Young Children with Language Delays

Using Literature Combined With Repetition to Enhance Language Development for

 Young Children with Language Delays

by Rae Schaper BA, MEd

Young children with language delays and autism thrive in an environment filled with visual cues, familiarity, and predictability. When these three factors are combined with repeated readings of familiar children’s literature, cognitive learning and language skills flourish.  There are specific strategies for combining literature with repetition that have been proven to be successful in helping children with language delays and autism make significant gains in speech and language.  Why does using literature combined with repetition work so well?  What strategies are most successful when using repetition combined with literature in your therapy sessions?

It is important to choose appropriate literature.  Children with language delays or autism often think in pictures and are most successful when you choose books that have simple illustrations on each page.  At first the pictures should serve as visual cues to help the children understand the meaning of the written text.  As the children’s language skills begin to emerge, the pictures will continue to remind them about the meaning of the written text.  Before selecting a book, read the text in advance.   Choose books with repetitive words or phrases, words that rhyme, and stories with predictable endings.  Match the length of the book to the child’s attention span, the level of his language skills, and his interests.  Count the number of nouns and verbs used in the story.  You may be amazed to learn that some traditional picture books commonly used at the preschool level contain far too many words.  This makes it difficult for children with language delays to process all of the vocabulary.  Choose books that offer opportunities to expand a variety of language and cognitive skills.

All children benefit from repetition.  It is especially important to repeat stories, rhymes, and songs when working with children who have language delays.  During the early childhood stage, the brain is most active and bombarded with hundreds and hundreds of new concepts in every area of development.  The brain is designed to create a new neural pathway every time a child encounters a new situation or new piece of information.  Each new concept or situation creates another neural pathway.  The brain cannot effectively process and retain every new piece of information (neural pathway) that the child is exposed to in this stage of development.  The brain is biologically designed to choose neural pathways that are most important and prune off those that are not necessary.  How does the brain know which neural pathways to keep and which to prune?  Thicker neural pathways are recognized as “important” and they are retained.  Thinner microscopic neural pathways are biologically pruned off.  How do neural pathways become thick?  Repetition!  Every time a concept or piece of information is repeated, that neural pathway becomes thicker and thicker.  The brain begins to recognize and receptively process the information found on the thicker pathways.

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A new neural pathway is created every time a child encounters a new situation or a new piece of information.

Many children find it difficult to process new information because too much information comes too quickly. 

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Another way to consider looking at a preschool child’s brain might be to envision it as an empty file cabinet.  Each time you introduce a concept, the brain creates a new file folder. When the information is not repeated or is presented without visual cues, the result is most often a very frustrated child. 

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Visual cues and repetition help children strengthen neural pathways.  It helps them receptively classify and organize new “file folder” information and concepts.

Many children with language delays suffer from frustration and anxiety, which interfere with their ability to learn. Repetition fosters predictability.  The ability to predict words and phrases relieves anxiety for young children and fosters an “I can do” attitude.  Repeating a story for an extended period of time creates a predictable and familiar environment for learning.  The length of time the story is repeated depends on the age and ability of the child; the younger the child, the longer the duration.  There are three typical stages of language development as the story is repeated.  In the first two weeks (stage 1), children learn to process language skillsreceptively as the story is repeated every day (creating and strengthening neural pathways in the brain).  Around the third week (stage 2), receptive language processing results in the ability to experiment with expressive language skills.  Here is where we often fall short.  Once the child starts to use expressive language, we often move on to new vocabulary and concepts too quickly.  That is why the fourth week (stage 3) is so critical.  The third stage is where we allow the child opportunities to practice foundational skills using both receptive and expressive language from the story.  Over time as the children’s language skills grow and develop, they will advance through these stages at faster and faster rates.

Generalizations of abstract and cognitive skills are a challenge for children with language delays and autism.   Children often memorize words and provide correct answers in the familiar format in which they are presented.  If the format is changed, we sometimes find the child cannot generalize vocabulary and concepts in a variety of situations.   This is where it becomes important to weave the storybook throughout the child’s day.  This involves providing activities using characters and objects found in the story to teach or reinforce foundational skills.  It is most effective when speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, classroom teachers, and parents collaborate with each other using the story as a common theme to help children with language delays grasp abstract concepts in a variety of different situations.  When all education professionals share the common focus, goals and the same repetitive story, concepts are no longer taught in isolation and the child makes greater gains.

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When all involved use the same curriculum with one focus, the child makes greater gains.

How do you go about providing activities that incorporate characters and objects (visual cues) from the story to be effective tools in teaching foundational skills?  First, identify the reoccurring objects and characters found in the story.  Let’s use The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle as an example.  Create a set of visual cues (pictures/graphics).  These would include: leaf, caterpillar, apple, pear, plum, strawberry, orange, cake, ice cream cone, pickle, cheese, sausage, lollipop, cherry pie, salami, muffin, watermelon, butterfly, and cocoon.  For infants and toddlers, you would want to accumulate and use real or plastic objects. Now identify the foundational skills that need to be addressed.  These are typically objectives that are found on the child’s IEP or educational plan. They may include skills such as:

Increase the number of spoken or signed words in his/her vocabulary.

Relate experiences with some understanding of sequence, beginning, and closure.

Demonstrate an understanding of positional concepts.

Identify objects that are the same and different.

Use the plurals of common words by adding an “s.”

Use visual discrimination to identify big and little objects.

Answer who, what, where, why, and how questions about the story.

Use story graphics from The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

to master foundational skills.  

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This concept of teaching foundational skills using the graphics and characters from the story can be used with any storybook.  The foundational skills can be consistently repeated and reviewed only changing the graphics when you introduce a new story.  In this way, you can build the expressive vocabulary by changing the graphics, but the delivery system of teaching foundational skills remains the same.  This helps to eliminate anxiety for children with auditory processing issues as well as those with language delays.

Use story graphics from Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle  to master the same foundational skills.  

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Every time you change the story, you have the opportunity to add new foundational skills along with repeating goals covered in previous stories.  Children with language delays often need the same foundational skills repeated in many different stories.

Another essential component, in addition to repetition of storybooks, is the repeating of rhymes, and especially Mother Goose rhymes.  Children with language delays and autism often struggle with expressive language.  Mother Goose rhymes usually consist of simple, rhythmic, rhyming text and are often set to music.  The words are easily memorized and generally have little logical meaning.  Mother Goose allows children to play with sounds and words without the stress of having to use the correct pronunciation or sentence structure.  Many children who are on the verge of acquiring expressive language are more likely to experiment with the rhyming nonsense words, which leads to an increase of expressive language.

Unfortunately, we see more and more young children entering our school systems who are lacking basic foundational skills.  There is an accelerated emphasis on academic achievement in kindergarten with no time for teachers to ensure that students have acquired the preschool foundational skills.  What does high school graduation have to do with preschool?  Everything!  When there are holes and gaps at this basic level of learning, the child will struggle all through his/her educational career.  Children may lose confidence in their ability to learn.

Speech-language pathologists often enter the picture at the preschool or kindergarten level and have the golden opportunity to help children acquire the necessary foundational skills and the love of literature.   Using the strategies of literature combined with repetition is an effective method of ensuring that children will have the receptive and expressive language skills, as well as the confidence necessary to be successful in kindergarten and the years beyond.

Following are the 20 Foundational Skills that Read It Once Again has identified that are necessary for early learning success.

20 Foundational Speech and Language Skills Necessary for

 Early Learning Success

Based on Read It Once Again Level 1 Curriculum Units

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  1.   Label objects
  2.   Repeat familiar words and phrases
  3.   Sequence stories and experiences
  4.   Demonstrate visual discrimination
  5.   Match, sort, and name shapes
  6.   Match, sort, and name colors
  7.   Identify numbers
  8.   Demonstrate number concepts
  9.   Repeat, extend, and predict patterns
  10.  Demonstrate visual memory skills
  11. Recognize and create rhyming words
  12. Demonstrate knowledge of big and little
  13. Demonstrate knowledge of same and different
  14. Classify objects
  15. Understand positional words
  16. Answer “wh” questions
  17. Predict what comes next
  18. Follow three step directions
  19. Demonstrate understanding of abstract concepts
  20. Retell a story or experience

Read It Once Again is a curriculum created especially for children with language delays,
which includes children with cognitive delays, autism, and those at risk for failure.

www.readitonceagain.com   ph 1-877-470-5156

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Bio and Author Information

Rae Schaper is the creator of a preschool literary-based curriculum and has currently written 50 curriculum units and a Preschool Classroom Management Guide. Her research-based literary curriculums have been implemented in public school districts, childcare facilities, and private preschool programs in all 50 states and Canada. Rae currently provides early childhood professional development seminars across the nation.  She received her B.A. in Special Education from the University of Wisconsin, and her M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education from the University of South Carolina.  She taught early childhood education in the public school system, and also taught at Presbyterian  College in Clinton, SC and Converse College in Spartanburg, SC. More information about the Read It Once Again curriculum can be found at www.readitonceagain.com

Read It Once Again

Read It Once Again preschool curriculums incorporate traditional, familiar children's literature into thematic units to promote early literacy. The curriculums include objectives, activities, and assessments necessary to provide young children with a language rich educational program to meet the basic needs in each of the five domains commonly addressed in the prekindergarten classroom. While the curriculum is appropriate for all young children, Read It Once Again uniquely uses rhyme, rhythm and repetition as the foundational approach to teaching, making this curriculum especially effective for children with autism, language delays, or developmental delays.