Read time: 5.5 minutes

Expanding on First, Then, and Last

Mar 22 / Laura Gillingham

As a speech therapist, I know all too well the feeling of frayed edges of a well-loved set of sequencing cards. These dilapidated cards come out during sessions with a goal that reads the tune of, “Student will accurately sequence a set of three pictures and retell in their own words the sequence of events.”

Simple enough. But is there more to this activity than meets the eye? Should there be? I say absolutely.

It’s 11:30 am - my last session before lunch. I glance at the clock, which seems to have frozen in time. I forgot to eat my breakfast this morning and think of the steaming scrambled eggs my spouse made as I rushed out the door. I push away the pang of hunger and direct my attention to the task at hand.

Refocused, I place the three tattered sequencing cards on the table and smile as energetically as possible at the student across from me. The student sits, their brows furrowed for a moment in concentration.

After a few seconds, I see their eyes gradually drift towards the door leading to the freedom of the outside world - a world devoid of sequencing cards and my rumbling stomach. The air is stale, and the student’s face glazes over.

Cue the feeling of dread joining the growls in my stomach. Maybe I should have eaten those scrambled eggs…

This is going to be a long thirty minutes. I think to myself. The student yawns the most exaggerated yawn ever. If I’m being honest, I get it.

To promote memory and attention to detail, it’s all too easy to pull from a set of cards and leave things at that, but what about beyond the therapy room? Can the student use language to tell their stories and create their voice? Does life only exist in the confines of first, then, and last? Is life a set of tattered cards collected at a convention?

Surely not. At least, not exactly. It makes sense from an efficiency standpoint. After all, sequencing cards creates a framework for storytelling, and helps promote working memory too. Furthermore, repetition can be a wonderful, evidence-based tool to solidify the mastery of skills.

From a storytelling perspective, however, they leave little to the imagination. From a practical perspective, they can be downright useless (like the time I asked a student who lived their entire life in Texas to organize a sequencing set about building a snowman…spoiler, it didn’t end well.). If I’m being honest, the sequencing cards lean strongly in the direction of, well, mind-numbing.

While I’m not suggesting abandoning all therapy materials related to sequencing, and living our fullest life in the ether of pseudoscience and quackery, I am suggesting to ask the student what their storytelling interests are and expanding beyond first, then, and last - even if it causes a loss of structure in the session.

Realistically, I understand the need for some semblance of direction. I am a type A-B therapist after all. It’s true; my blood type is AB+.

Back to business. Stories. How exactly can this impossible feat be accomplished?

It’s accomplished by reading, watching, and learning about the stories around us. Especially the stories that pull us in. Stories that compel us to watch, read, or listen to them on repeat. The stories that touch our hearts.

These may be literary classics like “Jane Eyre,” or they may have mainstream appeal like “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” There’s a reason Hallmark Christmas movies are popular, after all.

Yet, film, media, and writing are more formulaic than we realize. This bodes well for your standard speech therapy session. It does not bode well if you want to stay stuck in the land of first, then, last. Think about books like “The Martian” and “The Hunger Games.” Both are different, right? Wrong.

Well, sort of. They are the same story, with a few tweaks. Both have a protagonist which Blake Snyder, author of “Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need,” calls a “dude with a problem,” and the beats of the story show how that dude will overcome an obstacle, despite being an average Joe in their respective world. Main characters experience peril, heartbreak, and triumph, and the two novels have three distinctive acts and accompanying beats.

What is a beat? A beat drives character growth. It pushes the hero, willing or unwilling, towards the “Ah-Ha!” moment. Spoilers - it’s when Woody from "Toy Story" realizes Andy doesn’t need to be saved, and Buzz doesn’t even need to be saved, he does. It’s when Dorothy realizes there is “No place like home.”

Here are the beats:

  • Opening Image (Beginning of Act One)

  • Theme Stated

  • Set-up
  • Catalyst

  • Break into Two
  • B-Story
  • Fun and Games
  • Midpoint
  • Bad Guys Close In
  • All is Lost
  • Dark Night of the Lost Soul
  • Break Into Three
  • Finale

  • Final Image (mirrors the opening image)

Whew. Seems like a lot to track? Don’t worry, it's not as hard as you’d think.

As a storyteller and speech-language pathologist, I capitalize on this expanded formula during therapy sessions to model greater depth in stories, while continuing to engage students in the goal , whether that be expressive retellings, memory for details, or simply conversational skills. I don’t ignore first, then, and last (or, if you are a screenwriter, acts one, two, and three), but I do expand on it depending on the individual capabilities of my students.

Here’s an example:

Instead of pulling out sequencing cards, if I’m working with a student still interested in unstructured play, I model the beat sequence listed above as the student plays along. Afterward, I review the play scene with my student, asking them to retell the story to the best of their ability. I add as much or as little detail as the student can manage, and encourage as many conversational turns as possible.

The beat sheet is formulaic, but doesn’t need to be static and fixed. Flexibility is key. Engagement is key. Connection is key.

In this therapy beat sheet example, I play with a farm animal set and a character doctor set with a student.

  • Opening Image (Beginning of Act One) - Cows on a farm
  • Theme Stated - Cow states “I love being home with my family”
  • Set-up
  • Catalyst - A storm destroys their barn

  • Break into Two
  • B-Story - They find a doctors office and a friend to help
  • Fun and Games - Playing doctor with the cows
  • Midpoint
  • Bad Guys Close In-  Another storm comes and destroys the doctor’s office
  • All is Lost - The cows and doctor are sad
  • Dark Night of the Lost Soul - They aren’t sure how they will survive.
  • Break Into Three- The cows come up with an idea to rebuild with everyone in a new location
  • Finale (mirrors the opening image) - Cows in a new location, this time with the doctor. The cow says, “I love being home with my family”

For older students, I encourage them to bring in preferred comics or books to model the beats. Depending on their interests, I talk about familiar TV shows or encourage them to write or retell their own stories using the formulaic structure above to expand on their ideas. Once students are comfortable with familiar stories and their details, I move on to other sequences that may occur in their daily lives. The classroom, sports events, and holidays. You name it.

Language begets more language. Complex stories are a tool to push language to its limit. Stories exist all around us and they are begging to be created and re-created.

Ultimately, I focus on the stories of each student’s life. What is meaningful to them in this moment? Storytelling is a gift that propels students to create their voice. By using Blake Snyder’s beat sheet as a guide, students (and therapists) can find greater fulfillment in the therapeutic process.

Just make sure you eat your breakfast before your next session. I know I will.

© SDI Productions from Getty Images Signature

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About the blogger

Laura Gillingham

Laura Gillingham is a storyteller, Speech-Language Pathologist and LSLS Certified Auditory Verbal Therapist.

As a young girl growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, Laura created expansive, fantastical worlds for anyone who would listen. Her stories opened her eyes to an enchanting discovery – vivid storytelling is a catalyst that transforms even the most mundane into the extraordinary.

Today, Laura continues to use the magic of storytelling to promote age-specific auditory skill development and a love of reading through her novels, carefully crafted therapy materials, advocacy, and education. 

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