Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book Arrival!

It is finally here!

For years, I have been carrying information, ideas and stories in my head—ideas developed over decades of working with hundreds of children and their parents. 

This month I launch my mission to share these ideas and stories with others. I teamed up with Tracy Molitors, my long-time friend and colleague, because one of her images really is worth a thousand of my words. Together, we created part one in our series: Trees in the Forest: Growing Readers and Writers through Deep Comprehension

It is chock-full of ideas I use with children of all ages to enrich their language and language arts skills. This book is to be the first in my series connecting both language and art with language arts. It is a creative entanglement of my busy head (filled with years of language therapy experience) and Tracy’s ever-widening know-how as an artist and children’s art mentor. We both care that kids are given enough time to delve deeply into literature —enough time to discover their own love and talent for writing. 

I named my book Trees in the Forest because of my belief that when we study a piece of literature in depth, we learn about all of literature, just as one might study a tree to learn the forest. I have collected and modified strategies that aid struggling readers and writers who face the greatest challenges in the reading and writing arena. Tracy added her knowledge and talent, creating images and graphics, adding a bit of fun to my ideas! The result of our entwined roots is a book filled with educational philosophies and engaging activities targeted for anyone who teaches language arts: educators, speech-language therapists, art teachers, and home school parents.

 If you are interested in learning more about my book, you can order it through my website ( or on Amazon!


Monday, December 19, 2016

Some Holiday Perspective: "Happy" vs. "Merry"

Which do YOU prefer: “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas”??

In Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (1823), the poem ends with Santa exclaiming, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

However, while Moore called Christmas “happy,” Charles Dickens preferred “merry.” In his classic work, “A Christmas Carol” (1843), “Merry Christmas” resounds across the entire story. U.S. radio stations broadcast Dickens’ book for years, which no doubt influenced popular culture, solidifying “merry” in American usage. 

 So which word elicits the most warm-fuzzy sentiments? Let's do a word study to make up our minds:

The word “merry” provokes feelings of lightheartedness and high spirits. Today, every word in the “merry” family is bright and positive—merry, merriment, merrymaking. There are no negative derivatives (i.e. no "mis-merry" or "un-merry").

However, “happy” is a different story. The base word “hap” belongs to a much larger tree of words, many of which are relatively…unhappy. How about mishap, or hapless? Yikes.

Also, the base “hap” is super chancy, and who wants that? The morpheme “hap” means “chance, fortune, luck,” which is where we get mayhap, perhaps, and happenstance.

I’d rather not take a gamble when it comes to Christmas cheer. “Merry” is the clear winner in my book, its entire linguistic family is joyful and spirited! That “hap” family is far too hazardous.

Merry Holidays!



Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Gift of Language

Do you say fireflies or lightning bugs? Yardsale, garage sale, or tag sale? Tennis shoes, sneakers, or gym shoes? When your friends argue vehemently over kitty-corner or catty-corner, would you like to know where the confusion originated?

If you are looking for a fun language-based Christmas gift, try Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, by Josh Katz. This book is a fun, visual guide through American vernacular and how it differs across the 50 states. The large, colorful graphics and charts on each page make this book visually pleasing and easy to peruse. Katz also writes interesting notes outlining the historical evolution of our country’s surprisingly variable vocabulary and idioms.

Speaking American provides endless entertainment and conversation among family members and friends. It makes for a fun cover-to-cover read, as well as something to flip through at random.

The best gifts are both fun and stimulate thinking - Speaking American by Josh Katz fits the bill perfectly!


Friday, December 9, 2016

Fishing for Meaning

Last week, we talked about making our teaching both Visible and Enjoyable—for all students. We want to make teaching:

Visible because children who struggle in any given area will not easily make connections to text and writing. They struggle to gain automaticity, so they must learn each step explicitly. Each Visible skill needs to be practiced repeatedly, both in isolation and connected with other related skills. Repeated skill practice is by nature a dull affair, yet for many children, it cannot be avoided.

Enjoyable because struggling learners spend entire school days engaging in tasks that are difficult and frustrating. They struggle with cognitive fatigue and feelings of shame or embarrassment. Sometimes anger and resentment result. The more we can make skill practice Enjoyable, the easier it is on everyone. More than anything, learning that is Enjoyable supports the educator-student bond—a bond often challenged when reading and writing difficulties define the day.

To help children more fully comprehend text in an easy to follow (Visible) and interesting (Enjoyable) way, I developed a strategy I call Fishing for Meaning. Fishing for Meaning helps kids to understand that words on a page have secret messages and ideas underneath—much the way the surface of the ocean holds an entire word of living creatures below the surface, hidden within its depths.

Fishing for Meaning is both a Visible and Enjoyable metaphor to help you teach children how to interpret deeper meaning within their reading passages. Fishing for Meaning also gives kids another reason to write in Bits and Pieces! Tracy Molitors designed this wonderful visual to share, so be sure to download this free activity to use with your students! Visit my the Rooted in Language home page ( and click the "Download your free activity" button!


Friday, December 2, 2016

Visible and Enjoyable

I like to compare reading and writing with dancing. I am not good at motor planning, so I need explicit dance instruction that shows each step slowly—practiced over and over—and still more practice putting steps together. But a natural dancer, with naturally strong coordination and motor planning skills, learns basic steps easily without as much explicit training, and then easily consolidates those steps into a fluent routine. The strong dancer who easily masters a repertoire is free to improvise.  Improvisation brings forth innovative ideas that inspire us all.

I have noticed over the years that my students who struggle the most are the ones who teach me how to teach. Like my dancing, the struggling student does not have the natural aptitude needed to gain automaticity in some or all reading and writing skills. Therefore, I puzzle out the best ways to teach each student the steps, as well as the entire reading routine. Students who struggle remind me that my teaching needs to be both Visible and Enjoyable.

Children with stronger reading and writing skills benefit from teaching that is Visible and Enjoyable, as well. They naturally create reading and writing games because their skills help them to explore with joy. They improvise and then innovate, much like a dancer. Their innovative ideas can be borrowed and modified, to the benefit of all. We want to use creative ideas to encourage our student’s sense of fun. Then we can sit back and enjoy the language-rich play they create.

Any time we can make the process easy to follow (Visible) and interesting (Enjoyable), it is a win for all. As in the dance metaphor, music that has an obvious beat is easier to follow. Music that I enjoy inspires me to overcome my awkwardness. If I don’t like the music, I tend to sit on the sideline and watch. Or I find something else to do.

One way I try to make reading and writing more Visible and Enjoyable is by using visually interesting art concepts. If you are interested in learning more about how to link the visual arts to your language arts program, my colleague and artist friend, Tracy Molitors, has a blog: Connecting Art to Language Arts. You can also connect to Tracy’s blog via the link on the right side of the screen!


Monday, November 21, 2016

Joy to the Word!

As the holiday season approaches, take this opportunity to do some word study of those delectably complex words that only escape our mouths a few times per year! Words like: Thanksgiving, Pilgrim, cornucopia, bountiful, Christmas, holiday, reindeer, yuletide...etc. We say these words, but most of us have no knowledge of the morphology (a word's meaningful parts and history). 

Thank God for Google! Take some time to explore the meanings of these words with your children this year, and create some "word sums" by breaking these unique words into their meaningful chunks (prefixes, suffixes, base words). Word sums are a great way to get your children thinking about word meaning and spelling from a morphological perspective. See the image below for a word sum example, using the word: THANKSGIVING.


Monday, November 14, 2016

A C/oo/l Lesson

Last week I introduced the idea of “vowel teams” to one of my students - two vowels that, together, make one sound. We started with the vowel team, <oo>.

Our lesson involved some explicit teaching, naturally, but I like to quickly move to application of new sounds in words, using multisensory activities that target underlying phonological processing.

So we pulled out the “Sylla-boards” (available at The kids love writing on the “sylla-boards” instead of the regular white board, because they are little and cute (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t love anything in miniature form?). Here are the rules of “Sylla-boards”: Each board can hold a single-syllable word, but if the word has more than one syllable, it must be split across the boards. The syllaboards are wonderful for practicing targeted sounds while also ensuring the child is reading and writing across their syllables and using strong processing skills!

My student picked a marker color, and I dictated <oo> words while she wrote them on the boards, pronouncing each sound out loud simultaneously with her letter formation. And then we got silly…

We chose our favorite words, and attempted to make sentences using all of the words. Naturally, when working with a 10-year-old, practicing difficult phonics skills is only fun when it involves bathroom humor and British accents! Thus, the following sentences were generated (see image).

Strong phonics work can be both explicit and fun! In fact, a little silliness is often necessary when doing concentrated practice of challenging skills.


Friday, November 4, 2016

Guest Post: Learning Setting from Picture Books

From Tracy Molitors – Children’s book author and artist

Setting can be a powerful ally to the writer because it can help establish the mood of a story. It can also add to a story’s believability. Readers can enter an entirely new world and completely let go of their disbelief for the duration of the tale. My daughter says that a good setting helps create story earmuffs—it allows one to tune out distractions and stay safely muffled in a different world!
 Due to their unique combination of words and illustrations, picture books can be a great tool for studying the influence of setting within a story. One such picture book I would recommend is Aaron Becker’s marvelous wordless picture book, Journey (published by Candlewick Press, 2013). The book opens in a modern urban setting and then changes to a beautifully rendered fantastical world of imagination.

The change in setting is accompanied by a change in mood, as well as action. This shift actually drives the plot.  Such a huge visual contrast between the story’s two settings provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss the power of setting with your children. Here are some questions to spark a discussion:

  • How does the setting direct or frame the story? (or how does the story change as the setting changes?)
  •  How does Becker use color to increase the effectiveness of setting?
  • Writers use point-of-view, such as first- and third-person shifts, to influence a reader, but an illustrator can change point-of-view by changing the artistic perspective from page to page (sometimes close-up, sometimes far away—sometimes looking up at objects or sometimes looking down). Where does Becker do this? Does it change the reader’s response or feeling? Add tension?
  • Find the places where Becker uses tremendous detail in his setting and find the places where he uses almost no detail. Are both effective? Is the contrast effective? How would you accomplish this in writing?

After studying the book (or another of your choice), have your children write a paragraph or two describing one or both of Becker’s settings (or making up a setting of their own). If your child is uncomfortable with writing on his/her own, engage in partnership writing with them—each of you coming up with a descriptive phrase about one of the two settings, and taking turns writing down each phrase or sentence. Continue going back and forth until you run out of descriptions. See if you can vary the details in your sentences or phrases (some long and descriptive, some short and sparse) like Becker does in his images.


*Note from Rita and Moira: 
Let kids write in Bits and Pieces, by composing one phrase or sentence on a Post-It Note, and putting that note on each page. Writing single sentences on Post-It Notes is less intimidating for the struggling writer!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Wordless Books for Writing in "Bits and Pieces"

Lately I’ve been practicing writing in “Bits and Pieces” with my students (see Rita’s Twigs blog post, “Writing in Bits and Pieces”). As we engage in this process, it is helpful to give my clients some content or context in which we practice writing down those thoughts. Of course, books to the rescue! Lately, I’ve enjoyed using wordless picture books as a guide through this process of writing down thoughts in unthreatening amounts. Wordless picture books are a great way to facilitate conversation and writing - the content is before you, but we must add narration!

My students and I make our way through each page of the book, jotting down captions for each image on post-it notes and pasting it directly on the page! For my writers who struggle the most, we parter (I write one, you write one...or you write a couple words of the sentence, and I’ll finish it), for others, I let them write sentence by sentence on each post-it note all by themselves. When we’ve completed the book, they are amazed at how much writing they did (those post-it notes really add up)!

Current wordless picture book favorites of mine include The Bear and the Fly by Paula Winter (available on Amazon), and Blart: A Little Blob of Art by Tracy Molitors (also available on Amazon, or visit ( for more info on Blart and other fun writing activities). Even though many people associate picture books with young children, these two book suggestions use advanced humor which appeals to older students as well. One middle-school student of Rita’s, Ava, was so inspired by the adventures of Blart, that she illustrated her own wordless picture book, which can now be used to spark further writing!


From Ava’s book, Unbreakable, about a lost balloon

Friday, October 21, 2016

Writing in Bits and Pieces

In my upcoming book, Trees in the Forest: Growing Readers and Writers Through Deep Comprehension, all of the lessons encourage writing in “bits and pieces.” Moira and I also encourage Bits and Pieces writing during therapy sessions with our students. Learning to write fluidly and automatically has to start somewhere--starting the process in little Bits and Pieces is best for new or struggling writers.

So what is Bits and Pieces writing? When we engage in writing our thoughts using smaller phrases and sentences, I call this writing “bits and pieces.” Bits and Pieces writing encourages kids to write because it’s not complete paragraphs or papers. Children who fear writing, or struggle with reading and writing, are better able to engage if they do it in Bits and Pieces.

Seeing their ideas written on paper helps children to validate their private internal conversations. Writing activities, written in Bits and Pieces, helps readers to identify their thoughts as “worthy” of further discussion--in both conversation and in additional writing.

In her book, You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen suggests that males in particular tend to disregard fleeting thoughts as not worth sharing. I find that helping all children capture their fleeting thoughts is key to engaging in not only deep comprehension, but also original writing.

The level of simplicity or writing challenge may depend on the literature you select. It may depend on the topic or activity. Or it may depend on each child’s particular strengths and interests. Learning to capture thoughts and dig deep into written expression is not a simple skill. It is a skill that takes years to develop and master, as young minds grow in abstract thinking and life experiences. Like us, our children achieve mastery (in all areas of life) in Bits and Pieces.

Lessons that utilize Bits and Pieces writing are a means to explore deep meaning, comprehension, and expression. Each chapter in my book sneaks Bits and Pieces of writing into a student’s day as a means of strengthening expressive writing. Modify and repeat the Bits and Pieces  lessons throughout the year and for years to come. Engage in deep comprehension and writing in our own life--and for a lifetime.

Many children who struggle with writing (and let’s face it, we all struggle with writing on some level) will appreciate using Bits and Pieces to help them explore their skills in stages.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

So you have Dyslexia

One of the most difficult parts of being a Speech-Language Therapist is telling parents that their child has a disorder. Every time I score an assessment and the results are below the 25th percentile (in the below average...poor...very poor ranges), I feel a little heavy-hearted. Now I have to tell the parents that their child has dyslexia, I think to myself. Never a fun conversation. But then I think, Now the parents have to tell their child that he/she has dyslexia. Probably a worse conversation.
Admittedly, I am an SLP who diagnoses disorders of relatively mild life-impact compared to diagnoses of intellectual disability or terminal illness. However, while I acknowledge that there are worse diagnoses, let us not diminish what it means to have dyslexia. It means a life of difficulty when engaging with written language (be it reading or writing). The entirety of academics is more strenuous for the student with dyslexia. Here is what students express to us:

When a chemistry teacher gives a killer exam, I not only have to worry about understanding and remembering the challenging content on the test, but also reading/decoding the questions and then being able to write a response with proper spelling. Tracking across sounds is difficult, so I try to visually memorize what every word looks like...but there are too many words, so I eventually just stop reading because it hurts my brain to try. I claim I hate to read, but I’ve never actually been able to read with any amount of accuracy. I’ve never been able to experience reading as a pastime, because it is so incredibly effortful, that the time doesn’t pass, it drags. Writing isn’t a habitual skill, it’s like trying to write in ancient Aramaic; everyone else is scribbling quickly and easily, and I’m holding my pencil like, “You guys...this is ancient Aramaic. It’ll take me 45 minutes to try to write one sentence.” So I hate writing too. I routinely wonder if I am stupid, because how could I not be, when interacting with text is such a nightmare for me, but appears so natural for everyone else?

Not every child with dyslexia experiences the level of severity described above. In fact, while dyslexia cannot be cured per se, language skills can certainly improve and become more automatic with consistent therapy and practice. But the fact remains that dyslexia is a difficult beast to battle. And many parents have expressed dread at the prospect of telling their child that he or she is atypical.

Both Rita and I have found that fully educating a child about their diagnosis leads to better outcomes. Progress significantly improves if the child understands that their brain is working in inefficient ways for processing language, and that they need to work hard to help their brain learn to be more efficient so reading and writing become easier. We have actually found that many children, upon learning that they have dyslexia, are relieved to have a name for what they’ve been experiencing. Their secret fear is that they are stupid, but now they have a reason for all the difficulty they’ve faced! I am always very intentional about explaining dyslexia as separate from intelligence. A person with dyslexia can have normal to extremely high intelligence, and still be dyslexic. Dyslexia affects the reading and writing brain; it is a difficulty with phonological processing and working memory for language. It is not a cognitive disorder. If a child really knows and understands this distinction, he or she may receive the news gratefully. One parent reported to me that their child took the news so well, she made up a song about her dyslexia! It can be extremely comforting to know that one no longer has to pretend, that family and teachers understand.

While not every child reacts with such positive acceptance, it is important to keep explaining their struggle in terms of language processing, while continuing to distinguish between dyslexia and intelligence--you might be surprised at how often your child needs to hear this. Praise them for their ideas, humor, and other talents. Do not let the term dyslexia become taboo, the big D-WORD.  Use if often, casually, and without shame, because it is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, dyslexia shouldn’t define children, but it has such a significant impact on their learning experience that it needs to be acknowledged.


Monday, October 3, 2016

Pick a Pad. Pick a Pen.

Today a student picked a purple pen. These are the new (to us, anyway) “Ball Frixion Clicker” erasable and retractable pens by Pilot. Picking a pen or pencil is an important piece of the puzzle in helping students who struggle with writing. It has to have the personally appointed amount of heft, flow, and fineness level, with a personally appealing color. If it has an eraser--that actually erases--that is fantastic!

The non-erasable student-preferred pen tends to be the Pentel EnerGel 0.7mm in blue. They are refillable, but mine is always missing from my desk!

Pencils have to be either mechanical or not, with good erasers--again, one’s that actually erase. These include Ticonderoga brand (best erasers) for traditional pencils (now in cool stripy colors). For young children, Papermate 1.3 mm mechanical pencil comes in awesome colors and is easy to hold due to its triangular shape, but you have to order the lead online, as it is hard to find. For older students who prefer mechanical pencils, most seem to prefer the Pentel Twist Erase Clicker, with its pleasing rubber grip points.

For notepaper, my students with dysgraphia prefer the Stinger notepads by Tops. These have light blue or green shading on every other line, helping students to easily write on every-other line and keep their writing a bit more legible. Also, it is easier to fill a page that way!

Larger colored Post-it Notes with lines are also a big hit. Again, less writing is required to fill a “page” or “post!”

My students know I am always on the lookout for their recommended paper and pens/pencils. If you have other suggestions, please share. We want to make writing as pleasing as possible!


Friday, September 23, 2016

Reading Music with Dyslexia

I was recently approached by a parent and asked about her daughter’s struggles with learning to read music in her piano lessons. This mother wondered if her daughter’s difficulty had anything to do with her dyslexia. If so, she queried, what should they expect regarding her daughter’s ability to learn an instrument?

This is not the first time this topic has been brought to my attention. As a pianist, former piano teacher, and vocalist, I have some background experience with learning to read music and teaching others to read music. Like learning any new system, it certainly isn’t easy. However, we know that engaging with linguistic text (reading/writing) is more difficult for individuals with dyslexia, so we can expect learning to read music to follow a similar trajectory. But why? How is reading a book or writing a sentence essentially the same as reading a piece of music and playing a tune? They seem so different! As it turns out...they share more similarities than you might think.

For a child with dyslexia, sound-letter matching is difficult, which in turn causes effortful reading and writing. By the same token, sound-note matching will likely be difficult when reading music. Music is a "language," in a sense: it is a code system using our phonological processing areas and working memory to recall note names, and then pair each name with specific placements on the staff to create meaning. We call it "reading" music because the individual has to decode symbols and comprehend their meaning, just as you do with text. Additionally, we know that children with dyslexia have trouble with horizontal tracking across text, and reading music requires horizontal and vertical tracking. Dyslexic kids do not have strong left to right tracking skills, not because they can’t, but because they do not develop it in reading. Furthermore, music symbols look awfully similar. Often, the only difference between two notes is their vertical orientation on a staff! If a child has difficulty distinguishing between <b>, <d>, <p> and <q>, distinguishing between two half-notes that look the same but are on different lines would also be quite challenging! As you can see, dyslexia is a symbol-based disorder, and both reading and music are symbol-based processes.

If anything, pairing tones with notes is a different level of sound processing because all notes are relative to each other on a harmonic scale. By contrast, speech sounds do not change in meaning if the frequency changes (i.e. Saying “hello” in a low pitch vs. a high pitch does not change the meaning of “hello”).

It is also worth mentioning that piano is one of the more difficult instruments to play, given that it requires strong cross-talk across the right and left hemispheres of the brain, more so than other instruments. When playing the piano, the right hand and left hand (or rather, the right brain and left brain) must read two separate staves simultaneously (treble and bass clef) - this is challenging for people who don't have dyslexia, too! Most other instruments require the instrumentalist to read only one staff.

With all this in mind, we know children with dyslexia are not efficient users of their language areas (left hemisphere). They tend to use their right hemisphere for most processing. We also know that music (tones, prosody, etc.) is processed mostly in the right hemisphere. So, it is not uncommon for a child with dyslexia to still be musically-inclined. He or she might still have a good ear for music, or can accurately hit pitches when they sing - it's that stronger right brain! And that is an encouraging thought.


Monday, September 12, 2016

"When chopping onions, just chop onions"

I have been listening to the book Cooked by Michael Pollan, in which he states his challenge about chopping onions. Pollan laments that he was given a mandate to be absorbed in the moment when chopping onions and vegetables—rather than avoiding this foundational cooking task, as many of us do. Not to multi-task. Just to allow himself the satisfaction of engaging in a task and letting his mind delve into thought.

But you know—I hate chopping onions. I have a son-in-law who knows this about me, and so often offers to chop my onions for me. (I gotta admit, I love him for it!) It’s not that I hate onions. I love cooking onions. I love smelling and eating onions. But if I can find a way to avoid the eye-streaming-nose-running-results of chopping onions, I will.

It occurred to me this afternoon, while chopping onions, that my feelings about onions parallel the way some of my students feel about reading. You see, I was chopping away because I was following an onion soup recipe given to me by one of my students. He is a graduating senior, working as a cook in a local restaurant. He loves to cook and (I am sad to admit after all my years of teaching him how) he hates to read. So you see how the layers of my thoughts were peeling away to the core, much like the layers of the onions in my hands.

Here’s the thing: I had commanded myself to follow Pollan’s advice—“When chopping onions, just chop onions”—but I couldn’t bring myself to comply. Instead, I put on my blue tooth and listened to Pollan’s book while I chopped. Viola! With audio support, I actually enjoyed chopping the onions and garlic for my soup. Then, because I was enjoying listening, I continued chopping the ginger, asparagus and green onion for the next night’s stir fry.

You can probably imagine where I am going with this metaphor in relation to kids who don’t like reading. Reading for some children is as tedious and difficult as chopping onions! It can even lead to tears. But if we pair their reading time with more pleasant experiences, they might at least tolerate it. They may even enjoy it.

There are strategies to help kids endure the onions. One is the use of audio books. Letting kids listen allows them to independently read along at a level that would normally be out of their league.

In the end, we may not be able to convince them that decoding is fun, but they will discover a way to independently enrich their lives with books.