Language of Math Word Problems

The language contained in math word problems is often abstract, causing difficulty for students with language deficits.  It is essential that students realize the mathematical operation that these words signal.  Although I am not a math tutor, I have spent many an hour working with clients on the setting up of word problems.  

First, they need to learn these concepts--which is hopefully being done in a multi-sensory manner by the math instructor.  We, as language educators, SLPs and parents can reinforce these concepts, moving from hands-on materials, to representative methods, using paper and/or technology.  I usually start by creating pictorial representations, discussing with the student what is happening in the language "story" (word problem). After this, we set the problem up using numbers.  

As students move into higher elementary and middle school years, this pictorial step is often omitted; the assumption being that this step is unnecessary.  Next week, I will share how to use Notability to easily draw, duplicate, combine, etc., which is difficult to do using paper.

This chart of words and operations was accessed from the purplemath website, which is a helpful site for math:

Stapel, Elizabeth.
"Translating Word Problems: Keywords." Purplemath. Available from
Accessed 05 November 2014

© Elizabeth Stapel 2000-2011 All Rights Reserved

Addition increased
more than
combined, together
total of
sum, plus
added to
Subtraction decreased
minus, less
difference between/of
less than,
fewer than
Multiplication of
times, multiplied by
product of
by a
  factor of (this type can
both addition or
  subtraction and
Division per,
out of
ratio of, quotient of
percent (divide by
Equals is,
are, was, were, will be
gives, yields
sold for

Formulating Definitions

Definitions are tricky.  They need to be succinct, conveying the essence of the word or concept without including unnecessary details.  Many students who have expressive language difficulty find definitions very tricky.  Providing them with a formula, and practicing category and function skills will help them improve this necessary skill.

Basically, common nouns can be defined by providing the category label, the function of the item, and whatever additional salient details make the item distinguishable (e.g., the parts or what the item is made of.)  This sounds easy enough, but let's think about what is required for each step.  First, in order to retrieve the appropriate category label, one needs to have words stored categorically, for example, if I say, "sofa--what are some other things that are sort of kind of like it?" I would want to make sure the student has the ability to call to mind words or pictures like, "chair, table, bed," that are also contained in the category.  Secondly, it is from this framework that the category label is retrieved (or not, with many of our students with word-retrieval issues.) Once the student has gone through this "bottom-up" type thinking, they are then required to perform another complex task--that of comparing the item to be defined with all the other items contained in that category, so that important differences can be highlighted. The third step in the definition process for many common nouns is to identify the function.  I might ask, "What does this do, or what do we do with it that makes it special and different from all the other items in that category?"  So if the student says, "You sit on it", I might challenge him with, "I can sit on a bench, a chair and a stool, can you be more specific? How many people might sit on it?"  Once they formulate, for example, "A sofa is a kind of furniture that two or three people can sit on," the fourth step would be to think about the component parts or what the item is made of.  If additional information is needed (e.g., defining a lemon, an airplane, or perfume,) we focus on other salient details, such as size, shape, color, texture, smell, taste, sound, etc.  Many times, so long as the category label, function and parts/made of information is provided, the word has been adequately defined.

Above is a formula that helps students successfully work through each of these steps.  Have fun defining!


"Seeing" the Story with Notability

follow up on our last post, Bring Your Own Device Advice, I wanted to share how
I use one of my favorite iPad apps, Notability, to help students with
reading comprehension. Many tutors, teachers and SLPs use the Visualizing
& Verbalizing (VV)
 method by Lindamood-Bell to ensure that students
are visualizing language. This is such an important component of comprehension.
my iPad handy, the student and I read the first sentence or two from
a paragraph. We discuss what the student is imagining, focusing on character
and setting. One of the great features of Notability is the drawing
feature. If the student is comfortable drawing, he can select all the colors he
envisions, draw the main character or setting on the first page of Notability,
and put in a significant amount of detail. when we were limited to using pencil
and paper, the student (or I) had to re-draw the character in every scene,
which was time consuming. It often resulted in the use of stick figures which isn't
quite the same.

With Notability,
the drawing of the detailed character can be copied, shrunken, rotated, and
pasted into new pages so that, as new sentences (and scene/scenarios) are
added, the character can be pasted into each scene. Here is an example of a
VV story about a ferret getting into a dresser, opening a pantry door,
eating his food and going into the clothes hamper. I find taking the time to
draw the main character takes a bit of time up front, but pays dividends when
the student can see the details throughout the drawn story. This helps when
students are required to remember and re-tell stories. I hope you find
Notability helpful!

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) Advice for Students

In many parts of the U.S., schools are enacting Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). It means students can bring their laptops, smart phones and/or tablets to school. Here in Howard County, Maryland many of our middle schools and high schools are now BYOD. For students with language disabilities, this is a big help if you know the students' needs and can provide apps to support learning. Here's advice I have been giving parents to promote learning with smart devices.

Word Processing
First, you need software on your device to write papers, take notes and keep up with the enormous amount of information students are navigating daily. For iPad users, Pages, is free and has all the bells and whistles needed for documents and beyond. I love that students can import pictures easily from Safari to add visuals to any projects.  Microsoft also has Office for iPad and Microsoft Word for iPad and for other tablets (Office Mobile) which requires a subscription. If you are not a fan of Pages, you have alternatives. Let me suggest your student try Pages first for two reasons: (1) many times  figure out new programs faster than the rest of us, and (2) it is designed for the iPad (and free), so it's a great choice.

Microsoft Word for iPad

Note Taking

Most of my students use Pages for note-taking on their iPads, but others like one of two programs: Notability or Penultimate. Both allow students to type, draw, import pictures, capture audio during lectures and organize their notebooks. If you want to use the audio capabilities, make sure you get the teachers' permission before recording anything in class.


Planning and Organization
Each of my students learns to use Inspiration Maps on the iPad when we are working on written expression. Students can brainstorm information for paragraphs, essays and research papers. They can plan in diagram mode or in outline mode. Outlines have never been easier in this software and they can be exported to Pages or Word so no re-typing is needed.
Inspiration Maps

Current Events
Many students have current events assignments and sometimes write about these events. Zite is a wonderful app on the APP Store, Google Play and Amazon Fire. Students choose categories they need to stay abreast of (health, news, sports, etc.) and the app refreshes itself constantly with the latest articles streaming. Having the latest articles at your fingertips takes the work out of finding the article and they can spend more time focusing on writing about the event chosen.


Time Management
How many times have we heard, "He did the work, but he didn't turn it in on time." One of the most useful functions of a smartphone, tablet or computer is the ability to schedule due dates for homework, projects and events. For kids with Executive Function difficulties, help is usually needed in keeping up with due dates. There are many different options. I prefer Apples iCal because it syncs across all of my devices with reminders built in to help students stay on top of due dates. However, there are many apps for just this purpose. Cruise the App Store or Google Play to find the calendar that works best for you. If your student uses Google, they have a great calendar systems, as well.


Vocabulary Apps
We've talked about how important vocabulary is for learning and reading comprehension in past posts. I'd be remiss if I didn't plug our own vocabulary apps - InferCabulary and Word Quations. InferCabulary is on the App Store and focuses on nouns and adjectives. WordQuations for verbs will be on the App Store in October. Go to our website to sign up for an email alert so you'll will know when WordQuations hits the App Store!

Have fun exploring the apps world!

SLPs and the iPad

My parents gave me my first iPad, the original iPad, for Christmas in 2010. It was one of my most exciting Christmas presents, although the Barbie Camper ranks a close second. Almost immediately, I imagined what I could do with my new iPad in my speech language private practice. Isn't that what we do as speech-language pathologists? Take a personal gift, game or toy and repurpose it for use with our students?

I dreamed of creating SOAP notes and using articulation pictures - all within easy reach during a session. I imagined using YouTube clips for oral expression and finding games to inspire students. A dictionary and thesaurus at the touch of a screen made me giddy. Now almost four years later, the iPad has become indispensable in therapy. The App Store has exploded with speech language apps and ideas are shared about how to better engage our students in the technology age.

I do have some suggestions if you are new to the iPad in the therapy world and some wisdom to impart for those who are old hat with the iPad.

Buying an iPad. Make sure you buy an iPad with a large amount of storage. The iPad Air now comes with up to 128 GB of storage. Why so much storage? Speech language apps typically are large apps and will eat up space on your iPad, so plan for this. Can't afford the 128 GB now? Then wait until you can afford it, because having to delete apps to run other apps is a pain in the neck. Consider this as important an investment as your computer.

Crashes. I read a lot of comments about crashes. While you have a lot of storage on your iPad the processor is not always as fast. To keep apps from crashing, close out apps regularly.  You can do this by using 4 fingers to sweep up on the iPad screen or hit the home button (round button on the bottom) twice. You can close one to two apps at once by sweeping the app to the top of the screen.

SOAP Notes. Taking session note are so easy with my iPad. I used to have a 3-prong folder for each student that I would fold and sit on the table next to me. It took up a lot of real estate on my therapy table, not to mention time to handwrite notes. Now I sit my iPad Air in a wireless keyboard case next to me and it takes up less space than a sheet of paper. I have a document for each student that contains their treatment goals and daily notes. Keep in mind...

  • Use the highest password encryption to protect students' information.
  • Using only first names and last initial for students can also protect their privacy.
  • Back up your notes to your computer once a month just in case. 
  • If you have to reset your iPad, never fear - your notes are all in the iCloud and will come back once you reset using the same Apple account (email address and password).

Student use. Let's face it, students are now light years ahead of many of us because they are adapting to the technology age. We need to learn to adapt, too. I'm fortunate enough to now have an iPad3 and an iPad Air. The iPad Air is mine and I do all of my note-taking on it. The iPad3 also has it's own wireless case - I got an inexpensive one for $35 last week and it works great. Students plan writing assignments in Inspiration Maps, export the information or outline to Pages, and then fully flesh out their paragraph on the iPad. They use Siri to read back their written work and learn valuable editing skills.

Students teach me. I learn just as much from my students about what they know about technology as they do with me.  One day, a middle schooler walked into my office and asked to use Siri. Skeptical, I said, "okay," ready to pounce if it turned out to be negative. He said to Siri, "tell my why fire engines are red, please Siri." I won't spoil the surprise, but the answer is quite cute. Unbeknownst to my students, they are actually working on pragmatics, oral expression and a whole host of other language skills by allowing them to teach me a few new tricks.

Monitor use. Always be close by to monitor your students' use of the iPad. You can put on parental controls. I make sure I have a passcode on both iPads so they can't just grab the iPad and start using it. They need my permission. Think about it. You would not leave students alone with a computer and the same precautions apply to the iPad.

Next time, we'll talk apps for iPads in business practices and in treatment....and if you have time, check out InferCabulary on the App Store!

Tips for Teachers of Students Who Stutter

How do I help a child in my class who stutters?

We all can think of at least one teacher who made a difference in our lives. It's important to give the teacher of a student who stutters some tips on how to create an environment that supports the student. The Stuttering Foundation ( offers great tips for classroom teachers:

  • Don't tell the student to "relax" or "slow down." This just increases the anxiety a student may feel when they are trying to tell you something or contribute to a classroom discussion.
  • Don't finish a student's sentence or put words in his mouth. Good talking manners apply to everyone in the classroom, not just the stutterer.
  • Listen to what he says, not how he says it.
  • Treat him like the other children in your class, expecting the same quantity and quality of work.
  • Respect the needs of the student by talking with him about oral speaking requirements in class. If the stuttering is mild, he might be willing to speak in front of the class. Don't count his dysfluencies against him! If he is a severe stutterer, allow him to do the report for you individually instead of in front of the entire class.
  • Don't talk about stuttering like it is something to be ashamed of.
  • Make your classroom a "no ridicule zone."
Talk to the speech language pathologist who works with your student. S/he will have suggestions and offer advice about your student. Caring enough to make a few changes will go a long way to making a big difference in the student's life. It's important to create an environment that supports a healthy self-esteem for all students and especially those with communication difficulties.

Parenting Stutterers

Working with school-aged students who stutter, I find parents have lots of questions about how to parent their child who stutters. The Stuttering Foundation has a wonderful book, Stuttering and Your Child: Questions and Answers that I highly recommend to parents and teachers.  This book is available in paperback form and on e-readers.

A common question asked is, "Why does my child stutter?" The answer: no one knows why. The book points out that we usually want to know why something happens so we can eliminate the cause and stop the stuttering. Unfortunately, this is not possible.  Some think imitating stutterers will cause stuttering. This is a myth - most stutterers begin stuttering on their own without having heard someone else stutter. There are genetic dispositions to stuttering. You may know of another family member who stutters. Most importantly,

Parents should not blame themselves for their child's stuttering.

The way you raise your child has little to do with why your child stutterers. But, there are things you can do to help your child.

Suggestions for Parents
You can change some of the ways you do things at home to help your child. Too often family members try to finish her sentences, interrupt while she is talking, or encourage a fast rate of speech. To help your child, consider these suggestions to parents from Dr. Richard Curlee:

1) Accept your child. Find ways to show your child that you love and value her, and you enjoy spending time with her.

2) Listen patiently. Respond to the "message" rather than how it is relayed.

3) Avoid filling in or speaking your child's thoughts and ideas. Her thoughts and ideas should be her own.

4) Maintain natural eye contact. Don't look away or stare at your child while she is talking.

5) Don't interrupt - allow your child to complete what she is saying.

6) Spend 5 minutes a day devoted to listening and talking with your child in a relaxed manner.

7) After your child speaks use some of the same words she did, but in a relaxed way. By doing this you will be modeling a good speech pattern.

8) Pause at least one second before reponding to your child. Don't hurry the response.

You should know...

  • More boys than girls stutter (4:1)
  • 3 million Americans stutter and 68 million people world-wide stutter
  • 5% of all children go through a period of stuttering that lasts 6 months
  • 3/4 of children who stutter will recover by late childhood 
  • 1% of children who begin stuttering, continue to stutter
  • If your child stutters, see a speech-language pathologist who specializes in stuttering right away.
  • Early intervention is the key to treating children who stutter
  • There are no miracle cures for stuttering, but progress can be made.
For more information, visit

Storytelling (Narrrative) Practice

Storytelling is ultimately a creative act of pattern recognition. Through characters, plot and setting, a writer creates places where previously invisible truths become visible. Or the storyteller posits a series of dots that the reader can connect. - Douglas Coupland

In our "Storytelling and Language-Learning Differences" post, we discussed the "recipe" or pattern
for telling a story: 

Usual events + Unusual events + Problem(s)
+ Solution(s) + Ending = Narrative

With all new skills learned, there has to be a time of
practice that allows the student to perfect their technique and adapt it to a
variety of narratives. Take the pattern for storytelling and
have some fun with it.

Toys and Pictures
One way to
practice other than just creating stories aloud, is to use toys such as Legos
or Polly Pockets (really any figurines) and create a scene from each part of the
story. Using an iPad or camera to either take pictures of
the story is fun. Print them out or send them to the students' parents so they can practice telling the story at home.
Create Books

There's no better reward for a student who created a story
than to see it in print. Books can be low tech with craft supplies and paper or
high tech using a tablet or computer. Check out's website for
apps that let student's create their stories on iPads (


Videos are my new favorite way students can practice their
narrative skills. iMovie on the iPad is a great way to make a video and if you
don't know how to do it, your students can most likely show you. My new
favorite app is Toontastic. Try it for free with Toontastic Jr. - I used their
pirate app. We quickly graduated to Toontastic where you can buy unlimited
settings, characters, etc. for $9.99. Students are pattern of storytelling and use each step to create their movie with moveable
cartoon characters, lots of settings (backgrounds) and music. I sit with my
student while they make decisions and guide them in creating their story. I write
while they dictate and then one of us reads the story after making each section
of the movie. They can add credits and a title. Upload the movie to YouTube*
and their family can watch it at home. Many of my students have been using
Toontastic at home honing their narrative skills. Check out one of my students'

*If you have a gmail account, you have a YouTube account.
If you don't have a gmail account, it's easy to sign up with Google.

Storytelling and Language-learning Differences

A writer's brain is like a magician's hat. If you are going get anything out of it, you have to put something in it first. - Louis L'Amour

So often students with language-learning differences have difficulties with narratives, a.k.a. stories. One 7th grader I tested recently was asked to tell me an original story. This is what he said: 

There was a boy. He walked into town and couldn't find his family. He went into someone's house and they adopted him. The end.

His story took less than 20 seconds to tell. It included a character, a problem, and a solution, but there was so much more the listener would want to know. Where did the boy come from? Why was he walking? What did his family look like? How did he end up at a house and who did it belong to?

Difficulty with storytelling affects not only the ability to "tell" a story, but also the ability to write a story. Students cannot write creative stories unless they are first able to say them aloud. Several factors should be considered in storytelling for students.

1. The Recipe
Most students need the steps or need a "recipe" for how to tell a story.  They struggle to get started and organize their story without a road map. Here's how I lay out the process for students:

a.  Begin with the USUAL events for the main character. What do they do everyday? 
b.  Now what UNUSUAL event occurs in the story?
c.  The PROBLEM is next - what conflict is the main character having?
d.  The SOLUTION - how does the main character resolve the issue?
e.   An ENDING - a good story has to have a good ending to tie up loose ends.

As students get better with their story telling abilities, they will feel more confident about adding multiple problems and solutions.

2.  It's on the Tip of My Tongue
Difficulty recalling words needed in a story can affect a student's ability to create an original story.  As we get older, we tend to have word finding issues - what was I looking for? What is her name? What is the  name of that "thing" I am looking for? In children this difficulty can be particularly debilitating. Inability to recall a specific word can frustrate students to the point that they "give up" and clam up. Create a word bank for all the words they might use in a story, to reduce frustration with word retrieval and to help the planning process go more smoothly.

3. How to Start
Coming up with characters and settings can be daunting, so take it one step at a time. Use Rory's Story Cubes or Blue Oranges' Tell Tale cards to help the student think of a character they can write about, choose a setting and come up with story ideas.

4. Practice on Fairy Tales
Before I work on original narratives with children, we practice on fairy tales. Find one both you and the student know, such as The Three Little Pigs, and break it down:

a. USUAL events - The pigs lived with their mother and were very happy.
b. UNUSUAL events - Mom wanted the pigs to learn how to live on their own, so they set out into the world.
c. PROBLEMS - a pesky wolf wanted to eat them, their houses were not built well, and the wolf was coming down the chimney
d. SOLUTIONS - run to a brother's house, light a fire in the chimney, and build a better house in the future.
e. ENDING - the wolf's rear end was on fire and decided to high-tail it out of there (pun intended) and the lesson learned - take your time and do it right.

5. Be Creative
If you love drama, act out the stories with your student. If you are artistic, draw the stories using various mediums (marker, crayon, paints, etc.). If you are a techno-nerd (like me), use the iPad to create a story adding fun characters, interesting backdrops.

In the next post on Storytelling, I'll give you some ideas about tablet apps that can help you create fascinating stories that will engage them and add some fun to the writing process.

Sharing the Road - Roadmap for Conversation Skills (Part 3)

We promised more on conversational skills...

Once the student understands the visual template of the conversational road, with the Question and Comments on my side, and the Answers on his side of the road, I discuss how the "awkward silence" is there because he didn't yet take over the control-car.  I explain that, often well-meaning adults will fill in the awkwardness by asking endless questions. In my practice, most students recognize that this happens to them. They want to understand what can be done to avoid this, as it is not particularly enjoyable.  The next part of our intervention focuses on analyzing conversations which do not have awkward silences.  

I explain (or we watch film clips and analyze them together) that "good
conversationalists" tend to have a sense of a balanced, fair
conversation.  We start with the formula of each person engaging in one round each of Question, Answer, Comment-Question.  Although this is a basic, almost "formulaic"
approach, it allows the student to learn a foundation upon which more complex
and deep conversations can occur (conversations that include expansion and sharing deeper information.)  I find this initial step requires much
practice, before the more nuanced work can begin.  We look at a basic,
"good conversation" and analyze what is happening.  We discuss
who is saying what, who is moving the conversation forward, who is
"driving" and who is responding/going along for the ride.  

initiator will ask a series of questions, and make polite comments for about
three turns, then he/she just senses it is time to allow the other person to
"take the wheel."  The clued-in conversational partner will
often switch to the role of asking questions about the first person's interest,
making comments.  For example:

A: How was your weekend?
     B: Good, I watched a great
A: Cool, what was it?
    B: Captain America.
A: I saw that!  What was your favorite part?
    B: I really liked the fight
scenes--the part where he saves his old friend was pretty cool.
A: Yeah, the special effects were awesome. 
Who did you go with?
   B: John and Brian.
A: Sounds fun.
    B: Did you do anything fun this
A: Nah, not really.  I had to help my mom
clean the basement.
    B: Man, that stinks.  How
long did you have to help?
A: All day Saturday.  At least I earned some
money helping.
    B: Seriously!  All I did
was spend money this weekend.  Are you going to get to do something this
A: I don't have plans, you want to come over? 
I got a cool new game.
    B: Yeah, let me ask my mom...I
gotta go, talk to ya later.
A: Okay, see ya.

is not unusual for students with social-pragmatic deficits to have
difficulty asking questions when they are not truly interested in the
topic at hand, and students with language impairments may find sentence
formulation difficult, so we must practice these skills overtly.  We
brainstorm and write down a list of Wh-questions:

who, what, when, where, why, how, how much, how many...

we extensively practice various questions that would keep our conversation/drive going
in a common direction without whiplash and without closing the road.  We practice this on a variety of topics, such as past or future vacations, weeks, weekends, events etc.

week, I will share the next phase--going deeper by asking questions AND sharing.