Ground your practice in cognitive lessons!
By: Kelly Berg

Lessons help us for so many reasons! The lessons become a conversation with your speller, a chance to learn, share, and eventually discuss ideas. The best information comes from shared experiences, and lessons are a shared experience! Think about a conversation you’ve had with a friend about a book you both read or a movie you both saw. Chances are you learned some things about your friend while discussing that shared experience – and often, it’s more in-depth and meaningful than what you would learn just by firing questions back and forth. Lessons lead to deeper and more meaningful conversations!
On top of that, lessons are one of our BEST tools for regulation! When I see someone is dysregulated, the first thing I look at is whether or not their body is engaged and the brain is engaged, and often it’s neither. Lessons engage the brain through rich cognitive content and the body through the purposeful motor when spelling, and when both the body and the brain are engaged, it will lead to regulation! Sometimes, if you see a lot of dysregulation, it might be worth checking if your lesson is actually engaging enough! Is it age-appropriate? Don’t be afraid to up the cognitive level and provide something that might seem tough to you – you’ll find that our spellers really appreciate a challenging, engaging lesson!
Lessons deliver age-appropriate content to practice motor skills, establish a shared context, and provide a scaffold for discussion. Lesson content and lesson LANGUAGE should always be AGE APPROPRIATE! Lessons also provide the structure needed to monitor accuracy as motor skills develop, and they help us as CRPs stay regulated to support our spellers’ regulation since we know what we are talking about and what we are going to ask! One important thing to remember is that when you are building up your skills on the letterboard as you aim for fluency and open communication, it’s NOT ACTUALLY about the answer! Normally when you’re asking questions, it’s often to see if someone knows the answer; however, in S2C, the questions are simply used to see how accurate one is and to practice the skills to increase their accuracy as we support their motor!  We are presuming competence; we just read it, and we KNOW they know the answer. Our focus is working on building motor accuracy on the letterboard.

Don’t overuse Spell words!
Is anyone familiar with spell words? You see them after every chunk in our lessons, and I often find there is confusion about their purpose, and they are often overused. In some cases, extreme overuse can actually hinder your progress. I want to tell you how I use SPELL words.
When I first sit down with a speaker who has never been on the letterboard before, I introduce myself, tell them what we are going to do and why, and how I will support them. Then I have them POKE the letters in my name. Poke K. Poke E. (I’m prompting a lot here, gestural and directional, by the way). Poke L. Another L! Poke Y.
The reason I start with a POKE word is because of something called Cognitive-Motor balance. It’s one main reason why S2C works, and why we are able to get to a high motor demand, as well as a high cognitive demand, 26 letters on a board or higher, and open, fluent communication. But it’s something we have to pay attention to as we progress.
In the beginning, the motor demand is HIGH, and it’s a big demand and requires all of your focus and energy! So I start with a POKE word so that I’m not raising BOTH sides (motor and cognitive) too high at once. That would be like asking someone to juggle and recite Shakespeare right off the bat without working up to it! From there, I usually move straight to Spell words! I’m raising the cognitive slightly by telling you the word to spell instead of the letters to poke; however, still keeping cognitive pretty low by telling you WHAT to spell because the motor is still tough.  With someone with a tougher motor challenge, I might do a few more spell words, but often I just do the one and move straight to questions.
The reason I move straight to questions is that THINKING and DOING at the same time pack the biggest neural punch and are going to work the best towards making that purposeful motor automatic – which is the goal with S2C. I need my students to think about the answer, then translate it to poking. I also need them to spell out words that are unusual and new to them! Not the same three or four-letter words that they have spelled over and over again, time after time. That will go much further to make the motor automatic than telling them what to spell, where they don’t really have to think about it. In fact, I get a lot of brand-new spellers who could spell out what you told them to spell all day long on a keyboard. Still, it’s a completely different skill when you’re thinking about the answer and translating it to touching the letter – and doing that is what leads us to be able to communicate on the letterboard.
What I DO use spell words for is to help with regulation. Again, looking at the cognitive-motor balance – if the motor is a challenge, I need to adjust the cognitive side or the level of the questions I am asking. When is another situation when the motor is a challenge? When you see dysregulation! Spell words are my number one go-to for regulation beyond the co-regulation I am constantly doing. If I’m at Known words with my speller, and I see dysregulation making it hard for them to answer the questions, I simply back down the cognitive and tell them what to spell so that they can focus on the motor at that point. Then I bring it back up as regulation improves – and it usually does! The cognitive motor balance is so critical to our success, and I realize it more and more as I practice!

Board hierarchy is important!
Speaking of the cognitive-motor balance, I want to talk about board progression and how that works because that’s a part of it too, and sometimes there is confusion about what should be happening where.
We move from the three boards (stencil or sensory), to the 26 (stencil or sensory), to the laminate, to the held keyboard, and then potentially to independent typing with enough practice and support from home. The motor becomes progressively harder at each level, and you have to make the motor automatic at each level before moving on to the next.
I mentioned I do a POKE and a SPELL word first, but then I am limited to KNOWN questions on the 3 boards, with only one possible answer, because I need to know which board to hold since the alphabet is split between the three boards. I’m aiming for 80 – 90% accuracy with faded gestural and directional prompts – essentially that they are going directly for that letter on their own thevast majority of the time. At that point, I can think about transitioning to the 26.
Sometimes we start with half the board flapped. I see this, especially with younger kids or individuals with more complex motor challenges. If you are using flapped boards, you are looking for the same level of accuracy, and you’ll transition to the 3 boards uncovered just as you would the 26; you would just have to stick to known questions on the 3 uncovered, and then transitioKelly Berg in an S2C session with a spellern to the 26 when you hit the 80 – 90% benchmark.Once I hit that benchmark of 80 – 90%, it’s time to transition to the 26 board. The way that I do that, keeping the cognitive-motor balance in mind, is to have them RESPELL a word on the 26 that they just nailed on the 3 board. I’m lowering the cognitive level by telling them what to spell to allow them to focus all their energy on the new higher motor demand. I might do this over the course of a session, or two or three before I start to move them up to Known questions on the 26; it just depends. When I start to see them moving around the 26 board a little bit better, then it’s time to get them back into the zone of THINKING and DOING at the same time – which is ANSWERING QUESTIONS. I start with known questions. Again, looking for some increased accuracy, before I advance to tight semi-open questions. When I do this, since I’m raising the cognitive end, it can sometimes gets a little pokey at first, so I like to start with tight semi-open questions where there are two one-word answers, and the letters are far apart, so it’s obvious where you’re going, and I can help you if necessary! What is one color I said an orca whale is? Black or White, for example. The B and the W are in different places on the board. I stick there, expanding as accuracy improves to more possible answers. As I see that accuracy continues to improve, I am broadening my semi-open questions to phrases and eventually to answering known questions in sentence form. That’s always one of my favorite places to be! I start with questions with fairly simple sentence structure, for example, “Where did Harry Potter go to school?”
There are still a lot of ways that could be answered!
However, I have the context that helps me follow them. What I usually see is that my students keep it simple as they begin, but as I get good at following them. We establish accuracy and trust…it evolves to the unpredictable and unexpected. They may start rewording things. If we are successful here, this is usually when I push towards Open, which I like to do in the context of a sentence. I’m used to following them in sentences, and they are used to giving responses in sentences and have developed a nice flow at this point.
One important takeaway is that YOU SHOULD BE GETTING TO OPEN ON THE 26 STENCIL OR SENSORY – NOT ON THE LAMINATE. That comes after. If you’re trying to get to Open ON the laminate, you’re skipping an important step. You’ll be much more successful on the 26, with a lower motor level, since the cognitive has reached the higher level of their own thoughts and opinions.
Once I can get a few sentences of OPEN COMMUNICATION on the stencil, which can take some time to work up to, I’m confident that I can begin the transition to the laminate, that the speller’s stamina, motor skill, and accuracy is ready for the greater motor demand.
We go through everything we did during the transition to the 26, but this time it won’t take as long, I promise. The speller needs time to adjust to the higher motor demand of using your fingers (if you’re coming from the stencil) and touching the letters, and making sure you’re working on GOOD habits here. I work up through the rank from respells up through known and S-O before I get to Open. At this point, you may be back and forth between the boards since you may want to go back to the 26 for any longer responses or Open responses if your speller is not ready for those on the laminate.


Kelly Berg lives in Herndon, Virginia, after spending nearly a decade overseas. In 2017, she was introduced to neighbors with a nonspeaking son and became aware of spelling as communication, as well as a friend of the local spelling community. After her daughter started full-time school, wanting to get back into the workforce and having a background in Communication Sciences and Disorders, she spent merely a few hours at Growing Kids Therapy Center and knew that she had found her home. Kelly is an S2C Practitioner who is not only passionate about helping her clients build their communication skills but also about creating social events outside of scheduled clinic visits in which spellers can enjoy the company of other spellers as well their neurotypical peers. Kelly spent years in the not-for-profit sector, and is excited to merge this experience with her clinical expertise in her role as a member of the I-ASC Leadership Cadre. Kelly adds, “Having a daughter, I think the thing that motivates me the most is that I want every parent to truly know their child the way that I know my own. I want to help my nonspeaking clients build their communication skills so that this is possible, but I also want to ensure that every nonspeaker, in every corner of the world, has access to an effective method of communication.”

Posted By on Wednesday, March 22nd, 2023 in I-ASC THE EXPERTS

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