Christmas Prep, Part 1: Making Your Christmas Book

Welcome back!  As we discussed last week, preparation is the key to success in helping your young child (with or without autism) through the strange and new existence that is the holiday season.

The holidays are absolutely chock full of new language demands and new concepts, as well as new routines. Taking secular Christmas as an example, we do all kinds of weird things.  Mom and Dad bring a tree (which may or may not be fake) into the house and hang breakable shiny things on it, none of which should be touched.  We also take large foot-shaped things called stockings and hang them on the fireplace and then we WAIT for presents to appear in them…but we shouldn’t touch them before then either.  More waiting…

Then, to add some additional sensory and social challenges, we also get dressed up in fancy, uncomfortable clothes and go to crowded places with lots of people in costumes and singing and music.  Pretty much everywhere we go during the holiday season is crowded and many of them have long lines, especially in the case that we are going to sit on the lap of a large fat stranger named Santa, and he has a big white beard that obstructs his face, a hat, and red fuzzy outfit on.  Then, Santa will talk to me like he knows me with his face super close to my face and ask me questions I may or may not understand or know how to answer.  He may or may not say “ho ho ho” really loudly which…what does that mean?  That’s not laughing!  There might also be other oddly dressed people called elves there too.

I mean, when you really think about it, it all seems a little wacky! So, it’s no wonder our sweet little ones have difficulty figuring out how in the world to act in such a situation.

Explaining Christmas Vocabulary and Traditions

I have always found a picture book to be a helpful way to teach the language and expectations specific to a holiday.  As I covered in one of my previous posts, I follow 3 basic steps in making the book ours.  Watch as I apply these techniques to teaching Christmas—and I’ll even give you a freebie curriculum unit!  (Fair warning: this post is on the longer side because there’s no time to lose!  Please read as you have the time.  I’m teaching you just as I used to teach my graduate students!)

Step 1: Choose the Right Book

In choosing the “right” picture book for your child, you should:

  • Look for books without too many busy pictures or distractions from the vocabulary or concepts you are targeting .
  • If your child has a favorite character from books or TV, this would be a great time to harness your child’s inherent interest in that character to help them learn a new concept.
  • Pay attention to the sequence of events depicted in the book. Will you follow the same sequence in the child’s real life?
  • Don’t worry too much about the words the author wrote; you’re going to be re-writing them later.
  • Don’t worry if the book covers more than you’d like. You can always tape or paper clip pages together and skip over them in your reading.

To be honest, I had trouble finding the “perfect book” to introduce all of the Christmas traditions to my own young children.  It seems most Christmas books have a plot and characters that run alongside holiday traditions but they don’t necessarily address the traditions themselves directly.  So, the goal became finding the book that most clearly depicted the vocabulary and traditions (Christmas concepts) that I wanted to target without too much peripheral drama.  (If you found a “perfect book,” I’d love to hear about it!)

 Here’s how I started my book quest:
  • Vocabulary: Christmas tree, ornaments, presents, wait, singing Christmas songs, stocking, Merry Christmas
  • Christmas concepts: decorating the tree, ornaments on the tree, wrapping presents, waiting to open

For my purposes, the best option I found was Merry Christmas, Spot by Eric Hill, which I found at Target many moons ago.  To me, this book works because of its simple pictures, few pages, familiar character, pretty fair sequence of events, and thin plot.  However, the text of the book that lovely Eric Hill wrote doesn’t really meet our needs for teaching language.  So, time to move on to the next step!

 Step 2: Re-write the Picture Book to Meet Your Needs:

As I said before, I mean no disrespect to the hard-working and extremely talented authors who write books for preschoolers.  They are amazing.  So many have painted beautiful and fanciful tales in our minds for generations…but the vast majority of books targeted at preschoolers these days are either too wordy or too complicated for many young children (neurotypical or with autism) to understand.  In these cases, we parents as educators get to take artistic liberties to help our children understand the concepts and stories the illustrator has so lovingly depicted.

 In re-writing books for young children with autism, I utilize the following core rationale:

  • Use simple language targeting *developmentally appropriate core vocabulary.
  • Use repeated phrases (see previous post) to catch children’s attention. Repetition also facilitates comprehension.
  • Embed new language forms/target words within repeated phrases to promote increased comprehension and attention.
  • Reinforce routines and concepts.

–From Facilitating Early Social Communication: From Theory to Practice, Chapter 5, by McFarlin, Rollins, Trautman, and Kerr.***

{If you need help identifying which words are appropriate to your child’s developmental level, please ask your child’s speech-language pathologist for help—and if they need help, send ‘em to me!  You and your child’s speech-language pathologist and teachers know your child best.  Choosing a core vocabulary should be an individualized decision!}

So, given all that, how do I re-write Spot to meet my needs?  Re-writing books is a process for me.  First, I make a list of the vocabulary I want to target (as I did above).  This will be my core vocabulary for this book.  Then, I go through the book once, looking at the pictures and identifying what jumps out at my first when I look at the picture.  (Don’t confuse yourself by reading the words on the page.)  Next, I identify my repeated phrase or phrases.   Remember from my previous post that a “repeated phrase” is a two- to three-word chunk of language that you use on every page of the book.   Then, I embed the core vocabulary targets in the repeated phrases.  I’ll tell you a little secret–my favorite way to do this is with tiny Post-It notes.  That way, you can move them around until you get it right!



photo copy

Here are the words to my version of the book, Merry Christmas, Spot by Eric Hill:

Key: Below, italicized words in brackets are “stage directions,” so to speak.  Words in parenthesis are possible expansions of what is written depending on your child’s core vocabulary and language level.

Page 1-2: It’s Christmas time! Christmas tree {point to tree}.  Ornaments {point to ornaments}.  (Time to) decorate the Christmas tree!  Ornaments on the Christmas tree {point to Spot holding the ornament}.

 Page 3-4:  It’s Christmas time!  Present {point to present}.  (Time to) wrap presents.  Wait to open the present. {sing “Waiting song}

Page 5-6: It’s Christmas time!  Singing {point to carolers}.  Sing Christmas songs.  {sing the child’s favorite Christmas song; ex: “Jingle Bells”}

Page 7-8: {This page upsets me because I don’t like giving my kids bad ideas like jumping on the bed, as Spot demonstrates on page 8.  I recommend covering up page 8 with a plain white piece of paper and then pasting in on top of it a photograph of your mantle hung with stockings.}

It’s Christmas time.  (Time to) hang (your) stocking. Stocking on hook. {point to your mantle picture}

Page 9-10: It’s Christmas time!  Today is Christmas.  Waiting is finished.  Time to open presents.  Merry Christmas!


Step 2a: Utilize visual picture symbols—make language you can SEE

To allow the best chance for language learning, when you introduce a new vocabulary word, give your child a visual component, or “referent,” to associate with the spoken word.  Please see my previous blog post on how to “give your child visual subtitles” for your words.  Even if your child is typically developing, using picture symbols that you can point to as your read will not only facilitate language learning, but development of pre-literacy skills as well.

Here is a document with all of the Merry Christmas spot picsym words, utilizing Boardmaker picture symbols, that can be cut and pasted to the bottom of each page.  (First cover the original words to the book with a plain white piece of paper.  Then, glue the picture symbols to the white paper.)  If you are reading in a one-on-one situation with your child, this may be all you need.  However, if you are a teacher or therapist reading the book to a group of children, I’d recommend printing out this Merry Christmas spot Book Board, again using Boardmaker symbols, for each individual child so that they can follow along.  Each child having his own book board, when done properly, will facilitate joint attention and language learning in the group!***

If you are in a pinch and CANNOT add the visual symbols, I recommend that minimally, you leave your Post-It notes in the book as you read it.  This will allow you to use the same language in the same sequence every time you read it.

Understanding Leads to Participation!

After a while, you may even see your child beginning to try to participate in the book reading!  Once you know the song, you kinda want to sing along!

Next time, we’ll get to the book sharing activity itself.  Until then, happy shopping and even happier writing!


***Note: Many of the concepts explained above may be found in Facilitating Social Communication Skills: From Theory to Practice by Pamela Rollins, MS, CCC/SLP, Ed.D.  Chapter 5, which I am the first author of, contains example curriculum units for a variety of themes.  Each curriculum unit in the book provides an example book written in language appropriate to an emerging communicator, picture symbols for the book, and example activities associated with the book and theme.

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