Communicating Partners, Summer 1996 Newsletter
Communication and Literacy - How each can help the other grow.

Do you realize how important storybook time can be for helping your child learn to communicate and talk? In recent years, Paula Rabidoux and I have studied how parents communicate with children during picture and storybook times. This research resulted in Paula's Ph.D. dissertation, a manual on how to help children communicate during storybook times, and some exciting findings about certain adult strategies that can both help and hinder a child's active participation with literacy through pictures, books and other symbols. Paula studied 20 preverbal children with developmental delays and their mothers during storybook times. She also applied the ECO communication approach (described in earlier Communicating Partners newsletters and illustrated in this issue) to the same children herself. Briefly, what she found was that by using playful, interactive strategies like matching, responding and balancing, Paula was successful in getting most of the children to participate and communicate more with the books than when the mothers mainly read to the children.
In our clinical work with families and classrooms, we now use books as a regular way to help children learn to communicate as well as prepare them to enjoy literacy activities. But, we use books more as interactive toys than as things to "do" to a child. Storybook time is one of the few times we have a child "captive". Let's use these regular book times, not just to be "read to" but to teach our children how to interact and communicate. Paula and I and many parents are now convinced that literacy and communication can help each other grow when we use books in playful interactions and conversational ways. We hope this issue will be a useful guide to ways to help children learn to communicate while they are developing a lasting affection for books. Jim MacDonald

Letter from Barbara
     I'm beginning to feel like Grover's mother. You know, lovable, furry blue Grover from Sesame Street. My eight-year-old Down syndrome son, Mark, and I have been reading books together since he was very young. I didn't think I had a favorite, there are so many wonderful children's books, but I have become especially fond of "Grover Learns to Read."
     We found this book at the library just about the time Mark started kindergarten two years ago. In it, Grover goes to school and tries not to learn to read; he's afraid his mommy will stop reading to him if he does learn. Of course Grover learns to read, and by the end of the book he is reading to his mommy. She does not stop reading to him but they take turns reading to each other.
     Now that Mark is starting to read to me, I call him "my little Grover." We go to the library regularly where he picks out his favorites. I don't mind reading the same books over and over be-cause we are always adding something new. Once we simply pointed to the pictures and talked about them using words he could say ("Grover's blue"), but now he also takes his turn by reading the words he has learned.
     Our conversations about books are becoming longer and more interesting. This week he has been looking at a large book called "The Best of Disney." It is filled with pictures from all the Disney movies. He enjoys looking at the artists, actors, and actresses who made the movies and were the voices for the animated characters. ("Look, mom, see this lady? She's one of the three little pigs!")
     Most children spend lots of time watching TV and movies. I've found the action and talk move along too quickly for my delayed son to follow, so we enjoy reading the books about his favorites. When we read the Sesame Street and Disney children's books together, I use fewer words and give him a chance to add to the conversation. Of course he likes other books, but these are some he likes the most and will always talk about.
     I take advantage of playful situations during the day that are based on books we read. He enjoys chasing the little, wild bunny out of our garden and yelling, "Get out of my garden, Peter Rabbit!" Now he and his sister are putting out carrots for Peter; they want to tame him, if possible. Mark has his own Curious George toy and Big Red Clifford who look at the books with us. We sometimes have conversations with George and Clifford with Mark doing the talking for them.
     It's fun to act out little scenes from books and make up your own stories with favorite characters. You can use the same words and expressions found in books; this adds new words to children's vocabularies. "Oh bother," from the Winnie the Pooh books is a good example. Mark learned what "trouble" is and "curious" means from reading books about George.
     We're starting to mix-and-match characters to create our own stories at bedtime. Mark decided that Piglet and Babe would make good friends, so now they have their own ad-ventures. We talk about other characters who could be friends; Tigger and Simba, and Winnie the Pooh and the Berenstein Bears are just a few we have thought of. The more books you read with your child, the more creative you can be.
     There are so many products, clothes, and toys of story characters today, making reading with children an interactive playtime activity is easy. Just follow your child's lead and let his imagination direct the conversation often. Comment on whatever your child initiates and use words your child can say.
     Not all reading interactions have to be with storybooks. My son likes to look at family photo albums. We have long inter-actions looking at familiar people, places, and events. Pointing to pictures ("There's grandma!") is often more interesting to children than looking at books. I taught my son how to read our names by printing them under our pictures. Now I'm planning on making our own small books using this idea with easy-to-read words. We also like to look at magazines, ads and catalogs together. Instead of thinking, "Oh, no, Christmas already!" when the toy catalogs start coming out, use them as "toys" with your child. Point to the familiar toys and say, "Nice truck!" Keep your child interacting by following his lead. Mark also likes to look at the large, colorful grocery ads that come in the mail. We discuss what to buy when I go shopping. ("Lets's get a water-melon!" or "Pizza, again?" always start a conversation.)
     Any time I see my son looking at pictures or print, I try to take a few minutes to talk about it with him. I'm sure the first words he learned to read were Cherrios and Kix. He loved going shopping with me and finding these boxes on the shelves of stores. I used the opportunity to tell him he was learning how to read. He started to think of himself as a reader when he was only three or four years old. Now it's one of his favorite activities.

Barbara Mitchell

Early Communication and Literacy: Practical guides to help each grow
Most adults enjoy looking at books and reading stories with children, but few adults understand the importance story-time interactions can have on children's communication and early literacy development. Adults can best help children learn to communicate and read by making story-time fun and interactive. Turntaking with motions, signs, sounds, and words is as critical during this time as during any other activities. When children and adults are actively involved together in describing and interpreting the pictures in a book, both the language and interaction sur-rounding the story increases children's learning.
Because reading and writing are advanced steps in communication development, simi-lar principles apply for literary interactions as other interactions. These five basic principles include:

  1. allowing the child to do about as much as the adult (balance);
  2. doing and saying what the child can try to do and say (match);
  3. responding sensitively to what the child does and says (respond);
  4. giving the child freedom to express his thoughts (nondirective);
  5. enjoying genuinely the time together (emotional attachment).

How can parents apply these communication principles during story-times? First, reading (and later learning to write) should be fun for both children and adults, not just another "job" that must be done. Also, children who actively participate learn more than children who simply sit and listen to adults talk and read. This does not mean adults should continually question children about a story, but allow children freedom to contribute their own ideas in whatever ways they can-- pointing, signing, making sounds, saying single words, or speaking in phrases and sentences.
As children see book interactions as enjoyable and successful experiences, they will spend more time engaging in such exchanges, increasing the likelihood for literacy learning.
Here are some specific guidelines to remember as you and your child read together.

Be a Balanced Partner. When an adult and child contribute equally to interactions, each person influences the other and experiences success. If the adult does all the talking and reading, the child frequently becomes just a passive listener.

Be a "Matched" Partner. A child will learn in reading experiences to the degree that adults "match" the child by acting and communicating in ways the child is able to do. Matching refers to interactive reading at the child's ability and interest level. Adults match a child's ability by communicating similarly to the child (using motions, signs, sounds or words) as both partners point to the pictures. This invites the child to participate because he will experience success, and will also be challenged with models that are just a few steps above his current performance level. Matching a child's interests and motivations will allow the conversation to continue beyond just a few exchanges, as the child will be motivated to continue participating. Be Responsive to the Child. A child's early reading development depends on adults responding sensitively to the subtle, emerging behaviors that are developmental steps in learning to read and talk about written words. When adults accept and respond to these little steps, they encourage the child to stay in reading interactions and actively pursue more reading opportunities. Be Nondirective. Children learn most efficiently and stay interacting with books more when they have freedom to initiate and respond from their own experiences and motivations rather than when they are in a passive role of responding to others' directives and agendas. Many adults think of books as a "job" to accomplish, or a test format for their child, or as a necessary task to accomplish before school; rather than a powerful source for building conversational and reading skills, as well as mutual enjoyment. When adults bring these attitudes to the interaction, the child is often put on the spot, with the adult controlling the choice and direction of the interaction. Asking the child many questions may prevent him from staying interested in looking at books, and may also lead to feelings of failure. Children who are not motivated or successful often leave book reading interactions. Be Emotionally Attached and Playful. To learn to read books for pleasure, a child must find books reinforcing. When adults act as a powerful source of reinforcement and modeling, the child is more likely to seek such interactions. Adults can encourage a child to become involved with books simply by staying in book interactions with the child, and encouraging the child to stay longer each time. A child will find book reading fun to the extent that his conversational partner is an enjoyable one who balances, responds, matches and reads nondirectively with him.

Learning to Communicate with Books
The following guides provide examples and explanations of more and less effective ways to use books with children who are learning language. These guides are based both on the principles in Dr. MacDonald's book, Becoming Partners with Children, and on Dr. Rabidoux's Ph.D. dissertation at Ohio State University.

Playing with books before reading - Building social learning relationships

WHAT IS IT? Stress can put a damper on the literacy partnership you want to create with your child. As adults, we often think working harder will solve our problems. When we use a "work-oriented", stressful attitude with children, our efforts will often backfire. In creating playful story interactions we must convince ourselves that enjoyment leads to success.

Jill: (Sits quietly looking at a book.)
Dad: "Let's work on your good talking, Jill"
Jill: (Gives Dad the book.)
Dad: "I see a little lamb in your book. Can you say 'lamb'?"
Jill: "Lamb."
Dad: "Good talking. I like it when you say your words so nicely. Do you see the bird in the tree above the lamb?"
Jill: "Yes."
Dad: "Point to it. Show Dad that you really see it."
Jill: (Points to it.)
Dad: "Good. You are getting to know your words, Jill. I am proud of you. How about this. Can you tell me what the bird is doing on this page?"
Jill: (Looks quizzically at Dad.)
Dad: "That's a tough one. We haven't worked on that one much yet. Say 'fly'."
Jill: "Fly."
Dad: "Yes, the bird is flying. We will work on that one again tomorrow. Okay?"
Jill: "Okay."

WHY LESS? Dad assumes the role of task master in this interaction while Jill plays the role of the quiet, responsive learner. Neither experience the enjoyment that can result from communicating together. Jill never moves unless her father suggests, as in pointing to the picture task. He fails to find out what she might be interested in talking about. Instead, he sets out the agenda, she responds, and he praises her for her knowledge. Such an interaction offers Jill little practice in the equal partnership conversations she will find in her daily life encounters.

Jill: (Sits quietly looking at a book.)
Dad: (sits down quietly next to her and waits with his face full of anticipation.)
Jill: (Turns the page.) "Oh." (Points excitedly to the little lamb.)
Dad: "Oh, it's a lamb." (Points to it excitedly.)
Jill: "Lamb. Lamb and bird." (Points back and forth between the two.)
Dad: "Bird in the tree." (Nods to acknowledge her notice of the bird.)
Jill: "Bird, tree." (Points to each, smiling at Dad.)
Dad: (Turns the page.) "Fly away bird." (Points to a picture of the bird flying away.)
Jill: (Waves her arms in imitation of the picture.) "Fie."
Dad: (Waves his arms too.) "I can fly."
Jill: (Looks directly into Dad's face, smiling.) "Me too." (Points proudly to herself.)
Dad: "Me too." (Laughs and points to himself as he rubs noes with Jill.)

WHY MORE? Facial expressions, laughter, movement, and physical contact characterize this interaction. The father joins Jill rather than coming in and dominating the interaction. He responds to her imitation, then trades the lead back and forth with her as they discuss what they see. The conversation results in an equal partnership providing Jill with some experience in talking for the fun of a social teaming rather than to show an adult that she knows something. Yet, she shows more knowledge than she did in the previous dialogue interaction. Such an interaction shows learning can be fun.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT? Language and literacy develop through at least two dimensions, knowledge and communication. Many delayed persons know much more than they communicate. Part of the reason may be the way their significant others approach the task of teaching. A playful sharing of ideas gets much accomplished, yet provides the child with motivation to communicate with others for the pleasure of communicating and learning together.

Match for easy successes - Act and communicate in ways your child can.

WHAT IS IT? To act and communicate in ways that motivate the child to stay actively with you. What you say and do can influence children to do and say things he/she sees and hears from you. Children may attempt to try out behaviors they see or hear from you if you make it look like fun and if it is within the child's ability.

HOW TO DO IT? To effectively match children, watch them to see what they do in their daily routines. Once you know how the child acts and communicates in a variety of situations, you can relate the actions and messages you use to the child's level. You will find that both horizontal and vertical matching can work to keep the child interacting and at more challenging levels. Horizontal matching means using actions and messages similar to the child's. If he brushes his hair, you might comb your hair, for example. Vertical matching means using actions slightly more advanced. To match vertically, you might imitate and expand upon a vocalization. For example, if the child vocalizes "ah, ah" to get what he wants, you might say "ah, ah-want," or "ah-ah-milk". Another way to vertically match is to use a slightly more complex action or vocalization. If the child picks up a phone receiver, you might pick it up as well, then put it to your ear and make a sound into the receiver.

Shane: (Sits flipping through a magazine.)
Mom: "That's my new magazine. Here let me get an old one for you."
Shane: (Keeps looking, allows Mom to make the switch, then continues on.)
Mom: "I honestly don't know what you get out of doing that. But, so long as you don't wreck my good magazines, I guess it's okay."
Shane: (Keeps flipping.)

WHY LESS? Mom's world is one of words, Shane's world is one of actions. He won't be likely to change his magazine behaviors because no one in his environment provides models within his ability to perform. Mom uses talking with Shane, then pulls away the object of their mutual interest substituting one he can ruin if he likes. Otherwise, she does little to redirect his interest or give him ideas of other behaviors he might try out He remains stuck in a rather uninteresting world because all that he sees or hears is too advanced for him to learn from.

Shane: (Sits flipping through a magazine.)
Mom: (Picks up a magazine she sees and points to a picture of a flower.) "Ooo-pretty."
Shane: (Glances over at her picture.)
Mom: (points to another flower.) "Hey."
Shane: (Points at it, too.)
Mom: (Points back and forth between the two.) "Ooo,000."
Shane: "Ooo." (Points at the one nearest him.)

WHY MORE? Mom gradually attracts Shane's attention by pointing and sounding in ways she thinks he might be able to do himself. After a glance of interest, he gradually starts to point as well, and by the last turn of their brief exchange he couples a vocalization with his pointing. The two do not exactly imitate each other, rather, they create a mini conversation, trading similar actions and sounds. Most importantly, they share joint attention and action, creating a place where further social and communication skills may be nurtured.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT? Matching gives children models of actions and messages they can use in interactions with you. The idea behind matching is for children to notice that you do things similar enough to them that they begin to try some of them out themselves, either directly or in deferred imitation. Consider yourself as planting seeds for actions and messages. You may plant many seeds, but it is unlikely that all will germinate. The more effectively you plant, the more likely the seeds will grow.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS OR CONCERNS: You may feel that words should be enough to get a child to do the things we want them to do. Consider changing your aim to improving interaction and communication skills. Provide the child with effective models of actions and messages during storybook reading. You may find that you are more likely to create places where the two of you can develop a creative relationship, as well as improve his social and communication skills.

Make books tools for real life conversation.

WHAT IS IT? Conversation partners are two people who are in the habit of talking with each other as a natural part of their time together. As a conversation partner, your child will learn to be social and communicative naturally from anyone willing to have a conversation. As your child's conversation partner you will be in the position to help your child to communicate with no extra effort. For children with delays, conversations are both the place and the process for your child to learn early literacy interactions.
Being a conversation partner may seem an easy thing to do, something that comes without learning. Nevertheless, conversations are learned and children with delays need careful help so that they become as communicative and social as they can be.

What do conversation partners do with a child during storybook interactions?

Therapist: "Can you get a book to read?"
Daisy: "Wild Things."
Therapist: "What's Max doing with that fork? That looks dangerous. You wouldn't do that, would you?"
Daisy: "I don't know."
Therapist: "Why did his mother send him to bed? Did he get his supper?"
Daisy: "I don't know."
Therapist: "How come those trees are in his room?"
Daisy: "Monsters are coming."
Therapist: "Okay, but tell me about the trees first."
Daisy: "I want to see the monsters."

WHY LESS? This shows a pattern we often see between adults and children. The adult is controlling most of the conversation, leading the topic and directing the child with questions and commands. The child has little opportunity to express her/his ideas. The adult mismatches the child by saying much more than child. Notice that Daisy takes a passive role, offering little of her own ideas. The therapist is not showing the girl what next to say, and she misses the opportunities to build on the girl's ideas, as when she said, "monsters are coming." The therapist seems more concerned with getting certain things done than with building a conversation. Conversations like this may strongly discourage children from staying and learning with people.

Therapist: "I want to read with you."
Daisy: "I got the Wild Things."
Therapist: "Max looks like the wild thing."
Daisy: "Wild Max, chasing the dog."
Therapist: "I hope the dog gets away."
Daisy: "He does. And Max goes to bed."
Therapist: "Look! Trees in his bedroom."
Daisy: "Not real trees, he's dreaming."
Therapist: "He's dreaming about monsters."
Daisy: "Monsters want to scare Max."
Therapist: "Max isn't scared."
Daisy: "No! The monsters are scared."
Therapist: "Max is a tough guy."
Daisy: "Monsters like tough guys."

WHY MORE? Notice the balanced partnership here. Each person has the freedom and success needed to keep learning through conversations. Here the conversation is more play than work, yet the child shows considerably more language than before. This is an example of a conversation that is balanced, nondirective, responsive, matched, and enjoyable. Daisy is learning new language she hears in back-and-forth talk about the book.


The Power of a Daily Activity Diary
Parents and professionals attending the Communicating Partners' Clinic are now learning about preparing children to talk with a practical, easy-to-use daily diary called Before Speech. Our reason for the diary is to give adults one idea and activity a day to learn the many things a child and adult can do together to get ready for speech.
Susan, a single mom with two jobs - one outside the home and one inside, uses Before Speech with Kyle, a 3 year old who has yet to speak. She weaves the activities into her natural interactions with the boy and learns about his development at the same time. Susan is now in her third month using the diary and our therapy sessions focus in part on discussing their progress and teaching the next steps for both mother and child. Before Speech not only provides Susan education and practice about the often mysterious preverbal years, but it also shows me how Susan is thinking and how to fine-tune the program into their lives. In the last few months Kyle is interacting more and beginning to imitate and communicate non-verbally. And just as important, Susan is experiencing frequent successes with her son who used to frustrate, avoid and battle her.
Before Speech is exciting to me because I have searched for a feasible way to practice these often ignored skills on a daily basis without overwhelming busy parents and professionals. Here are a few samples of how Susan is using the diary. For your own copy, send $8.00 to the Communicating Partners Center, 332 Mimring Road, Columbus, Ohio 43202.

Day 3
Playing alone is not enough.
Your child can learn a lot playing alone with toys. However, to learn to communicate, toys are not enough. She will learn to communicate only by playing with people.
Get into your child's play. Watch your child's reactions. Get into your child's play. Watch your child's reactions.

Day 5
Play like your child plays.
The more you play in ways your child can do, the more your child will learn from you. It may feel silly at first, but you'll get a lot more from your child--especially new language.
Try playing just like your child does. What did your child do? Try playing just like your child does. What did your child do?

Day 12
Turntaking. Your child learns to communicate by taking turns.
Turntaking is a necessary first step to learning to communicate. Turntaking means "you do something to me, then I do something back to you". Turntaking is more like ping pong than darts. You take a turn, then wait for the child to take a turn. The more you keep Turntaking going, the more your child will communicate.
Today practice your turn then silently waiting for your child's turn. Try it with both movements and sound. Today, practice taking your turn then silently waiting for your child's turn. Try it with both movements and sound.

Day 15
Progressive matching. Match then show the next step.
Matching does not mean only doing exactly what the child does. Often we progressively match by showing the child the next step he can do. If he claps, we clap and make a sound. If she makes a sound, we make the sound then put a word on it. If he says a word, we show him how to say it in two or three words. Progressive matching means doing what he can do, then showing him a next step.
Today, practice showing your child a next step. Then wait and see what he does. Today, practice showing your child a next step. Then wait and see what he does.

Day 19
Make a habit of imitating your child.
Learning to communicate and talk involves both the child and her life partners to get in the habit of acting like each other. Imitation is one word for this. As an adult, act like your child so that your child can learn to act like you. In my work, I get encouraged when a child begins to imitate others' actions and sounds. That is an extremely important first step to communicating. You may think this is impolite, like mocking your child. Imitate to show your child you approve and want her to do more of what she can do.
Today, practice imitating much of what your child does. Watch what happens. Today, practice imitating much of what your child does. Watch what happens.

Interaction is the basis for all learning. A child cannot learn the basics necessary for learning if her environment does not facilitate interaction--that is, if her efforts to communicate are note "read" and responded to, and if she does not "read" and respond to the communications of others. If positive interactions with others (verbal or nonverbal) are not well established, the child needs to learn this before she can be expected to learn more complex communication systems such as reading. Therefore, if your child is not interactive, it is important to establish this interaction before expecting her to learn how to function in her world. You may want to work on the techniques of turntaking to help establish this interaction.
Pat Oelwein, Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome (Page 13)

NEW! A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO COMMUNICATING WITH CHILDREN DURING STORYBOOK TIMES...this manual offers several methods and examples of how to use books to help children communicate and how to communicate with children to help them appreciate books and literacy. Based on several years of research with families of children with language delays, the manual has helped many parents and professionals improve children's interest in communication and literacy at the same time. For a copy, send $10.00 to Dr. J. MacDonald, 332 Mimring Road, Columbus, Ohio 43202.

Your Children's First Book
Start with what they know

Many parents we work with have made their child's first book out of photographs about the child's daily life. Terry Drews made a little album for each of her two sons, ages 2 and 4. In it were pictures of each boy sleeping, bathing, eating, playing, rough-housing, and the like. Each boy gave more interest and time to these books that showed things that were important to them. In our parent programs, we use these "home-photo books" as valuable tools for teaching children first to interest, then to look and later to read. Remember, your child will learn both to communicate and read if you use things that are fun, interesting and familiar to them. Since children talk about their own experiences first, let's give them a handy book that shows just those experiences.

NEW! HELP TRAIN PARENTS IN YOUR TOWN...Communicating partners is alive in Pittsburgh. Carolyn Glover has worked with us for four years with her daughter, Elizabeth. She has now begun several parent training groups through the Center for Creative Play. The group's focus is on teaching parents to be effective "communicating partners" with their children. We would like to help other parents and professionals start similar training in their own locations. Contact Dr. MacDonald for more information at (614) 447-0010.

The Communicating Partners Newsletter is a developmental guide for parents and professionals concerned with children with language delays. We encourage you to write us with questions, concerns or stories about becoming partners with children. Here is how to subscribe! Fill out the information below for a subscription of four issues/1 year at $15.00. Make payment to Children's Hospital Foundation, c/o The Family Child Learning Center, 143 Northwest Avenue Building A, Tallmadge, Ohio 44278.

Please send my subscription to:

New from the authors of Communicating Partners
A NEW PUBLISHER OF ECO MATERIALS: Thomas Hutchinson, our original editor for both the ELI and ECO programs, now has a new company devoted to publishing practical tools for children with developmental and communicative disorders. The company's name is Applied Symbolix at 16 W. Erie, Suite 300, Chicago, IL 60610. While Riverside Press (8420 Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago, IL 60631) will still distribute ECO materials including the book, Becoming Partners with Children, Applied Symbolix will now be publishing them as well as new materials for the ECO program. Write for their catalog.

VIDEOS AVAILABLE: Video tapes to train parents and professionals are available from a new company specializing in videos about child development. Write Margie Wagner, Child Health Media, 5632 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys, California 91401.

COMMUNICATING PARTNERS CLINIC: Communicating Partners is also a new clinic. Contact Dr. James MacDonald and Dr. Paula Rabidoux for direct clinical and educational services including workshops and inservice training of parents and professionals in your community. The phone number is (614) 447-0010.


COMMUNICATING PARTNERS is published four times annually by the Family Child Learning Center, 143 Northwest Avenue, Building A, Tallmadge, Ohio 44278. Phone number: (330) 633-2055/FAX (330) 633-2658

  Revised: January 28, 2006.