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Teaching a Love for Language

“Green Eggs and Ham” and puppets sound more like they belong in a pre-school classroom than in the hands of a college student, but Northeastern’s associate professor and graduate director of speech-language pathology, Therese O’Neil-Pirozzi, would beg to differ.

For the past 13 years, she has been overseeing a weekly program for undergraduate and graduate students, who help expand the language literacy of children in Boston homeless shelters by reading and engaging them in arts and crafts that will improve their motor skills.

O’Neil-Pirozzi’s research in this area, funded in part by Northeastern’s Institute on Urban Health Research, shows that language delays in preschool children living in homeless shelters are associated with similar deficits in their mothers. The student storytelling group project is one approach that she is using to address the issue.

“We want to teach the children a love of language, a love of reading, and also serve as role models for the parents and the volunteers and staff at the shelters so that they can help the children become academically successful down the road,” she said.

About 40 students volunteer each year and visit the shelter in groups of four to eight. While reading to the children, the students use strategies that boost language literacy development and reinforce the book’s theme. Then they re-read the book, allowing the children to play a more active role by using the vocabulary in the book and practicing sentence construction.

Activities that engage children’s motor skills — like encouraging them to re-enact the characters in a book — are also included in the lessons.

Because many homeless families transition in and out of shelters relatively quickly, it is challenging to gauge the improvement in the children’s literacy, but O’Neil- Pirozzi and her students are able to observe changes, she said.

“The children have really been making an effort to join in and their interest and understanding is growing, which is really exciting to see,” said Alicia Logani, a third-year speech-language pathology major who volunteers at the shelters.

“Every time we go, the kids wait for us by the windows and yell ‘they’re here, they’re here,’ ” said O’Neil-Pirozzi. “They greet us with hugs and that’s a sign that they’re enjoying what we’re doing, which is one of our goals.”

Ultimately, O’Neil-Pirozzi hopes that this experience will help to “shatter some of the stereotypes people have about homelessness and realize that there isn’t much that separates homeless families from families who have homes.”

– By Kara Shemin

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