There's an App for That: A Speech Language Therapist's Perspective

11/06/2013 05:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Recently, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an organization which studies children's media, reported that "by 2010, two-thirds of children ages 4 to 7 had used an iPhone." Here's another one -- Warren Buckleitner of The New York Times blog Gadgetwise reports that "more than 40,000 kids' games are available on iTunes, plus thousands more on Google Play."

As a speech and language therapist, I spend hours helping children become the most proficient and effective communicators they can be. In my profession, therapy activities are all rooted in social interaction, reading and literacy games, and one-on-one child-directed techniques. But I would be doing our children a disservice not to embrace and stay current with the new rush of technology that our society is becoming dependent on. So, I admit it: I'm a big fan of using tablets like the iPad for speech and language therapy sessions.

Now, let me state my case: I'm not a fan of the busy-making, mind-numbing addiction worthy apps like Candy Crush. I do think students at all levels can benefit from the visual and interactive approaches to teaching communication skills offered by technology; it takes the place of wasteful paper materials such as worksheets and flashcards; and it saves time on preparing certain activities and games that I used to make by hand. I can generate pictures, sounds and stories at the click of a button without having to spend hours searching online or in the library. My students read books interactively, and make characters in stories come alive. We put activities in order and use targeted vocabulary to describe each step and tell a story --sequencing events through language, a skill that many children with language disorders have difficulty with. This is really helpful and particularly important since kindergarten, first and second grade students are expected to sequence their own stories, using first, next, then, and finally as prompts to help them organize the events.

In short, while more research is needed to fully assess the impact of computers and technology (such as the iPad) on student learning, I feel strongly that a multimedia approach to communication can have a profound positive impact for the estimated 40 million Americans that suffer from communication disorders.

But we can't overlook what science tells us about how we learn language -- and how technology and screens are involved in the development process. Communication is dynamic and interactive.

In order for technology to be effective in the learning process, there must be face-to-face interaction with the therapist, parent, or communication partner, activating the social brain and facilitating the learning experience. Let's take learning new vocabulary, for example. Students learn most effectively when given opportunities to construct meaning rather than simply memorizing definitions, synonyms, and antonyms. A child isn't really experiencing a word or filing it away in their personal word bank for future use by reading or hearing a definition. Research suggests that it takes a minimum of 15 encounters with a new word for a student to understand and use the word independently. To learn language, you need to use it with other people, not a gadget.

An iPad can't (really) have a conversation and ask you questions. Asking the right kinds of questions and helping students make connections among words that they already know helps them internalize new word meanings. Asking questions like, "Where have you heard this word before?" or "Can you think of another meaning for this word?" or just talking about word meanings and engaging in word play help children expand the way they think about words. If we build confidence and competence in what students already know, it helps them "problem solve" when they encounter unfamiliar words. That job is too large and complex for an iPad.

And using technology as a therapeutic tool is not for all ages. Like most things, there is a developmentally appropriate time for computers as a tool for intervention. When we look at what the research says about how we learn language, it's pretty clear that we should limit the use of screens to after 3-years-old, despite all the enticing apps that claim to speed up the learning process in our little ones.

Early exposure to language alters the "wiring" of the brain. Learning is essentially the process of stimulating the pathways that connect brain cells. When a baby is exposed over and over again to certain experiences, those pathways become imprinted or hard-wired. This is why many people refer to the brain as "plastic." It reorganizes itself based on these connections, which are highly impacted by experience. An environment rich with opportunities for listening and practicing using language means an increased number of pathways between our brain cells, especially in young children; being deprived of a language rich environment decreases numbers of cell connections.

The brain is most "plastic" and most ripe for development during what is known as the "critical period." This is between birth and 3-years-old. Skills can be learned after the critical period, but with greater time and effort. This is why it often becomes more difficult to learn a foreign language as we get older, for instance. And during the critical period, a lack of language stimulation can have the most impact on the development of the brain. This period is clearly important, you might say, but why no technology?

Because babies learn language through human interaction. The "social part" of our brain must be active for children to learn new sounds and language. When I have this discussion with parents and teachers I often refer to Paticia Kuhl's well-known TED Talk on the linguistic genius of babies. She showed that English-speaking babies exposed repeatedly to a Mandarin speaker were able to discriminate between Mandarin sounds during a lab test. However, when English-speaking babies were exposed to the same amount of Mandarin through watching it on a TV and listening to it through headphones, the babies learned nothing.

There are no shortcuts, even with the iPad, to learning language. Like anything else in life, it's a balance. As parents, teachers, and clinicians, we need to be responsible in how we choose to use technology to facilitate language and learning.