The Many Uses of Wordless Picture Books

There is no moment more magical than the first time a child reads — actually reads — a book independently.  Such focus, such concentration on the text as the child decodes the printed words!  This is the first step on a lifelong journey across time, space, cultures, and ideas that a love of reading will provide.

29313But firing the imagination is not limited to books with text.  Indeed, wordless picture books may tap into more imagination, more language, more critical thinking, and more projecting of one’s self into the story.  Whether illustrations are simple or lush, the reader uses them to answer so many questions, because that is the only way the story can be told:  Who or what is in the picture?  Where and when is this taking place?  What is happening?  Why is this happening?  What is the problem?  What are some solutions?  How did the character’s actions work out?  What is the difference between this picture and the one before and the one after?  Did anything change?  How does the character feel? What is the character thinking?  How would you feel?  What would you do?  What will happen next?  And on and on….

Wordless picture books are ideal for speech/language therapy.  Just think of how many 17165875goals can be addressed by a single wordless book by letting the child take the lead in “reading” the story:  describing, labeling, grammar, predicting, articulation, and fluency are just a few of the typical s/l skills that can be practiced and measured.  Add to that joint attention, answering questions, turn-taking, and perspective-taking, and you’ll see that wordless picture books are ideal for working on pragmatic skills.  When the child has finished “reading” the book, review it for practice in recall, retelling, and sequencing.  Have a student who is weak in written language?  Use wordless picture books to practice sentence and story writing. Working with very young children or children with cognitive impairments?  Use the books to build receptive skills and basic concepts:  Show me —.  Point to —-.  Where is —?  What color/shape is —?   He is clapping;  now you clap.    Imagine — all of these communication skills can be  worked on, no reading required!

the-lion-and-the-mouseWordless picture books are especially good for children who use AAC.  In addition to building all of the skills detailed above, the children can use their AAC system at the single word, phrase, or full sentence levels to tell the story, answer your questions, and ask questions of their own.  This builds fluency with the system as they learn how to navigate to needed core and fringe vocabulary, and helps AAC users increase their mean length of utterance.

22750286If you Google “wordless picture books,” you’ll find a lot of “top ten” recommendations.  If you want to find titles of a hundreds wordless picture books, join (free), then put in this URL:  I guarantee you’ll find a year’s worth of books that will appeal to and be appropriate for all of the students on your caseload, regardless of age, gender, personal interests, or IEP goals.  Many may be available in your school or public library.  To add to your own collection, you can search local booksellers or find nearly all on Amazon.


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 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. 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 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.

Colorful Language

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 7.06.05 AMAAC users need to use more colorful language!  No, I’m not talking about words a sailor might use (although age-appropriate interjections and outbursts should always be available to AAC users).  I’m talking about the ability to use multiple parts of speech and multiple functions of language via their AAC systems, and that means getting beyond requesting.

It never fails that the first messages a student is taught are”I want” requests.  “I want cookie.” “I want juice.” “I want crayon.”  That makes sense because the student is immediately rewarded with a tangible item of his/her choosing, which reinforces the communicative attempt.  All too often, though, AAC users get stuck there.  They can request all day long, but communicate little else.  Does this prepare them for the real world?  No!  Just out of curiosity, I spent an entire day counting how many times I made a request — at home, at school, at the grocery store, in a restaurant, and on the phone.  The total — two!  In the morning, I asked my husband to take a package to the post office.  My request wasn’t “I want you to mail this package.” My request was phrased “Would you please mail this package?”  I didn’t have to make a single choice or request all day, until we went out to dinner that night. When I ordered my meal, I didn’t say “I want —.”  Instead, my request was phrased “I would like —.”  Do this experiment yourself.  First, count how many times in a day you utter “I want —.”  Then, count how many times in a day you wouldn’t be able to communicate if “I want —” was nearly all you could say. Limited, isolated, frustrated….that’s how I would feel if making requests was the major focus of my communication system.  My communication board may have a spot of yellow (“I”), a spot of green (“want”) and the rest would be orange (nouns).  Not too colorful.’s post by Carole Zangari provides a color-coding guide based on the Fitzgerald Key, and a great explanation of how and why to color-code AAC vocabulary.  A robust AAC system will be very colorful indeed, as it will be rich with nouns (orange),  people and pronouns (yellow), verbs (green), adjectives (blue), questions (purple), conjunctions (white), prepositions and social words (pink), adverbs (brown), emergency/important/negative words (red), and determiners (grey).  With words from all of those parts of speech, all functions of communication are possible, taking the AAC user far beyond “I want” and opening up a world of communication opportunities and partners.  A handy chart for color-coding is posted on the new CORE WORDS section of the Materials Exchange of Speaking of  Click on AAC to find it.

How do we do this?  We again turn to for a guest post by Marlene Cummings that cites the work of Janice Light and Linda Burkhart, among others, about the range of communicative purposes, and provides ideas on how to get beyond “I want” – definitely worth reading.

As a reminder to give our AAC users access to the full range of communicative functions, I created a colorful poster that asks, “Sure, I can make requests, but can I….ask/answer questions, make comments, initiate/maintain a conversation, share feeling/opinions, complain, expand on an idea?,” etc. It is posted on the Materials Exchange of Speaking of, under AAC.   Please feel free to print and share with anyone who works with and programs for AAC users.

With a full palate of words and messages, your AAC user will have much more “colorful” language, and the full range of communicative functions will be open to them.  After all, isn’t that what you’d need to get through your day?



Dwell, Move on, or Go Home

back-buttonWhen you are programming many dynamic display speech generating devices, ease of navigation is just as important as vocabulary.  An AAC user may have thousands of words available, but if the user has to hunt through multiple screens to find needed words, communication slows to a snail’s pace, and the connection with the listener is strained or even lost.  Many AAC software applications do a pretty good job of anticipating what words might be coming next in a sentence and may automatically move to a different screen to provide access to those selections; however, I often find I need to make changes in this navigation to facilitate faster communication for my students.

When you program a cell on a dynamic display device, you have three choices:

  1. you can dwell on that screen, meaning that activating the cell won’t cause the screen to change. This is the best choice when the AAC user needs immediate access to other words on the same screen.
  2. you can move on to a different screen.  Touch “I want” and the screen will change to a selection of logical options to continue the thought, such as “that,” “more,” “it,” “you,” and phrases such as “to eat,” “to go,” “to watch,” “to play.”  This can greatly speed up message generation.
  3. you can go home, meaning that once a cell is activated, the home screen will appear.  This is the optimal choice when one can’t anticipate what word choices will come next; returning to the home screen provides access to all of the categories: questions, people, time, places, groups, social, core words, etc., and it eliminates the need for the user to hit the “back” or “home” button to get there.

Just because this dynamic navigation may be preprogrammed in AAC software, don’t assume that it is the best for your student, or that it can’t be changed to improve the flow of communication.  Write out sentences that your student might say when engaged in a conversation, participating in the classroom, or reading a book.  Make those sentences yourself on the device.  Do you find yourself continually hitting the “back,” “home,” or other cells to navigate to the next words, or can you adjust the built-in navigation to make the message generation more efficient?  As you program new vocabulary into a device, always ask yourself: “Should this cell dwell, move on, or go home?” The only way to answer this question is to try it out yourself.  Small adjustments in navigation can make a very big difference in how smoothly and quickly a message can be generated. In this fast-paced world, the more efficiently the AAC user can get his/her message out, the more likely the listener will stay engaged in that interaction and be willing to engage in the future.


The “Path” to Learning Core Words

As so often happens, a post on on December 29 really caught my eye. “PrAACtically January: Resources for a Year of Core Words”  provides links to two years of core words, downloadable lists from 2013 and 2014 in Minspeak/Unity, PCS, Speak for Yourself, SymbolStix, and LessonPix symbol.  At the end of the post are a list of children’s books that can be used to practice the words for January.  One of my kindergarten students is a new user of Word Power on an Accent 1000. The monthly lists of core words struck me as the perfect way to acquaint him, his parents, and teacher with his device, to build his expressive language skills, and to incorporate literacy development.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 12.17.38 PMLooking over the 2013 list of January words, I was inspired to write a story that uses the core words in sentences that the student could read aloud on his device, and that he can use in real-life contexts.   Here’s the process I used to write “The Hungry Dog:”

  • First, I sketched out a simple story containing the core words and typed it into PowerPoint, my favorite platform for creating print books.
  • Next, I went to Google Images to search for photographs and clip art to illustrate the story, and added them to the PowerPoint.
  • Then, I tested out the story by using the Accent to read it.  This proved to be a critical step in the process, as I discovered that some words were not on the device. Others were inconveniently placed or coded, necessitating too many hits to locate the words or return to other screens.  As a result, I needed to do some programming to streamline his access to the words.  I also found that some sentences in my story needed rewording to facilitate smoother expression.
  • Because the device is also new to his parents and teacher, I added at the bottom of each page the “path” to finding any words that weren’t on the present screen. All words to be spoken on the device are underlined; navigation hits are not.
  • Finally, I printed the book as 2 unframed slides per page, cut the pages apart and stapled the book together. Copies were made for home, classroom, and s/l therapy use.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 12.19.52 PM“The Hungry Dog” January story of core words was met with great enthusiasm by the student, his teacher, and his parents.  In fact, it was so successful that I made a “Play Date” book using February core words!  Both of these books are posted on the new Core Words section of the Materials Exchange under AAC on Speaking of  (Note: I’ve left these as PowerPoints so you can edit for your AAC users. The path on my stories is specific to the modified Word Power 60 cell user on an Accent 1000).  I’ve also used this strategy of including the navigation path to personalized social stories.  Adults all agree that this makes modeling much easier and more fluent.

Keys to success:  simple sentences, repetitive vocabulary, careful story editing and device programming to refine message construction, and the inclusion of the path for navigating to vocabulary.  As vocabulary and competence grow, this path will not be needed, but at this stage, it is a great support to the adults who are learning right along with the student.

Speaking of Core Words….there was such a request for discussion about Core Words on the ASHA Sig 12/AAC board that I created a forum specifically for that purpose.  Sign up (free), then post your questions, add your suggestions, and share your materials!  Here’s the link:  This is brand new, just waiting for you to add some content.  With your participation, this new Core Words forum will grow in content and value, just like the other message boards in the SLP Message Center on Speaking of!