On Academic, Functional, and Real Life Skills

November 24, 2013

For years now, I have been proud that I was able to teach Robert changing units of different measures.  Aas soon as Robert learned multiplication, we started to change weeks into days, and years into months.  Later we kept changing hours into minutes, pounds or cups into ounces, and gallons into quarts, yards into feet or inches..

I was proud when Robert confronted with the problem: “How many days in three weeks and 4 days?”  could immediately respond by writing, “3×7 +4=25.”

I kept being even more proud when he could add and subtract hours and minutes, inches and feet, pounds and ounces.  Today, I reassessed his skills and…my ability to teach.

On a way to his  horseback lesson, Robert kept asking about his sister, “Amanda, Amanda, Amanda.” He knows, she is coming home for holidays but, nonetheless,  he wants his expectation to be constantly reaffirmed.

I responded, “She is coming in three weeks and five days. How many days is that?”

Robert did not know.

“How many days in three weeks?”


“No, one week has seven days.  How many days in three weeks?”

Robert was lost.

I asked him to repeat, “One week has 7 days.”

After he did, I asked him to repeat after me, “Three weeks have…..”

He repeated and finished the sentence, “Three weeks have 21 days.”

Of course, it took a little longer than the sentences above would indicate.  As we drove, we practiced changing whole weeks into days.  On the way home, I returned to mixing weeks and days,”Three weeks and  two days, Two weeks and three days, (…).

I did not ask myself why Robert knew how to solve the ACADEMIC (?) problem of changing 3 weeks and 5 days into days, but was unable to solve REAL LIFE problem of counting how many days to his sister flight home.  I knew, that those are different skills for Robert.  One is presented in writing and can be solved by writing arithmetic expression according to a simple algorithm.  Another problem is presented orally and has to be solved by doing two operations without the support of a pencil and a sheet of paper.

One problem was practiced many times in conjunction with similar mathematical operations.  The other one intruded on our car trip, coming almost from nowhere and took Robert by surprise.

I knew the difference between the two sets of mind needed to solve that same problem  problem in two environments.  I could anticipate issues that might arise when reading is replaced with listening and writing with processing operation mentally, sitting at the desk in learning mood versus  being somewhere else attending to varied stimuli.  I knew all of that, but not exactly.  I made mistake of believing that teaching such functional skills in academic format would automatically lead to their  errorless  applications in real life situations.

But for Robert and many young people like him, skills can became functional only if they are practiced in real life situations. For Robert, applying the skill is the skill, he has to be taught.  And I have not taught him that .  Not yet.

Writing, Writing, and More Writing

November 17, 2013

Robert had a relatively busy weekend.  Yesterday, he went to Bridges to Independence Program, Subway Restaurant, and to Boston View trail in Blue Hill State Park. In the evening, his friend Nolan came for a short visit.  Today, Robert had an adaptive horseback riding lesson.  In the afternoon, he went for a walk to Moose Hill Audubon.   On the way home, Robert and his Dad stopped at the pet store to buy cat’s door.  After coming home, he helped his father to install it.

In the early evening, Robert completed one page with division and one with adding fractions. Then he rewrote a text replacing underlined words with their antonyms.  All three pages were exercises in being independent. Robert didn’t hesitate to work alone (while I was in the kitchen) on math problems, but not on rewriting the text.  Of course, before I left him with rewriting, he read the text and correctly changed each underlined  word into its opposite.  When, however, I left, he stopped after first copied word and waited….When I came, he resumed writing finding correct answers.  I left, he stopped again.  From the kitchen, I encouraged him to go on.  He did go ahead with writing half of a  sentence.  When I came back, he quickly, without my help finished the rewriting, each time loudly stating the word he was going to use.  He watched my reaction after each word ready to back off and try another word.

We worked a little on predicting with the help of worksheets from No Glamour Language Elementary.  First pages were easy as the predicting was mainly matching the drawings of effect with the drawings of cause.  We did that before.  Then, Robert looked at the pictures and tried to predict what MIGHT happened.  Although his thinking was correct, he had huge problems with pronunciation. Not a surprise.

We made a page with associations.  Today the theme was “Bedroom” .  Robert had to write 6 words that go together with bedroom and tell why they go together.(You sleep in the bedroom) .

Earlier, after coming from riding lesson, Robert wrote a paragraph about  the horse, Zoe.  It was easy because on the way home, we sort of , practiced those sentences by talking about the new, white horse.

In the evening, Robert wrote a paragraph about his day by listing all the activities in order.

Next task for him was to get information about what his dad and his mom did during the day.

He asked dad, “What did you do today?”  Very hard question for Robert, specially since he had to look at his dad as he was asking.  Robert asked this question five times, writing down all five activities.  When he switched to me, I shortened the question to “What did you do?” as the word “today” at the end became too much for Robert. Again he, wrote down five of my daily achievements.

I divided a page into three columns, writing at the top, MOM, ROBERT, DAD. In Robert’s column I wrote: “Went for a walk.”  Robert had to write what dad and mom were doing during the same time.  He correctly wrote that dad also went for a walk and that mom was raking leaves. There were two other similar rows and it went without problems.

Finally, Robert wrote about Nolan’s  visit.  He wrote that they ate pizza and watched Ice Age while their mothers talked and drank tea,

It seems like a lot of writing.  Not really.  For Robert all that writing was much easier than talking about the recalled events.  As he writes, the next word comes easy and the sentences complete themselves painlessly .  When he talks, every syllable is a problem.  Stringing the words together is almost impossible.

Robert was writing to  review his weekend and prepare for …talking.

About Today 9

November 15, 2013

1.  We played again The Allowance Game. This time Robert was the first to get $20 and he won.   Yesterday, we made Robert a banker who takes and gives money to all the players.  That arrangement confused Robert a lot leading him to giving others his money or taking other players money for himself.  Today, every player was his/her own banker.  It went smoothly.  He had no difficulties assembling almost mechanically small amount of money: $.45, $1.80, or $1.30.

2. We continued working on paraphrasing section of the Language Elementary  from Linguisystems. A few years ago, Robert and I went through a few first pages of many sections of the book. Now we do almost all exercises although some are difficult for Robert.  Matching synonyms wasn’t a problem, but choosing two out of three short, simple sentences with the same meaning was. Only one word was different in each sentence, so it shouldn’t be difficult to just match the sentences containing two synonyms. But it was. I am not sure why.  It might be because Robert has never before had to match sentences.  It might be because two of the sentences had synonyms, while the third one had an antonym. Robert might get distracted and not be sure if he should match opposites or synonyms.

3. We did exercises in writing.  The first was about the kitchen.  First, Robert had to complete two word- webs.  One for Things in the Kitchen and one for What we do in the kitchen. After he did that, he wrote a short paragraph about our kitchen based on the words taken from those two webs. In a second writing exercise, he wrote a few sentences about The Allowance Game.  He wrote with whom he played and that he won.  He also wrote a little about the rules of the game explaining when a player gets more money and when he/she looses them.

4. He practiced division with a reminder and changing improper fractions to mixed fractions which of course also requires division with remainder.

5. I wrote a few subtraction problems with different units requiring regrouping. Two problems to subtract hours and minutes, two to subtract feet and inches and the last two to subtract pounds and ounces.  A few times in the past Robert subtracted hours and minutes and feet and inches.  Pounds and ounces were fairly new.  The only prompt I gave Robert was to ask him, “How many ounces in one pound.”  After he answered this question without any hesitation he solved the last two problems. I was really proud.  He demonstrated ability to use the same method for different  units of measurements. As I said, I was proud.  Robert not really.  I don’t think he even noticed that he did something we had not practiced before.


November 13, 2013
Robert and I were “playing” with riddles.  The riddles were simple and based on well known facts.  I read one to Robert, he read one to me.  He did not have any difficulties answering my riddles, but I had problems answering his.  I simply couldn’t understand half of the words he was reading. I asked him to slow down, divide words into syllables, and speak louder.  I understood one sentence but not the second or third.  I got one syllable words, but not the more “telling”ones which usually were two or three syllables long. Somehow we managed to solve all those simple, based in fact, realistic riddles.

Then came a page with the silly ones.   I did not believe that Robert who has never encountered silly riddles before was capable of understanding them.  I believed that he could solve them  choosing the answer from the word box simply by association, but I did not think that he could get the “silly” part.  I lead him through the first one.

The second and the third Robert did on his own:

“The city popular among cows.” Robert quickly chose, “Moo York”

“How the ocean says “goodbye”?” Robert chose,”It waves.”

It was clear that Robert chose “Moo York”  because it sounded as the name of his favorite place “New York” .  He chose “It waves” because of the obvious connection to ocean.

I did not feel satisfied.  I really wanted to explain to Robert, why those answers were silly.  As I was trying to figure out how to explain the funny aspect to Robert and read the clues and the answers again, I noticed that Robert’s face radiated with shy amusement.

He didn’t need explanations.  He got it.

Another Day, Another Lesson, Another Regret

November 10, 2013

Yesterday and today, Robert, his dad, and I played The Allowance Game.  As our pawns moved along the board, Robert was spending and earning money but did not feel very happy about that. Robert’s objective was clearly to move his pawn back to the starting place and end the game so he  seemed irritated that we continued to go around the board a few times. There were many things to learn during the game.

1. Learning the meaning of the word, “receive”.  Robert encountered this word, just a few minutes before the game while reading a text about how much rain different kinds of forests RECEIVE each year.  I felt obligated to “translate” it as “get”, but I was not sure if he understood this word in such context.  During the game, however, he quickly figured out, that when he stops on the field that says “RECEIVE $1, he can get one dollar.

2. Yesterday, Robert was not sure when he should return his money to the bank and when he should pay another player for buying lemonade from him/her. Today, I explained that to Robert before the game.  Since, however, his pawn never stopped on Lemonade Stand, he did not have an opportunity to demonstrate his understanding.

3.The game allowed Robert to practice counting small amount of money such as $1.35 or $0.80 and soon he had no problem with that. He had, however, problems
when change was needed.  For instance, he had to return $1.80, but he had only two one dollar bills.  Since I didn’t believe he could decide that he needed $.20 back, I helped him without really explaining that operation.

4. Mainly, however, Robert was learning to ENJOY playing board game.  His emotions oscillated from annoyance and impatience to contentment and glee. There were moments he clearly seemed happy playing the game with us.

I introduced a few games to him when he was 5, 6, or 7 years old:  Hi Ho Cherry-O, Connect Four, Potato Head.  In the private school he was attending at that time, he learned to take turns while playing  Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land. Robert followed, with more or less prompting, the rules of the games, but he clearly did not enjoy playing.  For him they were not more fun than discrete trials.  To increase “fun factor” I bought Elefun and Penguin Pile Up.  Since, however, the only people he played those games with were member of his family, who consider it obligation and not an entertainment. So despite butterflies flying out of the elephant’s trunk, and penguins sliding down the iceberg, the “fun factor”never materialized.  I was disheartened, and put the games away. A few years later we tried Operation, Trouble, and Guess Who.  Robert reluctantly complied.  so, the games returned to the shelf. As he did with memory games and puzzles. During one of the conferences on verbal behavior, I heard about Cariboo. Robert seemed engaged in playing that game and didn’t mind that he had to talk while playing. Still, there was no sign of amusement, or satisfaction. Since the game seemed  easy for Robert,  I bought another game by Cranium, Balloon Lagoon. Mistake.  There were too many games in this one.  It was hard for him (and me) to constantly switch from demands of different sections of the game board.No matter what game I introduced it was always a chore for Robert and never an entertainment. I had the same impression yesterday.  Not today, though.  Today, I observed short but multiple sparkles of joy of playing the game with us.

With those sparks of budding happiness came a realization, that over last 18 years, I (and everybody else) overemphasized rigid rules of the game and underestimate the company of other players.

Drilling and Scaffolding

There is no doubt that discrete trials helped Robert  to learn although he did not exactly reach those goals that the teachers (therapists) set for him.  At least not without modifications.  But he did learn.  Still, had he been exposed only to discrete trials, he would not progress as much as he did.

It is not surprising that discrete trials according to  the Lova’s research were mainly helpful to those students who quickly acquired language.  Language, this great tool for generalization, allowed to carry learning from one setting to another. However, for the students like Robert who were born without language,  reducing learning only to singular, miniscule drills would not lead far.  Without language, the ability to generalize across settings, (physical places, multiple situations, and different contexts) was severely limited.  And thus teaching/learning would require thousands of discrete skills to be drilled.

This dilemma was addressed by the  idea of teaching pivotal skills.  The skills that would naturally open the way for other skills to be appropriated. I learned about that concept from Laura Schreibman and her graduate students.  It is a great idea which I always kept in mind despite often not being sure  what skills would be pivotal for Robert.  In the end, I concluded that for Robert acquiring ANY skill is a gate that eases his way of learning new skill.

There are many people, and sadly many people working in the field of education, who believe that the students with mental retardation have brains with very little space for learning  and thus it is crucial that you choose only necessary, basic skills to teach, as one unimportant skill might overburden the brain and leave no room for anything else.  If, for instance, you foolishly teach multiplication you will leave no space for learning daily living skills.

My, or rather Robert’s, experience is quite the opposite.  Every time Robert learned something new, the capacity of his brain  grew larger, as if two new paths were formed. So for me  any new skill is a pivot as it opens a way to other skills.

As optimistically, as that sounds, the reality of teaching someone “without language” is much more complex.  Injecting language concepts trial after trial did not seem the answer.   Something else was needed to add another dimension to learning.

In one of my previous posts, I called it exposing Robert to new things without really expecting that he would appropriate them. I did not expect Robert to name new elements of his world or know the functions of new concepts and the ways they relate to each other.  I opted just for a spark of recognition, that would help him not feel totally lost next time he encounters similar elements in different environments.  I believed that with every exposure Robert was gaining confidence leading to  increased ability to maneuver.  Was that similar to the concept of scaffolding, the idea in education I have learned just a few months ago?  I am not sure.

But until I find something better I will continue both drilling discrete skills, through frequent and intensive practicing, and scaffolding, by guiding Robert through   new paths from their beginning to wherever they might lead.