Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 3)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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  Looking at an example makes it easier to incorporate the theoretical talk and classroom-like explanations into a living, breathing embodiment of the concept as it applies to the real world.   Here is an abridged version of one of Dr. Gardener’s case histories.   Included are the child’s story, the therapist’s evaluation and the reciprocal story.   The author of the original story is a ten-year-old-boy.  

            There was a hurricane.   In one village the hurricane blew down the mountains and the whole village was covered, but there were still people living there.   The Red Cross sent airplanes, but they couldn’t find the village because the ground all looked the same.   A radio plane picked up signals from the people underneath the mountains.   They found the place but they couldn’t find a way in.   They began a search and they found a cave.   In the cave they lost one of their members.   They found him in a deep pit.   The man had fallen and broken his back.   They put down ropes and a stretcher to rescue the man.   They took him to the plane.   They had to start all over again.   They went back into the cave, after a long search, they found a door.   They found a small stone that when touched opened the door.   They walked in and found a tower.   Up in the tower was another door.   Inside was another tunnel.   The tunnel did not seem to have an end.   They went into the tunnel.   They saw a light and went towards it.   They found steps going down.   Finally they found the village that needed supplies.   They gave them the food and then everyone was all right.  

            The therapist job is to now interpret the story.   By its very nature this process is subjective.   In this case he decided that the buried men and villagers represented the patient who feels overwhelmed by his anxiety.   The depth of his anxiety is expressed by the depth to which the villagers were buried.   The Red Cross represented the therapist who tirelessly searches him out in order save him.

            Therapists, after evaluating their patient’s stories will mentally rewrite the tale using the same general plot and characters.   They alter certain aspects to help the patient see the situation in a different, often more healthy light.   Here is the therapist’s reciprocal story offered to his patient.   In this version the villagers are framed as being very resourceful.   The group used all kinds of ideas to help rescue themselves:  banging on walls, sending radio signals, and putting crews together to begin to dig out.   They even placed a bottle with a note inside and set it free in a stream, which lead out of the mountain.   The radio established contact with the outside.   They communicated and worked together.   They dug towards each other until they met.   The villagers helped themselves while working with others.   These cooperative relationships lead to the villagers rescue.

            In the patient’s story he feels helpless, buried, overwhelmed and is waiting for the therapist to work hard to save him.   In the therapist’s version he tells the patient that if he is in distress he must help himself if he expects help from others.   Being a passive victim will not help him feel better and he is being shown that his active participation is needed.  

            The technique of reciprocal storytelling offers a peek into the unconscious mind of the child.   This works because the process of logical, mature, adult thinking has not yet affected the child.   The therapist, because he is speaking to his patient in his “own language” has a better chance of being heard.   When the patient hears the therapist’s story, some believe that the conscious mind is bypassed and the message is delivered directly to the patient’s unconscious mind.   There are no confrontations and no strange psychoanalytic interpretations for the patient to endure.   Children communicate their stories using metaphors and if the therapist is sensitive to the message being transferred there is an opportunity to provide the therapeutic help that is needed.   Occasionally that help may even be transformative.  

Growth Through Reading

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends;
they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors,
and the most patient of teachers.

~ Charles W. Eliot ~


            When we are finished reading a great book, what is it that we are left with?   Does any part of that book become entwined with our own personality?   Perhaps regardless of a few well-chosen words is the nature of our psyches such that it is impervious to the influence of a good story?   Or do we take something of the story’s essence with us?   If we do take something, what is it?   What ever it is, can it stay with us?

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 4)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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  Can it help us?   Do we change because of it?   Those that have faith in the power of the written word believe that indeed we can be positively affected by reading literature that give us a different view of the world.   When these changes enhance the quality of life, the science of psychology would file it under the heading of bibliotherapy.   Unlike reciprocal story telling, this form of bibliotherapy can be utilized by a large group of professional and laypersons.   Look to your librarian, your teacher, your parents, your best friend, your spouse or even yourself and you may find a practitioner who has been involved in bibliotherapy and didn’t even know it, or identified the process through some other vernacular.   To attempt to create a comprehensive list of subjects that might be covered successfully by the individual interested in books with a bibliotherapeutic benefit would be pure folly.   Some subjects might be more pervasive, but the available material is potentially endless.   If literary themes are endless, are too the benefits also endless?   Can anyone name all the different ways that any given human being can grow?   Add to this, a list of persons who might be the recipients of these benefits and what you will have is a quantity that has grown exponentially into a number too large to fathom.   In fact, one could argue that every person on this planet could be a patient involved in reading thinking, growing, and healing.   When bringing to life this powerful force of bibliotherapy, there is always a need to consider the subject matter, potential benefits and audience.

A library is a hospital for the mind.

~ Anonymous ~

The Grieving Child

            The child who has suffered the loss of a loved one through the finality of death may be a child who is locked into a confusing world of emotions.   While most children are resilient and grieve in a way that allows them to move forward in a healthy way, there are others that find themselves trapped in to behaviors and emotions that they can not begin to unravel.   For these children it is important that we realize how unresolved grief can adversely affect their lives.   Some may be come distant, reclusive and severely depressed.   Other’s shows their pain through aggressive or bizarre behavior.   Eating disorders, self-mutilation, work-a-holism and other manifestations have been documented in children who have been unable to accept or grieve the death of a loved one.   The burning question then becomes:  How to we best help these young souls?   The tools available to the caring adult, be they teacher or parent or therapist are numerous.   One way may be to allow expression of unacknowledged pain through the reading of fiction.   These stories would hopefully contain characters, situations, worries and emotions that the reader can identify with.   It is worth noting that it is not universally accepted that reading fiction of this nature holds any value.   The few studies that are out there often contradict each other, with some showing great potential and other falling short of offering any sustainable improvement for the individual.   But for the believers, some stories have brought to its readers a catharsis.   They find some relief from the emotional tension that was created by an unbearable loss.   Even if at first the relief is fleeting, once there is an opening of the mind there exists the possibility that further liberation is possible.  

Stories of Death: For Children?

To use books rightly, is to go to them for help;  to appeal to them when our own knowledge and power fail;  to be led by them into wider sight and purer conception than our own, and to receive from them the united sentence of the judges and councils of all time, against our solitary and unstable opinions.

~ John Ruskin


            How death is presented in children’s books has gone through a historical metamorphosis like many forms of literature.   Certainly Christianity and Christian sensibilities were at the forefront of concern when dealing with death during the 1800’s and some of the 1900’s.   However, since about 1960, children’s books show less of the directly Christian morality and pious sentimentalism of the late nineteenth century.    As fiction brings to our children more and more stories based in reality, how much is too much?   To offer up a heavy dose of life’s pain and trouble finds many objecting to the destruction of childhood innocence.   Others contend that we underestimate a child’s ability and their need to understand and experience all of life, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.   And through what better vehicle than literature?   So there has been a birth of children’s literature that contains heretofore-taboo subjects that is written for all readers, not just those who may “need” to read about death, divorce or illness.   For the general reader or for the reader with a goal in mind, the book must be first and foremost a good book.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 5)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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   It is impossible to overestimate the capacity of children to feel, suffer, and understand.   This speaks to life problems including death, debilitating illnesses, or severe marital discourse.   Child can share their feelings though literature, but it must be in terms of action and plot.

What we bring to a story

Affects what we take from a story

That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.

~ Doris Lessing


            As adults wrestle with what type of information we offer our children through reality-based literature, we would be well advised to understand that the story is viewed through each individual’s window of life experiences.   Note that if a description of an old woman sitting on a park bench included the notation that she grinned a crooked grin and spoke using only one side of her mouth, the juvenile reader would only understand that this person has probably been affected by a stroke if the child brings to the book a pre-existing understand of a cerebral vascular accident (stroke) and knew some of the more common after affects.   He could then incorporate this characters condition into his overall understanding of how this particular moment fits into the plot and meaning of the story.   If the child has no such reference the scene will be read, but in general be passed over unnoticed.   In the book, Bibliotherapy for Bereaved Children, they had ten children read the story Squib.   Six of the children were non-bereaved and four had experienced the death of a loved one.   All children were between the ages of 10 and 14.   After they had read the book their opinions and responses where tape-recorded and then transcribed.   There is an obvious difference in the way in which these two different groups of children spoke about and understood the book.   The ideas that they found interesting or insightful, frightening or sorrowful were obviously colored by their life experiences.   For example, one child found it interesting how the character spoke to the picture of her dead brother because she had done similar things.   She was living vicariously through this character, and one might even surmise, was taking comfort in the connection she had made with this person.   For another child this same scene was described as strange or weird, but seemed not to elicit any type of emotional response.   There is no doubt but that there has been an increase in the social realism present in today’s fiction.   Many of these books are reaching a teenage audience, but some are being read by younger children.   There is a group of professionals with a less-than-enthusiastic opinion of these books that deal with subjects such death, drugs and sex.

In general, however, most writers and educators believe that this growth in children’s literature has served the reader well.  

A successfully communicated thought,

from one human mind to another,

is one of the most powerful forces I know.

~ Peter McWilliams

1950 2000

How Reading Can Heal

            A strong relationship between reader and fictionalized characters can be forged through shared life experiences.   The power of these connections is often predicated on the skill of the writer as much as it is on the subject matter of the book.   Bereavement, created by the death of a friend or family member, arguably tops the list of emotionally charged issues that might be dealt with in a book with potential therapeutic value.   Death is considered an environmental issue.   There are other types of deaths and other environmental conditions that hold the potential to cause havoc in the mental stability of a child.   Divorce, serious illness, sudden disability and war are some other environmental tragedies that children can be forced to cope with.   By sharing common experiences with a character in a book the child is offered an opportunity to make an emotional link that may serve to bring to the reader many different kinds of benefits.    


When you live in the shadows of insanity the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blissed event

~ Ani Difranci

1970 –

            Many benefits can be brought to a child who reads fiction where life problems are presented in a realistic fashion and are intertwined into a plot that is, at least in part, reflective of the reader’s life.   A common byproduct of such an encounter is a reduction in the sense of isolation.   Children may feel isolated for a host of reasons.   They may actually be cut off by a family who finds talking about the sorrowful even too draining and so the subject becomes taboo and off limits.   In the reverse context, the child may be afraid of their feelings and withdraw into a form of self-isolation.   The sense of aloneness is often accentuated by the near certain belief that no one could possibly understand how they are feeling.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 6)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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  The link between the fictional subject and the bereaved reader may allow the child a huge sense of emotional relief when they realize that they are not alone.    The character’s actions may show the reader new ways to cope with unwanted feelings.   The vicarious experience may bring to light an idea that had been lying just below the level of consciousness, but never been given the needed words to formulate the concept.   This valuable piece of insight may go along way when it comes to the ability to communication.   Sharing feelings with others becomes critically encumbered if the child is groping for words they cannot find. The gift of words that accompanied any new insight will go a long way towards reaching out to and sharing with others.   A sense of empowerment and control may accompany the acquisition of new knowledge.   Empathy for others and themselves may be given life through the vicarious reading of a book that mirrors aspects of the reader’s life.   In the end there are two factors that play an enormous role in what type of positive rewards the reader will leave with.   The first is the reader and the second is the writer.   The reader brings to the story a preset range of knowledge that greatly affects how the story will be interpreted.   The writer is charged with the responsibility of writing an engaging story that reflects back to the reader a reality that is accurate and believable.   A poorly written book is likely to inspire no one, but a well-written book holds the potential to enrich the reader in many valuable ways.   

Many issues Many books

Books come at my call and return when I desire them; they are never out of humor and they answer all my questions with readiness. Some present in review before me the events of past ages; others reveal to me the secrets of Nature. These teach me how to live, and those how to die; these dispel my melancholy by their mirth, and amuse me by their sallies of wit. Some there are who prepare my soul to suffer everything, to desire nothing, and to become thoroughly acquainted with itself. In a word, they open the door to all the arts and sciences.

Petrarca Petrarch

1304 1374

            Environmental problems were used to describe how bibliotherapy might assist a child reader; however, there is a glut of other issues that might be addressed in books and provide similar therapeutic value.   There are some publishers that specialize in the publication of books that address only issues that are relevant to specific childhood problems.   Tales of bed wetting, racism, rudeness, or sharing are some topics covered by these specialized publishers.   In general these books are written with the therapeutic motive in mind, but when looking at the larger picture, most are written by authors who create believable characters engaged in well-developed plots that appeal to a large cross-section of the child and teenage population.   Whether written directly as therapeutic literature or as a general interest story the topics often move from one extreme the death of a parent, to another learning to share our toys.   These books offer an immense variety of topics that might be included within the world of bibliotherapy.  

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed on and digested.

~Francis Bacon~

1561 1626

How do you find these books?

            Therapists, teachers, librarians, or parents can find information about suitable books on the Internet and in books written just for the purpose of identifying titles that offer relevant story lines.   Reviews, topics and suggested age ranges are usually found in these sources.   The best selling book, The Lost Boy by David Peltzer, is an example of a book that might be considered valuable to a child-abuse survivor.   A review of this book might recognize its therapeutic value, but caution that the content is powerful and age appropriateness needs to be considered.   This harrowing biography may offer a teenage reader new knowledge, a sense of camaraderie, and a feeling of hope, but because of the intense details a younger reader nay feel more frightened than connected to the character.    Finding age-appropriate material is important and it can also be controversial.   Fortunately for the interested adult there is a large volume of information available to help choose good books that are interesting, applicable and age-sensitive.  

The press, the pulpit, and the stage,
  Conspire to censure and expose our age.

Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon

1633 1685

Teenagers more bigger controversial issues

            Both six-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds can sustain trauma from similar life experiences, there are, however, issues that are faced by the teen population that a six-year-old might never encounter.     Drugs, alcohol, date rape, sexually transmitted diseases and similar topics are just such issues.   As children grow the pressures that confront them also grow.   So while the core goals of bibliotherapy remain the same, as do the potential benefits, the subject matter becomes more sophisticated and at times fraught with controversy.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 7)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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  Should the shelves of our high school libraries house novels about the struggles of a lesbian teenager or novels about pregnancy where abortion is considered as a viable option?   As teenagers near adulthood their understanding of their world grows and expands.   Sex, violence, and drugs top the list of subjects that can lead to disagreement when evaluating literature that deals with these critical teenage themes.   Rape, incest, drug-addicted parents, domestic violence, and other subjects offend many and encroach into taboo territory.   Authors whose literature pushes at the edges of their craft may make invoke responses of disapproval to outrage.   Even if these topics are too hot for a school board to handle, the children who might benefit from a quality book whose plot line mirrors their life controversial thought it may be would be the losers should they miss the opportunity to make a positive connection through literature.  

No one saves us but ourselves;
  No one can and no one may,
    We ourselves must walk the Path,
      Teachers merely show the way.

~Nancy Wilson Ross~

1910 1986

General Literacy and its Effect on Youth

            Depending upon how bibliotherapy is defined there is another aspect that bears consideration.   It is included here because of the sheer power it brings to the individual who benefits from it.   Reading reading anything from a good book, the newspaper, or the directions on a condom wrapper is dependent upon the readers ability to well. read.     Common sense tells us that the literacy rate of any given population is likely to be tied to the quality of their lives.   Literacy abilities are often categorized using a leveling system that ranks from a low of 1 to a high of 5.   Sadly, 21% to 24% of Americans are considered functionally illiterate, having been assessed in the range of level 1.   The state and federal inmate population is in even worse straights with fully 40% of being functionally illiterate (level 1).   It is worth noting that 70% of all inmates were ranked at level 2 or under.   Compare this number to the 48% of the general population that score in the level 2 or lower range.   Can this comparison be used to further justify the need to raise the literacy rates of our population?   Is it such a stretch to conclude that the ability to read improves people lives?   If we accept that premise, could we then extrapolate that there would be a reduction in crime?   If so, as the dominos continue to fall, could the reduction in crime reduce inmate populations?   Well, as a Mark Twain once said, “There are statistics and then there are damned statistics. ”  The wisdom of those words makes a simple answer nearly impossible to pin down.   However, in general research does support the idea that an increase in the literacy of our population would be connected with the statistical probability of reducing crime and incarceration.   Offering educational opportunities to individuals already housed in our state and federal prisons as a means to reduce recidivism is a trickier issues and the data on that subject is conflicting.   Bibliotherapeutic effect of improving the reading ability of our general population is well highlighted by the examination of our prison population when contrasted to the general population.   Life quality as it relates to reading level has many other connections and the comparison offered here between the inmate and general population is but one.   The correlation between literacy and income level is well established.   There is also a strong link between low literacy levels and poor health.   So while literacy levels, don’t at first blush, seem to fall neatly into a therapeutic goal, the statistics tell a different story.

The Power of Reading

Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.

~John Locke~
1632 1704

            Bibliotherapy cuts a broad path when it’s meaning is examined.   Stories without books, stories with books, and books just for the sake of books dot the landscape.   Each venue holds the potential to use literature as a way to improve the quality of life. If children and adolescents can connect to the literature they read, they may be well served by the insight and comfort they receive from the experience.   In addition, if children and adolescents are blessed with significant literary abilities they may improve the overall quality of their lives.   To read is to gather knowledge.   To gather knowledge is to learn to think.   Learning to think leads to better decision-making.   Better decision-making leads to a healthier, happier life.

Works Cited

Philpot, Jan, Bibliotherapy for Classroom Use. Tennessee:  1997

Cuddigan, Maureen and Hanson, Beth. Growing Pains:  Helping Children Deal with Everyday Problems through Rreading. Chicago:  1988

Jones, Eileen. Bibliotherapy for Bereaved Children. London:  2001

Brandell, Jerrold. of mice and metaphors. New York:  2000

Gardner, M. D. Therapeutic Communication With Children:  The Mutual Storytelling Technique.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 8)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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New York:  1971

Porterfield, Austin L. Mirror Mirror. Texas:  1957

Kaywell, Joan. Using Literature to Help Troubled Teenagers Cope With Abuse Issues. Conneticut:  2004

United States.   National Center for Education Statistics.   Highlights From the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey. 2003 http://nces. ed. gov/surveys/all/issuebrief. asp

United States.   National Center for Education Statistics.   IALS Results. 1997 http://nces. ed. gov/surveys/all/Results. asp

United States.   National Center for Education Statistics. Literacy Behind Prison Walls. December 1994 http://nces. ed. gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo. asp? pubid=94102

United States. Quill Learning Network. International Adult Literacy Survey. unknown http://www. quillnet. org/stats. html

Shepard, John C. GIGA Quotes. Quote Topics. 1999 http://www. giga-usa. com/index. html

Steinman, Richard A, MD, PhD. “Online Health Information and Low-Literacy African Americans”. Journal of Medical Internet Research. June 2004 http://www. jmir. org/2004/3/e26/

United States. National Institute of Health. Why Johnny Is Sick:  Researcher Strengthens Health, Literacy Link. Spring 2003 http://www. nidcd. nih. gov/health/inside/spr03/pg2. asp

United States.   National Institute of Health.   Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters. 2001 http://www. nimh. nih. gov/publicat/violence. cfm#viol2

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TRAINing to Read: A Cognitive Tutor for Children with Mental Retardation

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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According to Kame’enui and Wallin (2006), defining features of children identified as having special needs include significant deficits in their reading development and performance. Approximately 78% of children with moderate mental retardation (IQs between 50-69) are able to learn to read, according to one study, and all children can learn to read when their IQs are 70 or above following the appropriate intervention (Mervis, 2009).

Unfortunately, due to state and nationwide budget cuts, special education classrooms for children with a wide range of abilities are overflowing, leaving overextended teachers unable to provide the one-on-one attention necessary in literacy development. For this reason, a specialized cognitive tutor, the TRAINing to Read (TTR) program should be developed to supplement traditional reading instruction. This new system follows three important caveats (1) ease of use; (2) scalability; and (3) cost effectiveness, providing applicability for both home and school use. Moreover, it will provide customization based on individual student ability and reduce the required student to teacher ratio in special education classrooms.


Why Develop a Computerized Literacy Program?

Although the adoption of computer technology for individuals with mental retardation has lagged behind its usage in business, government, and typically developing educational applications, computers are increasingly empowering individuals with mental retardation to enjoy more independently lives. The ability to read a list of tasks and self-regulate time management can be essential for individuals with mental retardation to hold meaningful employment. Davies et al. (2002) used a portable schedule prompting system loaded onto a Palm Pilot to determine the efficacy of scheduling software to increase independence. In this study, as well as the next by Davies et al. (2003), computer applications were significantly more effective in obtaining and maintaining independent living skills.

Software in Davies et al. (2003)’s study provided adults with mental retardation a means of tracking their personal checking accounts by storing and retrieving common payees, automatically balancing accounts, and posting checks to the register. Results from Davies et al. (2003)’s within-subjects experimental design indicated that using accounting software significantly reduced the errors by users with mental retardation when compared to traditional checking by hand (p < 001), (Davies et al. 2003). Perhaps the use of literacy software will also reduce error production by children with mental retardation without direct adult supervision.

Not only have computer programs been implicated in adult independent living skills, but they are also being adapted to special educational applications for children with mental retardation. In Ortega-Tudela et al. (2006)’s, two groups of children with Down syndrome were trained to perform mathematical skills; One group used multimedia software and the other performed traditional pencil and paper practice examples. While the authors suggest that simply working with a computer does not produce learning, individuals with Down syndrome in the computer program use group performed significantly better than their pencil and paper peers in the tested mathematical ability. Ortega-Tudela et al. (2006) propose that computer software provides the tools necessary to learn abstract concepts that were once thought impossible for individuals with Down syndrome to develop. Although evidence suggests that computer programs have been applied to teaching basic academic and independent living skills to individuals with mental retardation, the complex task of reading instruction has not been attempted in the available literature.

Computer applications provide unique methods to teach children who learn at individualized rates. Davies and Hastings (2003) argue that virtual environments are appropriate learning tools for individuals with mental retardation because of two of their inherent properties: (1) they provide opportunities for learners with mental retardation to make mistakes without fear of humiliation, and (2) programmers can manipulate virtual learning technologies in ways that they are unable to in the real world. Stories can literally come alive when teaching children to read when imagination is limited by the burdensome act of first sounding out individual words and conceptualizing them into a meaningful sentence.

Computers in the classroom offer a versatile instrument from which to introduce educational skills that are both compelling and entertaining to elementary school aged children of all cognitive abilities by operating colorful displays, interactive features, and immediate feedback. Programs like CompSkills provide self-pace, self-directed computer-generated prompting to guide a series of computer training tasks such as mouse operation and typing on a keyboard (Davies et. al, 2004). According to these findings, computer-based education for children with mental retardation provides a new frontier for intelligent tutors in the context of literacy learning. As such, CompSkills style training tasks will be an important facet to preparing children to learn early reading strategies on the computer. To perform well on the TTR module, children must be proficient in basic computer skills, many of which they have acquired through similar CompSkills programs or leisurely gaming.

Intelligent Tutors: Teaching Literacy Skills to Children with Mental Retardation

Now that we have evaluated the effectiveness of computer applications for teaching individuals with mental retardation, the preliminary overall structure of the proposed computer program should be established. The design must incorporate both model tracing, described by Koedinger et al. (1997) as a process in which student’s actions are continually compared against those that the model might generate, and knowledge tracing, which monitors student learning across all problems (Koedinger et al. 1997). An intelligent tutoring system would meet these criteria, as well as provide an external representation for students with mental retardation to demonstrate their reasoning steps in problem solving (Crowley et al. 2007) so that identification of mistake patterns could be recognized and corrected immediately. A computer program may offer corrections to mistake patterns on screen or alert a classroom teacher to the difficulty experienced by the student so that the teacher may intervene.

Moreover, Antshel et al. (2009), find that for children with hyperlexia, described as characteristically capable of decoding text but unable to comprehend its meaning, executive functioning skills are crucial to eventual success in reading. Cognitive based tutors provide children access to their own thought processes because they are able to trace the reasoning of their previous actions, fulfilling an important need among many children with mental retardation, not just those with a hyperlexia diagnoses. Awareness of metacognition will be beneficial across all fields for children with mental retardation, not just those particularly relevant to education.

A final deciding factor in the use of the computerized intelligent tutor design concerns the ease of use and intrinsically rewarding nature of the steps which serve to motivate previously uninterested learners. As a whole, cognitive tutors reduce frustration and provide children pride in a completed goal (Koedinger et al. 1997). Soares et al. (2009) determined that for children with autism, self-monitoring of their own activity completion reduced rates of maladaptive behaviors including self-injury and tantrums. Self-monitoring through means of a cognitive tutor can train children with mental retardation to recognize and track their own behavior.

Implicit learning through observation of one’s own behaviors is essential to successful learning by cognitive tutors, especially for a complex task such as reading. Much of what children with mental retardation or even children in general know about the world is learned implicitly by inducing ideas from experience rather than being explicitly taught. Learning by means of a cognitive tutor happens in much the same way, as rules for the construct being taught (in this case, reading skills) are often not overtly stated. Instead they are determined by the child through trial and error.

Research suggests that for many children with mental retardation, implicit learning skills are a strength. Don et al. (2003) discovered that when controlling for working memory and nonverbal intelligence, individuals with Williams syndrome performed equally as well on an artificial-grammar learning paradigm requiring implicit learning as their typically developing controls. Results from a study by Atwell et al. (2003) indicate that individuals with mental retardation perform poorly when compared to typically developing individuals on explicit learning activities but did just as well on implicit learning tasks. Atwell et al. (2003) suggest that acquiring knowledge about complex material is equivalent for individuals of varying cognitive abilities when accomplished through implicit learning. While this assumption may be a stretch, it is an important skill to tap in teaching new skills to individuals with mental retardation.

Considering the role of implicit learning in cognitive based tutors, as well as the motivation and metacognition skills taught through them, designing a computerized cognitive based tutor seems to be the best option to teach individuals with mental retardation how to read.

Why is Learning to Read so Important?

For children with mental retardation, reading opens the door to an independent life and the ability to further learn more complex academic skills. When children are able to read, they can to communicate with others through written language, create their own to-do lists, and shop for their own supplies. Writing offers a creative outlet for individuals with mental retardation, while reading provides a quiet recreation activity that can be enjoyed in solitude. For these and many other reasons, learning to read must be a priority in the education of all children, even those with mental retardation.

Phonics versus Whole-Word Literacy Training

After carefully considering the ease of implementation and value of a computer-based intelligent tutor to teach children with mental retardation, researchers must next identify the best mechanism for reading instruction: phonics or the more traditional sight word recognition method.

In the typically developing population, the process of reading is comprised of two distinct yet interrelated abilities: (1) word recognition and (2) reading comprehension (Macaruso et al. 2006). To identify a new sight word in reading, children must apply known rules to segment sounds into phonemes and then recombine these phonemes fluently. As a child becomes a more proficient and experienced reader, this decoding process becomes increasingly automatic, as he or she is able to consciously manipulate the components of the language in a construct known as metalinguistics (Mervis, 2009). In reading comprehension monitoring, a core component of metalinguistics, each child must think about what he or she has just read and determine if the mental translation from text is understandable. When the reading is not understood, a child must be prepared to employ cognitive tools to clarify the text such as looking for contextual cues (Mervis, 2009).

Children with mild to moderate mental retardation have historically been taught to memorize sight words rather than to “sound them out”, learning to segment words into distinct phonemes in the letter-sound pairing process of phonics (Laurice & Seery, 2004). Many reading experts are now endorsing phonetic instruction for children with developmental delays, but educators are hesitant to embrace this teaching technique. In a metanalysis conducted by Laurice and Seery (2004), comparisons between sight word learning, where children repeated words presented on flashcards, and phonics instruction, including a tactile kinesthetic task of children tracing letters over sandpaper while also saying the word, indicated improved learning through the phonics approach. Unfortunately, in the seven studies included in this metanaylsis, only one (Barbetta et al. 1993) specifically addressed teaching phonics through error correction (Laurice & Seery, 2004). Error correction procedures such as a teacher breaking down words into syllables following a mistake in phonetic “sounding out” should be a fundamental component of any intelligent tutor system as its importance has been empirically supported (Laurice & Seery, 2004).

An essential factor, the characteristic weaknesses in language abilities for specific diagnoses that also result in mental retardation, should not be overlooked in the design of this computer-based tutor for reading instruction. According to Klusek et al. (2009), nearly two thirds of all children with Down syndrome experience some degree of hearing loss, which could potentially compromise their ability to learn phonetically if unable to hear sounds accurately. The visual processing strengths of children with Down syndrome make learning to recognize whole words more natural; however, phonological memory was also able to predict variation in reading ability (Klusek et al. 2009). Moreover, Cupples and Iacono (2002) determined that children with Down syndrome who received phonological training generalized these methods to unknown words, whereas children who had learned solely to use whole words were not able to (Klusek et al. 2009). These findings indicate that phonological awareness must be integrated with whole word learning for any cognitive tutor built specifically for children with mental retardation.

Previous research suggests that performance on phonemic awareness tasks is actually a better predictor of reading achievement than IQ across various syndromes and special needs (Laurice and Seery, 2004). Macaruso et al. (2006) utilized a computer program for at-risk children to conclude that first graders eligible for Title 1 services can outperform their socioeconomically matched peers when they are taught to read using phonics rather than whole word strategies. Murphy (2009) indicated that learning through phonics was an appropriate method for teaching children with Turner’s syndrome, whereas Finestack et al. (2009) suggested that children with Fragile X have more difficulty with higher level phonological processing, but are able to both whole-word and phonetically decode less difficult words. Mervis (2009) determined that children with Williams syndrome benefit from phonetic instruction because of the strong relations between their phonological awareness and reading skills. Finally, Hatcher et al. (2004) as described by Macaruso et al. (2006) found that explicit phoneme training in reading instruction did not improve literacy skills in typically developing children, but was extremely beneficial for children with reading delays (Regtvoort and van der Leij, 2007). Obviously, there has not been sufficient and conclusive research regarding the use of phonics to teach children with mental retardation, but these strategies provided in a computer-based intelligent tutor could serve as platform to launch future research and a new tool in the educational market.

The TRAINing to Read Cognitive Tutor Design

To formulate an effective cognitive tutor that can be easily replicated to teach millions of children with mental retardation, an adaptable, visually stimulating, and interactive program must be designed where children can learn at varying speeds. Self-paced knowledge tracing will be an important facet of our design to prevent children from becoming bored or overly frustrated, in addition to the many characteristics described in the following paragraphs.

Input from an animated character, similar to Lexie the Lion employed by Macaruso and Walker (2008), will provide instructions for each module and scaffold hints to support student progress on the cognitive tutoring system. A Bayesian estimation procedure will be used to identify individual strength and weaknesses based on responses to questions posed in the model and used to select follow up questions that are in the appropriate range of difficulty for each student (Koedinger et al. 1997). Throughout a child’s operation of the computerized intelligent tutor, the program will trace all responses and return to areas frequently missed to provide hints and specific practice as necessary (Macaruso and Walker, 2008), while alerting classroom teachers and parents of these difficulties. In this way, our cognitive based tutor will provide the individualized support that has become increasingly important as children with a wide range of intellectual abilities are placed together in the same public school classrooms with one common instructor.

Koedinger et al. (1997) emphasize the importance of timely feedback in our cognitive tutor to provide adequate motivational benefits. Macaruso et al. (2006) substantiated that corrective feedback was crucial to the process of learning through cognitive tutors, citing programs like Daisy Quest and the Daisy’s Castle, precursors to our phonetic instruction model. Children must be informed of their mistakes so that they can modify their approach before the incorrect strategy becomes habitual or strongly encoded.

It will be important to constrain the problem space of our students’ responses similar to those described by Lesgold et al. (1992) in their SHERLOCK system, by allowing only actions that would be plausible for users with mental retardation to make. For example, mistakes resulting from inattention will be built into the problem space so that when errors predictive of distraction are made, the child’s attention is redirected back to the task quickly. Specific hints should also be given to the student based on his or her past performance on the task to ensure the appropriate level of feedback is given. The complexity of feedback should be personalized to each child’s individual cognitive ability so that lower functioning children are not given more information about their performance than they can adequately process and retain.

In a new computerized cognitive tutor design, TRAINing to Read (TTR), children with mental retardation will learn to segment, pronounce and blend phonics in an introduction to basic literacy skills. Downloadable from the internet, TTR can be mass distributed to children’s homes, schools, and libraries, where daily reports of activities and errors will be generated and emailed to educators and parents. Each child will be assigned a unique login name and password so that multiple students can share a single computer. Children can also access their TTR module from various computers, allowing for them to practice at home under parental supervision as well as at school, in the library, or in after-school care settings.

Upon loading the software, children will be administered a CompSkills style training (Meyers, 1988) to become comfortable with pointing and clicking their desired response with a computer mouse. I had originally considered developing a membrane keyboard overlay to label objects on the screen as was described by Meyers (1988) but decided that learning to move a mouse would be an easier skill for children to acquire. On the other hand, for children with visual-spatial processing difficulties, a keyboard substitution will also be made available.

Following computer skill training, children will be introduced to a realistic yet animated character, Bob the Train Conductor, who will lead them through the exercises and provide hints when they are requested. Trains will be a structural theme throughout the TTR program, as many children with mental retardation show interest in modes of transportation, particularly trains. Other theme structures could be built for additional levels in the program or for specific interests for various children with mental retardation and downloadable from the same internet website.

Bob, our train conductor, will walk across the screen, pause to introduce himself, and explain his mission while requesting help from the learner to achieve his assigned task. Bob has been asked to transport cars full of toys from the toy store to homes throughout the community where hundreds of little children are waiting to play with their gifts. Cars contain toys and their corresponding activities and are propelled along the track with the completion of each activity. After the learner has completed the activity in each car, another train car “pulls” into the screen view and its corresponding activity is launched.

The first car in Bob’s train asks participants to repeat a particular sound (written on the side of the train) and click on an item that begins with this same sound. For example a colorful “P” would be placed on the side of the train car and highlighted when the sound was produced by the conductor. The learner will next be expected to click on the puppy and drag its icon over to the top of the train car, where the mouse button would then be released and the puppy toy would fall inside the train car to await delivery. Once the toy was successfully dropped into the train car, the “P” on its exterior would be highlighted and the child would be asked to repeat the sound into a microphone headset where observed auditory waves are compared against the expected response to determine accuracy of pronunciation. If an error occurs, the child is prompted to try again. If not, the train’s whistle blows and the next car pulls forward to reveal the next letter-toy pair.

Another activity built into the design of the train program will be a fading task to enhance recall skills for children with mental retardation in literacy learning. Using Bob’s voice, a phoneme drawn on the side of a train car will be pronounced slowly, and the child will be encouraged to repeat this sound. The word will be broken down into phonemes and paired with a simple line drawing of a child’s toy. For example, the word “cat” will be written on the outside of the train car and individual sounds will light up as the conductor pronounces them. In the same fading strategy discussed by Hetzroni and Shalem (2005), a toy cat will be shown clearly on the top of the train car, pairing the toy with the letters and spoken sounds. As the train conductor repeats the word, the lines of the cat drawing will gradually fade, leaving only the words to represent the cat toy. The child will repeat the word “cat” into the microphone headset and the train car will roll off of screen and the next activity car will be presented. Each of the child’s verbalizations will be recorded in the computer and forwarded to the supervising teacher or parent who can also gauge the child’s progress throughout the exercise auditorily.

After the child has successfully completed three very difficult train car tasks in a row (or is displaying signs of fatigue), he or she will be presented words segmented into phonemes. A headshot of the train conductor will read the posted word complete with facial expression and moving lips, while sounding out each syllable and encouraging the child to repeat the word as loudly or softly as desired. This fast paced exercise should reinvigorate the student for learning new material while also making him or her feel accomplished when quickly completing an easier task. The integration of the conductor’s face in this screenshot is important to note, as it mirrors the findings by Massaro and Bosseler (2005), who discovered that children with autism learn significantly faster in the presence of a computer generated face. According to this same source, the human face provides visual information during speech production which may be helpful for individuals with mental retardation.

Throughout the TTR program, children will be reminded to click on any of the help modules to request assistance as needed. Information provided in the help bars will be based on the child’s current abilities and success in responding to previous train car activities, through a knowledge tracing process. Each child can request a spoken cue, one where the conductor enters the center of the screen and speaks directly to the learner, providing the first few sounds of a letter or other hints as appropriate according to the exercise. Other cues can be given through animated prompts or separation of syllables in a more difficult word. When a child has asked repeatedly for help through the help menu, an instant message will be immediately sent to the supervising teacher or parent via cellular phone or computer. This notification system will allow instructors to intervene before a child becomes too frustrated or to step in to correct a behavioral problem. An email log of each help request and incorrect response will be maintained and emailed to all applicable users (teachers, parents, clinicians, and others).

After all of the train tasks have been completed, the train will travel across the screen in a circular pattern on the tracks quickly as the conductor (and the student) repeat words from earlier within the lesson across the train cars.

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TRAINing to Read: A Cognitive Tutor for Children with Mental Retardation (Part 2)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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Bob the Conductor will be shown delivering all of the toys that each child learned about through the reading activities, and at the end of this sequence of graphics, children will be presented with a redemption code where they can ask a parent to help them enter online and chose one of the many prizes to be mailed to their home.

The physical construction of this downloadable computer program must be designed and tested on hundreds of children with mental retardation to determine the efficacy of the model with an appropriate power. Developers must first identify a school district similar to those involved in the testing of Betty’s Brain where cooperation and collaboration is beneficial to both parties and there exists a large population of high functioning individuals with mental retardation. In the initial test stages, TTR should first be deployed specifically for children with mental retardation with IQs greater than 70 because previous research suggests that these children are capable of learning to read. Once the effectiveness has been determined and revisions made to the program, children with lower IQs should be tested to ensure that children of all cognitive abilities can benefit from the TTR computer program. Modifications may be required to provide a more suitable learning environment for children with lower cognitive functioning, but this should be addressed after initial deployment and revisions have been made.

To ensure proper implementation and execution of the TTR literacy program, teachers must “buy into” the program, for lack of a better word. During the initial beta testing of the program, teachers from school districts participating in the first pilot studies will be invited to attend a free two-day seminar where they will learn about TTR’s development. Attendees will have the opportunity to test out the TTR software and make recommendations to the developers, as well as sign up for their classrooms to be one of the first to launch the program. Through these pre-release seminars, classroom teachers should feel ownership for the program and will thus be more likely to administer and supervise according to the original design. New modules in place of the train theme, additional hint instructions, and other improvements will be made based on teacher feedback before the final version is released. As TTR will be available for update on the internet, this software can be modified and downloaded throughout the life of the program to continually improve it as a literacy training resource.

Once TTR has been downloaded onto school computers and teachers have been trained to administer the program, an informational session will be held for parents at the school so that TTR may be successfully used in the home. Parents and teachers will be able to communicate with one another through the program’s messaging service to track student progress and indicate concern in specific areas of learning.

Should the initial implementation of TTR be successful, additional academic lessons for older children with mental retardation can be produced within a similar framework. In this way, children with intellectual and even physical disabilities could safely conduct their own science experiments using virtual Bunsen burners and volatile chemicals that would otherwise be unsafe in a special education classroom. Cognitive tutors can be expanded beyond reading and mathematics applications to encompass other courses that could benefit children with mental retardation. Based on the design and implementation process described, I predict great success in the use of TTR and other future cognitive tutor models to supplement traditional academic instruction.


Antshel, K. Marrinam, E. Kates, W. Fremont, W. & Shprintzen, R. (2009). Language and literacy development in individuals with Velo-cardio facial syndrome. Topics in Language Disorders, 29, 170-186.

Atwell, J. Conners, F. & Merrill, E. (2003). Implicit and explicit learning in young adults with mental retardation. American Journal of Mental Retardation, 108, 56-68.

Crowley, R. Legowski, E. Medvedeva, O. Tseytlin, E. Roth, E. & Jukic, D. (2007). Evaluation of an intelligent tutoring system in pathology: Effects of external representation on performance gains, metacognition, and acceptance. Journal of American Medical Informatics Association, 14, 182-190.

Davies, D. & Hastings, R. (2003). Computer technology in clinical psychology services for people with mental retardation: A review. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 38, 341-352.

Davies, D. Stock, S. & Wehmeyer, M. (2002). Enhancing independent time-management skills of individuals with mental retardation using a palmtop personal computer. Mental Retardation, 40, 358-365.

Davies, D. Stock, S. & Wehmeyer, M. (2003). Utilization of computer technology to facilitate money management by individuals with mental retardation. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 38, 106-112.

Davies, D. Stock, S. & Wehmeyer, M. (2004). Computer-mediated, self-directed computer training and skill assessment for individuals with mental retardation. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 16, 95-105.

Don, A. Schellenberg, E. Reber, A. MiGirolamo, K. & Wang, P. (2003). Implicit learning in children and adults with Williams syndrome. Developmental Neuropsychology, 23, 201-225.

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TRAINing to Read: A Cognitive Tutor for Children with Mental Retardation (Part 3)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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Finestack, L. Richmond, E. & Abbeduto, L. (2009). Language development in individuals with Fragile X syndrome. Topics in Language Disorders, 29, 133-148.

Hetzroni, O. & Shalem, U. (2005). From Logos to orthographic symbols: a multilevel fading computer program for teaching nonverbal children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 20, 201-212.

Kame’enui, E. & Wallin, J. (2006). Information technology and the literacy needs of special populations: Ode to FedEx and dairy farmers. International Handbook of Literacy and Technology, 2, 379-386.

Koedinger, K. Anderson, J. Hadley, W. & Mark, M. (1997). Intelligent tutors to school in the big city. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 8, 30-43.

Laurice, J. & Seery, M. (2004). Where is the phonics? A review of the literature on the use of phonetic analysis with students with mental retardation. Remedial and Special Education, 25, 88-94.

Lesgold, A. Lajoie, S. Brunzo, M. & Eggan, G. (1992). SHERLOCK: A coached practice environment for an electronics troubleshooting job. Instruction and Intelligent Tutoring Systems: Shared Goals and Complementary Approaches. Hillsdale, New Jersey: NDSS.

Macaruso, P. Hook, P. McCabe, R. (2006). The efficacy of computer-based supplementary phonics programs for advancing reading skills in at-risk elementary students. Journal of Research in Reading, 29 (2), 162-172.

Macaruso, P. & Walker, A. (2008). The efficacy of computer-assisted instruction for advancing literacy skills in kindergarten children. Reading Psychology, 29, 226-287.

Martin, G. Klusek, J. Estigarribia, B. & Roberts, J. (2009). Language characteristics of individuals with Down syndrome. Topics in Language Disorders, 29, 112-132.

Massaro, D. & Bosseler, A. (2005). Read my lips: The importance of the face in a computer-animated tutor for vocabulary learning by children with autism. SAGE Publications and the National Autistic Society, 10, 495-510.

Mervis, C. (2009). Language and literacy development of children with Williams syndrome. Topics in Language Disorders, 29, 149-169.

Meyers, L. (1988) Using computers to teach children with Down syndrome spoken and written language skills. In Nadel, L. (Ed): The Psychology of Down Syndrome. New York: NDSS.

Murphy, M. (2009). Language and literacy in Turner syndrome. Topics in Language Disorders, 29, 187-194.

Ortega-Tudela, J. & Gomez-Ariza, C. (2006). Computer-assisted teaching and mathematical learning in Down syndrome children. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 22, 298-307.

Regtvoort ,A. & van der Leij, A. (2007). Early intervention with children of dyslexic parents: effects of computer-based reading instruction at home on literacy acquisition. Learning and Individual Differences, 17, 35-53.

Soares, D. Vannest, K. & Harrison, J. (2009). Computer aided self-monitoring to increase academic production and reduce self-injurious behavior in a child with autism. Behavioral Interventions, 24, 171-183.

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Communicative Learning by Hand: How Gesture Promotes Skill Acquisition Throughout Childhood

June 24th, 2010 Comments off


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Communication through discrete gesturing has been observed and discussed for more than 2,000 years, but its purpose, development, and mechanisms remain cloaked in mystery, particularly in atypically developing populations. Ancient Roman orators, including Quintillian who famously analyzed gesture in his eleven volume periodicals, to modern politicians have deliberately manipulated their hands in ways to appear honest, intelligent, and electable during speech (Lozarno & Tversky, 2006). Given the pervasiveness and importance of gestures for communicative function (Krauss et al. 1995), we will explore the empirical evidence provided by various authors in relation to its development in childhood.


Perhaps innate or learned by imitation, gesturing is a universal behavior that is performed by individuals in every culture across the globe. Both adults and children gesture simultaneously when they explain solutions to problems verbally (Garber & Goldin-Meadow, 2002). Gesturing is such a persistent communicative tool that speakers often gesture while engaged in telephone conversation with a listener that is not even within view (Bavelas et al. 2008).

We can define “gesture” as a sequence of hand motions that are performed along with speech and are not consciously produced by the speaker. According to Jacobs and Garnham (2007), the gesturing construct also excludes sign language and mannerisms such as touching one’s face or hair. In this way, gesturing provides a physical representation of information that is distinct from the information being conveyed by speech.

Jacobs and Garnham (2007) employ two major theories to explain the functionality of conversational hand gestures. On one hand, gesturing may serve to conjure up spoken words (speech production hypothesis). Alternately, gesturing may provide a framework to package the information conveyed through communication to aid comprehension by the listener. Carter et al. (2006) goes on to propose that gestures: 1) draw attention to important parts of speech, 2) provide information not available in speech, 3) replace words that are not immediately accessible, and 4) offer a shared means for silent group communication.

When children use gesturing as a means of communication, they often reveal acquired knowledge that they cannot yet express verbally. With this in mind, gesturing is likely to reveal those unspoken thoughts and skills that children are on the verge of learning (Goldin-Meadow, 2004). Conversely, gesturing may also play an active role in influencing children’s knowledge, both indirectly as it transforms a child’s communicative environment and directly, through effecting children’s cognitive state.

Gesturing Across Childhood

In human development gesture production predates linguistic milestones (Goldin-Meadow et al. 2007). An infant’s first meaningful gestures emerge at approximately ten months, when babies begin to reach towards objects to indicate interest and direct adult attention (Goodwyn et al. 2000). Albeit primitive in nature, these basic motions lay the groundwork for more sophisticated communicative gesturing. As pre-linguistic infants, parents may choose to teach “baby sign” to purposefully encourage their infants to use gestures as symbols for requests and objects. Goldin-Meadow (2006) suggests that although teaching baby sign may not have a long-term effect on vocabulary acquisition, short-term effects, such as opening a communicative pathway can be extremely beneficial to the parent-child relationship.

Just as the onset of pointing predicts the timeframe for a child’s first words, the production of gesture and word combination immediately precedes two-word combined speech (Iverson et al. 2003). Even after children have begun to talk in complete sentences, they continue to produce gestures in combinations with words (Iverson & Goldin-Meadow, 2005). Additionally, during the toddler years, conceptualization and sophistication of representative gestures improve. At three years old, a child will depend on his body to represent a tool in pantomime (e. g. using a finger to represent a paintbrush), but by five, this same child will no longer need a concrete representation of the object (e. g. holding a hand across paper as if holding a paintbrush) (Goodwyn et al. 2000).

Types of Gestures

In their first few years of life, children have the daunting task of acquiring many types of gestures with varied meanings, three of which we will examine in the context of development. Representational gestures, the most extensively used type, include those that accompany an obvious connection between the form of the gesture and that which it represents. Iconic gestures, on the other hand, are often used to describe shape, movement or denote specific physical feature of an object. Finally, metaphoric gestures communicate information about the nature of an action through an easily interpretable movement (Jacobs & Garnham, 2007).

Brain Activation During Gesturing

Gesturing plays a vital role in memory, as people are more likely to remember an action that they have used their bodies to perform. When children comprehend an action word that is indicative of a body part, the area of the brain associated with that body part is activated (Goldin-Meadow, 2009). For this reason, children who gesture while learning are activating an additional neural pathway for memory.

During a functional MRI study, Straube et al. (2006) concluded that the inferior frontal gyrus, premotor cortex, and middle temporal gyrus were activated when individuals performed metaphoric gestures, in addition to a correlation apparent between hippocampal activation and memory performance. In contrast, mismatched or unrelated speech and gesture combinations were instead processed in areas of the occipito-temporal and cerebellar region, mirroring the processing of a no-gesture condition (Straube et al. 2006). Evidence of specialized brain activation for gesture implies that gesturing holds some sort of important function in communicative processing and learning.

Parent-Child Interactive Gestures

Parents play a vital role in the language development of their children as most often either the mother or father is the first reciprocal communicative partner of an infant. By twelve months of age, babies can understand the meaning behind the gestures produced by others. Iverson et al. (1999) analyzed the maternal use of gesture during mother-toddler interactions to determine if maternal gestures were modified as their daughter’s speech becomes more complex. This study concluded that mothers do in fact modify their gestures in consistent ways as their children’s skills expand and use significantly more pointing and representational gestures when interacting with their infants compared to adults (Iverson et al. ,1999)

Maternal gesturing has been linked to children’s eventual vocabulary development. When parents point to an object while verbally providing a label, the learning experience becomes more salient through both auditory and visual input. Moreover, children from low socioeconomic status families typically have much smaller vocabularies at kindergarten than their higher SES peers. Rowe & Goldin-Meadow (2009) explained this disparity in noting that the mothers of children from high SES families used significantly more communicative gestures at their child’s age of 14 months than low SES families, which persists until at least the child enters his or her fifty-four month.

Gesturing Conveys Important Information to the Listener

As evident by parent-child interactions, young listeners are able to glean a great deal of information from viewing gestures by others. Gesturing during instruction tends to encourage children to produce their own gestures, which often translates into learning. Goldin-Meadow et al. (1999) specifically identified problem-solving strategies that children were able to acquire as a result of viewing their teachers’ gestures and recasting them into their own speech. Furthermore, when children imitate these goal directed behaviors, they are able to understand the goals that motivate them (e. g. when a child witnesses his mother touch a light switch, he recognizes his mother’s goal of turning on the light (Cook & Goldin-Meadow, 2006). Gesturing during speech allows listeners to gather perceptual-motor information about a particular task or object described by the speaker. In a study conducted by Cook and Tanenhaus (2009), children were asked to explain how to solve the Tower of Hanoi to listeners with either real objects or on a computer model. Surprisingly, the speaker’s hand gestures and not their speech, indicated to the listener whether the task had been completed on a computer or with real objects. Listeners thus treated computer simulations more like real objects when they had received an explanation from a speaker who had used the real objects in completion of the task. In a similar task, children were given instructions with and without gestures and also with and without concrete objects to solve the classic Piaget conservation task. Ping and Goldin-Meadow (2008) found that when children were given instructions with combined speech and gesture learned more about conservation, regardless of the presence or absence of water-filled glasses.

Finally, Lozarno and Tversky (2006) have demonstrated that listeners are capable of describing the identity of an unknown object when a speaker has performed an illustrative gesture of the item. For listeners to interpret gestures outside of speech, however, the listener must focus added attention to the individual gesturing (Lozarno & Tversky, 2006).

Gesturing Benefits the Speaker

Gestures clearly benefit recipients, but what about the child who is performing these gestures? Research indicates that gesturing also serves the child speaker by (1) stimulating thought, (2) connecting the concrete outside world with the child’s inner abstract thoughts, (3) reducing the cognitive load (i. e. the more a child gestures, the less he or she will have to say), and (4) facilitating an opportunity to communicate with less perceived social risk.

According to Alibali, Kita and Young’s (2000) Information-packing hypothesis as described by Jacobs and Garnham (2007), the production of gestures prepares the speaker for fluent speech. In this model the production of a representational gesture “helps speakers organize rich spatio-motoric information into packages suitable for speaking. ” Evidence of this theory comes from the results of a 2007 study conducted by Jacobs and Garnham where participants were prevented from gesturing and experienced reduced fluency in their own speech (Jacobs & Garnham, 2007).

The synergy provided by gesturing and speaking at the same time has the potential of speeding up learning, improving performance, and even facilitating the generalization or transfer of skills learned. Gesturing may also directly facilitate the encoding of long-term memory as the motor action required form more robust neural pathways. Additionally, the very act of gesturing may direct a child’s focus on the information he or she is displaying through these movements.

Gesturing can prompt children to notice hidden meanings in their own hand motions. Children who have been required to produce only partially correct gestures, according to Goldin-Meadow et al. (2009), are able to learn more than their counterparts who have been instructed to avoid gesturing. In this way, body motions may not just be involved in retrieving old knowledge, but creating new ideas as well. To distinguish causation from correlation, Cook et al. (2008) required children to gesture while learning a new concept and determined that they retained knowledge gained during instruction in comparison to children who were required to not gesture (Cook et al. 2008). Moreover, Broaders et al. (2007) determined that children shown how to move their hands in the correct rendition of a problem-solving strategy solved more math problems successfully than children instructed to move their hands in only a partially correct rendition. As a result, children told to gesture were able to convey previously unexpressed, implicit ideas, opening them up to future learning.

Of course, gesturing also serves to reduce a child’s cognitive load, preserving vital resources that he or she can direct towards other uses (Cook & Goldin-Meadow, 2006). According to Goldin-Meadow et al. (1999), gesturing during speech requires motor planning and coordination of two separate cognitive and motor systems, which some predict would increase cognitive load. On the other hand, gesturing and speech may be combined in a single integrated system that works together for effective communication and problem-solving.

Spontaneous gesture indicates a child’s readiness to learn a new task or skill. In most research mothers are the first to notice these signals because as primary caregivers, they are finely tuned into their child’s abilities (Goldin-Meadow et al. 2007). In this way, gesturing can function as a mechanism by which children reveal their thoughts to a listener, who can then adjust the interaction to focus on these thoughts to facilitate learning (Goldin-Meadow, 2009). Consequentially, children shape their own learning environments by nonverbally indicating to an adult that appropriate input in their zones of proximal development is needed. Abilities available in a child’s zone of proximal development as defined by Vygotsky include those that the child has not yet mastered, but is actively working on and are thus “ripe” for change (Goldin-Meadow & Singer, 2003).

Gesture-Speech Mismatch

Much of the communicative learning facilitated by parents is done when their children produce gesture-speech mismatches. Gesture-speech mismatches are often performed when a child is on the verge of making progress in learning a new task and offers a window into his or her thinking during this critical transitional state (Goldin-Meadow & Wagner, 2005).

A classic example of gesture-speech mismatch can be observed when children first attempt to solve the Piaget conservation task. As indicated by Goldin-Meadow and Wagner (2005), a child will initially determine the amount of water in each glass to be the same, but after pouring the contents of one into a shorter, wider cup, he or she then reasons that the volumes are now unequal. When asked to explain their answers, children will indicate their reasoning by gesturing to the differences between the heights of the liquid in each glass. By the middle childhood years, children are able to adjust their thinking to explain that while the levels of water portrayed through gesturing are not equal, the glasses in fact do contain the same amount of water.

An additional example of gesture-speech mismatch occurs when young children are asked whether the number of checkers in two identical rows are equal. Once the experimenter has spread out the checkers in one of the rows, children will then say that the number of checkers in each row are different, focusing on the examiner’s movements and gestures. The young participants may also count the checkers, physically touching each checker on both of the rows, but continue to insist that there are more differences in their numbers. Children who produce these mismatches in their explanations clearly have information relevant to solving the task and are thus at the verge of learning the task (Goldin-Meadow, 2004).

For typically developing children, speech-gesture mismatches become a powerful tool for learning. Children will first produce a single, incorrect explanation for a task. As they become more knowledge about the world around them, children will enter a conflicting stage where they produce two different procedures, one in speech and the other in gesture, and finally they will produce a single procedure that is correct (Alibali & Goldin-Meadow, 1993).

Because this path of speech-gesture mismatch is so predictable, it may serve as an early diagnostic indicator that a child’s development is deviating from the typical course. Gesture is an early marker of change and can be tracked and recorded by parents, teachers, psychologists, and physicians alike (Goldin-Meadow et al. 1999).

Gesturing in Special Populations

Despite the unprecedented insight that observers are able to glean about a child’s cognitive development, very little gesturing research has been conducted in atypically developing populations. Children with Down syndrome have been repeatedly characterized as adequate gesturers in spite of their vast deficits in expressive vocabulary. Perhaps gesturing empowers children with Down syndrome to communicate that which they are physically unable to verbalize because of mouth shape, tongue size, and other biological constraints. Iverson et al. (2003) administered the MacArthur CDI to the parents of thirty-nine children with Down syndrome, matched on the basis of comprehension and production vocabulary size. While the authors determined that their participants with Down syndrome had significantly larger gestural repertoires than their typically developing counterparts, the same procedure repeated on an Italian population of forty children with Down syndrome found this effect only in a high comprehension sample. Unlike their typically developing peers, children with Down syndrome in both studies only combined words and gestures redundantly. In other words, new information was not conveyed by gesturing; spoken language was simply repeated by gesturing.

Past research suggests that overall children with Williams syndrome have larger expressive vocabularies than those with Down syndrome, so one would expect differences in gesturing between the two groups. Bello et al. (2004) examined the accuracy of naming and the accompanying use of gestures in a picture-naming task by children with Williams syndrome. In comparison to typically developing controls, children with Williams syndrome produced more iconic gestures, showing physical, concrete items. The authors interpreted this to mean that children with Williams syndrome have specific word-finding difficulties. Moreover, children with Williams syndrome showed a higher rate of gesturing than typically developing children, including the overproduction of conventional-interactive gestures, such as “yes” and “no” (Bello et al. 2004), indicating that their social competencies were more similar to their chronologically age matched peers than other children with mental retardation (Bello et al. 2004). As this finding would suggest, those that interact with children with Williams syndrome, the “listeners”, benefit from their gesture production, but do children with Williams syndrome also learn from their own gestures?

Future Directions

With so little research being conducted on the gesturing of children with mental retardation, an entire set of experiments must be designed to gain a better insight into their communicative development and thought processes. Children with Williams syndrome are clearly able to fill the gaps in their expressive language by gesturing, but are they also able to learn about their environments through self-produced gestures? To determine the importance of gesturing as a benefit to speakers with mental retardation, researchers should first design a very basic experiment where children with Williams syndrome are asked to solve a difficult algebraic equation. Only those with Williams syndrome who fail to solve the problem will be included in the experimental design, where participants will be chronological and mental age matched and separated into two groups (control and experimental). Children with Williams syndrome in the control group will be filmed attempting to solve the algebraic equation based on verbalized instructions by the experimenter, guiding the child on the correct pathway to finding the solution. At the same time, children with Williams syndrome in the experimental group will be taught to solve the equation with the very same verbalized instructions but researchers will also encourage them to gesture towards each component of the problem as they solve them. Two weeks after their initial training session, children with Williams syndrome in both groups will be invited back to the laboratory to attempt to solve a similar algebraic equation. Researchers will film both groups and determine whether there are significant differences between the problem-solving tactics and success in the competition of each mathematics problem based on the gesturing condition.

Gesturing appears to play an important role in the education and communicative development of children of all abilities and further research must be conducted to uncover additional aspects of its use.


Bavelas, J. Gerwing, J. Sutton, C. & Prevost, D. (2008). Gesturing on the telephone:

Independent effects of dialogue and visibility. Journal of Memory and Language, 58, 495-520.

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