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Reading: It’s Not Just for the Kids

21 Aug

You often run into some great people online. I happened to meet a fellow WordPress blogger, Dr. Connie Hebert, who is a nationally renowned reading specialist, teacher of teachers and motivational speaker. Her special focus is on helping struggling readers. We got to emailing and she agreed to talk to me for a blog post about helping all children – typically developing and those with special needs — transition back into school mode now that summer is slipping away (sad). Keep in mind that my son with Down syndrome and his twin sister are almost 4 and far from being readers, but good habits must start early. And our oldest is 6 1/2 and loves to read, but could always use a little nudge to keep her going.

My main question for Dr. Hebert was this: how do you motivate kids to read without resorting to nagging? Like most parents I know, our house has many books, we read to our kids every day (sometimes only for about 30 seconds, it seems!) and we visit the library often and let them choose their own books. But that still doesn’t seem like enough sometimes. How many of you have wonderful, unread library books sitting forgotten on the shelf for various reasons, like because the kids would rather watch TV… guilty confession. Maybe it’s just us…

Dr. Hebert had a great answer to my question, and maybe you’ve heard the answer before, but when she explained it sounded like a revelation — have each child create a Book Box of his or her own. “With young children and elderly people,” Dr. Hebert said, “what do they want? They want choices. They need to feel they are in control.” So have your child create a Book Box. “It can be a Tide box with a handle,” she said, “or some strong cereal box, or big plastic tubs.” Basically, any deep container will work.

Then you and your child both fill it up with many different types of reading materials, in addition to books that the child enjoys reading. These might include maps, cookbooks, menus, phone books, dictionaries, catalogs, newspapers, magazines, comic books, or AAA tour books. For pre-readers, especially kids with special needs who are often strong visual learners, wordless picture books are a great choice to help with vocabulary development and word retrieval. You can make your own wordless books, or find them with a quick Internet search. Dr. Hebert likes wordless books by Mercer Meyer, Alexandra Day and David Wiesner.

Parents choose some things for the box and the child chooses some things — the control freak in me likes that I can choose too! (Someone has to make sure the puppy book they begged for at the library actually gets read).

Here’s how it works:

Set Aside a Quiet Time: In teacher parlance, it is called “DEAR” time — which stands for Drop Everything And Read. Apparently, you have to set aside an actual time for this every day and make it sound really cool. Oops! I usually make the kids sit down and read when they are getting on my nerves. Is that wrong?

Your Child Can Sit Wherever She Wants: In the kitchen, on the floor, at a table, or better yet, under the table! Try outside in a playhouse or in a big appliance box that’s been converted into a hiding place. “Now it becomes fun,” said Dr. Hebert.

Fill the Box With More Than Story Books: This was the revelation part to me. Book Boxes can and should include brochures from the car repair shop, restaurant menus, catalogs, comic books, maps, a kids’ magazine or section of the newspaper. Even, said Dr. Hebert, “recipe books you don’t use anymore, phone books and of course books or novels from the library that are easy and motivating for kids to practice reading with.” With all the story-type texts they are given to read, “kids begin to think reading is only for reading books,” said Dr. Hebert, “but the majority of things we read are informational: a map, or a brochure, for instance.” If your child gets too focused on reading catalogs and brochures, she advised, set aside a day once a week where they have to read a book first for a few minutes. If your child comes home with a leveled reader from school, put a special sticker on it indicating that it needs to be read first during DEAR time before moving on to other things, Dr. Hebert said.

Keep It Fresh: Also about once a week, work together with your child to trade out a few items and add new ones. Some children may want to clean out the entire thing, Dr. Hebert said, and some may want to hold onto things for a long time — whatever works for your child is fine.

It’s Great for Almost Any Age: Think about how much fun 2-year-olds have putting things into containers and chewing on magazines! Now you can call it literacy time and beam with pride when your husband comes through the door and you still smell like mashed peas 🙂

Unleash Your Child’s Creativity: Since it is your child’s Book Box, encourage him to decorate it as he wishes, or cover it, or put stickers on it. Old wads of gum are not as good, but since this is my house, I’m guessing my girls might include a piece or two.

Encourage Writing Too: Dr. Hebert says she likes to put a journal in the box too so that kids of all ages can write or scribble about the book, draw pictures of it, change the cover into their own creation, or write new words they’ve learned. “Never separate reading from writing,” she said. Part of being successful at reading is “feeling like a reader and writer,” she said.

Aim High: If he’s in kindergarten and wants to put a Harry Potter book in there, great, said Dr. Hebert. “Let him page through it, see the chapters, read the Table of Contents and find the pages, look at the front cover, the back cover.” He has the freedom to put whatever book he wants in there, even if it is well beyond his comprehension.

You’d Better DEAR Too: Motivate your child by doing some reading of your own — modeling is the best way to teach. Set a timer for 20 minutes, for instance, though even a few minutes is great to start. You can have your own Book Box. “I become the child,” Dr. Hebert said, “and I go through my own box and talk about all the great things I’m going to read.” For instance: “Oh, I’m having people over on Sunday, I think I’ll take out this recipe book and figure out what I’m going to make,” Dr. Hebert said. Always talk about what you are going to read and why you’re going to read it.

This sounded like so much fun I couldn’t wait to try it. My kids liked the idea right away. We used a big Tupperware-type box with a lid and some plastic storage bins from Ikea that are quite cheap and easy to replace. My oldest girl, age 6 ½ and going into first grade, wanted to decorate it before she started reading, while her younger sister, who as I said is almost 4, filled the whole thing to the tippy top and then started paging through all the books. Her twin brother, who has Down syndrome, joined us later, as he was still napping while all this was going on.

Soon, the oldest was finished decorating. She had adorned hers with stickers, including some letters spelling her name. In glitter glue, she wrote the word “Read,” and then in letter stickers next to it, she spelled out “Books.” Above that, she affixed a little sign saying, “Read it Lern It.”

The miracles didn’t stop there. Her little sister found a few books that had tables of contents with little pictures next to the titles, and she was looking up different chapters by page number. This is the stubborn girl who knows her entire alphabet but says “B” when you show her the letter K because she absolutely does not want us to figure out that she knows anything, lest we start asking too many questions while she’s playing.

For nearly two hours it went on like this. That’s right, I said two hours.

When our son woke up from his nap, he was not too impressed with his own Book Box. He seemed miffed that I was going to sit and read my own book rather than read to him, but soon he was sharing a book with his twin and cackling hysterically and all was right with the world again. Another day, he read through the books on his own, talking himself through the pictures. Mind you, I have no problem reading to the little ones at DEAR time for a few minutes, but I want to teach them independence – and I want to read too! For the first time in months, I finished an entire magazine article while the kids read in my vicinity. That’s right, an entire article! Of more than 3 pages too – I could not believe it. We are not able to work in DEAR time every day, but you can bet that’s what I’m aiming for.

You can read more tips in Dr. Hebert’s books “Catch a Falling Reader” and “Catch a Falling Writer,” published by Corwin Press Her books include timeless principles for catching struggling readers and writers in grades K – 4.

Check out her posting on how to recognize and correct 6 common habits of struggling readers, along with other useful tips on her blog:

A big thank you to Dr. Hebert for sharing her knowledge. Please check out her Web site: There is useful information for elementary kids of all developmental types.


Brain Boosting Activities From Yours Truly

26 Apr


Hello dear readers! Today I offer you a two-for-one special: in just “one” visit to my home page, you can find out about “two” very valuable items. First, this witty little post you are reading right now, and two, and I guess more important, this great article on that I wrote with little tips and activities you can do with your babies, toddlers and preschoolers to boost their language development.

The piece was written to target children with Down syndrome, but it will work equally well for any child who is a visual learner, and your typically developing children will also benefit! Please check out the resources I mention in the piece; they have been invaluable guides for me.

Crazy Little Things Called Wheels

2 Apr

Low muscle tone and roller skates: two things that go together about as well as the proverbial fish and the bicycle. Or at least, that’s what I thought.

Our 3-year-old son with Down syndrome was born with pretty low muscle tone, or hypotonia, which is very common with that diagnosis, but his tone is low even taking that into consideration. The exact explanation of low tone is twisty and slippery and hard even for those with a medical background to describe.

Essentially, it means that fighting against gravity will always be harder than for the average person and that his limbs will be so flexible and loose that physical activities like running, climbing and gripping will always require extra work and practice. His trunk is also particularly weak, though with time, therapy and exercise, it has gotten much stronger.

So it took him until past 14 months to sit up by himself, and longer than two years to take his first unsupported steps. I like to call him my little semolina noodle, because when he gets mad and doesn’t want to do something, he goes all limp and stringy and will not stand up on his two legs no matter how much you cajole him. He still trips and falls. A lot. He can tumble off chairs in a single bound, is not yet fully comfortable on a regular playground swing, and has had a few nasty encounters with concrete stairs. He also feels like he weighs about 50 pounds even though he only weighs 37. “Heavy, heavy!” as he likes to say.

However, a miracle occurred at a recent birthday party. He was able to roller skate!

My older daughter, age 6, had been invited to a skating party at Kate’s Skate. I debated about whether to bring all three kids, as it was a daytime party during winter break. The mother of the birthday girl kindly volunteered that everyone was welcome to come. We would later repay this kindness by alternately throwing all the spoons on the floor (little brother), spilling soda on the pre-set table (little brother and big sis), and falling into the cake and leaving a big smear mark (big sis) even before the candles were blown out. Um, sorry about that. (Blushing profusely).

I hemmed and hawed. Maybe I should drop the twins at the babysitter’s house. Maybe I should just bring little sis, who as our son’s twin is also 3, because she has mad athletic skills and does well at skating. (I grew up without a drop of athletic ability, and so while it may be obvious to others that 3-year-olds all over the world are skating, skiing and swimming, to me it is still something odd and remarkable.)

The last time we went skating there — the twins’ first time on skates — it was a disaster for me and my son. He could not even balance for one second on those devils on wheels. He cried, he whined, he moaned. It was a fundraiser for my daughter’s school and I held him up under his arms the entire two hours we were there. Luckily, one of our favorite teenage neighbors came along as a mother’s helper and she watched out for the girls.

We’d skate on by the other parents, his shirt half hiked up from the effort, him writhing with discomfort, me gritting my teeth and cursing my decision to also wear skates. My back ached; my arms were about to fall off. Moms and dads looked at me with contorted expressions — was I torturing my child on purpose? I’d just smile back and give them that knowing eye-roll, as if to say “Kids… What are you going to do?” Inside I am saying, yes, people, I am torturing my child, and myself, because there are a couple of points to make here. The most important point is that kids with special needs can do anything their typical siblings can do. The other point is that tired, half-delusional 40-year-old moms of such kids should not be donning roller skates at 7 p.m. on a Friday night.

But I decided to try again and just bring everyone to the roller-skating birthday party. Big sis never wants to leave her twin siblings behind — they must come everywhere with her, like beloved dolls. This time, at least, I would not be wearing skates. Maybe I would have my son not wear them either; surely he would remember his last traumatic experience and would not want a repeat performance.

As we made our way to the counter where you trade your shoes for skates, another Mom passed by with her young sons in tow, both already on skates. I remarked that they were doing so well. She said yes, but that it had really helped that the wheels had been tightened. What? I asked, feeling like a cartoon mouse that has just realized the cheese had always been his for the taking because the mousetrap was broken.

“Just ask them to tighten the wheels,” she said. “Then they barely slip around at all.” Could it really be that simple?

Why yes, yes it could. The helpful young man at the skate counter smiled at my son and said “Hey buddy, you excited to skate?” No surprise, or wonderment in his voice, that a child with Down syndrome would want to skate. I wanted his nonchalance; said a silent prayer of thanks for putting this young man right here at this minute. He asked my son’s size and brought out a pair of skates. My son looked happy and started playing with the laces and trying to put them on.

“Can you tighten the wheels?” I asked.

“Is that good?” came his reply, after a quick adjustment.

“All the way, please,” I responded.

Copyright Victoria S. Vila, 2011

And just like that, we put on the skates. He stood up. My son with Down syndrome stood up on roller skates — four wheels under each foot — and did not fall. I held his hand for the first few steps, but after that, we both realized he could get around on his own. Sure, he wasn’t actually skating — it was more like a shuffle, but he could move without much assistance, slowly, and be just like the other kids. I’d stand right by him and hold his hand if he needed it. If.

It was time for the party to begin. Excited kids, most unsteady on their skates, headed for the center of the rink. Mine were no exception, squealing with delight. They all felt the gravitational pull of the friendly mascot, a large dog on roller skates, and waited their turn for a hug. I stood slightly in the distance, holding no one’s hand.

At that moment I started thinking about one of the greatest gifts of parenthood, or of the universal human experience, really: a whole world of emotional highs and lows that bubble way inside you, a landscape of deeply felt experiences that no one else can see or share, but that make your own life rich, transcendent even.

To the casual observer, I probably looked just like any other mom there. Smiling, watchful, ordinary. They would see the giant costume dog and the poorly lit roller rink; they might feel the thump of the dance music and hear the children’s laughter. Nothing of note happening here, people, move along!

If they got closer, they might have noticed my eyes welling up with tears, but never would they realize how filled up I was with pride for my son, for his perseverance, his determination to be his sisters’ equal. That he was roller skating was not my choice, but his.

It’s happened before: We take him someplace new, unsure of how he will react or how much he will be able to participate. When it works well, it always seems slightly miraculous, because so much emotional effort has been invested. When it doesn’t work, we may feel frustrated, but we usually understand why.

This time seemed different. I hadn’t thought much about it, because I just assumed he wouldn’t want to roller skate. That he was able to — that he wanted to — was a gift out of the clear blue, an unexpected delight on a random Wednesday afternoon. A minor adjustment — tightening the wheels — made it all possible, but his will sealed the deal.

I will try to keep this in mind when contemplating his future. When I am unsure of what direction to take with him, I will try to present him with the path that leaves open the most options, even if some of those options include failure. Maybe letting him make the choices sometimes could be the best answer to the everlasting question: What do I do now?

Playing to Their Strengths: Teaching Children with Down Syndrome

19 Feb

Below is a short tutorial directed at my son’s teachers; a love letter of sorts, if you will. He is 3, and in a preschool for exceptional children within our local elementary school. I think these ideas apply broadly though, to all professionals and all parents whose children have Down syndrome or other cognitive disorders. I hope there are takeaways in here that apply to children of any age. Let me know what you think!

To My Son’s Teachers: Research-Based Strategies for Learning

Some notes from a conference presented in Charlotte, N.C., last fall by Down Syndrome Education International, a UK-based research and training organization that has been using clinical trials to study how people with Down syndrome learn for 30 years. Professor Sue Buckley is the lead scientist at DownsEd and was the featured speaker at the conference along with some of her colleagues. For more information:


You may have heard that children with Down syndrome are “visual learners,” meaning that they learn better when information is presented visually rather than just spoken to them. The reason for this is that they have specific impairments in their auditory short-term memory and relatively strong visual memories.

What this means is they may need visual prompts like pictures or signs in order to learn language, follow directions, or answer questions. For a one-step direction or word, no visual prompt may be needed, but if you are asking the child to complete a two-step direction or say two or more words, a visual aid may be necessary until the child has mastered this skill.

(Visual aides like pictures are also great for a child who has difficulty with transitions so he knows what to expect next.)

For instance, when trying to increase the length of your child’s spoken phrases, holding up a card with two dots (or three dots, etc., depending on the child’s level) and pointing to each dot as you say each word can help serve as a visual reminder to compensate for the child’s weaker auditory memory. This is known as a pacing board.  If your child looks at his toy and says “ball,” try to get him to add the color also by using a pacing board with two dots and saying “Ball. Red ball,” and pointing to each dot as you say “Red…ball.” For more information about this, please see the fascinating book by Libby Kumin, PhD., CCC-SLP, “Early Communication Skills for Children With Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals.”

Language Learning

About a half dozen studies have shown that reading progress is often above the mental age for language and verbal skills, and in many cases children with Down syndrome can read at age level! The researchers at DownsEd, as the organization is called, learned that many 3-year-olds could remember a visual word easier than a spoken word.

(Mathematical skills are more difficult, and often lag 2 years behind reading skills. More on that another time.)

Reading can be fostered in the classroom and at home with the use of letter cards or letter books — pages with a letter written in big type and accompanied by a picture of something that starts with that letter. Show the card, then say the letter sound to the child, then say the word and see if the child repeats it. Over time, you can ask the child to categorize by putting all the “b” words in one pile, the “d” words in another, etc.

Studies of children naming picture cards showed that speech production was clearer when imitating (watching closely as the adult spoke the word slowly). This showed that another problem was storage and retrieval from memory, not a motor skill or vocabulary issue, although some children with Down syndrome also have oral-motor weakness that impedes their speech.

Children with Down syndrome are good at matching games, so you could have a group of pictures with the word written underneath, and have the child match the corresponding picture with the word underneath. Over time, you can gradually progress to having the child match only a word to the correct picture, and then match word to word, with no pictures at all.

Once children with Down syndrome acquire a basic vocabulary through signs and spoken words, introducing the printed word will help them increase their vocabularies and also begin to learn grammar. In fact, once a child is putting 3 or 4 words together, reading will be the best way to learn grammar (for instance “Mommy is driving the car,” rather than “Mommy drive car.”)

Reading, Word Recognition

Preschool children can start whole word/sight reading when they have a vocabulary of 50-100 words and are able to match pictures (find the one the same) and select pictures (Where is the dog?).

Phonics instruction should not begin until the child has a sight vocabulary of 30-40 words, or with the rest of the class in school. Many of the early phonics skills will overlap with speech and language activities that teach letter sounds and initial consonants.

The computer plays to the visual strengths of children with Down syndrome, said Professor Buckley. She said the iPad is going to revolutionize education of our children. So please keep encouraging them to use the computer and don’t hesitate to play letter and number recognition games.

Errorless Learning

One fascinating tip presented at the conference is that children with Down syndrome are very sensitive to failure. If they sense they will not be able to do something correctly, they may simply refuse to do it. You may present a task to them, and they may start smiling at you or otherwise getting distracted. This may be just a behavior, but it may also be their way of trying to “get out of” doing the task.

A way around this is to use errorless learning. In other words, do not let the child get something “wrong.” Assist him in getting the answers right until he learns to do it himself. For instance, if you are asking the child to point to the dog and he points to the duck, keep prompting for the right answer. Avoid saying the word “no” or “that’s not right,” or similar language.

Instead, say something like, “That’s the duck, do you see the dog?” Prompt a few times and if the child doesn’t get it, take his finger and point to the dog, saying “There’s the dog!” Similarly, if you are asking the child to choose from among a group of cards and he is not finding the right one, gently push the correct one forward to encourage him to choose it. Praise him for making the correct choice and try another activity. Over time, you will slowly decrease the amount of support and prompts you are giving to the child.

  Ending on a High Note

Perhaps the most striking yet simple idea presented at the conference by Professor Buckley is that we all should treat our children according to their chronological age as much as possible, not their developmental age.

As an example, she told us about her own daughter, who is now an adult and has never had a strong spoken vocabulary. They always treated her very protectively, and she took a special bus to either school or day service until the age of 22. Around that age, she joined the “real world,” moving to a supported living situation and beginning a relationship with a young man.

Finally, she came into herself, Professor Buckley said. Her daughter learned more between the ages of 20 and 30 than in the previous 20 years, she said.

I love this story! Let’s all work for full inclusion for our children and have the ultimate goal of letting our adult children be adults when the time comes. I anticipate this will be harder than it sounds. Thank you for helping us get there!

He Came Bearing Whimsy

11 Jan

In this season of tallying up, starting fresh and counting one’s blessings, I am grateful for many things: my loyal readers, a healthy family, a funny husband, loving parents and friends, a comfortable house and Carolina sunshine.

But in particular, I am also grateful for my son’s outlook on life. You see, he is a 3-year-old with Down syndrome, and among the many things this means is that he takes things literally and doesn’t interpret things the way the rest of us do, often to comic effect.

One recent ordinary Sunday, I was making lunch and our daughters — ages 6 and 3, our son’s twin — were coloring. Our son was flitting around from thing to thing as he is wont to do, and my husband was putting up shelving in the garage using a drill. From inside the house, the sound of the drill was amplified and each time it hit the wall, it made a high-pitched buzzing/trumpeting noise that sort of sounded like a large animal pushing against the wall, noisily wanting in.

To our son, who loves animals, this sounded exactly like an elephant. He animatedly made the sign for elephant and said “El-phant!” Each time the drill made the sound, he would run over and pull at me, saying “Mommy! El-phant!” I would smile sweetly and say “Yes, it sounds like an elephant, doesn’t it?” How cute, I thought.

But it didn’t stop there. Pretty soon, his excitement reached a fever pitch and he was standing on a chair, emphatically saying “EL-PHANT!” Not just once, but multiple times. And he was looking at the rest of us going blithely about our business, totally unenthused about the angry elephant sound. How boring were we, he seemed to be thinking, how unmovable. Humph, was his expression.

I Bring You Love . . .

Well, enough of this elephant business, I thought. It’s time for lunch. “Go wash your hands,” I told my son, pointing to the bathroom, which was right on the other side of the wall from the elephant sound. “But…” the look on his face said, wordlessly, as his expression turned into a pitiful little pout. He pointed to the bathroom and said softly “El-phant?” Mommy, you seriously want me to go in there WITH THE ELEPHANT?

Boom, it finally hit thick-headed Mommy. He did not think it SOUNDED like an elephant. He thought it WAS an elephant! I nearly melted away at the comedy and pathos of that thought. Poor kid! No wonder he was looking at us like we had lost our minds. I laughed delightedly, we all did, as I explained what he was thinking and had my older daughter accompany him to the bathroom to show him there was no great beast waiting its turn at the sink. (“El-phant; all gone,” he said matter-of-factly.)

Then we all gladly took him into the garage to show him what was really making that noise. But he was not swayed. Every time the drill buzzed, he still said “El-phant!” Exclamation mark his.

And I felt slightly jealous. After all, wouldn’t a world where pachyderms stopped by for PB&J be infinitely more exciting than one where toddlers took naps while moms swept crumbs from the floor?

Trumpet Trumpet. Stomp Stomp.

Up, Down and All Around

7 Aug

Joy and grief. Clarity and confusion. Ease and difficulty. Twin emotions that came with the birth of our beautiful, amazing twins nearly three years ago. One, a girl, snuggly and often crying, but simple to figure out. The other a boy, born with Down syndrome, squirmy and quiet, hard to hold, host to some odd little traits that needed sorting through – and still do. Now they will turn 3 in a few short months and start preschool programs, flying from the nest, half finished, into a bigger world. Their older sister will start Kindergarten, the first step along the road that only leads further and further away from hearth and home. What I get out of this deal is a little more time to myself, and a new routine for the kids that maybe, just maybe, will make them a little bit less crazy, more in control of their behavior. How do I feel? In a word, ACK!

Comedy and Tragedy

Courtesy of carolclarinet via Flickr

Elated and freaked out. Happy and so sad. Excited and nervous. Those twin emotions, back again. The children are gaining independence, a wonderful thing. Learning how to survive on their own, without their sometimes overwhelmed mother at their side. But they are so full of life, such fun kids, so innocent, and our lives feel unusually blessed most days. I know in my heart that school will be just what they need, but change is always unsettling. Will we be able to preserve our little cocoon? Will our sweet and sensitive big sis be OK in the rough-and-tumble world of public school? (I’m sure she will, actually). Where did this year go, the year I was supposed to be savoring every moment with the Three Bears and blogging about it?

I’ll tell you where it went: the fall, winter and early spring went by in a blur of sicknesses, hospitalizations and operations, minor ones. Snot and saline spray were my constant companions. It was not pretty. We were trapped inside and I was always on the phone with doctors or nurses or billing offices. I knew it was bad when my 5-year-old proudly showed me a drawing she had made on a big piece of poster board. It was an awesome piece of work, very detailed. The outline of a house, with a wreath outside for Christmas. In the living room, a sofa with three figures on it, big sis in the middle flanked by the twins on either side. They were watching TV. Off to the side, a woman in a dress, talking on a phone. Me, smiling at least.

“Oh,” I cringed as I spoke to her, “is that how you feel? That all you do is watch TV while I talk on the phone? That is so sad!”

“But Mommy,” she replied, pointing to the small square devices they each held in their stick-figure hands, “we each have our own remote controls and we’re watching our own shows! It’s not sad, it’s great!”

That drawing now has pride of place, taped to the wall of our living room. It’s a living reminder of all the twin emotions in our lives — frustration and laughter, getting stymied but making do, falling ill but getting better. Since late spring, we have been freer — less sickness, more time for playdates, strawberry picking, riding bikes, trips to the park or the pool, bowling, lots of ice cream and other treats. The other side of the coin is showing. I like this side. Please don’t flip back again come fall, please, I silently plead.