Set Students Up to Win in the Game of Language and Life

Take a deep breath. What I’m about to tell you will take a leap of faith: It’s time to toss your therapy decks aside in favor of contextualized language intervention.

I can almost hear your gasps of, “But why, Marisha!?”

Stay with me. I’m not saying NEVER use your therapy decks, but it is time for you to loosen your white-knuckle grip on them.

When we only practice skills with our students, we never give them a chance to make the shot (or apply what they learned in a real-life setting). I learned this lesson the hard way when I realized what I was teaching in my speech room with cute games and lots of fun activities stayed in the speech room. While “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” might be good for Vegas, it’s not good for our students when they don’t apply what they learn in a classroom setting.

The basketball analogy that really drove this home for me was shared in a presentation by Dr. Teresa Ukrainetz about contextualized language intervention. Her comparison really resonated with me.

In basketball, there are essential skills players must master to become champions, including dribbling, passing, and shooting. What would it look like if basketball players were relegated to only skills practice?

They’d head to the gym and dribble, pass, and shoot over and over. Dribble. Pass. Shoot. Dribble. Pass. Shoot. They might have different drills to mix it up, but they are always in the gym—dribble, pass, shoot.

While they will likely be able to acquire the skills necessary to dribble, pass, and shoot in the controlled environment of the gym, it’s unclear how they would transfer those skills to an actual basketball game for the win.

In our world, the drills are therapy decks, worksheets, and language activities that teach skills. Yes, some of these are very effective IN OUR SPEECH ROOMS, but what happens when a student goes back to the classroom? Are they set up to win there?

At the opposite end of the spectrum would be basketball players who try to learn the skills JUST by playing games over and over again. Coaches offer some feedback, but there aren’t goals established, or there isn’t a particular focus to help a player improve.

Hmmm, does this sound familiar in our world? Sounds like the enrichment and assistance we give students to help them complete classroom assignments.

What’s a better formula to be a champion?

In basketball, players learn and acquire skills through a combination of coaching, hands-on practice, and real-life application in the games.

At the beginning of the season, a coach assesses individual players in a causal intra-team scrimmage to determine areas of focus for practices. At practices, the team learns and enhances their skills while practicing the fundamentals of the game—dribbling, passing, and shooting.

They then put their skills into action when they step on the court to play in a game. Based on the performance of the game, coaches alter their next practice strategy to focus on skills that need further development. For example, if the team struggled to hit free-throw shots, the coach might implement a special drill to help the team improve. This cycle of learning and testing continues throughout the entire season.

With contextualized language intervention, skills matter but the “game is the aim”! We want our students to integrate their learning within the context of the classroom or in conversations with their peers or parents. Relevancy is key!

In my experience implementing literacy-based (i.e., contextualized) therapy, students were less distracted, I was less overwhelmed, and my students were making MORE progress!

Contextualized language intervention in action

In classrooms across the country, teachers expect students to engage in meaningful discussions related to the curriculum—from reviewing the results of a science experiment to analyzing Number the Stars. So, it’s the perfect example for us to see contextualized language intervention in action.

In this example, participating in a classroom discussion is the GAME for which we are preparing our students.

In order for students to successfully participate in a discussion, they need to be able to comprehend the teacher’s questions, understand the other students’ contributions, and generate their own responses—just to name a few. Skills we might target in the therapy room include answering WH questions, answering inferential questions, identifying relevant/irrelevant details, producing grammatically correct sentences, and speaking clearly.

Check out the video below to dive into more examples!

Are you ready to make the switch?

Yeah! I’m so glad you stuck with me. Here are a few things I learned when I evolved my therapy to a more literacy-based approach:

• It takes time: This transition won’t happen overnight. It’s hard giving up your therapy decks because they are tried and true. Take positive steps in the direction you want to go, and it’s totally doable!

• Communicate with classroom teachers: In order to make sure our work is meaningful and purposeful, the definition of providing contextualized intervention, it’s important to talk to classroom teachers and learn what students are working on in the classroom. This can vary from teacher to teacher in each grade level and from year to year.

• Trust your therapy toolbox and your clinical judgment: The therapy skills you worked so hard to acquire can be used in just about any context. And, there is a time and a place for your therapy deck and board game reinforcer. Your clinical judgment will help you navigate.

Want more tips on how to incorporate contextualized language intervention into your therapy? Pre-register for the SLP Summit today, a free online conference for SLPs!


Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

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