Using Mobile Technology in Speech/Language Intervention

  • November 1, 2010
  • Sean J. Sweeney

Sean J. Sweeney, M.S., M.ED., CCC-SLP, Instructional Technology Specialist, Newton, MA

Sean J. Sweeney is a speech-language pathologist and instructional technology specialist working in the public schools and in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts. He has presented on the topic of technology integration in speech and language at ASHA convention and is the author of the blog SpeechTechie: Looking at Technology Through a Language Lens.

I was very pleased to be asked by Nate Cornish to write a post on the Bilingual Therapies blog about the uses of mobile technology in therapy.  Although I have to disclose that I am not a bilingual therapist, I hope that my thoughts on the applications (apps, so to speak!) of technology for intervention will offer some guidance to clinicians in that subsection of our very wide field of practice.

I also admit that I was not necessarily an early adopter of mobile technology in my practice.  I have always been a huge Internet guy, with a strong interest in how interactive websites in particular can serve as a context for therapy activities. Initially I dismissed the iPod Touch as problematic on a number of fronts: it’s an iPhone minus the phone part, Wi-Fi dependent, and small in both screen and, necessarily, keyboard.  Then, Apple and the developers who had vision started doing amazing work in creating apps of every imaginable ilk, including many with educational relevance.  My own purchase of an iPhone, and initial trials of using apps with students, caused me to do a quick turnaround, and eventually I was unable to resist jumping on the iPad bandwagon as well.

The benefits to using mobile technologies are increasing on a daily basis.  First of all, let’s be honest about the fact that the iPod Touch and iPad are way cool.  Kids just light up and become instantly engaged when they get to use these superbly designed, bright, and shiny devices. But the flash is really just a hook to pull them into a learning context, and I often find that their requests to play specific games are few and easily redirectible.  The logistics of using apps on these devices are often extremely simple, from the interfaces of the apps themselves, the ease of directing students, portability and lack of cords, and frequently, connections with web resources so that data and work can be stored. Additionally, new apps are easily obtained, frequently free or very inexpensive. You can browse and quickly download new therapy tools right from the App Store on your device, or use iTunes and sync from your computer.

I am an advocate of thinking broadly about how technology resources can serve as therapy tools, beyond the many great apps designed specifically for speech and language therapy. If clinicians only use that type of app, they risk missing many others that, while created for other purposes, provide a great context for eliciting language.  For bilingual therapists, many apps can present a context for using multiple languages concurrently with the student, either through the app interface itself or through language cueing and scaffolding.  To bring the murky area of app selection into focus, I have suggested a set of criteria that SLPs can use when determining if a tech resource (including apps) would be well-suited for therapy activities: the FIVES criteria, standing for Free, Interactive, Visual, Educationally Relevant, and “Speechie.”  Here’s how it applies to selecting apps.

Free- Is the App free (or nearly free) or at least reasonably priced?  Part of the promise of mobile technology is inexpensive extensions of the technology that are achieved through apps. A great example of a free app for therapy activities is BrainPop Featured Movie, which offers a free short movie every day from the BrainPop site.  These movies are great contexts for building content vocabulary and using information mapping strategies such as graphic organizers.There are definitely exceptions to this rule, especially for specialized apps that are worth paying for such as ArtikPix and Proloquo2Go.

Interactive- Does the App provide a context for interaction between the clinician and student, eliciting language either through its interface or through a scaffolded discussion? We should look for apps that are more than just a link to a web-based presence and that take advantage of touch screens to engage the students in generating language or solving problems.  Interactive apps also allow creation and publication; try PicToon Lite, in which kids can practice language by adding stickers or word/thought bubbles to a photo!

Visual- Does the App make good use of the device’s potential to provide visual supports that scaffold language comprehension and production? Viewing pictures of curriculum and other contexts are a great way to build comprehension and elicit language, and kids are very motivated to inspect images on mobile devices.  Google Earth, for example, really puts the entire world in your hands; try navigating to landmarks and viewing the near limitless supply of geotagged photos in the Panoramio layer.

Educationally Relevant– For school-aged clients, does the App help them access abstract curriculum and provide a context for applying language-based strategies? The realm of education-based apps grows every day, placing complex and out-of-reach topics in students’ hands via interactives on mobile devices.  Slide by Slide is just one example; this app allows you to access shared PowerPoint-style presentations (via the SlideShare website) created by teachers on all sorts of curriculum topics.

Speechie”- Does the App provide an opportunity to address the client’s or student’s specific speech and language goals?  As I stated, there is a growing collection of mobile apps designed specifically for speech-language assessment and intervention (see Eric Sailersgreat list of apps here and an additional list of special education apps at iPodsibilities). Also, apps such as Popplet, which allows you to make a semantic map on any topic and easily incorporate images from the web, clearly link to language goals around comprehension and expression.


There are also many apps specifically in Spanish, though this is still an evolving area and consists largely of Rosetta-Stone-style “Learn Spanish” apps.  MindSnacks Spanish appears to be a cut above, and a great entry point for use with kids and teens. To find more interactive language websites, try searching Google with the keyword “interactive,” or searching social bookmarking sites such as diigo or delicious for sites tagged as interactive.  Edublogs also has a great directory of blogs of all types, including language blogs, which often provide helpful links and reviews of apps and websites. Happy Hunting!

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