Three-Syllable Word Cards for Articulation… and Teaching Ornery Kids

Does your child need practice articulating three-syllable words? For many children with T21, difficulty with phonemic and short term memory is one of the causes of language delay. This really becomes evident when they try to remember how to say multi-syllabic words or construct sentences.

As a former piano teacher, I am noticing the similarity between teaching the language of music to typically developing children and teaching language to a child with Down Syndrome. For typically developing children (and adults!) learning to improvise on the piano can only occur after *a lot* of practice with scales and chord progressions. Similarly, it seems that for Junior, learning to “improvise” in speech only occurs after lots of practice with carrier phrases and repetition with words that are hard to articulate. Frankly, I’m hoping that at some point something will just “click” and he’ll start talking in complete sentences. But I’m still waiting for that to happen.

In the meanwhile, we’re working on articulating difficult sounds such as /h/ and /y/, and we’re working on three syllable words. We practice these at the word level and at the sentence level. And we practice them in scripted conversations. Moreover, because the written word has become a very powerful visual prompt, Junior is also learning to read these words by sight and partly by sounding out.

Of course we want to practice words that he will actually use in daily life. So, for this summer I made this set of flashcards for articulation practice and sight reading.

There are 20 words in this set. I cut out the cards and pasted the sentence cards to the back of the corresponding picture cards. The accented syllables are in dark blue.

Now, I have to admit, practicing articulation is not one of his favorite activities. Working on articulation and recalling words to repeat a sentence is really hard work for him. I liken it to practicing scales and arpeggios at the piano… necessary for building technique and for learning to improvise freely, but so not fun if you’re a kid. It helps to put ourselves in our children’s shoes: what if I played a short musical piece on the piano, and you (without having had any piano lessons) had to play it back note for note? Think of the mental energy it would require for you to do this, especially if you’re not Mozart! I believe that’s the amount of mental energy it requires for many children with Down Syndrome and/or Apraxia to repeat back sentences in a clear, intelligible manner. And ultimately, we want our kids not just to repeat back sentences, but to express themselves freely.

So articulation and sentence building is something we work on a lot. But it’s hard for him, so I throw in a lot of praise, cajoling, and silliness, and I fake making mistakes… anything to get Junior to “play along”.

Today I’m sharing some videos to show: 1. How we use these cards to work on articulation and sentence building, and 2. How I get Junior to work even when he’s ornery.

Here is the first time Junior has seen these cards. The novelty of new cards makes him interested, so he’s pretty willing to play along. When introducing a new set of words, it’s always good to include words that are really easy and some that are challenging. Notice that “tomato” is easy, but “popsicle” is really challenging. Repetition is key to mastery, so I try to get Junior to practice each word at least three times.

Now the novelty is over, and Junior is cluing into the fact that he actually has to work hard. So he’s starting to get grumpy. But we push on anyways. In this video, I am teaching Junior to read the words by sight. Learning to recognize them by sight helps him to articulate more clearly and to remember how to say them. He actually uses a combination of phonics and sight reading to learn these words.

Here are some techniques I use to encourage him to stay on task: I offer to go first so he feels secure about knowing how to do the task before trying it himself, I pause before telling him the word (to give him a chance to beat me to it), I make mistakes on purpose so he can correct me, I pretend I need help, and I praise, praise, praise!

In this last video, we work on using three syllable words in sentences. Think of it as trying to memorize a piece of music. It’s much easier to play a piece of music if you have the notes in front of you, but to memorize is hard work. Junior can read simple sentences, but to repeat them “by memory” is a lot harder. So he gets a little play doh to hold while he practices repeating sentences. The intent is to distract him from the difficulty of the task at hand.

One last trick I use: we take little rests. We lie on the floor and pretend to sleep while counting to twenty. Once we get to twenty, we jump up, run around, and then run back to the desk hip-hip- hooraying and cheering as if we were about to do something sooo exciting. It’s a trick I learned from his occupational therapist (who happens to have an adult brother with Down Syndrome), and it works like a dream.

For more tips on teaching kids with Down Syndrome, see this paper from the DSE’s Library:

Strategies to address challenging behavior in young children with Down Syndrome

Here are the articulation cards:

Read more: Three-Syllable Word Cards for Articulation… and Teaching Ornery Kids

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