Tackling /r/ with Technology

A /t/ is a /t/ and a /k/ is a /k/. But, oh, that vocalic /r/ – the most complicated phoneme in the English language! Volumes have been written about how to fix an /r/ distortion. My go-to bag of tricks includes Char Boshart’s “The Easy R Therapy Program” and “The Entire World of R” books and cards. I’ve learned so much from Char’s books and presentations about how to facilitate tongue movement and tension; her website is a treasure-trove of great information, including free materials, videos, books, and blog posts.  Char Boshart’s “The Easy R Therapy Program” comes in hardcopy and digital versions, and there is even a condensed version for quick reference.   From “The Entire World of R” I learned that there are more than 20 allophones of /r/, each depending on the vowel context and position in the word, and that students can have some of these /r/ sounds perfected, while others remain stubbornly distorted.   Indeed, as part of my own /r/ remediation packet, I developed “Hit the Mark with /r/,” a quick screener to help me determine the vowels and positions in which the student can produce a good vocalic /r/ and those in which production breaks down.   “Hit the Mark with /r/” presents three words for each of the vocalic /r/ sounds (initial, medial, final) and a rating scale that breaks down production into 3 categories: “vowel and /r/ are distorted,” “vowel is OK but the /r/ is distorted,” and “acceptable vowel and /r/.” I follow this up with more in-depth probes, using Artic-U-Checks, which uses a similar rating scale of “incorrect,” “close,” and “acceptable.” A pattern I see over and over in my students: most initial and medial vocalic /r/ sounds are acceptable, but /er/ in all contexts is distorted, and so are all final /r/ sounds.

So, once I have assessed the type, place, and severity of a student’s /r/ distortion, therapy begins. In my experience, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to /r/ that will work for every student. Therefore, I am constantly expanding my bag of tricks, searching for that one cue, one technique that will flip the switch for each student. Multimodality instruction is key.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 12.43.09 PMBecause vowel context is so critical to producing acceptable /r/ sounds, my favorite app is Vowel Viz Pro by Complete Speech. This awesome app analyzes vowel production in real time. As the student produces words with vocalic /r/, the spaceship zooms to and hovers over high, middle, or low planets, representing the various vowels. The visual feedback is very reinforcing to the students and is definitely a motivator. The effort I’ve seen students expend in achieving the goal with this app is amazing – far more than I could ever get with flashcards or word lists. You can read more about Vowel Viz Pro in my blog post, “Apps for Vocalic /r/.” If you use an iPad in therapy, you definitely want this app.  Another app from Complete Speech that you might find useful is “Speech Racer.”

smartpalate_system-1Another very useful piece of technology, also by Complete Speech, is a palatometer, called the SmartPalate System. A custom-built mouthpiece shows students exactly where their tongue is touching the palate (or not). I wrote about my experience with the palatometer in my post, “Watch that Tongue: A Trial with a Palatometer.” This tool is not only very useful for /r/, but was also great for lateral and frontal distortions of /s, z, sh, ch, j/. The downsides for school use: (1) the software is expensive, and (2) each student has to have a mouth mold made by a dentist, then a custom-built palate with sensors – also expensive. The best approach is to see the students every day for short periods of time. Research done by Complete Speech indicates that 20 sessions is the average for fixing a speech sound error. Imagine cycling students through 4 weeks of intense therapy with the palatometer, and it could actually mean a cost-savings or break-even, compared to traditional weekly therapy that could go on for months or years. Still, it could be a tough sell to most school districts.  A new product by CompleteSpeech is the TargetPalate:  a custom-made plastic palate that has bumps where the tongue should be touching for sounds that the student is making in error.  I haven’t yet tried this with my students, but imagine the tactile feedback could be very helpful.  Please leave a comment if you have already had experience with the TargetPalate.

Students can get good information from seeing and hearing themselves on video, using a free program like PhotoBooth on my Mac. I just had a fourth grade boy who was convinced his /er/ was pretty good, until he heard the playback on PhotoBooth. The look on his face when he heard the distortion reflected an important “aha” moment for him. Another student with a wicked /r/ distortion heard the app, “Talking Tom,” repeating the /r/ words spoken by him and other, more advanced, students. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on his face when he asked, “Why is Tom saying their words correctly and my words wrong?” (Note: Talking Tom apps are available for iOS and Android, but I caution their use as they have gotten to be a bit raunchy for school use).

In my next post, I’ll share my no-tech tricks for working on /r/. By combining these “tried and true” old school techniques with new technology, students remain motivated and make measurable progress.

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Preventing Screen Addiction

A recent article in The Telegraph describes a very scary trend: “Children as young as four are becoming so addicted to smartphones and iPads that they require psychological treatment.”  Popular and professional literature are full of such warnings, yet parents continue to use digital devices to keep their babies, toddlers, and young children occupied.  One in seven parents polled in a study admitted their children used digital gadgets for four or more hours a day!  Although 81% of the parents surveyed expressed a concern that their children were spending too much time with digital devices, this hasn’t stopped them from allowing their children to have this access.  Indeed, the article states that according to psychiatrists, “digital dependency” in  adults and children has grown 30% in recent years. This addiction in young children is evident by obsession with devices and uncontrollable tantrums when the devices are removed, and leads to difficulties with social interaction as the children get older.

With so many warnings about the potential detriments of excessive screen time, why do parents still allow their infants, toddlers, and even older children have so much access to digital devices?  One reason might be that parents are discounting these warnings as an overblown extension of warnings in the past about letting children watch too much TV.  After all, generations of kids dating back to the 1950s watched hours of TV each day and they didn’t grow up to be TV addicts, right?  While it’s a fact that when people are home, the TV is more likely to be on than off, most people don’t go through withdrawal when the electricity goes out or the TV is on the fritz and they are unable to watch TV for any length of time.  But have digital devices go dark and there is very clearly a visceral reaction. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m guessing that the major difference is the way we engage with digital gadgets vs. TV screens.  Unless we are binge-watching the latest Netflix series, engagement with the TV is much less intense.  We move around, get something to eat, page through a magazine, cook dinner, fold laundry, knit, and engage with others while the TV is on;  the TV does not capture and hold our undivided attention.  In many cases, it is simply background noise to other activities in the home.  Engagement with handheld devices is much more intense;  it is the primary focus of attention, often to the exclusion of all other activities and interactions. This releases endorphins that excite the pleasure centers in our brains, which feeds the addiction.

Another reason for parents to rely on digital devices to occupy their children — and this one horrifies me — is that parents themselves are hooked into devices, so keeping the kids quiet with device use allows the parents uninterrupted time on their own handheld screens.  As an article in Huffington Post states, over 70% of children surveyed feel their parents spend too much time on mobile devices.  Remember, parents of infants and young children are themselves “digital natives,” meaning they grew up with technology and don’t know life without it.

As SLPs, we see the effects on language and pragmatic skill development caused by  overexposure to screens, be it smartphones, tablets, or video games — not to mention the effects on attention, executive functioning, fine and gross motors skills, imagination, and higher level thinking.  The question is: how can we help parents understand the critical importance of hands-on experiences and interpersonal engagement and how to incorporate these experiences and engagement in everyday life?  Ironically enough, there’s an app for that!

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 5.11.48 AMJoinvroom.org is a website, app, and e-newsletter that encourages parents to be “brain builders” through simple activities already occurring in the home:  mealtime, bath time, daily errands and chores, etc.  Downloadable activity cards and daily videos teach parents how to engage their infants and children using eye contact, chatting, taking the child’s lead, expanding on the child’s language, and turn-taking, all in the context of daily living.  No special equipment or skills are needed.  Joinvroom.org is really all about being a fully present, hands-on parent.  I heartily recommend this resource to all parents of infants and young children. Although geared toward children ages 5 and younger, parents of older children who have special needs will be able to use many of these ideas to stimulate growth and engagement in their children, too.

The kind of parenting encouraged by Joinvroom.org will seem intuitive to most SLPs and reflects the kind of parenting that was common before the digital age.  I encourage every SLP working in early intervention and preschool to share this with parents on their caseload. And, for the rest of us, consider recommending this site to all new parents and others who would benefit from these back-to-basics parenting tips.  Share this post on your social media for May is Better Hearing and Speech Month.   Keeping parents and children engaged in these hands-on and interactive activities just might prevent the need for “digital detox” in their future.

My Brain’s on Fire!

logo_dog_fkaDon’t you just love when you find something while browsing the Internet that just lights up your whole brain??  I stumbled across a post from SmartMouthSLP.com that did just that!  It’s all about a website, PlayPosit, that lets you create lessons – free! — using video from YouTube and other sources.   I started exploring and my head just about exploded!

There are premade lessons for every subject imaginable that you can use, and you can make your own.  In addition to social skills, as described in the SmartMouthSLP.com post, you can use this for predicting, inferencing, comprehension, narrative, answering questions — the possibilities for speech/language therapy are endless.  There is built-in data collection, a bypass for school filters that block YouTube, and the ability to share your “bulbs” (video lessons) with others.

But then I got thinking….could this be used with AAC users to help them learn their systems, engage in conversation, comment and offer opinions, build core and fringe vocabulary, AND work on predicting, inferencing, comprehension, narrative, and answering questions?  Oh, yes, it can!  In just a short time, I was able to create a little video activity that works on all of those skills:  Click HERE to view.  How engaging is that??! Guess what my AAC users will be doing tomorrow?

Thank you, SmartMouthSLP, for alerting me to this amazing, stupendous, totally awesome resource!

Tools for That Pesky “R”: Some Old, Some New

Ah, that pesky vocalic /r/!  Why is it so difficult for some kids to produce?

image_20813I can’t honestly say that I learned a lot of good artic therapy techniques in college coursework.  However, I was fortunate to do my student teaching with a seasoned SLP who had good success with “old school” methods:  lots of drill with a flashlight and a mirror.  Auditory and visual models, hand gestures, coarticulation, and word cards and lists rounded out her bag of tricks.  Nothing cute or fancy;  this was long before TeachersPayTeachers.  But “old school” worked:  her students mastered /r/, and that is the definition of evidenced-based practice.

Fast-forward 20 years, and you’ll find that I still employ a lot of “old school” methods in my practice because they work.  Of course, I’ve added some quick and easy games to keep the students engaged and motivated;  you can read about this in my post, “Drill, Baby, Drill.”  For some tactile support, I occasionally need to resort to the “speech gizmo,” known to the rest of the world as a dental flosser.  And my best “new school” tool:  the VowelViz app from CompleteSpeech.  I can tell a student until I’m blue in the face that his tongue is too low, but when he sees the spaceship drop like a rock on the iPad screen, he gets it.  He may not be able to immediately lift his tongue into a good /r/ position (oh, if only!), but he starts to be aware that he needs to do something different with his tongue to get that spaceship up to Saturn with a good /er/, and those adjustments will be reflected on the screen, providing immediate visual feedback. My sessions often involve moving back and forth between the mirror and flashlight and the VowelViz app.  See it, feel it, listen to it, watch the effect on the screen.

The lesson here is simple. While we should always be open to new techniques, we shouldn’t forget those old tried-and-true methods.  A blend of both works for me!