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!