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The 'Say NO to Selection Tasks' challenge

Posted by Karen MacIver-Lux on September 12, 2014 12:09 AM

Karen MacIver-Lux

There’s a good chance that you’ve taken a challenge of some kind.

Everyone loves a challenge, especially when it’s a challenge that leads to something good.

That ‘something good’ could be an extraordinary accomplishment. Like an entry into the World Guinness Book of Records—one mother I worked with pulled a 109,000 lb. train 73 feet and 6 inches with eleven of her cross fit partners in 90 seconds. Or it could be a lifestyle change that will lead to a more fit or healthier body—a daily challenge for me. Or perhaps some fun activity that, when completed, leads to a donation to a charity.

But I’d like to issue a challenge that’s near and dear to my heart.

It’s called the “Say No to Selection Tasks” Challenge.

What is a Selection Task?

selection task refers to the process of the therapist/parent requesting the child to retrieve one (or more) toys (could also be picture cards) item from a group of toys  (may vary in “set size”) that have been placed in front of the child (in a line or a half circle).  Therapists call this a “closed set” selection task because the set of options is visible to the child. The selection task can be used to assess the child’s skills in areas of audition (e.g. discrimination, auditory memory, etc.), speech (e.g. articulation), language (e.g. receptive/expressive vocabulary, grammatical concepts, etc.), and cognition (e.g. item identification by description) or to teach them those skills.

The Problem With Selection Tasks

As a late identified child with hearing loss and a significant speech and language delay, I was no stranger to selection tasks.  I used to sit in a tiny room at my neighbourhood school, with two other kids (typical hearing with articulation issues) in a group speech-language therapy session. Our speech-language pathologist promised that if we selected the toy she requested, and said its name correctly, we would get a lovely surprise at the end.

There are a few problems that I have with selections tasks.

1. Failure Prone

I’ll never forget the feeling of hot embarrassment that crawled up the back of my neck to my cheeks when I selected the wrong toy. It didn’t matter when the speech-language pathologist said “that’s okay sweetie, good try!” because it’s the feeling of failure that always lingered. Children may not always remember what was said, but they always remember how they felt.  Yes, it is part of life to experience failure, but more often than not, failures in life result in valuable lessons learned.  What is the lesson learned in selecting the wrong toy? I haven’t figured that one out yet.

Bottom line is, as a clinician, I have difficulty asking a child to risk experiencing failure from selection tasks, just so that I can get diagnostic information in a quick and efficient way.

2. Unrealistic 

A lesson using a line-up of toys to teach target words, concepts, and grammatical structures is unrealistic and often fraught with grammatical mistakes and inappropriate pragmatics.  For example, if the session target is for the child to use the words “my” and “your” correctly with toys that don’t even belong to the child and that are placed in a neat and tidy line creates an unrealistic set up.  The therapist would be asking the child to “pretend” that some of the clinic’s toys belong to the child while others do not.  Secondly,  realistically speaking, who lines toys up before playing with them? Usually, kids don’t. Neither do I!

Such inconsistencies create added confusion for the child to sort out, and I would expect learning and generalizing of new vocabulary and words to be more challenging.

Let’s consider a game of Connect Four as an alternative. The therapist and parent/caregiver can demonstrate distributing the chips to the main players (e.g. This yellow chip is your chip.  This red chip is my chip.  This is your chip, and this one is my chip.  Your chip.  My chip.) The therapist and/or parent/caregiver could introduce sabotage (fun!) by stealing the child’s chip (e.g. “No! This yellow chip is my chip, and this red chip is your chip!” This makes better sense to the child, and is grammatically and pragmatically appropriate). This game gives the therapist and parent/caregiver abundant opportunities to expose the child to other words, phrases and grammatical markers that are appropriate and accurately used.

3. Boring

Which of the following picture is more interesting to look at? Which setting would you gravitate to (top or bottom) with a child holding your hand?


I rest my case.

Are we using Selection Tasks today?

Unfortunately, too many of us are using selection tasks today.  I have done it!  We use selection tasks because it’s a quick and easy method to use so we can assess the child’s current skills an progress in areas of audition, receptive language and cognition.  Today, I see many therapists and parents around the world using selection tasks simply because “we’ve always done it this way.”

I recall many occasions at the Learning to Listen Foundation when my mentor, Warren Estabrooks, challenged himself and the therapists on his team to do away with selection tasks, and incorporate music, literature, play and conversation into the session to raise the bar in listening and spoken language development. He firmly believed that through play, books, songs and conversation, we could gain more accurate diagnostic information while at the same time, creating exciting opportunities for listening and spoken language enrichment. Warren and his staff of therapists shared ideas, tried them out (some failed and some were successful), and saw positive changes in the children and the parents.  We learned to set up therapy sessions so that the child is eager and excited to show us what he/she knows and can do.  When the context is meaningful, enjoyable and conducive to success, listening and communication confidence soars.

Many therapists have learned to say no to selection tasks, choosing rather, to focus more on teaching in a way that feels natural to the child and their parent/caregiver.

I challenge you to incorporate the following session targets into a session using a play scenario, song, book or conversation:

Session Targets:

• Demonstrate auditory memory for three items.
Demonstrate the ability to follow directions that contain four critical elements.
Demonstrate the ability to learn a new song/poem that contains four lines of two to four word phrases.
Demonstrate understanding of plural –s.

Share it with us via a video (remember to follow privacy laws of your country) or a written description of how the session went,


• donate to a charity near and dear to your heart, that helps children with communication disorders reach their highest listening and/or spoken communication potential.

I took the challenge and will be posting my written description of the session in Part II of the “Say NO to Selection Tasks Challenge” blog post.

And I just had to donate to a charity near and dear to my heart!

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