Read With Me!

Read with Me! (Shari Robertson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP) Stress-Free Strategies for Building Language and Pre-Literacy Skills

During a Speech-Language Pathology conference in Spring 2013, I was lucky to be able to attend a presentation by Shari Robertson.  Her focus is in the area of building oral language skills as a precursor to literacy skills.  During her presentation she brought to our attention how oral language skills in preschoolers are a strong predictor of later reading comprehension skills.  Children therefore need to have strong oral language skills to have strong reading skills!  However, to me the most important feature of the presentation was not the dire warning, but the practical, easy to use and fun ideas that we can incorporate in our therapy sessions to build these early pre-literacy skills.  Her program is called “Read with Me!”  It aims to build strong oral language skills by encouraging children to participate actively in a fun and enjoyable manner.  She uses six main strategies:

1) Echo Reading:  Here we choose books with a simple story sequence with one main idea on a page.  Echo reading as you would expect is merely having the child imitate the sentences after you say them.  You can cue the child by saying, “Copy Me.”  Shari highlights how the goal is to encourage participation, not perfection.  There should be no pressure on the child to participate.  If he is unwilling, you simply invite, pause and then keep going.  Some of the books that work well with this strategy as recommended by Shari are:

  • Where is the Green Sheep?
  • I went Walking
  • Dinosaur Roar

Some of the areas of language that we can target using this strategy are: participation, turn taking, prosody, intonation, and vocabulary.

2) Paired Reading: For this strategy we choose books that are predictable and contain simple, repetitive phrases.  We then read the book several times with the child attending till he/ she is familiar with the book.  At that point, you pause and use voice inflection and facial expressions to indicate that is the child’s turn to read.  You can vary the amount of material the child “reads” from a single word to phrase to a sentence.  Again, Shari talks about not forcing the child to participate.  If he/ she is unwilling, you can read the phrase yourself and keep going.  Some of the books that work well with this strategy as recommended by Shari include:

  • Silly Sally
  • One Duck Stuck
  • Each Peach Pear Plum

3) Questions:  This strategy was one that makes all therapists (myself included) who work on concrete “WH- questions” pause and rethink our goals.  Shari suggests using open-ended questions such as “What do you think…?” “How would you feel if ….?”  “I wonder who might be ….?”  It is fairly evident to all how these questions would elicit longer and more complex utterances.  In addition, for all of us therapists that work with children on the Autism Spectrum, this is exactly the area we want to develop.  It effectively targets reasoning, critical thinking, and perspective taking skills that are so challenging for children with ASD.  Some books that work well with this strategy as proposed by Shari include:

  • Is Your Mama a Llama?
  • I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More.
  • Rosie’s Walk

4) Predicting:  Here you want to use books that give the child an opportunity to make a prediction.  Flap books work well.  Encourage the child to predict what might happen next, or what may be under the flap.  The predictions do not need to be exact.  Children enjoy making silly guesses.  Again, for our little ones on the Autism Spectrum, making guesses (both logical and whacky) are important, yet challenging skills.  Some books that work well with this strategy as proposed by Shari include:

  • Who is Driving?
  • The Look Book
  • Oh No George!

5) Using Wordless Books:  Wordless books are an excellent way to elicit a language sample.  The idea is to choose a book that has a simple, sequential format.  You look at the book with the child and talk about the actions and how the characters might feel.  Encourage the child to talk about the events in the book.  You could even use the questioning and predicting strategies with wordless books.  Shari talks about a brilliant strategy that you could use with wordless books, which is using little post it notes to help the child be the “author.”  You can have the child narrate his version of the story while you write it on post it notes.  Then his version of the story can be read again.  Post it notes with speech bubbles can be used to make up dialogues between characters.  This could be an excellent strategy to build perspective-taking skills in children on the Autism Spectrum.  Some wordless books that Shari uses with this strategy are:

  • Good Dog, Carl
  • Good Night Gorilla
  • Hug

6) Reader’s Theater:  This is easily my favorite strategy.  It uses a child’s natural interest in dramatic play to reenact a familiar literature.  (Of course, for our little ones on the Autism Spectrum, developing dramatic play may in fact be the goal rather than a means to an end,)  For this purpose you want to choose books that have sequential events or activities that can be easily acted out.  You can include simple props or puppets for dramatization.  This strategy will build a deeper comprehension of the book.  In addition, encouraging adaptations and changes to the story will yield some wonderful spontaneous language while tapping into the child’s imagination.  Some books that work well with this strategy as proposed by Shari include:

  • Clap Your Hands
  • From Head to Toe
  • Seals on the Bus
  • Press Here (This one is my personal favorite!)

In her presentation, Shari also talks about building Phonemic Awareness skills and vocabulary, which are so important for all our children with language delays.  In addition, these strategies are so simple that they are brilliant.  They are easy enough for parents to pick up and carry on at home.  One of her quotes that stuck with me was “Children learn to talk by talking, they learn to read by talking AND reading.”  Additional resources for the program are available at www.dynamic-resources.org.

Toys, Books and Games that Promote Language Development

There are many toys and games available at your local toys store. For some parents the choices and variety can be overwhelming. Parents often ask me “Which toys should I purchase?” “Which toys will help my child develop speech and language skills?” The important thing to remember with regards to developing speech and language skills with toys is that the adult model and the actual interaction are more critical than the toy you use. Fancy toys can never replace an interactive, engaged and responsive adult partner. Having said that, some toys and books lend themselves to building specific speech and language skills.

  1. Developing basic joint attention skills in young children or children with moderate to severe cognitive delays.
    • Bubbles – Most children love to watch, pop and blow bubbles. Bubbles are perfect to draw a child’s attention. They also help with building oral motor skills, and sensory awareness when popped on their bodies. I often use bubbles to teach body parts. I will pop bubbles on a child’s nose, ears, mouth, cheeks, fingers and toes while labeling the body parts.
    • Wind-up toys – These are wonderful attention grabbers because of the movement and noise. They can be used as reinforcements. I will often use the wind-up toys to teach basic speech imitation skills such as animal sounds. Children will often imitate sound effects before real words.
    • Pop-up toys – Toys that open when buttons are pressed or dials are turned not only teach joint attention, but also develop cause and effect relationships. Certain cognitive theories state the development of cause-effect and object permanence as a precursor to language development.
  2. Developing vocabulary skills in children.
    • Mr. Potato Head – I especially love this toy for building basic vocabulary skills such as body parts and clothing. However, you can also use it to teach verbs such as walking, sleeping, eating, jumping and running. In addition, since there are a wide variety of accessories, you can also use the pieces to teach describing words such as big, small, long and short.
    • Puzzles – Some of the new wooden puzzles are wonderful in terms of quality and durability. They also make a wide variety of puzzles ranging from animals to vehicles. Most of their pieces are chunky and ideal for little hands. Some puzzles also include sound effects and are interactive.
  3. Developing pretend play skills and social interaction.
    • Tea set – A tea set works well to teach turn taking, pretend play, and pronouns (e.g., I, you, my, your).
    • Little People farm/ zoo – I like using these toys for younger children. Pretending to make the animals walk, run, jump, eat, and sleep are early pretend play skills. You can also teach simple sentence formation (e.g Here is the cow; The horse in eating). In addition, they can be used to build prepositions such as “in,” “out,” and “next to.”
    • Doll house/ Kitchen set – A doll house or kitchen set can be used to teach more elaborate play sequences such as “First the doll wakes up, then gets dressed, then eats breakfast and then goes to school.” These interactions not only teach pretend play, but are also rich in language and provide lots of language stimulation.
  4. Children’s books that build language and speech skills.
    While there are a plethora of children’s books at your local book store, I wanted to list some of my favorites. I especially like books that are repetitive in nature and therefore are predictable. Children love the repetitions and will quickly learn to imitate the familiar words and phrases.
    • The Very Hungry Caterpillar
    • Brown Bear, Brown Bear
    • Polar Bear, Polar Bear
    • The Very Busy Spider
    • Go Away Big, Green Monster
    • Glad Monster, Sad Monster
    • Seals on the Bus
    • It looked like Spilled Milk.
    • If you give a Mouse a Cookie
    • If you give a Moose a Muffin
    • We’re Going on A Bear Hunt
    • Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed
    • The Three Little Pigs
    • There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Shell

    Parents and caregivers can also find pictures and activities online that are based on the books. A website I often use is www.makinglearningfun.com .

Remember to keep your interactions fun and animated. The key to using these books and toys effectively is “Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!”