Saturday, May 26, 2012

Lovable, Laughable Language & a Look at a Book

Earlier this week I recorded a language sample of one of my students to check on her progress and set new goals. If you are not a speech therapist you might not know this is a common way to assess a child’s language skills; it is a nice supplement to standardized tests. I listen to the child’s grammar, vocabulary, observe whether they use language in a socially appropriate way, and often I’m very entertained in the process.  

Like this week when a kindergartener told me, “I goed to the field trip and then I saw a dragon this tall.” She held her hand about two feet from the ground and added, “A real huge one. It flies. It blows hard. It breathes fire. And then I saw a turtle. It was this tall.” Once again, she held her hand about two feet from the ground. I think the turtle and the dragon were related. I wish I could have gone on the field trip!

Another student told me, “I’m gonna move and when I do, you’re gonna have to build a robot ME cause you’re gonna miss me,” and he was right.

Speaking of missing, the same student told me, “I miss Bob the dog, he’s in heaven now. He died when he was 91, in 1491. I’ll never see him again. He’s wrapped in my frog blanket. He was yellow.” It was a tender moment so I didn’t question the year of Bob’s birth. But the student went on to tell me about his own. “Did you know I was born on my birthday? March 9th is my birthday and I was born on it.”

These students keep me entertained, enchanted and encouraged by their growth and willingness to work on speech sounds, vocabulary and our pesky grammar. And speaking of grammar, I just finished reading Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. This middle grade novel, written in verse, tells the story of ten-year old Ha, who, with her family, flees Vietnam as Saigon falls. The struggles she went through to assimilate into the small Alabama town were due in part to her struggles in learning a new language.

“First Rule

Brother Quang says
add an s to nouns
to mean more than one
even if there’s
already an s
sitting there.


All day
I practice
squeezing hisses
through my teeth.

Whoever invented
must have loved

Later, when she tries to understand our use of plurals she says,

Third Rule

Always an exception.

Do not add an s
to certain nouns.

One deer,
two deer.

Why no s for two deer,
But an s for two monkeys?

Brother Quang says
no one knows.

So much for rules!

Whoever invented English
should be bitten
by a snake.”

I don’t want to leave you thinking this book is entirely about our English language. It is a beautifully written story based on the Author’s own childhood experiences. It is filled with humor, anguish and inspiration.

“Our lives
will twist and twist,
intermingling the old and the new
until it doesn’t matter
which is which.”

In her author’s note, Thanhha Lai said,

“At age ten, I, too, witnessed the end of the Vietnam War and I fled to Alabama with my family. . . . So many details in this story were inspired by my own memories.
            . . . What was it like to live where bombs exploded every night yet where sweet snacks popped up at every corner? What was it like to sit on a ship heading toward hope? What was it like to go from knowing you’re smart to feeling dumb all the time?”

At the end of her note she asks, “How much do we know about those around us?
            . . . I hope after you finish this book that you sit close to someone you love and implore that person to tell and tell and tell their story.”

And that is why I love working in my chosen field; of course I want to help my students succeed in school, but I also want to help them succeed in life, and to be able to tell their own stories.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Moose Goes to School

I fell in love with Moose when I read his book. Some might say “Z is for Moose” is actually Kelly Bingham’s and Paul Zelinsky’s book but I’m afraid Moose took it over. 

Initially I thought this story would be too confusing for my younger students who are struggling to learn the alphabet but I soon discovered the story is rich with possibilities not just to entertain, but to teach. The book started out like many alphabet books, “A is for Apple, B is for Ball” but Moose took center stage on the “D” page and it took my Kindergarten students a few minutes to realize he didn’t belong there. After we tried calling him Doose, they understood and they thought it was hilarious. Next we tried to figure out who should be strutting their stuff on that page (they didn’t see the duck who had been shoved aside.) We came up with several options: dog, dinosaur, dolphin, dancing dishes.

This book created so many learning opportunities. Besides introducing the alphabet and encouraging phonemic awareness, it was a great tool for sequencing and predicting. When Moose was on a rampage, frightening an owl, squishing a piece of pie, scattering its contents across a two-page spread, scrambling the letters, decimating words, the kids thought he was “crazy-mad”. Then they set about trying to figure out what letters he had destroyed by reviewing the sequence of the alphabet. By the end of the story, the kids decided Moose deserved to be on every page and so we started our own alphabet book, designed entirely for Moose. From Athletic Moose to Zany Moose, the ideas practically bubbled up from my students: “Fantastic Moose”, “Needy Moose,” “Pizza-delivering Moose,” “Quarreling Moose” to name a few.

This was a natural vocabulary building activity. When one student suggested “Bashful Moose” we talked about what that word means and decided it didn’t quite fit his personality so we changed our page to, “B is for Bashful Moose – NOT!”

One of my first grade students illustrated the first page. Take a look at Athletic Moose:

Those two round things at the bottom of the page are trampolines in case you can’t tell.

When I was carrying “Z is for Moose” into the teacher’s room, one of the Kindergarten teachers looked at the book and said, “Isn’t that confusing for the kids?”  By the time I finished sharing what my students had been doing with it, she told me she planned to steal my idea. Steal away! I hope this book makes its way into classrooms everywhere. F is for Moose – he is one Fantastically Fun teacher!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"Holler Loudly" in the Speech Room

A few weeks ago, during School Library Month, I posted about our elementary school library and shared a few pictures in hopes of generating support to keep ours open and healthy. Thank you all who responded to that plea! One response we especially enjoyed was a care package full of books from author Cynthia Leitich Smith. She included one of her own and I held onto it long enough to introduce it to my students before passing it on to our librarian.

School librarian, Allison Brown showing Holler Loudly to students

This rollicking fun picture book is about a child with a voice larger than the state of Texas where the author lives. His parents, Mama and Daddy Loudly, named him Holler because he cried so loud.

“So LOUD that the pecans fell from the pecan trees and the prickly pear cacti sprouted more needles. So LOUD that every hound dog in the county rolled up his ears and tossed back his head to bay. So LOUD the armadillos woke from their naps and the turkey vultures dropped their feathers.”

Talk about a whopping good tall tale – Holler Loudly is so GOOD that the pages practically turn themselves. So GOOD that the words flew out of the book and painted pictures in the minds of my students. So GOOD that the kids decided they’d write their own tall tales – and that’s no exaggeration (the last part anyway).

Holler’s voice is loud enough to take the roof off his house, send a catfish soaring and cause a hog stampede at the state fair. The illustrations by Barry Gott capture the mood perfectly and enhance the humor with cows and cars flying through the air on the wind of Holler’s voice. There’s a nice twist at the end of the book when his voice stops a tornado from destroying the town.

This was a fun book to use in speech. It gave the opportunity to compare and contrast, practice speech sounds, introduce new vocabulary words, and discuss pragmatics (the social use of language such as appropriate volume). When I showed my students Cynthia Leitich Smith had signed our book, they looked incredulous. Suddenly they understood the author was a real person. And if one real person could write a book so could another, even if that person was only five years old. I suggested we write the author a thank you note; they thought it was a nice idea, but first, they wanted to write their own books. All three students in this kindergarten group scrambled to gather their supplies. They folded, colored and wrested a few words onto their pages while dictating tales more elaborate than they were ready to write on their own. Their stories were so cute they could charm the chalk right off the chalkboard and set the desks to dancing!

Thank you Cynthia Leitich Smith for the care package and for the wonderful story.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Cheshire Cheese Cat and other May Musings

Did you know May is Better Speech and Hearing Month? The purpose is to raise awareness about communication disorders and to promote treatment. I’m a speech therapist and I think our profession is worth celebrating; however, I’m not sure everyone would see it that way. Take for example, David Sedaris. In his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, his description of speech therapy was anything but pretty. I cringed (and laughed) when I read his description of the “agent” coming to take him away,
“My capture had been scheduled to go down at exactly 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon.”
The agent, if you haven’t already guessed, was his speech therapist coming to his fifth-grade classroom to take him out (not as in “rub him out” although the humiliation may have made him feel that was her intent). David went on to describe his hilarious, if somewhat painful, memories of speech sessions. He had a lisp and so he pronounced “s” as “th.” Besides embarrassing him, his speech therapist had him read, “childish s-laden text recounting the adventures of seals or settlers named Sassy or Samuel.”

Ooh, that hurts. I hate to admit it but I’ve been guilty of inflicting my students with plot-less stories, just to give them a lot of practice pronouncing their target sounds. But that was a long time ago. I have since discovered an abundant supply of fabulous books to read, filled with whatever target sounds I’m looking for. For example, if I had a fifth grade student with a lisp, I could open The Cheshire Cheese Cat: a Dickens of a Tale, by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright. On the very first page there are plenty of “s” sounds for practice.

            “He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.
Fleet of foot, sleek and solitary, Skilley was a cat among cats. Or so he would have been, but for a secret he had carried since his early youth.”

Look at all those “s” sounds - and what a delightful way to practice them. The first lines of this book drew me in immediately with its nod to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I am a fan of Charles Dickens, animal stories, humor and good writing, so this book was a hit with me right from the start. I haven’t had the opportunity to use it with my students yet, but I have “great expectations” for doing so.

The secret Skilley hides is his extreme fondness for cheese; and he does not eat mice. These qualities lead him into a unique relationship with the throng of mice who inhabit Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub which is a gathering place for famous authors in 19th-century London. One of these authors is Charles Dickens himself. In this story, Dickens is struggling with a severe case of writers’ block. Eventually, he is assisted by Pip, a literate and literary mouse. This romping tale is full of adventure and challenges. The tension builds when a conniving cat arrives and the alliance between Skilley and the mice grows strong. The story has twists and turns, plots and subplots, and captivating characters. Described as being suitable for children age eight and up, I think Dickens’ fans of all ages will enjoy the humorous use of familiar lines and phrases. In one conversation, Skilley and Pip spoke of “our mutual friend;” there was “artful dodging” of passing cabs; and when the barmaid renames the conniving cat, Oliver, it brought “an unwelcome twist” to the story. 

I’ve solved the problem of plot-less stories in speech sessions. I don’t use them. And I’d never intentionally embarrass a student when I escort them to speech. The younger ones are thrilled to go. In fact, the difficulty comes with telling the other students why they don’t “get” to go to speech. Older students require a bit more subtlety. Fortunately, they don’t need me to come knocking at their door. David Sedaris’ humorous essay should be required reading for speech therapists. It’s eye-opening to see our job from the other side of the table!