stay focused on life around me as I waited to hear back from our local computer repair person. He was definitely my hero when he retrieved most of my data and moved it onto my husband’s laptop. We can deal with sharing a computer now that I know all my old documents are not lost.

This experience made me think of how important it is to be able to communicate frustration. And I did - to my coworkers, my family and Chuck – the computer guy. I didn’t punch anyone, I didn’t throw things (however much I felt like it) and I didn’t kick anybody. I have seen many young children resort to those tactics when they were not able to use words to communicate their own frustrations or their wants and needs. One student wanted to play with another child but when she tried to ask, she wasn’t understood so she resorted to pulling on his sweater, trying to drag him to the swings. That didn’t go over well.  In fact, the other child viewed it as aggressive behavior and soon they were both rather aggressive. Her teacher, parents and I worked together to give her some pictures to use to communicate in a less troublesome manner. Many months have passed and now I’m pleased to see her use her words more effectively and to see her interacting with friends on the playground in socially appropriate ways.

I’m also pleased I was able to use my words regarding my computer frustrations without hurting anyone. Now, if I can just learn how to spell them!