Monthly Archives: October 2011

Swallowing Reflex and Muscles: Considerations as we Age

Many people do not realize that the act of swallowing is actually a complex reflex.  As we chew our food, it forms a nice moist ball in our mouth, called a bolus, which is eventually propelled to the back of our throat with our tongue. When a bolus reaches a certain point in the back of our throats, our bodies recognize that we need to swallow. Think of it as similar to the doctor hitting your knee with a small hammer, and your leg jerking in response: the bolus hitting the back of the throat is like the hammer, and your muscles moving to close off your airway and open up your swallowing tube, esophagus, to your stomach is like the leg jerking. It is a magnificent mechanism to transport your food to your stomach, and protect your lungs from food and drink entering them.

It is important to keep in mind that as we age our reflexes begin to slow down, and this includes the swallowing reflex. In addition to our reflexes slowing down, our muscles also may not be as strong as they once were when we were younger – this goes not only for your arms, legs, and abs, but also for your swallowing muscles.  These changes can at times cause problems with the safety of our swallow. When problems do arise, they can lead to illness, the most significant being pneumonia. For example, if your swallow reflex is not as fast as it once was, it may not trigger your muscles to close off your airway in time to protect it from that tasty bite of a meal or sip of a delicious beverage from penetrating into your airway. You may tear up, start to cough, feel the need to clear your throat, or sound as if you have a ‘frog stuck in your throat’ when you start to speak. For another example, if your swallowing muscles are not as strong as they once were and they can’t squeeze and propel the food down strong and fast enough through your esophagus to your stomach, you may have left over pieces of food hanging around the back of your throat when your airway re-opens. The food that  remains can be sucked into your airway as you breathe. It is when food or drink slips into the airway and down into our lungs, along with some bacteria from our mouths, that a case of pneumonia can develop.

Many people never develop swallowing difficulties or pneumonia, but it is good to be aware of some red flags that indicate you or your loved one’s swallow should be looked at. Here are some of those red flags:

  1. During or shortly after you eat or drink you feel as though it is getting stuck in your throat.
  2. You cough, or clear your throat when you eat or drink, or shortly thereafter.
  3. You notice that your voice changes in quality during or just after eating or drinking.
  4. Your eyes tear up when you are eating or drinking.
  5. You feel like you have to swallow many times in order to get things down ‘properly’.
  6. You feel as though you choke on your food more than the average person does.
  7. You have a hard time clearing your mouth of all of the food you have been chewing.
  8. You find that food collects in different parts of your mouth, and you need to physically clear it with a sip of a drink, by really working at it with your tongue, or by using your finger.
  9. You find that food is collecting in parts of your mouth, and you aren’t noticing it until a later time.

This list is not exhaustive, but should give you a good idea of what to look for if you feel your swallow isn’t as efficient as it once was. If you have noticed any of these things, or are concerned about something that is not on this list, speak to your doctor about having a swallowing assessment done with a speech-language pathologist (SLP). By having your swallow examined, you can partner with your SLP to do some exercises, and/or use some strategies to help improve your swallowing safety.

If your swallowing profile is more complex, the SLP may recommend that you have a modified barium swallow study (MBS) completed. This means the SLP recommends you have an x-ray done of your swallowing in order to better understand what is going on as you swallow. It gives a more definite picture of what is going on as you swallow with the timing of the reflex and how the muscles are moving. From this study the SLP may give you additional
recommendations or strategies to improve the safety of your swallow.

The great news is, depending on the reason for your swallowing issues, that swallowing strategies and exercises can improve the safety and/or the strength of your swallow.

Megan Wood Pagonis, M.Sc. SLP(C), reg. CASLPO
Speech-Language Pathologist
The Speech Therapy Centres of Canada

The Kindergarten Reading Curriculum – How to help your child achieve literacy objectives at home!

As a speech-language pathologist I find that it is helpful if parents are aware of some of the early reading or “pre-literacy” skills that children must develop before they can become an effective reader. Below are a list of some of the expectations from the Ontario Kindergarten curriculum and suggestions on how you can work on these skills at home:

“They learn to pay attention to the way print and books work” Make reading together a part of your daily routine! Draw your child’s attention to the title of the book and let them turn the pages to increase their knowledge that we read books front to back. Trace your finger along the words as you read so they understand that we read left to right. Start one of their favorite books from the back “by accident” and see if your child notices.

“They become aware that some words rhyme” Have fun with rhyming games! Read books with lots of rhymes (for example Dr. Seuss books). Point out the rhymes to your child (for example: I do not like them in the house, I do not like them with a mouse. Look! House and mouse – they rhyme!) Take turns coming up with rhymes for simple words (“what rhymes with cat”? mat, hat, bat, etc.) Have fun by coming up with nonsense words that rhyme (for example ‘Dora’ can rhyme with ‘tora’ ‘mora’ ‘ sora’ etc!)

“Learn that writing can communicate a message” This can be during book reading activities or during everyday activities! Make signs to put up around your house such as “John’s room” or “Amanda’s toy box” and draw your child’s attention to these signs. Point out different types of print including print on menus, birthday cards, toys, recipes, and more. Work with your child to ‘write an e-mail’ to an aunt, uncle, grandparent etc. Help them come up ideas for the e-mail, you type the e-mail, then read it aloud and show them that their message is in print.

“They use approximate spelling for words that is based on their ability to hear, identify, and manipulate sounds” The ability to hear, identify, and manipulate sounds is called “phonological awareness” and is very important in learning to read.

  • Clap the syllables of words – start with 2 syllable words that are easy to separate like toothbrush, bookmark, baseball then try more difficult 2 syllable words (pirate, brother), 3 syllable words, and even 4 syllable words. Practice with words during daily activities: for dinner we’re having chicken, lets clap ‘chi-cken’, clapping family members names, words you see on signs, or clapping words that you find in books.
  • Point out the first sound (not letter) in words. For example: Sarah starts with the ‘sss’ sound. Talk about other words start with the ‘sss’ sound. Choose your child’s favorite toys and talk about the sound they start with (example: car starts with the ‘kuh’ sound, ball starts with the ‘buh’ sound). Once your child gets this, you can talk about the sounds at the end of words.

Have fun with these different reading activities to help your child be successful in the Kindergarten classroom!

Note: information about the curriculum was taken from:

Carla Montgomery, M.H.Sc. SLP(C)
Speech-Language Pathologist, Reg. CASLPO
The Speech Therapy Centres of Canada

Suggestions for Teachers of Students Who Stutter

When I was in elementary school, there were about 5 students in my class that would always raise their hands to ask and answer questions. They always participated in class discussions and actually seemed to enjoy talking aloud. The rest of the class slouched in their seats, wouldn’t make eye contact, and prayed they would not be the one called upon.

Talking in class is hard enough for the average child, but for children who stutters, being called upon in class can be a nightmare. As a teacher, there are many things that you can do to help students who stutter to talk more easily, participate more fully in class, and most importantly, feel better about talking
aloud.  If you are a parent of a child who stutters, share this information with your child’s classroom teacher.

  1. Talk with the student openly about their stuttering, but don’t make a big deal about it. Ask what classroom activities are more difficult for him/her to speak in.  Ask the student for some suggestions that could make him/her more comfortable speaking in class.
  2. Give the student who stutters plenty of time to answer questions in class.
  3. Don’t finish the student’s sentences or try to offer words when they are stuttering. If you guess the wrong word (or finish the sentence incorrectly), the struggle multiplies.
  4. Don’t tell the student to “slow down”, “relax” or “think before you try to speak” as this advice can be discouraging and keep the student from wanting to speak in class.
  5. Use a random method to call on students in the class instead of going up and down the rows.  This wait time can greatly increase the apprehension and tension of a student who stutters.
  6. If a student has an extremely difficult time talking in front of the whole class, modify the activity. Don’t excuse him/her from the activity but for example, instead of having students say their speeches in front of the whole class, they can say them in front of smaller sized groups. Be flexible.
  7. Most people who stutter have “good” and “bad” days. If you see that your student who stutters is having a day when their speech appears easier, offer them more opportunities to speak that day and fewer opportunities on their “bad” days.
  8. Give the student positive reinforcement for participating verbally in class.  Praise what they say, not how they say it.
  9. After a stuttered utterance, summarize what the student said to show them you understood, and reinforce their participation in the classroom activity or discussion (e.g., that’s a great point!).
 Michelle Cameron, M.H.Sc. S-LP(C)
Speech-Language Pathologist, Reg. CASLPO
The Speech Therapy Centres of Canada