by Susan Kelley-Smith

Summary Chart...

TECH-NJ: 2000, Vol 11., No. 1

Can we talk?" Joan Rivers frequently asks at the beginning of one of her monologues. Talking...communicating...most of us take it for granted. But many individuals have had or know someone who has had communication difficulties some time in their lives. Communication difficulties take the form of a receptive or expressive language impairment that might affect an individual's vocabulary, grammar, processing or social skills. Individuals may also have disfluencies (i.e. stuttering), articulation errors (i.e. speech sound production errors) or voice disorders.

As a speech therapist in a public school, I wanted to find quality software programs that I could use with a diverse population of students to improve their language and communication skills. The following six programs cover a range of communication difficulties. The accompanying chart highlights the focus of each program, access options, publisher information, and current prices.

Teach Me to Talk

Teach Me to Talk by SoftTouch benefits the student who is at the beginning stages of language development. The program utilizes over 150 Mayer­Johnson photographs of real objects. There are four activities in this program: Teach Me to Talk, Switch-On-Picts, Puzzle Play and Story Time. Clicking a button will display teaching hints for each activity.

The Teach Me to Talk activity is for students who are learning to match pictures to their spoken word names. Students see a photograph and hear the name of the photograph. A display of 6, 9 or 15 photographs may be selected. The photograph moves and morphs into a line drawing of the photo. A musical interlude plays in the background. The teacher has the option turning off the music, movement or morphing features. The teacher may also deselect the symbol (line drawing) feature. The teacher can choose from particularcategories of pictures to teach: five thematic categories (e.g., food, animals); three bilabial categories (p, b, m); and four general categories (encompasses a variety of picture types).

The Switch-On-Picts activity gives the student switch practice. A photograph appears on the screen with a picture of a switch in the bottom right corner. The photograph is named once and then the switch picture flashes repeatedly. If the teacher selects the verbal prompt option, the computer will say, "Press the switch." Once the switch (or mouse) is pressed the next picture appears. The teacher has the option to include music and/or movement with the photographs.

The Puzzle Play activity features 100 photographs from which to select. The teacher can choose 2, 3, 4, 8, or 16 puzzle pieces and has the option of selecting one of four different methods of completing the puzzle. For example, when the automatic manner is selected, the student selects a puzzle piece and the piece floats to the correct spot in the puzzle. When the puzzle is complete the name of the picture is spoken.

The Story Time activity puts the training words into a short sentence structure using four-line English rhymes. Each line is highlighted as it is spoken. The teacher can choose rhymes by category or can select rhymes to play in sequence. A sample rhyme from the animal category goes like this:
A dog will always bark,
And a cow will say moo,
And a pig likes to say oink,
And a chicken goes cock-a-doodle-doo.

Strengths of Teach Me to Talk

The use of real-life photographs helps students make the connection between a photograph and the concrete object the photograph represents. Both photographs and line drawings can be used in the Teach Me to Talk activity. This combination helps students make the visual transition from concrete to abstract pictures. The program is easily customized, and the music, movement and morphing features can be turned off for students who are easily distracted.

TalkTime with Tucker

TalkTime with Tucker by Laureate Learning Systems is designed to help students increase their vocalizations. Wearing a headset microphone, a student can make Tucker move and respond by speaking into the mike. The program covers a range of communication processes and accepts a broad range of verbal input. It can be used sequentially from simple sounds or words to increased volume to increased sentence length to communicative exchanges.

Five activities make up this program: On Stage, On the Farm, A Walk in the Woods, Fantasyland and Let's Talk. The student or teacher can select any of these activities in any order from the activity menu.

The On Stage activity features circus animals in the Amazing Animal Show. A student producing any sound can make an animal perform a trick. For example, Harry the Hippo directs, "Talk to me and I'll dance." After a response from the student Harry dances and then says, "Talk more and I'll jump." Harry's final trick is performed after the student responds to, "Say something else and I'll kick."

The On the Farm activity presents a variety of farm animals that encourage the student to speak. For example, a donkey states, "Donkeys say hee-haw. Talk to me and I'll show you how I kick."

The activity A Walk in the Woods encourages students to increase the length of their verbalizations. For instance, a mother bird directs, "Talk and make sounds and see how the eggs change. The longer you talk the more you'll see happen." As the student talks, eggs in a nest begin to crack open and baby birds emerge.

Tucker is a wizard who encounters fictional characters in the Fantasyland activity. Students adjust the volumes of their voices to make Tucker fly higher on his way to a castle. The characters Tucker encounters recite poems that encourage speech. For example, the knight recites, "I'm the knight who guards the magic door. Say the magic word and I will show you more."

The Let's Talk activity gives the student the opportunity to participate in a conversation. The student talks for Tucker who is being interviewed by Casey the Chameleon. Casey, who hosts his own talk show, asks Tucker a variety of open- ended questions.

Tiger's Tale

Tiger's Tale, also by Laureate Learning Systems,is a tool that assists students with disfluencies, articulation errors and voice disorders. Using a microphone headset, students record and playback their own voices in order to talk for Tiger who has lost his voice. Tiger's animal friends ask questions to help the students formulate words to say. For example, Cookie the Cockatoo asks, "What would you say if you got hit in the head with a coconut?" Cookie also says, "Help Tiger stop the taxi" while the taxi is banging back and forth between two trees.

Students can select a story with 5, 10, or 14 scenes in it. With each animated scene presented, students have up to ten seconds to record a response for Tiger. Students then click the play and save button to hear their recording so that they can make changes if they wish. This button also saves the latest recording for inclusion in a movie drama. In the final scene students have to click on various objects to find the object that hides Tiger's voice. Once Tiger's voice is found, students view the "home movie" that features their voices as Tiger. Using the play and save button improves students' verbal productions. When they playback their voices they receive auditory feedback and can make revisions by saying sounds more clearly, saying sentences more fluently, and/or raising the volume of their voices.

Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Old MacDonald Had a Farm by Sunburst uses that popular song to assist students with their reading, writing and vocabulary skills. It is amazing what can be done with just one song. When the program opens with the Old MacDonald toolbar, students can select from the following: Sing to Me, Read to Me, I Can Read, Index, Check Your Work and Paint.

A student selecting the Sing to Me option would hear the Old MacDonald song lyrics and see accompanying pictures. As the words of the song are sung, they are highlighted so that the student may follow along. The Read to Me option is similar to the Sing to Me activity except that the highlighted words are read aloud.

When a student selects the I Can Read option, s/he can independently read the words of Old MacDonald. The student can check his/her reading accuracy by clicking on words to hear them read.

Upon selection of the Index option a student can learn about the various farm animals. When a student selects an animal from the index, the page of the Old MacDonald book representing that animal is displayed. The student can then click that animal on the page, see a real-life video of that animal and hear the sound it makes. The Old MacDonald music plays in the background.

The Check Your Work option allows students to check their answers on worksheets completed away from the computer. Teachers can make copies of the worksheets that are available in the back of the manual and on templates available on the computer (using ClarisWorks, ClarisWorks for Kids or Kids Media Magic). The nine types of worksheets available are Animal Names, Animal Voices, Beginning Sounds, Ending Sounds, Vowel Sounds, Mommies and Babies, Color Me Silly, Mazes and What's Wrong.

A student checking his/her answers on the Animal Names worksheet, for example, would see pictures of five animals at the top of the page and five animal names at the bottom. To listen to directions for that page, the student would click the begin button and would hear directions asking him/her to click on an animal and compare the line that s/he drew with the line on the worksheet. The computer draws a line connecting the animal to its name and speaks, "Chicken begins with the Ch sound. The Ch sound says 'ch.' Chicken."

Other supplemental worksheets/templates available to the teacher include an Old MacDonald Sing-Along Song Sheet, My Farm Report, World Maps and a Parent Letter.

The Paint option allows students to draw and paint their own illustrations using the computer. Students can select from 12 different backgrounds. They can add shapes, words, stamps or clip art to their illustrations. They can also paint on their own using the spray can, pencil, marker, crayon or brush tools.

My Town: Language Activities of Daily Living

My Town: Language Activities of Daily Living, by Laureate Learning Systems, is designed to help children and adults understand and express functional vocabulary in typical community scenes. The six scenes represented in this program are a city, a dentist's office, a doctor's office, a park, a restaurant and a suburb. There are four activity options available with each scene: Discover Names, Identify Names, Discover Descriptions and Identify Descriptions.

In the Discover Names activity a student selects an item in the scene by clicking on it. The computer names the item in a carrier phrase, such as "This is a taxi."

Using the Identify Names activity, the computer prompts the student to find particular items, for example, "Find the traffic light." When the correct item is selected, the student hears, "Yes, this is the traffic light" as the picture of that item flashes on and off. If the student does not select an item or selects an incorrect item, the item flashes as an additional prompt. If the item is again not selected, the computer identifies the correct item.

In the Discover Descriptions activity, when a student selects an item in the scene, the computer gives a description of that item. For example, "You can fly a kite on windy days."

In the Identify Descriptions activity, the computer prompts the student to find items according to the spoken description, for example "What bird can swim in a pond?" When the correct item is selected, the student hears, "Yes, a duck can swim in a pond."

Various options are available to a teacher using this program. With both the Identify Names and Identify Descriptions, the teacher can choose the options "item names" and "cue answers." When the "item names" option is checked, the written word also appears on the screen. When the "cue answers" option is checked, the correct item flashes before the student responds to the request. This prompts the student with the correct choice.

With all four activities, the teacher can select which items to target in each scene. Each scene has between 16 and 23 identifiable items. For example, if the teacher wishes to target only transportation items, s/he could select the following items from the city scene: bus, fire trick, police car and taxi. In this example, the student would get responses from only those four items.

This program can be used with individuals with a range of disabilities. The authors of this program indicate that this program can benefit low-functioning children and adults. The authors also indicate it can benefit individuals with autism or physical disabilities as well as those who have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Let's Go Read: An Island Adventure

Let's Go Read: An Island Adventure by Edmark was designed to assist students with the beginning skills of reading. The program combines both phonics and whole language techniques. This combination also assists students who need practice with their articulation and vocabulary skills.

Students travel through this interactive program with Robbie the Raccoon and Emily the Squirrel in an airplane named Reading Rover. There are ten activities available through this program. Some of the activities feature speech recognition technology, which allows students to interact with the program using their voices. Five of the activities take place on Letter Island and five take place aboard the Rover.

Examples of the five activities featured on Letter Island follow. Throughout these activities the letters are presented several times in uppercase, in lowercase and in a combination of both, as well as in different font styles. For each activity, students can press an orange button to play the activity again or press the green arrow to go to the next activity.

  1. Letter Sound Introduction: Emily directs, "This is my friend T. Can you say 't' into the microphone?"
  2. Letter Recognition: Students sort coconuts with the targeted letter on them into the lettered basket and also sort coconuts without the targeted letter on them in the unidentified basket.
  3. Letter Form Awareness: Students drag puzzle pieces into the letter shape and hear for example, "We made a capital T. T makes the 't' sound."
  4. Letter Sound Recognition: The targeted letter is a lifeguard. Students select shells for crabs to wear that only have the targeted letter on them.
  5. Letter Sounds in Words: Students view tee shirts with words on them. They have to select only the tee shirts with the targeted letter on them.

Examples of the five activities aboard the Rover follow.

  1. Pilot Training: Students are introduced to speech recognition technology. Rover follows their verbal command by flying "up," "down," "right," "left" or "through" clouds.
  2. Sight Words: Students see words in the clouds such as "the," "at" and "end." They repeat the words after Rover.
  3. Word Building: Students build three-letter rhyming words from letters they have mastered on Letter Island.
  4. Sentence Building: Students help Robbie and Emily select pictures to build silly sentences. Students also select words or pictures to complete sentences.
  5. Interactive Books: Books matching the skills of a student appear in the clouds. Students can read the pages of a book and record their voices using a microphone or they can select to have words or sentences read to them.

Students, teachers or parents can access the main menu of the program to see for which letters a student has completed all activities and to see which books the student has read. Teachers can monitor each child using the program by accessing the adult options. A Grow Slide shows student progression through the letters and allows teachers and parents to control which letter is being targeted..

In my experience, I have found that young children with multiple articulation errors often improve their speech sound production as they learn to read. They learn to associate the correct placement of the tongue, teeth and lips of a sound with the visual representation of the letter. As they continue to read that association becomes stronger. This program provides an entertaining and rewarding way to begin that association.

Susan Kelley-Smith is a speech/language therapist in Bucks County, PA.

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