April 25, 2022
There is no shortage of chaos when you enter my speech room. Nowadays, with groups of 2-4, often with varying goals, and always with time as a hot commodity, chaos is just the reality. Add to that our ongoing group projects, and I’m certainly not winning any awards for tidiness either.
To set the scene, here’s a real-life conversation that happened as my principal walked by last week.
Principal - “What are we building this month?” Me - “Oh these? These are volcanoes.” P - “Oh. Got it.” Me - “We’ll erupt them outside.” P - “Yeah I figured. Thanks for clarifying. Be sure to invite me on eruption day!”
Let’s elaborate on why I would take on such a messy, involved, project. A significant portion of my current pull out caseload is speech sound work with a touch of language and fluency. I serve most of my students with language goals and my preschoolers in a push in model. To assuage full boredom (on my part and that of my students), a few years ago I started doing whole “class”, month-ish long projects.
Project is a loose term to describe any ongoing, beginning/middle/end, multi-step work. This can be more science minded, purely crafty, designed-based, or kinesthetic. A few of our favorites will be provided below.
To begin a new project, during each group’s speech time, they brainstorm our next project. This happens on a joint “whiteboard” on the back of my door. By whiteboard, I want to be clear, I mean a piece of tagboard I covered in packing tape, taped to the door, and use with dry-erase markers. We’ve got to own our nuanced ways of recreating “actual” school supplies. In true brainstorm fashion, this is no holds barred, all ideas are honored, and all ideas morph into others. Anymore, school is so regimented (and often so packed with “extras” for our students), that I love giving them the opportunity to think freely.
Once an idea has been agreed upon, my first group of the day takes over. They have been designated my “engineers” and they help with the initial planning as new projects arise. A second-grade boy with amazing ideas and a broad imagination, who also seems to find traditional schooling quite difficult, fulfills this role perfectly. He’s been my “solutions man” for two years straight now.
Occasionally this involves some internet research. Often this involves hunting down random supplies. And always, we keep our goals and actual speech/language work at the forefront of each project. For my speech sound students, we identify words with their target sounds in the initial planning process. We write out our plans, including necessary materials and steps to accomplish our goals, which is displayed on the wall throughout the project. This takes multiple groups and, depending on student age, either I scribe, or they do the writing. Tapping into orthographic skills, identifying opportunities for phonological awareness work, and noticing phonemic neighbors, while working on speech sounds is paramount.
You may be skeptical and already be dismissing this post as, well, how does she actually get enough productions in? Friends, I got you.
Projects, whether science-based or otherwise, lead to words with targets in a natural-based, embedded context. We can say each word 10 times, revisit them again, and easily get our 100 productions in 15-20 minute sessions. And, on the off chance we don’t? We are SLPs. We think on our feet and can find related vocabulary (or rhyming words or neighbors!) and we can get that extra practice. My sentence level and beyond kids get a lot of natural practice as they hear, read, then write the steps to our projects. My language kids have vocabulary overload, as well as sequencing practice, practice describing, and so much comprehension as this is all new learning.
Without further adieu, here are a handful of our group projects and some fun ways you can target each goal within the project:
We used a version of these bricks (leftover from my childhood, but you could really use boxes). A target was established at the beginning of each session (e.g. say 100 words with your sound or use the expanding expression tool to describe 5 words). Once this was accomplished, a sticker was added to the brick. Once 10 stickers were completed, the brick was “active” and ready to be used in the building. Each student worked on their own brick and once their brick was active, it went into the collective fireplace.
After the fireplace was built, we used paper towel and toilet paper rolls for firewood. It took us a bit as we had to cover the rolls in words, story maps, etc, before the fireplace could be filled.
Finally we used red, orange, and yellow tissue paper to make our fire. You get the gist, but everything is “earned” by meeting targets, so various groups engaged in various activities in order to contribute to the fire.
Once everything was complete, we moved all of the furniture to the corner of my room and I brought blankets. We laid by the fire and read books for our entire session.
Salt Flour Snowpeople
My very favorite elementary school teacher had us build salt/flour topographical maps in fourth grade using salt/flour dough. I loved this experience and was eager to replicate this with the students when “make snowmen inside” was a brainstorm topic.
This pairs well with many of our favorite winter books, but Sneezy the Snowman was our most recent pick. It’s funny, has great repetitive lines, and is a good book for prediction. It certainly helps that it is jam-packed with s clusters and r’s!
Here’s the simple salt/flour dough recipe. Keep in mind, you can use any ratio. I lessen this recipe amount-wise as each group makes their own. The kids mix it up themselves and make their snow people. We give them a week to dry before painting them using watercolors. This leads to a good discussion about not getting them too wet, lest they melt as water is one of their ingredients. We allow these to dry (this part is much faster) and then display the entire snow village before they get to take them home.
This is a repeat activity because of its popularity and as soon as we get our first snow, I start getting requests to make snowmen again. One of my students keeps his multi-year family on his desk at home.
As we are currently living this experience, I can’t speak to its ultimate success just yet, although so far it’s been quite the hit! We used this website and this YouTube video to help us do our research. Then, we started building our bases using discarded typewriter/copy paper I’d salvaged. In this activity, we wrote words/sentences/etc before crumpling the paper to build the base. We get into the real fun shortly, as we will venture into paper mache.
The apple tree was a new favorite this fall. Our students worked together to design and build a life-size tree on the green screen felt base. They learned that construction paper does not always stick well on felt and had to get creative about how to build branches that will stay.
We learned a lot about apple trees, what we needed to put on our tree first (these blooms using coffee filters, markers, and a spray bottle - writing our words in Sharpie, coloring them, and spraying the colors together), and when apples appear. This led easily into apple painting and so many fun books like Apple Trouble, which is always a favorite.
We’ve also taken on making crystals (also known as “the day Mrs. Keibler almost burned down the school”), ice cream cones, a life-size Candy Land, and a spider web that took over the whole room. The most important part about group projects is following the students’ lead and working with goal targets for each project.
In between projects, we will often take some down time to drill, focus, and fit in anything I feel needs “touched up” with their speech and language work. Because projects take 1-2 months, we fit in 3-4 a year, which is plenty.
As SLPs, we are so lucky to get the flexibility to stick with evidence-based work while weaving that into any motivating activities. What a gift! As you dip your toe into full group work, remember to have fun, get messy, and feel so rewarded by the students’ true joy coming to speech each day!
About the Author
Abbie Keibler is a Speech-Language Pathologist at Mississippi Bend AEA in Bettendorf, Iowa. She is a non-traditional SLP graduate with undergraduate degrees in German and Psychology and taught preschool prior to (and during!) the acquisition of her Masters of Arts in SLP at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Currently, Abbie is in her 14th year working in the schools where she serves the preschool and elementary population and is a member of the Assistive Technology Department. Abbie is an adjunct instructor at St Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, and has a special interest in comprehensive literacy for complex communicators. When not “speech-ing,” you’ll find Abbie taxi-ing her children from activity to activity or reading. She reads over 80 fiction books a year as a necessary escape.