1998 Conference Proceedings

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TEACH ME TO TALK

Jo Meyer
SoftTouch
805-396-8676

I am a teacher of preschool children with disabilities. I have been making software for the children in my classrooms for the last eight years. Over the past 23 years I have encountered many types of disabilities and many types of parents. The question

I get from most parents is ?Can you teach my child to talk?? This question has haunted me for years.

Every child communicates in some form whether it be by crying, body language, facial expressions or verbalization. Some children talk early, some late, some with augmentative communication devices, some not at all. As a teacher I wanted to facilitate the child learning language.

Then came THE PARENT. (Now, you need to know, I love the parents of the children I teach.) This parent arrived on the scene with her son who had Down?s Syndrome. She wanted a piece of software with REAL photos, one on each screen with the word in text and the word spoken aloud. I looked at her and thought to myself, ?B-O-R-I-N-G. The child will NEVER respond to that.?

But, I spent the next three weeks making a piece of simple software for her son to her specifications. While I was at it, I put 4-8 pictures on the screen as well. The simple program was finished and ready for her child to see. As I was presenting it, the other children in my classroom were pushing each other to get to the computer screen to touch that Touch Window and hear the word spoken again and again. I looked at these kids and was amazed. There was no music, no animation, nothing cute about this program at all, just real pictures with real words. I was stunned. I just watched the children. Within 10 minutes, several children who had never said a word in their life, made approximations of several words. I was hooked.

Then I started 'teaching'. You know, I'm a good teacher. (Well, maybe just an average teacher, but you get the jist). I know what good teachers do. Or I thought I did. I sat with the children at the computer. When they pressed the IntelliKeys' keyboard or the Touch Window' and the computer said the word, I repeated the word and then expanded on the word. After they had pressed the same word several times, I said, "That's right, that's a cat, can you find the dog?? Suddenly, I would see the child's back get stiff, and before you knew it, he got up and left the computer. I didn't understand. Just a few seconds ago, he loved it. What happened?

THE PARENT arrived back on the scene. She gave me a tape by Dr. Laura Meyers from UCLA. I listened to that tape eight times. I listened over and over and heard the same thing again and again. Ms. Meyers said, 'These kids may need to hear a word many times (perhaps 72 times) before they ever say a word. A computer can be patient and say it the same way every time.' Now I understood. I was not patient enough. I did not allow the student to hear the words over and over. I was interrupting their learning by interjecting, when they were totally engrossed in what they were doing. I was asking questions they were not ready to answer. They were just learning language. They didn't have the answers yet.

From that day on there were new rules in my classroom. Each student was to have an adult 'communication partner' at the computer. This adult was to sit with the child, not saying a word until the student stopped and looked at the adult or in some other way indicated that communication was desired. Then the adult was only to encourage the student by saying the word, nodding the headand smiling. The student was allowed to continue his or her learning. When the student imitated a word, the adult was to respond appropriately. NO QUESTIONS WERE ALLOWED during this beginning phase. The students were just learning to talk.

Another rule implemented was that the student was allowed to spend as much or as little time at the computer as he/she wished. There would be no more, 'We aren't finished, yet.' The student would to be in charge of his own learning at the computer.

And what were the results? Let me tell you some stories:

Mark at 27 months looked ?normal?. He came from a good family who provided lots of stimulation. Mark had one word--'ba' as in 'Ball.' Everything was 'ba.' After a few days of orientation in the classroom, I presented the computer. The first day he sat at the computer for 20 minutes and pressed the ball, bus, bee on the IntelliKeys keyboard over and over again. He then looked at me and pointed to the ball and said ?Ba? Then he pointed to the bee and said 'Be' and the Bus and said 'Bu.' I was astonished and his mother started to cry.

Until that day, he could not hear the language differences. He asked for the computer every day by pointing to it. He was allowed to spend time each day on the noun program. One year later he was talking in full sentences and was staffed into normal preschool.

Brian was a boy with Down's Syndrome. He was taking several medications. Brian came from a nurturing family and extended family who provided him with every opportunity. His mother was a teacher and wanted what was best for him. He exhibited no language and was considerably behind his other friends with Down?s Syndrome. We set up a noun program at school. At first he seemed disinterested. He looked at the pictures and sucked his thumb. The more we encouraged him to engage the keyboard, the more he sucked his thumb. We then paired him with a child who was very interested in the noun program. Suddenly the two were fighting over who was next to pick a picture. He worked several times a week at the computer. At his 3-year IEP, the team shook their heads. They didn't understand. Despite the track record of many students with Down?s Syndrome, Brian's language was his best skill. I smiled and his mother winked at me.

Toren came to me at age 32 months. He had 2 words: Ma Ma and Bye Bye. He could not focus, but ran around the room. His mother was convinced I was going to have him cured by his third birthday. I told her I was no miracle worker, but we'd do what we could during the next 4 months. Immediately we started structuring Toren's day. I went home and worked up a program called 'Toren's Nouns'. The first day I showed Toren the program, he looked at it for 10-15 seconds and then left the computer. The next day he stayed about 30 seconds. Each day he built up more time at the computer. By the second week, he would sit on my lap for 10 minutes pressing whichever word he wanted to hear. But he spoke no sounds, no words. Three weeks passed. I began berating myself. 'See, Jo, you thought this noun program was so great. Look at Toren, he's not learning anything.' The fourth week Toren walked over to the computer, picked up the overlay from the IntelliKeys keyboard, pointed to 10 different words and approximated each word. That day, I cried.

I could go on and on, but I won't. We have many programs the children love. But I would give them ALL up to keep my BORING noun program. I thank THE PARENT daily for her insight.

I made my original programs available to the teachers around me. They were getting the same kind of success. I finally decided I had to make my noun program available to teachers and parents around the nation. We have been working on it for over 2 years. Many of you have waited patiently. Thank you for your patience.

We've tried to include features in the program for students with many disabilities. I needed Spanish in my classroom, so Spanish was added. I wanted something to engage students who are not interested in language, thus musical interludes and movement were incorporated. I wanted to be able to change the prompts (music,movements, etc.) on-the-fly. We wanted to provide for those requiring augmentative communication device and so the Mayer-Johnson symbols are included and can morph from the photographs. I wanted a cause-and-effect program for my students who didn't understand the automatic scan. The Switch-On-Picts activity was developed. We realized more types of scans would be advantageous. Three types of scanning routines have been added. I wanted 2 and 3 piece puzzles. Here they are. One of my parents wanted Dr. Seuss types of stories with real pictures. We wrote some 'ditties' and here's StoryTime.

This program is not intended as a miracle program. It is meant to be a bridge--the bridge from real objects to 2-dimensional photos. It is meant to allow the students to hear the words repeatedly and then in context. It is meant to help start the students talking. This program is not the finished end product, it is a tool. You, the teacher, parent or therapist, are the best communicators. When your student or child looks at you as if to say please Teach Me To Talk use this program as part of the process.

TEACH ME TO TALK Features:

Rationale: There can be a variety of reasons why students are having difficulty learning to talk. Some students have difficulty processing the individual words in the midst of a sentence structure. Others have a difficult time hearing the difference in the words. Still others cannot form the sounds because of oral/motor difficulties. Some persons may never be able to form those words and may need an augmentative communication device with symbols such as the Mayer-Johnson symbols.

Hearing the words over and over is enough reinforcement for some students. Others get disinterested easily and need the musical interlude &/or movement to keep them interested and involved. The ability to turn any prompt on or off with the touch of a ? ?T? (for teacher) in the middle of the program and go back to exactly where the student has been working, gives the teacher the ability to add and reduce prompts on- the-fly? optimizing the best combination for this student at this particular time.

PUZZLES Features:

(1) Automatic (All Access Devices) Touch access device and puzzle piece will automatically go in to place.

(2) Magna Mouse* *(Mouse & Touch Window Accesses) As the mouse cursor rolls over the puzzle piece, it attaches to the mouse cursor and when the student moves the cursor to the correct placement, the puzzle piece will go into place automatically--no clicking of the mouse is needed.

(3) Click and Drag* *(Mouse & Touch Window) Click and drag the puzzle piece to the correct location

(4) Scanning (All accesses) The user is shown one puzzle piece and the empty (or partially completed) puzzle form. Possible places in the empty form are highlighted. When the correct placement is scanned, the learner presses the access device and the puzzle piece will move into place.

Rationale: There are many reasons why a student needs to use puzzles. Puzzles help learners grasp concepts such as: parts making a whole, visually discriminating the parts and being able to visually put all the parts together, making order out of disorder, and problem solving. How do these puzzles fit in to learning to talk? Language is symbolic. It also makes order order out of many different combinations of sounds. Puzzles make order out of a variety of symbolic pieces. Both language & puzzles are problem-solving activities. In addition, these puzzles have the same images as in the Teach Me to Talk activity with the same spoken words. Puzzles provide another way to approach the same theme.

Sometimes children need to learn to put puzzles together. Few puzzles are 2, 3 or 4-piece interlocking puzzles. Students have have been forced to learn with puzzles that are too difficult to allow success. This activity allows each student to begin puzzle play with greater ease.

SWITCH-ON-PICTS Features:

Rationale: Some students with multiple disabilities do not appear to be ready for language. Many times we do not actually know how much symbolic language the student comprehends and is ready to utilize. Switch-On-Picts, a cause-and-effect activity, was developed for these students. If the student is not ready for language, the music may engage and entertain in addition to teaching cause-and-effect. The image and the word may not be comprehended but it may be preferable to a cartoon-like or line drawing which has less meaning. If the student IS ready to understand language or may be in the future, this activity builds a foundation, while s/he is learning to press a switch. Either way, the student wins.

STORYTIME Features:

Rationale: The words in the Teach Me to Talk activity are presented out of context, so the student can hear them again and again as needed. Any confusion regarding additional sounds/words is minimized. Words are only spoken in isolation as the student begins to learn to talk. Eventually, words expand into sentences. Persons around the student are continually speaking in longer phrases. This activity puts the words back in to short sentence structure. The English prose rhymes to help the user distinguish sounds. The stories are also translated for Spanish-speaking learners.


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