Communicating in the iPad Era

Digital app, picture book combination may help improve children's communication

No doubt, the emergence of the iPad and other tablets represent the most significant change to the speech pathology field in recent years.

Sean Sweeney, MS, MSed, SLP-CCC, has long advocated for the acceptance of mobile technology among his colleagues.

"There seems to be a need among speech language professionals to learn to integrate the technology into their work but there hasn't always been a wide awareness of the tools available," he said.

When Sweeney started a blog on the topic 4 years ago-pre-iPad-he encountered a far steeper learning curve. The use of apps in pediatric speech therapy has grown so exponentially that Sweeney has been able to cut back on his school-based work in Newton, Mass., to focus on his blogging and consulting about using books and apps concurrently to extend a storyline.

Sweeney cited research recommending activities like discussion web, dramatic play, art activities and story generation to extend a story beyond the pages of the book. The tablet, he said, is almost tailor-made to support clinician objectives, be it of expanding vocabulary, categorization, and problem-solving.

"As communication specialists, we appreciate the fact that the screen can be placed on the table and not totally block communication like a desktop or laptop," he said.
Optimizing Picture Books
Picture books have long been an integral part of the toolkit, said Sweeney. His audience at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association annual convention on extending the storyline with apps was wall-to-wall in 2013, demonstrating excitement at the ever-increasing digital possibilities.
"There's a hook for people to see what they're already doing and how a technological resource can fit contextually," Sweeney explained.
One of the biggest challenges with implementing this practice is finding books that pair well with apps. Sweeney recommends utilizing the ever-growing number of speech therapist blogs to find specific titles. ASHA maintains a list of SLP blogs with descriptions and Sweeney links to colleagues with blogs on his site as well. On SpeechTechie.com, Sweeney invites fellow SLPs to add to a list of clinical apps on a Google document. More SLPs are pinning ideas for incorporating apps on Pinterest as well.

The free app KinderTown, for ages 4-8, allows users to view a number of apps based on age, price and school subject. Sweeney advises others to read iPad Apps for Schools by Richard Bryne.

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Alternatively, he said looking for apps centered on a concept that resonates for a particular student can be successful. For example, the childhood classic Good Night, Good Night Construction Site reinforces concepts of community and transportation. "In this case, an app that works well after reading the book is a cars and sandbox puzzle where users move items around different construction vehicles. It targets sequencing tasks."

When choosing books, Sweeney typically begins by targeting what's being covered in the school curriculum. He then chooses an app that reinforces the social cognition skills and the relationship between characters.

"When a class is covering the 50 states, I like The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller," Sweeney said. "The states are bored with their location and want to switch places. It results in problems, like states that are used to being warm are now freezing. This pairs with a Geography Drive USA app, which is quiz-based but doesn't require a lot of trivial knowledge. Kids learn geographical features and expand their vocabulary."

App Criteria
Sweeney favors any app that charges students with categorization, problem solving and organization and he's nailed his selection criteria down to a science.
The FIVES Criteria for Evaluating Technology Resources in Speech-Language Interventions, developed by Sweeney, includes Fairly Priced, Interactive, Visual, Educationally Relevant, "Speechie" (the last one referencing his own blog identity)

On the topic for fair pricing, Sweeney is quick to point out that he doesn't necessarily mean free. As a very general guideline, he said anything in the range of $4.99 is competitively priced.

"You want to get the sense of how much context or mileage you're going to get out of an app," he explained. "Many therapists are willing to buy an item at Bed, Bath & Beyond that you'll repurpose in therapy but hesitate to spend money on an app."

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Interactive apps allow students to use the technology to address their objectives. "It should be language-neutral, in that it associates actions and pictures," he commented. "With pictures and actions, you can elicit a lot of words on the part of the child. If the app says everything for them, they'll wonder why they have to repeat it."
Under that same umbrella, it's key that students and the therapist work together on the app. "I love the component of working together, especially if the student isn't in a place where they can function in a group. If they can work together in a group, using the iPad promotes turn taking."

Parents frequently ask Sweeney about apps for home use and he approaches these conversations gingerly.

"I'll make recommendations if they express a willingness to use apps at home. I don't know what technology people have at home so I never make it a requirement," he said. "In a school setting, it's dodgy because we don't want to make the school responsible for paying for home technology."

Books, however, are fair game for advocating and parents are responsive. Even doing the reading at home and using the technology piece in therapy can be hugely beneficial, he said.

"Children still love being read to," he commented. "I'm pleasantly surprised to find they're still pretty attentive to books."

Robin Hocevar is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: rhocevar@advanceweb.com

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