The first strategies we focused on in the KidTalk study were basic things like conversational turns (working not to say three times as much as Elijah says, but to wait and give him more opportunities to communicate) and "mirroring and mapping" (imitating what he is doing and then "mapping" language onto those actions). Then we got serious. Megan and her staff analyzed transcripts of Elijah's sessions and determined targets--what level was he currently speaking at, and what level did we need to use to best help him?
Megan's instinct was that although Elijah was using many longer phrases, he was not actually communicating functionally at a three/four-word sentence level. He had learned the phrases in one chunk, and didn't necessarily understand that the individual words were building blocks which could be combined in different ways. As I explained in my last post, he was talking a lot, but doing very little spontaneous communication.
So the first huge challenge for me was to back up and speak much more simply. My goal was that 50% of the time, I was to respond to Elijah using only two-word phrases. Then if he repeated it, I could add another word, and build longer phrases one word at a time, so we could make sure he understood each individual word. That sounded impossible at first! But it soon became more natural--and Megan's instincts were dead on. The progress we saw when we implemented this strategy was incredible. Elijah just learns language differently than a lot of kids--and once we figured that out, he really took off.
It wasn't long before Elijah was speaking at the two-word target level and we had to bump it up to three-word targets. I learned a few prompting strategies, and it was like something clicked in his little brain. It was clear that he suddenly understood that he could switch words in sentences and construct his own sentences, that he was grasping how to communicate his thoughts and desires!
After one particularly encouraging session, Megan analyzed the video and compared it to our very first session. The hard data confirmed what she and I had been seeing. One basic measure of language is “mean length of utterance” (MLU)--in other words, average sentence length. At the first session, Elijah's MLU was around 2. Two months later, it was 3.1—and to give you a frame of reference, Megan explained that typically they expect that to increase by one word per *year*!
It isn't the slightest exaggeration to say that the first six weeks of this study were more beneficial than an entire year of Early Intervention. I don't mean to disparage the people who served our family through EI; they did their best and were a blessing to us in many ways. But they really need to adopt these methods and strategies!
[part 4: The Study Ends; A Grateful Goodbye]