Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tip Tuesday! Thematic therapy and vocabulary!

I have been working with preschool age children with speech and language deficits for many years now and I have found, for me, the most effective way to improve language skills and receptive and expressive vocabulary is to do so using themes in my speech therapy!

If you look at a typical preschool program, they are modeled by following a weekly theme as well so it makes sense to me, that I would model my therapy for the same children in the same manner.  When I worked in the schools as an early childhood speech pathologist, I would obtain a list of classroom teachers' weekly themes for the whole year up front and build my therapy sessions around the child's weekly classroom themes.  The nice thing about this was that most of the early childhood teachers did follow the same weekly themes throughout the year so my therapy activities could be used for most of the children on my caseload regardless of what classroom the child was in.  Of course modifying the activities to focus on individual goals and highlighting individual strengths is a necessary component of any successful speech therapy session.  So keep that in mind when planning your thematic therapy.

As you know, I am a firm believer in play therapy as well, although I do believe there is a time and place for drilling an new skill prior to expecting carryover.  So setting my therapy schedule up to match the classroom teachers' themes actually allowed me to have more in-class therapy time (push-in therapy, inclusion therapy, whatever you want to call it) during their free play times in order to practice learned skills in a functional play setting with same-aged peers.  I found this to be very enjoyable as well as effective.  While in the classroom, I was able to observe what skills each child has generalized to the classroom setting and which skills required more work from me.

I also found that (what I call) the "speech hat" effect at times could be more of an illusion than true mastery.  The "speech hat" effect is what I call the phenomena when children seem to demonstrate success with a speech and/or language skill in the speech room with myself (as if they put on their "speech hat" at my door) but cannot carryover to other environments.  So getting a bird's eye view in the classroom really helped to guide my therapy goals and expectations accordingly.

Another reason, I very much love to create thematic therapy units is because it is a natural way to teach and increase awareness of categories which aids in semantic networking, word retrieval and of course language development.  If I'm focusing on zoo animals, then I will not be taking about a sheep or cow, but I will be discussing giraffes, lions, and tigers.  Now I've naturally created a scheme for zoo animals without having to actually spend time "teaching" the category.

So how did I create my thematic units?  What types of activities did I include?  Well, each week I planned and included at least one of each of the following activities below.  Not every child would participate in every activity as I would choose which activities best met their communication needs (I was always thinking "individualized therapy" and that was my guide to determining the best activities for each student on my caseload).  These activities are in no particular order and can be interchangeable.  I usually presented at least 2 different activities during our sessions as appropriate (which were only 20 minutes due to shorter attention span and also aided in keeping groups smaller which improved 1:1 attention).  However if spontaneous natural learning was occurring I would NOT change to another activity just because I had another one planned.  Therapy at this age is all about following the child's lead.

Here is a list of the types of activities I would plan for thematic therapy:

1.  Thematic Book:  I always chose a book about the weekly theme.  I tried to keep this book just above the current language skills (so I usually had 3 different levels of books for my lowest to highest kiddos and would choose books accordingly).  By the way, the school library (or media center, since that's what many are being called these days) is a great resource for thematic books of varying levels of complexity!

2.  Thematic Song:  I loved incorporating music with our weekly themes so I would teach my kiddos 1 or 2 new songs each week.  We added gross and fine motor movements which made it all the more fun.

I LOVE the Piggyback song book series and I use them even with my own son!!!  I know they are old but they are great!  These books are filled with wonderful kid songs to familiar tunes so you don't have to read music to learn new songs.  And where did I purchase these gems?  On Amazon of course! :)

3.  Craft/Art project:  This activity could be as simple as coloring or as complex as following multi-step directions to complete a craft.  A few time-saving tips:  I always cut up all the pieces to a craft ahead of time. I organized my glue, scissors, crayons, markers, paints and brushes in a small plastic tote for quick and easy use, and I always had child wipes on hand for those times we were enjoying a messy craft!  Wipes are a quick way to clean up kiddos that need to head back to class.

Back to School Countdown Craft Advent Calendar Using an Egg Carton from Lalymom
Since it is BTS time, here is just one example of a cute craft activity that can be used to incorporate language (following directions, vocabulary, spatial position words) and academics (shapes, numbers, etc.).  I found this craft on Twodaloo.  Click on this link for more BTS ideas. 

4.  Play activity:  There was always at least one play activity that incorporated fine or gross motor skills and thematic play.  Tip:  I always had the play activity as my second activity of the day, b/c it's easier to transition from playing back to the classroom, than from playing to another speech activity.  Here are just a few examples of play activities I have done in the past:

  • I had the fire trucks and doll house out the week we discussed fire safety
  • We played with my fisher price farm and animals when discussing farm animals week
  • We played with zoo animals and blocks to create zoo gates for each animal
  • We played with cars, trucks, planes, trains when talking about transportation week
  • We played restaurant with fake food the week we talked about our 5 senses (I would use real food to discuss concepts such as sweet, salty, sour, spicy, etc.)
  • We played with my band in a box (awesome for early phonological awareness skills, rhythm, tempo, pitch, etc.)  and sang many familiar children's songs during music week.

5.  Speech/language drill activity:  Sometimes, even with the above activities, I still needed to drill a skill in some way, so I would usually play a quick game (usually a reinforcer game that could be used with all goals) in order to drill the skill I was targeting that day.

6.  Academic skills:  I never made a separate activity for academic skills but I always incorporated academic skills into the above activities.  For example, I might ask a child to give me three zoo animals and see if he/she can show one to one correspondence when counting.  Or we might label colors of objects in play.  I also would see if children recognized their names by sitting where their name tag was.  Sometimes we made patterns when building with legos, etc.  The list can go on and on, but its very, very easy to support academic skills in speech therapy tasks even at a very young age.

When I first started using thematic units as a therapy guide I created my own table like the one below to keep me on track and organized.  Over time, I used the table less and less but in my mind I still organized my thematic therapy the same way.  So here is just a visual example for you:

As you can see, I love thematic therapy and thematic vocabulary!  I feel it's the most functional way to teach vocabulary and expand language for young children.

Here is a nice website, I shared on my FB page months ago that allows you to create your own thematic therapy schedule for the year. Check it out!

Enjoy and Happy Talking!!!
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  1. Hi Maria! I just found your website on Pinterest via a pin, and thought I'd take a gander. As a fellow SLP, I appreciate your insight and well-organized thematic preschool activities to target speech and language skills. I also have preschoolers on my caseload and follow the same procedure (I work at a public school and have DIS preschoolers, and two preschool special day classes) so I'm happy to see that other SLPs such as yourself provide therapy that is fun, engaging, worthwhile, and targeting goals at the same time. I'm also on the hunt for new crafts, books and activities to add to my lessons. Thank you!

    1. Sounds like we have very similar therapy approaches! Themes really make it fun and relevant for our students, don't they? And it's always fun for me to see how each kiddo problem solves situations and creates pretend play scenarios as well! So much fun! Glad you found my blog, Sweet and Simple Life! I hope you stop in and stay a while!!! :)


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