Lessons Learned as a Language Student

I am a monolingual SLP.  English is the only language I use.  (I have some understanding of Spanish after 4 years of it in high school and a couple of semesters in college, but not enough to use in a mutual and meaningful conversation).


While my background in speech-language pathology allows me to consider myself an expert in English, I am not sure if that expertise is helping me learn a language used in a whole different modality – American Sign Language.


Since I have never been a very visual or spatially organized person, ASL is quite difficult for me. Right now, I am nearing the end of my 3rd semester of ASL courses.  I have 2 more classes in the sequence before the college says I can consider myself “conversational” in ASL.  In spite of this,  my ASL professor has consistently required us to attend Deaf events and actually converse 😉


Last night, I attended one of these required events with a one of my classmates.  While we have both attended Deaf events in the past, none of them threw us into the middle of the conversation to the level that this event did.


The room for this social event was set up like a living room with two couches and a few arm chairs.  I sat on one of the couches right next to a sign language interpreter and my classmate sat in an arm-chair to the other side of her.  There were a total of 5 hearing people at the event and 5 Deaf people.


After some small talk, the conversation flowed like any conversation would – some topics sparked the interest of the whole group and we were all engaged together, but most of the time people took turns chatting in pairs or groups of three before getting drawn into conversations taking place between other pairs of people at the event.


As the least proficient signer of the group, I struggled to follow along even when someone was signing directly two me and communicating at a slow pace.


I found myself in the position similar to what my language students likely face on a daily basis:

  • I only understood about half of what was signed.
  • Sometimes when I didn’t understand, I acted as if I did to avoid the embarrassment of admitting my confusion or the time it would take for someone to explain things to me.
  • Other impairments compounded my language difficulties.  (I hate wearing my glasses, even though I need them to communicate in ASL so I missed the beginning of the conversation because I hadn’t put my glasses on yet).
  • At the times when I did understand the flow of conversation, and had a comment or question, I usually didn’t say anything because I didn’t know how to.  My receptive ASL skills are still much better than my expressive skills.

So, with all of the challenges I faced, what actually helped me to understand?

The same things you’ve always known to help people understand language:

  1. CONTEXT – this was the biggest help of all! (Yes, even more helpful than repetition or definitions, etc.).  If I knew the topic AND had the background knowledge associated with that topic, it helped me understand what was being communicated.  Context was definitely key.
  2. REPETITION – going right along with context, seeing the same sign multiple times while talking about one topic helped me understand.  The same word used in multiple ways about a topic I understood, was crucial.  Each new sentence with the same signed helped me hone in on the sign’s meaning and refine my hypothesis about what the word meant.
  3. SELF-ADVOCACY – Now that I have latched onto a topic I am familiar with and someone communicating with me directly, there are still words that are not yet in my ASL vocabulary. Asking someone to sign slowly or repeat themselves was very helpful.   I also needed additional processing time to retrieve signs and associations from my memory and assemble them into a meaningful thought in my mind.  Requesting these “accommodations” (go slowly, allow additional time, etc.) helped me follow along.

Having that level of difficulty with language was very uncomfortable, especially for an SLP.  I am used to language being so easy for me to grasp, that I think I can teach it to others!  However, learning not only a different language, but a language communicated in a different modality, thrust me into a position that is far from familiar.

Fortunately, I believe we do some of our best learning from the difficult situations.  Here’s what I am taking back with me from this experience;  In reflecting on my own clinical habits, I noticed that when I worked with pre-school students, I used context, themes, and repetition a lot more than I do now.  With my junior high kids, I explain word meanings, dissect word structures and meanings, employ word recognition strategies, practice using the words in sentences, etc.  However, I seem to have moved away from consistent contexts and word bombardment.

While at the Deaf event, I did occasionally try to connect signs with meanings for similar looking signs, I didn’t feel that it was the strategy I relied on most.  Yet, with my junior high kids, I had moved toward this higher-level metacognitive approach to vocabulary.   Sure, some signs I saw resembled other signs that I already know, so I wondered if they meant something similar. However, the context/theme of the conversation was more important for me to gain some initial understanding.  That is what provided me with a clozed set of concepts in my mind.  Repetition then helped me clarify and refine my initial guesses about word meanings.

So, how am I going to apply all of this?

In working with my middle school students, here is what I will try to do more consistently:

  1. CONTEXT – I will select topics that the students are very familiar with already (e.g., Christmas traditions, turning in homework, facebooking, etc.) and use target words in conversation and readings revolving around these topics.  I will recycle topics that students are the most familiar with to teach other words.  The background knowledge is key.  I will also continue to provide my students with experiences to enhance background knowledge, such as taking them on field trips, watching movies together, reading books, etc.  However, when it comes to teaching word meanings, I will focus on contexts that the kids have experienced repeatedly.
  2. REPETITION – I will find/create stories that use the target word multiple times (at least 5-10) within the same story.  While my students do get multiple exposures to target words already, I want a bombardment of the word used in context.
  3.  SELF-ADVOCACY – I will continue to help students recognize when they don’t understand so that they can ask for help.  This is easier said than done.  Over the past year, I have noticed that my kids don’t always “know what they don’t know.”  They think that a word sounds familiar so they make an erroneous guess about what it means.  Try doing this 2 or more in one story and you could end up with a very different image and conclusion than what the author intended.  I work on this by encouraging visualization, telling students to ask me about sentences they can’t picture – including dates, sizes, etc – and telling them to ask me about sentences that look “weird” when they picture them.  I also sometimes ask students to draw what the words make them picture.  This provides me with great opportunities to see what they were thinking and clarify misconceptions and misinterpretations.  My students are now using these strategies in the classroom and asking teachers more questions when they don’t understand.  We will also work on using “just a minute” or some phrase to buy them more processing time when they need it.

With all of that said, I realize that I can never really be in my students’ shoes.  While learning a second language can be challenging (especially when it’s communicated in a different modality than you’re used to), I have the benefit of background knowledge and proficient communication skills in my native language.  I also only have to deal with these challenges for a couple of hours at a time, not every hour of my life.  However, I am very THANKFUL for getting to experience a few of the difficulties my students may face in their day-to-day lives.  Every opportunity to understand their experiences better makes me a better SLP 🙂

“Hard”/”Difficult” http://lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/h/hard.htm


How I target the R sound (with links)

Before I start, let me say that I work in a junior high with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students.  Most of these kids have been in therapy for several years but still can’t seem to get the hang of the /r/ sound.

So far, with the approach below, I have dismissed each one of them before they go to high school…because they actually earned their graduations from speech!

The box in the middle shows the interior of the mouth from the Iowa Phonetics website. I drew a person around the box to help students understand what they were seeing.

Here’s what I do:

1. I assess the students’ /r/ productions using the Entire World of R Advanced Screener: http://www.sayitright.org/advancedscreening.html  However, I have modified this process a little bit.  I rate the /r/ productions as I screen on a scale of 0-3, with 0 being omitted or completely substituted for /w/ or a vowel.  I use 1-3 (including half points) to reflect varying levels of rhoticity.  In scoring, I count productions between 0 and 2 as incorrect.  I count 2.5 and 3 as correct. (This took some of the pressure off of me in trying to decide if I should mark a production as + or -).  Then, I select target /r/ variations that the student had the most success with that were still under 80% accuracy (e.g, er, ear, ire, or, are, pr, gr, etc.)

2. When I start therapy with a student, I begin by reviewing the mouth anatomy using the Iowa Phonetics website (below) and a model mouth.  I have a Mouthy Mouth puppet from Super Duper Inc.  I also have a model head (I bought on ebay) that splits in half so that I can show the inside.  http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/phonetics/

3. Next, we look at how the mouth looks when it is producing a phoneme (again from the iowa phonetics website) and we look at the mouth producing the /r/ sound.

4. After this, I model the target /r/ variation we will start with.  I explain what my tongue is doing and demonstrate using the mouth puppet (or my hands to represent the tongue and the roof of the mouth).

5. Now, I know there are different ways to teach /r/ but here’s what I do: I show them a /k/ sound production (Iowa phonetics site/mouth puppet/hand cues) and talk about how it’s in the back of the mouth.  Then I ask the student to produce a /k/.  We talk about how it feels in the back of the mouth.

6. Next I ask them if they can lick the roof of their mouths, starting at the front and going backward, until the back of their tongue is bunched up like a /k/ but the tongue tip is still up.  (We do this without voicing and I model).

7. Next, I model this same motion while producing an /er/ sound.  Then, I ask the student to give it a try.  We practice a few times until they get it. They may need cues to keep their tongues tight/more tense.  i tell them that they need to make the tongue work and that the jaw should not be doing all of the work.  If the tongue gets to just lie there or not move much, it will sound like a vowel sound.  (If the student will be working on a vocalic /r/ variant other than /er/, you can shape it from /er/ by adding the vowel sound in front of it. and talking about the mouth shape for that vowel /er/ combo.  If the student will be working on consonantal /r/ you can shape that from /er/ as well).

8. Once the student can do their vocalic /r/ variant in isolation with 80% accuracy, we move to syllables.  I write the /r/ variant on one sheet of paper and another letter on a different sheet of paper.  I ask the student to say the sound that corresponds with whichever paper I point to.  Then I mix it up. Sometimes I point to the same sound 2-3 times in a row.  I point in different orders, etc.

9. Once the student is at 80% accuracy with this, we move to the word level.  This is the point where I introduce the articulation hierarchy using “Articulation Score Card.”  (I make a copy for the student but I also have a laminated copy hanging on my wall.   my www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Articulation-Score-Card-Next-Level-685625             I explain to the student how he/she needs to reach 80% accuracy *consistently* before we can move to the next level on the card.  I explain how carryover will be the last step and that we would repeat this process with other /r/ variants, but that often we’ll see some of those start to come in naturally as we practice the current target.  I write the student’s name on the top of the card and keep it in their mailboxes/speech folders.  As the student completes each level, we check it off and write the date (this doesn’t mean that we can’t revisit this level later for a tune up).  After a while, watching the kids use this card is really cool B)  I have some students enthusiastically asking me what level they’re on now; I have others reminding ME what level we worked on last time; I even have some who will walk up to the chart on the wall to proudly show other students what level they’re on!  It is a huge motivator and the kids really get into percentages (because they are familiar with them from sports stats or video games).  I also show this chart to parents to help them understand all of the work we have to do.  It has the added benefit of helping kids and parents understand why I can’t predict how long their therapy process will take – it’s not up to me 😉

10. As we go through therapy, I assign homework based on what we did that day.  I never decide the homework in advance because it is based on either something that they did really well with that I want them to maintain for next time or something that they just got the hang of but had difficulty with and I want them to practice it at home.  (I write my homework on a telephone message pad so that I can give them a copy and I keep a copy).  I also emphasize that just “talking” or having a conversation is NOT practicing.  In order for it to count as speech homework, it has to be at the hierarchy level we are working on in therapy.

11. At the reading and conversational level, we also talk about suprasegmentals like prosody and stress.  Many of my kids come to me sounding “therapized” as I like to call it.  They have been working on /r/ for so long and they want to make sure their speech therapist hears it so they’ll say things like “waTERRR” when really most of us pronounce it more like “WAHder.” We talk about how if a word ends with a vocalic /r/, the stress is usually not on that syllable.  Final vocalic /r/s are rarely ever stressed.

12. At the conversational level, here’s what I use for taking data: http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/EASY-IMF-Articulation-Data-in-Conversation-664399  If I find that one word position is more in error than the others, we may practice that position again in words and sentences and/or shape it from the other positions.

13. Now that we are at the conversational level, we can start a new /r/ variant if necessary. You also have the option of doing another probe at this point to see if there has been some carryover and determine which /r/ variants are most in need now.

14. Once your target /r/ variations are firmly established (80%) in conversation in the speech therapy room, we start working on carryover.  For this step, I ask the student to identify teachers they think would be good people to listen to them in class.  My students have at least 5 different teachers. Some of the them teach multiple classes, so these are usually great people to ask to listen. Then I give the students a form to give to the teachers asking them to rate how the student’s target sound was for the week (Note, I the student should have all variations at this point so I am just asking the teacher to listen for “R”).  If the student is not comfortable asking the teachers him/herself, I put the form in the teachers’ boxes myself.  Check out my post on carryover: https://autumndawnbryant.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/articulation-carryover/. Another carryover activity could be having the student make a phone call (usually to the school library or office after I have tipped off the librarian or secretary and asked them to ask follow up questions so that the student has plenty of opportunity to talk).

15. My final step is to go into the classroom to observe the student.  I never announce which class I will do this in, the students just know at some point, I will pop up 😉  I also prep the students by telling them that I may have been going into the class to observe a different student and didn’t even know they were in that class….but, as long as I am there they should talk and volunteer because that is the final step toward graduation.  I let them know in clear terms that if they don’t talk, or provide a one-word answer, it was a waste of time and we’ll need to do this again.  The teachers at my junior high know to be discreet and that I would prefer if they didn’t call on my student first.  This way, the student doesn’t feel called out in front of peers.  I stay and listen to a few other kids talk too so it’s not clear who I was there to listen to.  The teachers also know to ask open-ended WH questions or ask the students to explain routines instead of asking yes/no questions.  (Here’s how I got the teachers on the same page 😉  http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/The-Role-of-SLPs-in-Schools-PowerPoint-600703 )

After I observe and hear that the student has carried the sound over into the classroom, we are done!  I meet with them the next session and discuss how they did.  If they need more work, then we work a little more.  If everything was great, I call the parents and set up a dismissal meeting.  At the meeting, I praise the student for the hard work, provide them with a professional looking signed certificate of completion, and shake the hands of both the parent and the student.  DONE 🙂

Need some vocalic R probes?  Check out these from my TPT store:

Boomkarks for Rhymes, Prefixes, Suffixes, and Root Words


“R” you ready for some football? (Football-themed Vocalic R sentences)


Modern Vocalic R Sentences – These aren’t your Grandma’s R probes 😉


Can you CONNECT FOUR speech/language targets?


Articulation Score Card – Next Level 


EASY I/M/F Articulation Data in Conversation!


Follow my TPT store to get notifications when I post others.

Autumn Bryant – Speech Language Investigator


The box in the middle shows the interior of the mouth from the Iowa Phonetics website. I drew a person around the box to help students understand what they were seeing.

Tools & Strategies Wall

In my office at the junior high, I have a “Tools and Strategies” wall with several of my most-frequently-used visuals velcroed to the wall.

Here’s what I use:
My “Tools & Strategies” wall

~ Top row ~

1) 1 visual to show how the hierarchy of correcting an /r/at all of the different levels (isolation, syllable, word, etc.) for thevarious forms of /r/ (vocalic and consonantal, i.e., ear, are, or, pr, kr, tr,etc. – based on “The Entire World of R” screener).


2) An Expanding Expression Toolkit (EET) strand and visual


3) A visual I created in boardmaker to help students withdefining words.  Like EET, itstarts with the category (in green). Underneath that, are questions to help students define the word,including: “What does it look like,” “What does it sound like,” “What does ittaste like,” etc.  In the center,there’s a picture of a star with the question “What makes it special” (in otherwords, how is it different from other similar things).


4) This is a fish graphic organizer from www.freeology.com.  It is designed to help studentsremember the 6 WH- questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how).  I added boardmaker pictures of thesewords to the ends of the fish bones 😉



5) This is a word finding visual from Diane German forPro-Ed.  It has 5 steps to helpstudents store the word for later retrieval, including syllable dividing,similar sounding or cue words, and rehearsing.  Here’s a picture someone posted of the form: http://greenpear.wikispaces.com/file/view/WF_Cue_Form.JPG


~ Bottom Row ~

6) This is my articulation hierarchy form that could be usedfor any sound.  When my students reach80% accuracy on one level in the articulation hierarchy (for 1-3 sessions), Ihave them check off that level and I write the date they achieved it in thatcell.  This really helps mystudents see the light at the end of the tunnel and understand that my goal isto help them graduate from speech therapy.  I even have had students walk up to this visual on the wallto show other students what level they are working at!  It has really helped them remember todo home-practice at the appropriate level.  They now understand that just having a conversation with momis not practicing if you are only supposed to be at the phrase level.  With this visual, my students are verymotivated to reach the conversation and carryover levels that ultimately leadto graduation 😉

(I use this one for /r/ variations as well. The one shown innumber one with all of the /r/ sounds on it just serves as a visual aid to showparents and students how much work we need to do.) http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Articulation-Score-Card-Next-Level-685625


7) This is a list of vocabulary strategies, like visualization,repetition, and context clues.


8) This is a “definition builder” to help kids define a wordusing a complete sentence.  Itincludes blanks and what kind of information they should put in eachblank.  It is now color coded tocorrespond to the EET.


9) This adorable visual from freeology.com is a hamburger graphic organizer forwriting.  It is a reminder that the“meat” of the paragraph needs to be sandwiched between a topic sentence and aconclusion.


10) This detail tree helps students understand that the mainidea is the root of the passage. Other details in the passage branch off from the main idea. This one is also from freeology.com 😉


11) This last visual shows the equation forinferences/predictions:

Background knowledge + Clues = A Good Guess





Tools and Strategies WallTools and Strategies Wall

1) R Hierarchy Visual1) R Hierarchy Visual

3) Boardmaker Definitions Visual3) Boardmaker Definitions Visual

4) WH Fishbone Graphic Organizer4) WH Fishbone Graphic Organizer

8) Definition Builder

8) Definition Builder

9) Hamburger Graphic Organizer

9) Hamburger Graphic Organizer

10) Main Idea & Details Tree

10) Main Idea & Details Tree

Articulation Carryover – HOW TO

Here’s what I use for articulation carryover ~

1. I use my articulation hierarchy form with the student throughout the therapy process. When students can visualize their progress in this way, I have found that they become very motivated to reach 80% so they can make it to the next level! http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Articulation-Score-Card-Next-Level-685625

2. Once students reach the carryover stage, I give them a slip of paper to take to 1-2 teachers of their choosing, asking how their target sound is in class (pictured)

3. I also encourage parents to choose a time in the day where they and the student agree they will be listening for the target sound.

4. I listen to the student’s target speech sound outside of the speech room, by either popping up in one or more of their classes or while they are on a field trip.

My students know the steps to the final stages of therapy, so they are excited to get their teacher feedback slip, and to check off the conversation level on their score cards.

5. My students can read my facial expressions so well! That is another thing that helps. I start off with exaggerated reactions to their errors paired with verbal feedback. As we progress, my expressions become more and more subtle, until eventually, they are similar to the fleeting expressions of confusion others will give them when their sound was not clear (and the listener isn’t sure which word they meant). I think this helps them to react to these natural cues when they happen outside of the Speech room. After a while, I can just furrow my brow or squint ever so slightly and the kids will correct their sounds! (I just have to try very hard not to give these natural cues this while testing)  😉

Teacher/Student Carryover Form
Articulation Score Card Next Level Hierarchy

Articulation Score Card

Carryover Teacher input