The Riches of Speech-Language Pathology

When I was a special education teacher, I also coordinated the IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) for my school, and served as the district representative at our IEP meetings, meaning that I had some part in most of the IEPs written in my building, whether I coordinated the gathering of information or facilitated the meeting with parents.

We served some children identified with speech language impairment (SLI), and I worked pretty closely with the speech-language pathologist in my school in the sense that I always ensured that IEPs were written with her review and meaningful input, and she was invited to IEP meetings for the children she worked with. We talked when we could about the children we serviced, and I solicited her advice on many occasions.

Yet I don’t know if I ever fully understood what she really did in speech-language therapy sessions. She did her thing, and I did my thing as a co-teacher in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade ELA classrooms. We were both pretty busy.

As I’ve been learning much more about reading, literacy, and language, I’ve increasingly become drawn into the research and expertise of the speech-language pathology realm (SLP) (we do love our tripartite acronyms in ed, don’t we), and discovered a wealth of knowledge that I really wish I had understood more of when I was in the classroom and coordinating the development of IEPs.

Also, as I’ve been struggling to bridge what I’ve been learning about the “science of reading” with my new focus on English learners, I’ve found SLPs to be an incredibly useful resource to building that bridge.

You see, if you know all about the Simple View of Reading framework (SVR), you then know that language comprehension, alongside of decoding and word-level recognition, is a huge component of reading ability.

And Speech Language Pathology is all about understanding language comprehension, from explicit training in the articulation of speech sounds, to explicit intervention to target needed language skills, such as knowledge of story grammar, making inferences, or the talk moves that are needed to have discourse about a text.

It was only recently that I became aware of the term Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), and discovered that there’s a wealth of developing knowledge about DLD that can inform our assessment, instruction, and intervention. (And hey, last Friday, October 16, was also Developmental Disorder Awareness day!)

If we refer back to the SVR, we can think of three main patterns of students who are having trouble learning to read: students who have difficulty with language comprehension, students who have difficulty decoding, or students have difficulty with both:

A graphic showing the equation of Language Comprehension X Decoding = Reading Comprehension, with a struggle in LC as DLD, and a struggle in Decoding as Dyslexia.
Students may have difficulty reading due to either language comprehension, decoding, or both.

Awareness of dyslexic patterns have grown quite a bit, to the point that legislation addressing it has arisen in multiple states. But awareness of patterns of DLD remains low in comparison.

It may seem strange that I present DLD and dyslexia as defining student profiles to guide overall education assessment and instruction — but as someone who comes from a SPED stance, I’ve always seen the way we typically think of instruction in schools as backward. As a cornerstone, we should center our focus on the students who struggle with language and literacy the most (our ELLs and our SWDs) and plan forward from there, rather than as an afterthought. We would then be able to improve outcomes for many more children who may not struggle as significantly, yet who also require more explicit support or more opportunities for practice. Instead, we design schools to center students who already have academic language and literacy skills in place, and we widen inequitable outcomes.

So with that in mind, speech-language pathology is an undervalued domain that has much to offer in considering the language needs of our students and what we need to do to screen, diagnose, and intervene to address those needs. Rather than relegating speech-language pathologists to the people who do that esoteric intervention thing in the room over there 3x a week with some children, we should be elevating their expertise and knowledge and seeking to disseminate that knowledge to general education teachers, most especially in earlier grades, so that we can seek to prevent language issues from arising.

I feel fortunate to have discovered many SLPs and researchers are active on Twitter, and though I hesitate to call any out by name because I know I will be missing way too many in any listing I give, just a few to get you started in your own journey of learning on language:

  • Tiffany Hogan: check out her co-authored paper with Suzanne Adlof on the intersections of dyslexia and DLD, and she has a podcast! A great list of ones on DLD related issues here
  • Trina Spencer: one of the co-authors of the CUBED assessments, which is now one of my go-to recommendations for a screener/diagnostic for listening comprehension. If you’re wondering what SLP might be able to offer in our teaching of narratives, check out her co-authored paper on narrative interventions. Also check out her website with a ton of resources for language instruction and intervention.
  • Habla Lab: understanding the intersections of bilingual and multilingualism with DLD is a critical area of need. HABLA Lab is a group of researchers exploring these intersections – check out their blog! I learned a lot about the concept of “dynamic assessment” from them. This is a research space to watch.
  • Lakeisha Johnson: How does the African American English Vernacular differ from Mainstream English, and in what way does AAE get entangled and intersect with dyslexia and developmental language disorder? I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by this question, and Dr. Johnson is on the forefront of this line of research.
  • Oh geez. There’s so many more resourceful people I need to list here, and I just realized I could spend all night going through my Twitter feed to gather them…

So instead, just to illustrate what a wealth of knowledge is there, as well as to provide you with more great people and references to get you started, I posed the following question on Twitter and got a whole line of research and links to other SLPs and researchers that got me jumpstarted into all of this:

Dig in! Speech-language pathology has a lot to offer those of us who are just beginning on our journeys to understanding language and literacy.


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