Using Themes in Speech Therapy
Early in my career as a Speech-Language Pathologist, my therapy planning approach could be described as "grab three and see". Basically, I'd grab a few fun and engaging toys and activities to use for the day. Then I'd get creative on how I could use them in most or all of my sessions to target my students' specific speech and language goals.
I had heard of "themed therapy", but brushed it off as something that seemed to be far from my more minimalistic planning mindset. To be honest, using themes in speech therapy sessions always seemed like way too much work… and maybe kind of cheesy?
But the story of my "therapy style" took a turn. Where it was (use the same few activities for most students) and where it is now (themed therapy all day, every day) are really not that far apart.
Here's what happened– Becoming a teletherapist in 2014 prompted me to do some things (like a lot of things) differently- including therapy planning. I began dabbling in thematic therapy, and as I did, I came to appreciate the magic of this new method.
I also came to understand that what I had previously thought themed therapy was, wasn't quite right. It was not at all right, actually. Thematic therapy is so much more than graphics on flashcards and cute crafts that coordinate with a book. And oh how it saved me time... as well as the energy of trying to figure out how to engage a K-12 caseload week after week.
So, what is thematic speech therapy?
In her ASHA Leader article, Maria Del Duca defines themed therapy as "various meaningful activities planned around a central topic or idea." As mentioned in the article, thematic intervention is an evidence-based practice also used by teachers in classrooms... not just by SLPs in speech therapy sessions.
Thematic learning in a general education setting (also called thematic instruction) means that a teacher uses the same topic across subjects throughout the school day. If the theme is the tropical rainforest, students might learn about the layers of the rainforest biome in science, read a book about people living in rainforests and write a summary in language arts, and graph changes in the population of a rainforest species in math.
Using themes in speech therapy is a bit different in that our activities don't target academic subjects. But we do target a variety of goals and skills, even within a single 30-minute session. Like teachers, SLPs can use meaningful activities with common topics, vocabulary, and concepts over the course of a week or more.
In true themed therapy, the activities themselves utilize language about the theme. This goes way beyond the graphics on the pages, cards, or stickers. It means that the activities integrate the topic's concepts and vocabulary to provide natural opportunities for using the language surrounding the theme.
The photo on the left (below) shows cards with wh- questions and answers on them. It just so happens that a graphic of a fish is on each card, but that doesn't mean it's an ocean-themed language activity. The language within the activity (in this case, the questions) has nothing to do with ocean life.
In contrast, the photo on the right shows an ocean craft. For us SLPs, 10 different ways to target language goals within this activity come to mind. For example, we could target comparative and superlative adjectives like deeper and deepest as we glue the stickers in the ocean. We could target prepositions such as in, out, and under. This could most definitely be considered an ocean animal-themed activity.
Why should I use themes in speech therapy?
As you can see from the example above, thematic therapy doesn't have to be extravagant. It doesn't mean buying a ton of new toys or printing and laminating a bunch of flashcards. If you're a fellow simplicity-seeker like me, you can still provide themed therapy to your students.
Thematic learning offers many other advantages too. Relevant and strategically chosen themes are engaging for students, which leads to higher motivation. Additionally, themes allow students to make connections between previous knowledge and new knowledge. And isn't that what learning is all about?
Themes also allow students more natural opportunities to generalize and apply new information, leading to higher retention. Many research studies have shown improved communication outcomes when themes were utilized. This is especially true for measures of language such as comprehension, vocabulary, and inferencing.
Now for a couple of selfish reasons for using themes. As I mentioned earlier, using the same activities throughout a week to target many different goals is just how I roll. Thematic activities that are meaningful and language-rich give me that flexibility. Less planning and less prep, but more freedom to use my clinical knowledge and skills when determining how to use each themed activity to effectively target each student's goals.
Secondly, finding themed speech therapy activities is pretty easy. Between TpT, Boom Cards, YouTube, and a million other interactive websites, there is no shortage of ideas. And organizing those activities by theme really streamlines my planning from year to year. Plus, activities that I find and purchase don't get forgotten.... they get used!
Want to learn more about thematic therapy?
I have plenty of examples of how I integrate a specific theme across multiple speech therapy activities (mostly for teletherapy) for a variety of ages. Topics such as camping, bugs, and apples create a perfect foundation for tons of speech and language practice. Get my free organizational spreadsheets for speech therapy themes for even more ideas!
Want to dive much deeper into the topic? Get tons of inspiration and ideas from my pre-recorded webinar on themed therapy. Bonus– you'll also snag a professional development hour while you're at it!
Contrary to popular belief (aka, what I used to think!), themes do not complicate planning and prep for SLPs. Themes can even be effective for middle and high school students, too! Thematic therapy has been a game-changer for me and my students, and it can be for you too, so full "theme" ahead!
Del Duca, Maria. (2013). “Kid Confidential: Using Thematic Instruction in Speech Therapy”. ASHA Leader Live. December 16, 2013. https://leader.pubs.asha.org/do/10.1044/kid-confidential-using-thematic-instruction-in-speech-therapy