Thursday, September 17, 2015

Toca Life Apps and Contextual Therapy

Following up on my last post on the "Toca Life" open-ended sandbox-style apps, I recently read a "Clinical Focus" article in American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and thought it shed light on how these apps (and others) can be used in context in therapy. Fey, Long, & Feinstack (2003) sought to outline "Ten Principles of Grammar Facilitation for Children With Specific Language Impairments" with research tie-ins relevant to all ages, but particularly for ages 3-8. This is a great article for any SLP or language interventionist to read, but I wanted to present it with ideas related to the principles being used in context, in particular the features and content of the Toca Life Apps.

So, the principles and some ideas:

1. The basic goal of all grammatical interventions should be to help the child to achieve greater facility in the comprehension and use of syntax and morphology in the service of conversation, narration, exposition, and other textual genres in both written and oral modalities.

This principle asserts a general philosophy of intervention, but for me speaks to the kind of functional communication that can be elicited through conversation and play around an app such as Toca Life: City or Toca Life: Town, and the student's greater enjoyment of communication situations hopefully as a result of that intervention.

2. Grammatical form should rarely, if ever, be the only aspect of language and communication that is targeted in a language intervention program.

The authors assert that students with grammatical impairment rarely have this as their only communication problem, and that grammatical intervention alone does not always impact other areas of deficit. Toca Life apps allow for targeting of multiple goals including categorization (say, in the store or home), sentence formulation and storytelling in the context of the app.

Looking for a healthy meal, the man can lay out or collect different fruits and vegetables in the Toca Life: Town store.

3. Select intermediate goals in an effort to stimulate the child’s language acquisition processes rather than to teach specific language forms.

An example given in the article is the targeting of nominative case pronouns as a class rather than individually.

Have a party in the Toca Life: Town or City loft apartment to emphasize what I, you, we, and they are doing.

4. The specific goals of grammatical intervention must be based on the child’s “functional readiness” and need for the targeted forms.

i.e. Pick targets in the child's zone of proximal development that reflect a pragmatic need for their use in daily life.

5. Manipulate the social, physical, and linguistic context to create more frequent opportunities for grammatical targets.

6. Exploit different textual genres and the written modality to develop appropriate contexts for specific intervention targets.

This is where I think such apps provide a great tool. Of course we should manipulate low-tech contexts for language targets, but apps that have many open-ended contexts make this manipulation quite easy. AND they serve as a different "genre" to work from, along with picture books, one of my other favorite tools.

Toca Life: City has a world of contexts. Just think of all the action words that can come from a theatre!

More specifically regarding the manipulation of contexts, the authors indicate:

...making a peanut butter sandwich could be an excellent activity for a child working on negative forms. Instead of typical ingredients, however, the clinician might have on hand things like noodles, cheese, dog food, or even a pencil, as ingredients for the sandwich. Such unlikely choices will create opportunities for sentences like, “You can’t eat that,” “That wouldn’t taste good,” or “We don’t need noodles/cheese/hot dogs.” When the proper ingredients are used and the activity has been completed, recapping the entire process can create numerous obligatory contexts for the target forms in a very short time. 

Clinician: “We used/ate/needed peanut butter. We also used cheese.” 
Child: "No, we not use cheese.” 
Clinician:  “Right, we didn’t use cheese. What about dog food?”

Note that Toca Life: Town's cafe lets you complete "recipes" (see the wall or here). Silly items to prompt negative forms can be used from the cafe itself or brought in characters' hands from other locations.

7. Manipulate the discourse so that targeted features are rendered more salient in pragmatically felicitous contexts.

"The most straightforward way to increase the salience of grammatical intervention targets, especially grammatical morphemes, is to stress them by making them longer and louder and producing them with more dynamic pitch changes."

Don't put her IN the bed! She should be OUT of bed. 

The kids are playing cars BECAUSE it is fun.

8. Systematically contrast forms used by the child with more mature forms from the adult grammar, using sentence recasts.

Re: the above scene- 
Adult: What happened?
Child: The girl eat the cake.
Adult: Yes, the girl ate the green cake.

9. Avoid telegraphic speech, always presenting grammatical models in well-formed phrases and sentences.

10. Use elicited imitation to make target forms more salient and to give the child practice with phonological patterns that are difficult to access or produce.

#9 is a good reminder, and #10, noted as an "intrusive" practice for social interactionists, is described to be effective in situations where targeted forms are used pragmatically and contrastively, for example, prompting "Say, 'She will play the game,'" followed by "Say, 'She played the game,'" after the action is performed in the app.

As a context clinician (it's what makes it fun!), I really appreciated the authors' references and examples in this article. Check it out for more information.

Fey, M. E., Long, S. H., & Finestack, L. H. (2003). Ten Principles of Grammar Facilitation for Children With Specific Language Impairments. American Journal Of Speech-Language Pathology, 12(1), 3.


  1. Another GREAT post! I have such difficulty figuring out how to use these more open ended apps.

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