Why You Should Target Character Traits in Speech Therapy
Every school-based SLP has heard it. The same 4 or 5 words that kids of all ages use to describe a character in a story. Our language-impaired students love the words "sad, happy, mad, nice" or " cool". Those adjectives are terrific, if your student is age 4.
However, beginning in first grade, the common core curriculum requires our students to use language that will accurately "describe characters" or "people" they read about. Beginning in first grade, they are required to identify words and feelings in stories or poems that suggest "feelings". In third grade, students are asked to explain how a character's traits, motivations or feelings affect actions in a story, or contribute to a sequence of events. Third graders are also required to compare and contrast themes and characters between authors.
This, is only the beginning. Flash forward to grade 8, and students are required to give detailed summaries of plots and themes. They are asked to cite text evidence to support arguments, and write text that is specific enough to develop a strong character. Don't forget about critical thinking skills, and the multitude of inferences older students need to make about characters or situations based on clue words in a text.
No longer are the words, "sad, happy" and "nice" going to cut it. And our language impaired students often lack the vocabulary to be successful in meeting these standards. As SLPs, we DO spend a lot of time "targeting vocabulary", and teaching strategies to unravel meanings of unknown words from context. However, targeting traits and emotions give our students the tools to DESCRIBE, SUMMARIZE, COMPARE, CONTRAST, ANALYZE, and CONNECT to what they read in text. Equally important, we are giving students language to describe how THEY feel or see themselves. This is EVER more powerful, in a world of bullying, poverty, crisis and chaos.
Where to begin? For my youngest students, we like to make lists of adjectives to describe people we know. Start with teachers, janitors, or other students in your speech therapy group. I like to put a giant red "X" over the standard words (nice, happy, cool), on the white board before beginning. Students aren't allowed to use them. Period. Sometimes, I use emoticons to help students visualize the concept of the trait or feeling (the party hat or dancing girl suggest Mrs. Monroe is "outgoing" and "lively"). Use visuals and familiar people to help introduce unfamiliar traits, and your students will retain the vocabulary and concepts much easier.
For older students, begin with text pieces that he/she can read fluently. Social pragmatic language lessons are great places to start. Social stories are filled with hints of complex emotions. Students can be asked leading questions so they can make inferences about character traits (Can you make a guess about what type of person Mr. Garcia is, now that we know he's never late for work?). Use Venn Diagrams to compare and contrast characters from social stories, or smaller text pieces that are easy for the student to read. Make a list of character traits ahead of time, and ask your student to receptively identify which traits best describe the person in a story. Pinterest is riddled with character trait "lists" if your brain is too tired to generate some. Do a quick search and you will find some in minutes!
If you love NO PREP and NO PRINT options for your iPad or teletherapy platform, check out my Language For Character Traits lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers. Begin by giving your students the pre-test to assess what traits they already know. Then, work through the lesson. Each slide presents a description of a character, and 4 possible traits that might match. Your students can highlight the clue words in the description (using annotative tools on your iPad or platform), to help them make an inference about the accurate trait. After the lesson is complete, have your student retake the test to assess growth. I've included 20 complex traits such as "heroic, resilient, trustworthy" and "thrifty" to build middle school/high level vocabulary.
Building language for character traits, or descriptive language in general, is often overlooked and undervalued. Giving your students the adjectives and descriptors they need, will arm them with tools to master a variety of common core standards, and give them language to communicate with peers and counselors. Therapy becomes more meaningful, as you help them generalize these skills to the classroom setting, and make connections to people they know in everyday life. They can use these traits to discuss their feelings with the social worker, or describe situations to adults, when they feel uncomfortable, stressed, or hopeless. Perhaps they will use these traits to describe YOU, their "passionate, resilient" and "trustworthy" SLP. I know you are committed to making a powerful difference.