Speech Therapy: Cooperative Games

In speech therapy, I use what I call cooperative games. This means that everyone gets to finish the game and get a reward. If one or more students don’t finish, no one gets a sticker. Too politically correct? Possibly. Every grad student and licensed assistant I've explained this to thought I was crazy until they tried it. Cooperative games are absolutely functional for me.

Here's the background: in August 1993, I started my stint as a public-school SLP. I was fresh out of grad school and armed with Linguisystems’ Games to Go and a set of Literature Gems from DLM. For several years, I used a pattern of reading a book one session and using a related activity, often a game, the next session.
My first language resource and a Kite Game from Games to Go
Things changed in 2002. I had a group of four 2nd-grade boys. Student #1 worked on /r/ and knew how to push everyone’s buttons. Student #2 worked on language and reacted strongly to Student #1. Student #3 was working on /r/ and sometimes sided with Student #1 and sometimes with Student #2. Student #4 was also working on /r/ and had older siblings, so he ignored the drama, but he was obsessed with my data marks.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the session:

Me: Today, we are working on /r/ and sentences. Remember our rules and take turns.
#1: Look, I rolled a 4! I’m ahead of everyone!   
Me: We are focusing on your /r/ sounds, not where you are on the game board.
#2: (takes turn and rolls a 5)                                             
#1: No fair! He’s cheating!
#3: How is he cheating? He's not cheating!
Me: Remember our rules. 
#4: (looking at my notebook) Why do I have more minuses than plus marks?
#1: I finished (interprets that as cause to comment on others’ rolls and generally be disruptive. No incentive to keep working because he already finished the game)
#2 and #3: Why do we need to keep playing? #1 already won…                             
#4: Why do I have more minuses then plus marks?
Me: Arrrghhh!

Something had to change. The next session that we played a game, I explained that everyone had to finish in order to get a sticker. It wasn’t magic, but eventually things turned around. The first time, only one student finished the game, and I didn’t give anyone a sticker. But then the boys started saying, “Don’t talk! We won’t finish the game!” Behavior improved. And the bonus? Focus on speech/language skills followed!

For Student #1, having everyone finish the game brought out his helpfulness. He was still very aware of where everyone’s game piece was, but instead of accusing people of cheating, he knew what everyone needed to roll and who needed to help who (whom?). Students #2 and #3 were fine with this, so behavior calmed down. For Student #4, I changed from + and – marks to tally marks. He couldn’t interpret those, so he concentrated more on saying /r/ than looking at my data. At the end of each session, each student got a grade, so he still knew how he was doing.

As far as being politically correct, my feeling is that I only have the students for a short amount of time. Most of my students can learn about competition and sportsmanship during the rest of the day.  I need to focus on their speech/language goals and objectives, and I need them to focus on what they are working on.

If students are working on social skills, I still start out with cooperative games. The student learns that it is OK for someone else to finish first sometimes, and then we can work up to accepting winning and losing.

Here are the positives of running cooperative games:
·         Students can focus on speech/language skills, not on who is winning the game.
·        Cooperative games end the complaints of “Not fair!” Everyone finishes, and everyone gets a reward.
·        Students use positive peer pressure to get the whole group to finish the game.
·        Students help out other students.
·        By waiting until everyone finishes, the students who finish early are still engaged. They want everyone to finish the game.
·        Behavior generally improves. I usually only have to skip stickers one time. The next time, everyone remembers and wants to finish the game.
·        I keep my sanity. I think.

Here are a few examples:
Kite Game from Games to Go by Linguisystems: In this kite game, most of the cards just have kites, but there are also opportunities to get extra kites or have to put some back. I tell the students everyone has to have a certain number of kites, for example 6, by the end of the session. Instruction cards are only drawn once and then go to the middle of the table. 

SPRING Game from Speaking of Speech: The game includes 6 SPRING game boards and 6 sets of the letters. The object is to cover the chicks and bunnies with letters to spell out SPRING. If a student has an S and draws another S, there are two options. First, if another student needs an S, the S goes back into the envelope. If everyone else has an S, the S goes into the middle of the table so that we can move on to other letters. It sounds complicated, but my 3rd-5th-graders catch right on and can decide faster than I can whether to put the duplicate card back into the envelope or in the middle of the table. Once a student spells out SPRING, he continues taking turns and is able to give duplicate letters to other students who need them.

Chicks Hatching From Eggs is from Year-Round Literature by Super Duper, another resource I use often. In this game, there is a 1, 2, 3 or 10 on the cracked eggs. Students have to add up their eggs to reach a certain number of points, 15 for example.

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