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Components of Qualitative Writing Assessments: What Exactly are We Trying to Measure?

Writing! The one assessment area that challenges many SLPs on daily basis! If one polls 10 SLPs on the topic of writing, one will get 10 completely different responses ranging from agreement and rejection to the diverse opinions regarding what should actually be assessed and how exactly it should be accomplished.

Consequently, today I wanted to focus on the basics involved in the assessment of adolescent writing. Why adolescents you may ask? Well, frankly because many SLPs (myself included) are far more likely to assess the writing abilities of adolescents rather than elementary-aged children.

Often, when the students are younger and their literacy abilities are weaker, the SLPs may not get to the assessment of writing abilities due to the students presenting with so many other deficits which require precedence intervention-wise. However, as the students get older and the academic requirements increase exponentially, SLPs may be more frequently asked to assess the students’ writing abilities because difficulties in this area significantly affect them in a variety of classes on a variety of subjects.

So what can we assess when it comes to writing? In the words of Helen Lester’s character ‘Pookins’: “Lots!”  There are various types of writing that can be assessed, the most common of which include: expository, persuasive, and fictional. Each of these can be used for assessment purposes in a variety of ways.

To illustrate, if we chose to analyze the student’s written production of fictional narratives then we may broadly choose to analyze the following aspects of the student’s writing: contextual conventions and writing composition.

The former looks at such writing aspects as the use of correct spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, paragraph formation, etc.

The latter looks at the nitty-gritty elements involved in plot development. These include effective use of literate vocabulary, plotline twists, character development,  use of dialogue, etc.

Perhaps we want to analyze the student’s persuasive writing abilities. After all, high school students are expected to utilize this type of writing frequently for essay writing purposes.  Actually, persuasive writing is a complex genre which is particularly difficult for students with language-learning difficulties who struggle to produce essays that are clear, logical, convincing, appropriately sequenced, and take into consideration opposing points of view. It is exactly for that reason that persuasive writing tasks are perfect for assessment purposes.

But what exactly are we looking for analysis wise? What should a typical 15 year old’s persuasive essays contain?

With respect to syntax, a typical student that age is expected to write complex sentences possessing nominal, adverbial, as well as relative clauses.

With the respect to semantics, effective persuasive essays require the use of literate vocabulary words of low frequency such as later developing connectors (e.g., first of all, next, for this reason, on the other hand, consequently, finally, in conclusion) as well as metalinguistic and metacognitive verbs (“metaverbs”) that refer to acts of speaking (e.g., assert, concede, predict, argue, imply) and thinking (e.g., hypothesize, remember, doubt, assume, infer).

With respect to pragmatics, as students  mature, their sensitivity to the perspectives of others improves, as a result, their persuasive essays increase in length (i.e., total number of words produced) and they are able to offer a greater number of different reasons to support their own opinions (Nippold, Ward-Lonergan, & Fanning, 2005).

Now let’s apply our knowledge by analyzing a writing sample of a 15-year-old with suspected literacy deficits. Below 10th-grade student was provided with a written prompt first described in the Nippold, et al, 2005 study, entitled: “The Circus Controversy”.   “People have different views on animals performing in circuses. For example, some people think it is a great idea because it provides lots of entertainment for the public. Also, it gives parents and children something to do together, and the people who train the animals can make some money. However, other people think having animals in circuses is a bad idea because the animals are often locked in small cages and are not fed well. They also believe it is cruel to force a dog, tiger, or elephant to perform certain tricks that might be dangerous. I am interested in learning what you think about this controversy, and whether or not you think circuses with trained animals should be allowed to perform for the public. I would like you to spend the next 20 minutes writing an essay. Tell me exactly what you think about the controversy. Give me lots of good reasons for your opinion. Please use your best writing style, with correct grammar and spelling. If you aren’t sure how to spell a word, just take a guess.”(Nippold, Ward-Lonergan, & Fanning, 2005)

He produced the following written sample during the allotted 20 minutes.

Analysis: This student was able to generate a short, 3-paragraph, composition containing an introduction and a body without a definitive conclusion. His persuasive essay was judged to be very immature for his grade level due to significant disorganization, limited ability to support his point of view as well as the presence of tangential information in the introduction of his composition, which was significantly compromised by many writing mechanics errors (punctuation, capitalization, as well as spelling) that further impacted the coherence and cohesiveness of his written output.

The student’s introduction began with an inventive dialogue, which was irrelevant to the body of his persuasive essay. He did have three important points relevant to the body of the essay: animal cruelty, danger to the animals, and potential for the animals to harm humans. However, he was unable to adequately develop those points into full paragraphs. The notable absence of proofreading and editing of the composition further contributed to its lack of clarity. The above coupled with a lack of a conclusion was not commensurate grade-level expectations.

Based on the above-written sample, the student’s persuasive composition content (thought formulation and elaboration) was judged to be significantly immature for his grade level and is commensurate with the abilities of a much younger student.  The student’s composition contained several emerging claims that suggested a vague position. However, though the student attempted to back up his opinion and support his position (animals should not be performing in circuses), ultimately he was unable to do so in a coherent and cohesive manner.

Now that we know what the student’s written difficulties look like, the following goals will be applicable with respect to his writing remediation:

Long-Term Goals:  Student will improve his written abilities for academic purposes.

  • Short-Term Goals
  1. Student will appropriately utilize parts of speech (e.g., adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc.)  in compound and complex sentences.
  2. Student will use a variety of sentence types for story composition purposes (e.g., declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory sentences).
  3. Student will correctly use past, present, and future verb tenses during writing tasks.
  4. Student will utilize appropriate punctuation at the sentence level (e.g., apostrophes, periods, commas, colons, quotation marks in dialogue, and apostrophes in singular possessives, etc.).
  5. Student will utilize appropriate capitalization at the sentence level (e.g., capitalize proper nouns, holidays, product names, titles with names, initials, geographic locations, historical periods, special events, etc.).
  6. Student will use prewriting techniques to generate writing ideas (e.g., list keywords, state key ideas, etc.).
  7. Student will determine the purpose of his writing and his intended audience in order to establish the tone of his writing as well as outline the main idea of his writing.
  8. Student will generate a draft in which information is organized in chronological order via use of temporal markers (e.g., “meanwhile,” “immediately”) as well as cohesive ties (e.g., ‘but’, ‘yet’, ‘so’, ‘nor’) and cause/effect transitions (e.g., “therefore,” “as a result”).
  9. Student will improve coherence and logical organization of his written output via the use of revision strategies (e.g., modify supporting details, use sentence variety, employ literary devices).
  10. Student will edit his draft for appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

There you have it. A quick and easy qualitative writing assessment which can assist SLPs to determine the extent of the student’s writing difficulties as well as establish writing remediation targets for intervention purposes.

Using a different type of writing assessment with your students? Please share the details below so we can all benefit from each others knowledge of assessment strategies.

References:

  • Nippold, M., Ward-Lonergan, J., & Fanning, J. (2005). Persuasive writing in children, adolescents, and adults: a study of syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic development. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 36, 125-138.

 

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It’s All Due to …Language: How Subtle Symptoms Can Cause Serious Academic Deficits

Scenario: Len is a 7-2-year-old, 2nd-grade student who struggles with reading and writing in the classroom. He is very bright and has a high average IQ, yet when he is speaking he frequently can’t get his point across to others due to excessive linguistic reformulations and word-finding difficulties. The problem is that Len passed all the typical educational and language testing with flying colors, receiving average scores across the board on various tests including the Woodcock-Johnson Fourth Edition (WJ-IV) and the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals-5 (CELF-5). Stranger still is the fact that he aced Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, Second Edition (CTOPP-2), with flying colors, so he is not even eligible for a “dyslexia” diagnosis. Len is clearly struggling in the classroom with coherently expressing self, telling stories, understanding what he is reading, as well as putting his thoughts on paper. His parents have compiled impressively huge folders containing examples of his struggles. Yet because of his performance on the basic standardized assessment batteries, Len does not qualify for any functional assistance in the school setting, despite being virtually functionally illiterate in second grade.

The truth is that Len is quite a familiar figure to many SLPs, who at one time or another have encountered such a student and asked for guidance regarding the appropriate accommodations and services for him on various SLP-geared social media forums. But what makes Len such an enigma, one may inquire? Surely if the child had tangible deficits, wouldn’t standardized testing at least partially reveal them?

Well, it all depends really, on what type of testing was administered to Len in the first place. A few years ago I wrote a post entitled: “What Research Shows About the Functional Relevance of Standardized Language Tests“.  What researchers found is that there is a “lack of a correlation between frequency of test use and test accuracy, measured both in terms of sensitivity/specificity and mean difference scores” (Betz et al, 2012, 141). Furthermore, they also found that the most frequently used tests were the comprehensive assessments including the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals and the Preschool Language Scale as well as one-word vocabulary tests such as the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test”. Most damaging finding was the fact that: “frequently SLPs did not follow up the comprehensive standardized testing with domain-specific assessments (critical thinking, social communication, etc.) but instead used the vocabulary testing as a second measure”.(Betz et al, 2012, 140)

In other words, many SLPs only use the tests at hand rather than the RIGHT tests aimed at identifying the student’s specific deficits. But the problem doesn’t actually stop there. Due to the variation in psychometric properties of various tests, many children with language impairment are overlooked by standardized tests by receiving scores within the average range or not receiving low enough scores to qualify for services.

Thus, “the clinical consequence is that a child who truly has a language impairment has a roughly equal chance of being correctly or incorrectly identified, depending on the test that he or she is given.” Furthermore, “even if a child is diagnosed accurately as language impaired at one point in time, future diagnoses may lead to the false perception that the child has recovered, depending on the test(s) that he or she has been given (Spaulding, Plante & Farinella, 2006, 69).”

There’s of course yet another factor affecting our hypothetical client and that is his relatively young age. This is especially evident with many educational and language testing for children in the 5-7 age group. Because the bar is set so low, concept-wise for these age-groups, many children with moderate language and literacy deficits can pass these tests with flying colors, only to be flagged by them literally two years later and be identified with deficits, far too late in the game.  Coupled with the fact that many SLPs do not utilize non-standardized measures to supplement their assessments, Len is in a pretty serious predicament.

But what if there was a do-over? What could we do differently for Len to rectify this situation? For starters, we need to pay careful attention to his deficits profile in order to choose appropriate tests to evaluate his areas of needs. The above can be accomplished via a number of ways. The SLP can interview Len’s teacher and his caregiver/s in order to obtain a summary of his pressing deficits. Depending on the extent of the reported deficits the SLP can also provide them with a referral checklist to mark off the most significant areas of need.

In Len’s case, we already have a pretty good idea regarding what’s going on. We know that he passed basic language and educational testing, so in the words of Dr. Geraldine Wallach, we need to keep “peeling the onion” via the administration of more sensitive tests to tap into Len’s reported areas of deficits which include: word-retrieval, narrative production, as well as reading and writing.

For that purpose, Len is a good candidate for the administration of the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy (TILLS), which was developed to identify language and literacy disorders, has good psychometric properties, and contains subtests for assessment of relevant skills such as reading fluency, reading comprehension, phonological awareness,  spelling, as well as writing  in school-age children.

Given Len’s reported history of narrative production deficits, Len is also a good candidate for the administration of the Social Language Development Test Elementary (SLDTE). Here’s why. Research indicates that narrative weaknesses significantly correlate with social communication deficits (Norbury, Gemmell & Paul, 2014). As such, it’s not just children with Autism Spectrum Disorders who present with impaired narrative abilities. Many children with developmental language impairment (DLD) (#devlangdis) can present with significant narrative deficits affecting their social and academic functioning, which means that their social communication abilities need to be tested to confirm/rule out presence of these difficulties.

However, standardized tests are not enough, since even the best-standardized tests have significant limitations. As such, several non-standardized assessments in the areas of narrative production, reading, and writing, may be recommended for Len to meaningfully supplement his testing.

Let’s begin with an informal narrative assessment which provides detailed information regarding microstructural and macrostructural aspects of storytelling as well as child’s thought processes and socio-emotional functioning. My nonstandardized narrative assessments are based on the book elicitation recommendations from the SALT website. For 2nd graders, I use the book by Helen Lester entitled Pookins Gets Her Way. I first read the story to the child, then cover up the words and ask the child to retell the story based on pictures. I read the story first because: “the model narrative presents the events, plot structure, and words that the narrator is to retell, which allows more reliable scoring than a generated story that can go in many directions” (Allen et al, 2012, p. 207).

As the child is retelling his story I digitally record him using the Voice Memos application on my iPhone, for a later transcription and thorough analysis.  During storytelling, I only use the prompts: ‘What else can you tell me?’ and ‘Can you tell me more?’ to elicit additional information. I try not to prompt the child excessively since I am interested in cataloging all of his narrative-based deficits. After I transcribe the sample, I analyze it and make sure that I include the transcription and a detailed write-up in the body of my report, so parents and professionals can see and understand the nature of the child’s errors/weaknesses.

Now we are ready to move on to a brief nonstandardized reading assessment. For this purpose, I often use the books from the Continental Press series entitled: Reading for Comprehension, which contains books for grades 1-8.  After I confirm with either the parent or the child’s teacher that the selected passage is reflective of the complexity of work presented in the classroom for his grade level, I ask the child to read the text.  As the child is reading, I calculate the correct number of words he reads per minute as well as what type of errors the child is exhibiting during reading.  Then I ask the child to state the main idea of the text, summarize its key points as well as define select text embedded vocabulary words and answer a few, verbally presented reading comprehension questions. After that, I provide the child with accompanying 5 multiple choice question worksheet and ask the child to complete it. I analyze my results in order to determine whether I have accurately captured the child’s reading profile.

Finally, if any additional information is needed, I administer a nonstandardized writing assessment, which I base on the Common Core State Standards for 2nd grade. For this task, I provide a student with a writing prompt common for second grade and give him a period of 15-20 minutes to generate a writing sample. I then analyze the writing sample with respect to contextual conventions (punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and syntax) as well as story composition (overall coherence and cohesion of the written sample).

The above relatively short assessment battery (2 standardized tests and 3 informal assessment tasks) which takes approximately 2-2.5 hours to administer, allows me to create a comprehensive profile of the child’s language and literacy strengths and needs. It also allows me to generate targeted goals in order to begin effective and meaningful remediation of the child’s deficits.

Children like Len will, unfortunately, remain unidentified unless they are administered more sensitive tasks to better understand their subtle pattern of deficits. Consequently, to ensure that they do not fall through the cracks of our educational system due to misguided overreliance on a limited number of standardized assessments, it is very important that professionals select the right assessments, rather than the assessments at hand, in order to accurately determine the child’s areas of needs.

References:

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Making Our Interventions Count or What’s Research Got To Do With It?

Two years ago I wrote a blog post entitled: “What’s Memes Got To Do With It?” which summarized key points of Dr. Alan G. Kamhi’s 2004 article: “A Meme’s Eye View of Speech-Language Pathology“. It delved into answering the following question: “Why do some terms, labels, ideas, and constructs [in our field] prevail whereas others fail to gain acceptance?”.

Today I would like to reference another article by Dr. Kamhi written in 2014, entitled “Improving Clinical Practices for Children With Language and Learning Disorders“.

This article was written to address the gaps between research and clinical practice with respect to the implementation of EBP for intervention purposes.

Dr. Kamhi begins the article by posing 10 True or False questions for his readers:

  1. Learning is easier than generalization.
  2. Instruction that is constant and predictable is more effective than instruction that varies the conditions of learning and practice.
  3. Focused stimulation (massed practice) is a more effective teaching strategy than varied stimulation (distributed practice).
  4. The more feedback, the better.
  5. Repeated reading of passages is the best way to learn text information.
  6. More therapy is always better.
  7. The most effective language and literacy interventions target processing limitations rather than knowledge deficits.
  8. Telegraphic utterances (e.g., push ball, mommy sock) should not be provided as input for children with limited language.
  9. Appropriate language goals include increasing levels of mean length of utterance (MLU) and targeting Brown’s (1973) 14 grammatical morphemes.
  10. Sequencing is an important skill for narrative competence.

Guess what? Only statement 8 of the above quiz is True! Every other statement from the above is FALSE!

Now, let’s talk about why that is!

First up is the concept of learning vs. generalization. Here Dr. Kamhi discusses that some clinicians still possess an “outdated behavioral view of learning” in our field, which is not theoretically and clinically useful. He explains that when we are talking about generalization – what children truly have a difficulty with is “transferring narrow limited rules to new situations“. “Children with language and learning problems will have difficulty acquiring broad-based rules and modifying these rules once acquired, and they also will be more vulnerable to performance demands on speech production and comprehension (Kamhi, 1988)” (93). After all, it is not “reasonable to expect children to use language targets consistently after a brief period of intervention” and while we hope that “language intervention [is] designed to lead children with language disorders to acquire broad-based language rules” it is a hugely difficult task to undertake and execute.

Next, Dr. Kamhi addresses the issue of instructional factors, specifically the importance of “varying conditions of instruction and practice“.  Here, he addresses the fact that while contextualized instruction is highly beneficial to learners unless we inject variability and modify various aspects of instruction including context, composition, duration, etc., we ran the risk of limiting our students’ long-term outcomes.

After that, Dr. Kamhi addresses the concept of distributed practice (spacing of intervention) and how important it is for teaching children with language disorders. He points out that a number of recent studies have found that “spacing and distribution of teaching episodes have more of an impact on treatment outcomes than treatment intensity” (94).

He also advocates reducing evaluative feedback to learners to “enhance long-term retention and generalization of motor skills“. While he cites research from studies pertaining to speech production, he adds that language learning could also benefit from this practice as it would reduce conversational disruptions and tunning out on the part of the student.

From there he addresses the limitations of repetition for specific tasks (e.g., text rereading). He emphasizes how important it is for students to recall and retrieve text rather than repeatedly reread it (even without correction), as the latter results in a lack of comprehension/retention of read information.

After that, he discusses treatment intensity. Here he emphasizes the fact that higher dose of instruction will not necessarily result in better therapy outcomes due to the research on the effects of “learning plateaus and threshold effects in language and literacy” (95). We have seen research on this with respect to joint book reading, vocabulary words exposure, etc. As such, at a certain point in time increased intensity may actually result in decreased treatment benefits.

His next point against processing interventions is very near and dear to my heart. Those of you familiar with my blog know that I have devoted a substantial number of posts pertaining to the lack of validity of CAPD diagnosis (as a standalone entity) and urged clinicians to provide language based vs. specific auditory interventions which lack treatment utility. Here, Dr. Kamhi makes a great point that: “Interventions that target processing skills are particularly appealing because they offer the promise of improving language and learning deficits without having to directly target the specific knowledge and skills required to be a proficient speaker, listener, reader, and writer.” (95) The problem is that we have numerous studies on the topic of improvement of isolated skills (e.g., auditory skills, working memory, slow processing, etc.) which clearly indicate lack of effectiveness of these interventions.  As such, “practitioners should be highly skeptical of interventions that promise quick fixes for language and learning disabilities” (96).

Now let us move on to language and particularly the models we provide to our clients to encourage greater verbal output. Research indicates that when clinicians are attempting to expand children’s utterances, they need to provide well-formed language models. Studies show that children select strong input when its surrounded by weaker input (the surrounding weaker syllables make stronger syllables stand out).  As such, clinicians should expand upon/comment on what clients are saying with grammatically complete models vs. telegraphic productions.

From there lets us take a look at Dr. Kamhi’s recommendations for grammar and syntax. Grammatical development goes much further than addressing Brown’s morphemes in therapy and calling it a day. As such, it is important to understand that children with developmental language disorders (DLD) (#DevLang) do not have difficulty acquiring all morphemes. Rather studies have shown that they have difficulty learning grammatical morphemes that reflect tense and agreement  (e.g., third-person singular, past tense, auxiliaries, copulas, etc.). As such, use of measures developed by (e.g., Tense Marker Total & Productivity Score) can yield helpful information regarding which grammatical structures to target in therapy.

With respect to syntax, Dr. Kamhi notes that many clinicians erroneously believe that complex syntax should be targeted when children are much older. The Common Core State Standards do not help this cause further, since according to the CCSS complex syntax should be targeted 2-3 grades, which is far too late. Typically developing children begin developing complex syntax around 2 years of age and begin readily producing it around 3 years of age. As such, clinicians should begin targeting complex syntax in preschool years and not wait until the children have mastered all morphemes and clauses (97)

Finally, Dr. Kamhi wraps up his article by offering suggestions regarding prioritizing intervention goals. Here, he explains that goal prioritization is affected by

  • clinician experience and competencies
  • the degree of collaboration with other professionals
  • type of service delivery model
  • client/student factors

He provides a hypothetical case scenario in which the teaching responsibilities are divvied up between three professionals, with SLP in charge of targeting narrative discourse. Here, he explains that targeting narratives does not involve targeting sequencing abilities. “The ability to understand and recall events in a story or script depends on conceptual understanding of the topic and attentional/memory abilities, not sequencing ability.”  He emphasizes that sequencing is not a distinct cognitive process that requires isolated treatment. Yet many SLPs “continue to believe that  sequencing is a distinct processing skill that needs to be assessed and treated.” (99)

Dr. Kamhi supports the above point by providing an example of two passages. One, which describes a random order of events, and another which follows a logical order of events. He then points out that the randomly ordered story relies exclusively on attention and memory in terms of “sequencing”, while the second story reduces demands on memory due to its logical flow of events. As such, he points out that retelling deficits seemingly related to sequencing, tend to be actually due to “limitations in attention, working memory, and/or conceptual knowledge“. Hence, instead of targeting sequencing abilities in therapy, SLPs should instead use contextualized language intervention to target aspects of narrative development (macro and microstructural elements).

Furthermore, here it is also important to note that the “sequencing fallacy” affects more than just narratives. It is very prevalent in the intervention process in the form of the ubiquitous “following directions” goal/s. Many clinicians readily create this goal for their clients due to their belief that it will result in functional therapeutic language gains. However, when one really begins to deconstruct this goal, one will realize that it involves a number of discrete abilities including: memory, attention, concept knowledge, inferencing, etc.  Consequently, targeting the above goal will not result in any functional gains for the students (their memory abilities will not magically improve as a result of it). Instead, targeting specific language and conceptual goals  (e.g., answering questions, producing complex sentences, etc.) and increasing the students’ overall listening comprehension and verbal expression will result in improvements in the areas of attention, memory, and processing, including their ability to follow complex directions.

There you have it! Ten practical suggestions from Dr. Kamhi ready for immediate implementation! And for more information, I highly recommend reading the other articles in the same clinical forum, all of which possess highly practical and relevant ideas for therapeutic implementation. They include:

References:

Kamhi, A. (2014). Improving clinical practices for children with language and learning disorders.  Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45(2), 92-103

Helpful Social Media Resources:

SLPs for Evidence-Based Practice

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What Should be Driving Our Treatment?

Today  I want to talk treatment.  That thing that we need to plan for as we are doing our assessments.   But are we starting our treatments the right way? The answer may surprise you. I often see SLPs phrasing questions regarding treatment the following way: “I have a student diagnosed with ____ (insert disorder here). What is everyone using (program/app/materials) during therapy sessions to address ___ diagnosis?”

Of course, the answer is never that simple. Just because a child has a diagnosis of a social communication disorder, word-finding deficits, or a reading disability does not automatically indicate to the treating clinician, which ‘cookie cutter’ materials and programs are best suited for the child in question. Only a profile of strengths and needs based on a comprehensive language and literacy testing can address this in an adequate and targeted manner.

To illustrate,  reading intervention is a much debated and controversial topic nowadays. Everywhere you turn there’s a barrage of advice for clinicians and parents regarding which program/approach to use. Barton, Wilson, OG… the well-intentioned advice just keeps on coming. The problem is that without knowing the child’s specific deficit areas, the application of the above approaches is quite frankly … pointless.

There could be endless variations of how deficits manifest in poor readers. Is it aspects of phonological awareness, phonics, morphology, etc. What combination of deficits is preventing the child from becoming a good reader?

Let’s a take a look at an example, below. It’s the CTOPP-2 results of a 7-6-year-old female with a documented history of extensive reading difficulties and a significant family history of reading disabilities in the family.

Results of the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing-2 (CTOPP-2)

Subtests Scaled Scores Percentile Ranks Description
Elision (EL) 7 16 Below Average
Blending Words (BW) 13 84 Above Average
Phoneme Isolation (PI) 6 9 Below Average
Memory for Digits (MD) 8 25 Average
Nonword Repetition (NR) 8 25 Average
Rapid Digit Naming (RD) 10 50 Average
Rapid Letter Naming (RL) 11 63 Average
Blending Nonwords (BN) 8 25 Average
Segmenting Nonwords (SN) 8 25 Average

However, the results of her CTOPP-2 testing clearly indicate that phonological awareness, despite two areas of mild weaknesses, is not really a significant problem for this child.  So let’s look at the student’s reading fluency results.

Reading Fluency: “LG’s reading fluency during this task was judged to be significantly affected by excessive speed, inappropriate pausing, word misreadings, choppy prosody, as well as inefficient word attack skills.  While she was able to limitedly utilize the phonetic spelling of unfamiliar words (e.g., __) provided to her in parenthesis next to the word (which she initially misread as ‘__’), she exhibited limited use of metalinguistic strategies (e.g., pre-scanning sentences to aid text comprehension, self-correcting to ensure that the read words made sense in the context of the sentence, etc.), when reading the provided passage. To illustrate, during the reading of the text, LG was observed to frequently (at least 3 times) lose her place and skip entire lines of text without any attempts at self-correction. At times she was observed to read the same word a number of different ways (e.g., read ‘soup’ as ‘soup’ then as ‘soap’,  ‘roots’ as ‘roofs’ then as ‘roots’, etc.) without attempting to self-correct. LG’s oral reading rate was also observed to be impaired for her age/grade levels. Her prosody was significantly adversely affected due to lack of adequate pausing for punctuation marks (e.g., periods, commas, etc.).  Instead, she paused during text reading only when he could not decode select words in the text.  Though, LG was able to read 70 words per minute, which was judged to be grossly commensurate with grade-level, out of these 70 words she skipped 2 entire lines of text, invented an entire line of text, as well as made 4 decoding errors and 6 inappropriate pauses.”

So now we know that despite quite decent phonological awareness abilities, this student presents with quite poor sound-letter correspondence skills and will definitely benefit from explicit phonics instruction addressing the above deficit areas. But that is only the beginning!   By looking at the analysis of specific misreadings we next need to determine what other literacy areas need to be addressed. For the sake of brevity, I can specify that further analysis of this child reading abilities revealed that reading comprehension, orthographic knowledge, as well as morphological awareness were definitely areas that also required targeted remediation. The assessment also revealed that the child presented with poor spelling and writing abilities, which also needed to be addressed in the context of therapy.

Now, what if I also told you that this child had already been receiving private, Orton-Gillingham reading instruction for a period of  2 years, 1x per week, at the time the above assessment took place? Would you change your mind about the program in question? 

Well, the answer is again not so simple! OG is a fine program, but as you can see from the above example it has definite limitations and is not an exclusive fit for this child, or for any child for that matter. Furthermore, a solidly-trained in literacy clinician DOES NOT need to rely on just one program to address literacy deficits. They simply need solid knowledge of typical and atypical language and literacy development/milestones and know how to create a targeted treatment hierarchy in order to deliver effective intervention services. But for that, they need to first, thoughtfully, construct assessment-based treatment goals by carefully taking into the consideration the child’s strengths and needs.

So let’s stop asking which approach/program we should use and start asking about the child’s profile of strengths and needs in order to create accurate language and literacy goals based on solid evidence and scientifically-guided treatment practices.

Helpful Resources Pertaining to Reading:

 

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Smart Speech Therapy Black Friday Sale!

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Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) for Evidence Based Practice

Last year a new Facebook Group was launched for SLPs interested in evidence-based practice in speech-language pathology. It was created for clinicians to explore and make sense of a myriad of intervention promises and questionable treatments in the fields of health care and education.

The group was established specifically for the purpose of research inquiry.   It has now reached almost 10.5K membership and contains numerous threads on a variety of scientific and pseudoscientific methods, assessments, and interventions for a wide variety of conditions.

Please join us in our efforts of continually improving the quality of services for clients in our care! 

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The Importance of Narrative Assessments in Speech Language Pathology (Revised)

Image result for narrativeA few years ago I wrote a guest post on the importance of assessing narratives for another blog. Below is a revised version of that post containing the updates with respect to the assessment of narratives.

As SLPs we routinely administer a variety of testing batteries in order to assess our students’ speech-language abilities. Grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and sentence formulation get frequent and thorough attention. But how about narrative production? Does it get its fair share of attention when the clinicians are looking to determine the extent of the child’s language deficits? I was so curious about what the clinicians across the country were doing that in 2013, I created a survey and posted a link to it in several SLP-related FB groups.  I wanted to find out how many SLPs were performing narrative assessments, in which settings, and with which populations.  From those who were performing these assessments, I wanted to know what type of assessments were they using and how they were recording and documenting their findings.   Since the purpose of this survey was non-research based (I wasn’t planning on submitting a research manuscript with my findings), I only analyzed the first 100 responses (the rest were very similar in nature) which came my way, in order to get the general flavor of current trends among clinicians, when it came to narrative assessments. Here’s a brief overview of my [limited] findings. Continue reading The Importance of Narrative Assessments in Speech Language Pathology (Revised)

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Early Intervention Evaluations PART I: Assessing 2.5 year olds

Today, I’d  like to talk about speech and language assessments of children under three years of age.  Namely, the quality of these assessments.   Let me be frank,  I  am not happy with what I am seeing.  Often times,  when I receive a speech-language report on a child under three years of age,  I am struck by how little functional information it contains about the child’s  linguistic strengths and weaknesses.  Indeed,  conversations with parents often reveal that at best the examiner spent no more than half an hour or so playing with the child and performed very limited functional testing of their actual abilities.   Instead, they interviewed the parent and based their report on parental feedback alone.   Consequently, parents often end up with a report of very limited value,  which does not contain any helpful information on how delayed is the child as compared to peers their age.

So today I like to talk about what information should such speech-language reports should contain.   For the purpose of this particular post,  I will choose a particular developmental age at which children at risk of language delay are often assessed by speech-language pathologists. Below you will find what information I typically like to include in these reports as well as developmental milestones for children 30 months or 2.5 years of age.

Why 30 months, you may ask?   Well, there isn’t really any hard science to it. It’s just that I noticed that a significant percentage of parents who were already worried about their children’s speech-language abilities when they were younger, begin to act upon those worries as the child is nearing 3 years of age and their abilities are not improving or are not commensurate with other peers their age.

So here is the information I include in such reports (after I’ve gathered pertinent background information in the form of relevant intakes and questionnaires, of course).  Naturally, detailed BACKGROUND HISTORY section is a must! Prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal development should be prominently featured there.   All pertinent medical history needs to get documented as well as all of the child’s developmental milestones in the areas of cognition,  emotional development, fine and gross motor function, and of course speech and language.  Here,  I also include a family history of red flags: international or domestic adoption of the child (if relevant) as well as familial speech and language difficulties, intellectual impairment, psychiatric disorders, special education placements, or documented deficits in the areas of literacy (e.g., reading, writing, and spelling). After all, if any of the above issues are present in isolation or in combination, the risk for language and literacy deficits increases exponentially, and services are strongly merited for the child in question.

For bilingual children,  the next section will cover LANGUAGE BACKGROUND AND USE.  Here, I describe how many and which languages are spoken in the home and how well does the child understand and speak any or all of these languages (as per parental report based on questionnaires).

After that,  I  move on to describe the child’s ADAPTIVE BEHAVIOR during the assessment.  In this section, I cover emotional relatedness, joint attention, social referencing,  attention skills, communicative frequency, communicative intent,  communicative functions, as well as any and all unusual behaviors noted during the therapy session (e.g., refusal, tantrums, perseverations, echolalia, etc.) Then I move on to PLAY SKILLS. For the purpose of play assessment, I use the Revised Westby Play Scale (Westby, 2000). In this section,  I describe where the child is presently with respect to play skills,  and where they actually need to be developmentally (excerpt below).

During today’s assessment, LS’s play skills were judged to be significantly reduced for his age. A child of LS’s age (30 months) is expected to engage in a number of isolated pretend play activities with realistic props to represent daily experiences (playing house) as well as less frequently experienced events (e.g., reenacting a doctor’s visit, etc.) (corresponds to Stage VI on the Westby Play Scale, Revised Westby Play Scale (Westby, 2000)). Contrastingly, LS presented with limited repertoire routines, which were characterized primarily by exploration of toys, such as operating simple cause and effect toys (given modeling) or taking out and then putting back in playhouse toys.  LS’s parents confirmed that the above play schemas were representative of play interactions at home as well. Today’s LS’s play skills were judged to be approximately at Stage II (13 – 17 months) on the Westby Play Scale, (Revised Westby Play Scale (Westby, 2000)) which is significantly reduced for a child of  LS’s age, since it is almost approximately ±15 months behind his peers. Thus, based on today’s play assessment, LS’s play skills require therapeutic intervention. “

Sections on AUDITORY FUNCTION, PERIPHERAL ORAL MOTOR EXAM, VOCAL PARAMETERS, FLUENCY AND RESONANCE (and if pertinent FEEDING and SWALLOWING follow) (more on that in another post).

Now, it’s finally time to get to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the report ARTICULATION AND PHONOLOGY as well as RECEPTIVE and EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE (more on PRAGMATIC ASSESSMENT in another post).

First, here’s what I include in the ARTICULATION AND PHONOLOGY section of the report.

  1. Phonetic inventory: all the sounds the child is currently producing including (short excerpt below):
    • Consonants:  plosive (/p/, /b/, /m/), alveolar (/t/, /d/), velar (/k/, /g/), glide (/w/), nasal (/n/, /m/) glottal (/h/)
    • Vowels and diphthongs: ( /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, /ou/, /ai/)
  2. Phonotactic repertoire: What type of words comprised of how many syllables and which consonant-vowel variations the child is producing (excerpt below)
    • LS primarily produced one syllable words consisting of CV (e.g., ke, di), CVC (e.g., boom), VCV (e.g., apo) syllable shapes, which is reduced for a child his age. 
  3. Speech intelligibility in known and unknown contexts
  4. Phonological processes analysis

Now that I have described what the child is capable of speech-wise,  I discuss where the child needs to be developmentally:

“A child of LS’s age (30 months) is expected to produce additional consonants in initial word position (k, l, s, h), some consonants (t, d, m, n, s, z) in final word position (Watson & Scukanec, 1997b), several consonant clusters (pw, bw, -nd, -ts) (Stoel-Gammon, 1987) as well as evidence a more sophisticated syllable shape structure (e.g., CVCVC)   Furthermore, a 30 month old child is expected to begin monitoring and repairing own utterances, adjusting speech to different listeners, as well as practicing sounds, words, and early sentences (Clark, adapted by Owens, 1996, p. 386) all of which LS is not performing at this time.  Based on above developmental norms, LS’s phonological abilities are judged to be significantly below age-expectancy at this time. Therapy is recommended in order to improve LS’s phonological skills.”

At this point, I am ready to move on to the language portion of the assessment.   Here it is important to note that a number of assessments for toddlers under 3 years of age contain numerous limitations. Some such as REEL-3 or Rosetti (a criterion-referenced vs. normed-referenced instrument) are observational or limitedly interactive in nature, while others such as PLS-5,  have a tendency to over inflate scores,  resulting in a significant number of children not qualifying for rightfully deserved speech-language therapy services.  This is exactly why it’s so important that SLPs have a firm knowledge of developmental milestones!  After all,  after they finish describing what the child is capable of,  they then need to describe what the developmental expectations are for a child this age (excerpts below).

RECEPTIVE LANGUAGE

LS’s receptive language abilities were judged to be scattered between 11-17 months of age (as per clinical observations as well as informal PLS-5 and REEL-3 findings), which is also consistent with his play skills abilities (see above).  During the assessment LS was able to appropriately understand prohibitive verbalizations (e.g., “No”, “Stop”), follow simple 1 part directions (when repeated and combined with gestures), selectively attend to speaker when his name was spoken (behavioral), perform a routine activity upon request (when combined with gestures), retrieve familiar objects from nearby (when provided with gestures), identify several major body parts (with prompting) on a doll only, select a familiar object when named given repeated prompting, point to pictures of familiar objects in books when named by adult, as well as respond to yes/no questions by using head shakes and head nods. This is significantly below age-expectancy.

A typically developing child 30 months of age is expected to spontaneously follow (without gestures, cues or prompts) 2+ step directives, follow select commands that require getting objects out of sight, answer simple “wh” questions (what, where, who), understand select spatial concepts, (in, off, out of, etc), understand select pronouns (e.g., me, my, your), identify action words in pictures, understand concept sizes (‘big’, ‘little’), identify simple objects according to their function, identify select clothing items such as shoes, shirt, pants, hat (on self or caregiver) as well as understand names of farm animals, everyday foods, and toys. Therapeutic intervention is recommended in order to increase LS’s receptive language abilities.

EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE:

During today’s assessment, LS’s expressive language skills were judged to be scattered between 10-15 months of age (as per clinical observations as well as informal PLS-5 and REEL-3 findings). LS was observed to communicate primarily via proto-imperative gestures (requesting and object via eye gaze, reaching) as well as proto-declarative gestures (showing an object via eye gaze, reaching, and pointing). Additionally, LS communicated via vocalizations, head nods, and head shakes.  According to parental report, at this time LS’s speaking vocabulary consists of approximately 15-20 words (see word lists below).  During the assessment LS was observed to spontaneously produce a number of these words when looking at a picture book, playing with toys, and participating in action based play activities with Mrs. S and clinician.  LS was also observed to produce a number of animal sounds when looking at select picture books and puzzles.  For therapy planning purposes, it is important to note that LS was observed to imitate more sounds and words, when they were supported by action based play activities (when words and sounds were accompanied by a movement initiated by clinician and then imitated by LS). Today LS was observed to primarily communicate via a very limited number of imitated and spontaneous one word utterances that labeled basic objects and pictures in his environment, which is significantly reduced for his age.

A typically developing child of LS’s chronological age (30 months) is expected to possess a minimum vocabulary of 200+ words (Rescorla, 1989), produce 2-4 word utterance combinations (e.g., noun + verb, verb + noun + location, verb + noun + adjective, etc), in addition to asking 2-3 word questions as well as maintaining a topic for 2+ conversational turns. Therapeutic intervention is recommended in order to increase LS’s expressive language abilities.”

Here you have a few speech-language evaluation excerpts which describe not just what the child is capable of but where the child needs to be developmentally.   Now it’s just a matter of summarizing my IMPRESSIONS (child’s strengths and needs), RECOMMENDATIONS as well as SUGGESTED (long and short term) THERAPY GOALS.  Now the parents have some understanding regarding their child’s  strengths and needs.   From here,  they can also track their child’s progress in therapy as they now have some idea to what it can be compared to.

Now I know that many of you will tell me,  that this is a ‘perfect world’ evaluation conducted by a private therapist with an unlimited amount of time on her hands.   And to some extent, many of you will be right! Yes,  such an evaluation was a result of more than 30 minutes spent face-to-face with the child.  All in all, it took probably closer to 90 minutes of face to face time to complete it and a few hours to write.   And yes,  this is a luxury only a few possess and many therapists in the early intervention system lack.  But in the long run, such evaluations pay dividends not only, obviously, to your clients but to SLPs who perform them.  They enhance and grow your reputation as an evaluating therapist. They even make sense from a business perspective.  If you are well-known and highly sought after due to your evaluating expertise, you can expect to be compensated for your time, accordingly. This means that if you decide that your time and expertise are worth private pay only (due to poor insurance reimbursement or low EI rates), you can be sure that parents will learn to appreciate your thoroughness and will choose you over other providers.

So, how about it? Can you give it a try? Trust me, it’s worth it!

Selected References:

  • Owens, R. E. (1996). Language development: An introduction (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Rescorla, L. (1989). The Language Development Survey: A screening tool for delayed language in toddlers. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 54, 587–599.
  • Selby, J. C., Robb, M. P., & Gilbert, H. R. (2000). Normal vowel articulations between 15 and 36 months of age. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, 14, 255-266.
  • Stoel-Gammon, C. (1987). Phonological skills of 2-year-olds. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 18, 323-329.
  • Watson, M. M., & Scukanec, G. P. (1997b). Profiling the phonological abilities of 2-year-olds: A longitudinal investigation. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 13, 3-14.

For more information on EI Assessments click on any of the below posts:

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Treatment of Children with “APD”: What SLPs Need to Know

Free stock photo of people, woman, cute, playingIn recent years there has been an increase in research on the subject of diagnosis and treatment of Auditory Processing Disorders (APD), formerly known as Central Auditory Processing Disorders or CAPD.

More and more studies in the fields of audiology and speech-language pathology began confirming the lack of validity of APD as a standalone (or useful) diagnosis. To illustrate, in June 2015, the American Journal of Audiology published an article by David DeBonis entitled: “It Is Time to Rethink Central Auditory Processing Disorder Protocols for School-Aged Children.” In this article, DeBonis pointed out numerous inconsistencies involved in APD testing and concluded that “routine use of APD test protocols cannot be supported” and that [APD] “intervention needs to be contextualized and functional” (DeBonis, 2015, p. 124)

Image result for time to rethink quotesFurthermore, in April 2017, an article entitled: “AAA (2010) CAPD clinical practice guidelines: need for an update” (also written by DeBonnis) concluded that the “AAA CAPD guidance document will need to be updated and re-conceptualised in order to provide meaningful guidance for clinicians” due to the fact that the “AAA document … does not reflect the current literature, fails to help clinicians understand for whom auditory processing testing and intervention would be most useful, includes contradictory suggestions which reduce clarity and appears to avoid conclusions that might cast the CAPD construct in a negative light. It also does not include input from diverse affected groups. All of these reduce the document’s credibility.” 

Image result for systematic reviewIn April 2016, de Wit and colleagues published a systematic review in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing ResearchThey reviewed research studies which described the characteristics of APD in children to determine whether these characteristics merited a label of a distinct clinical disorder vs. being representative of other disorders.  After a search of 6 databases, they chose 48 studies which satisfied appropriate inclusion criteria. Unfortunately, they unearthed only one study with strong methodological quality. Even more disappointing was that the children in these studies presented with incredibly diverse symptomology. The authors concluded that “The listening difficulties of children with APD may be a consequence of cognitive, language, and attention issues rather than bottom-up auditory processing” (de Wit et al., 2016, p. 384).  In other words, none of the reviewed studies had conclusively proven that APD was a distinct clinical disorder.  Instead, these studies showed that the children diagnosed with APD exhibited language-based deficits. In other words, the diagnosis of APD did not reveal any new information regarding the child beyond the fact that s/he is in great need of a comprehensive language assessment in order to determine which language-based interventions s/he would optimally benefit from.

Now, it is important to reiterate that students diagnosed with “APD” present with legitimate symptomology (e.g., difficulty processing language, difficulty organizing narratives, difficulty decoding text, etc.). However, all the research to date indicates that these symptoms are indicative of broader language-based deficits, which require targeted language/literacy-based interventions rather than recommendations for specific prescriptive programs (e.g., CAPDOTS, Fast ForWord, etc.) or mere in-school accommodations.

Image result for dig deeper quotesUnfortunately, on numerous occasions when the students do receive the diagnosis of APDthe testing does not “dig further,” which leads to many of them not receiving appropriate comprehensive language-literacy assessments.  Furthermore, APD then becomes the “primary” diagnosis for the student, which places SLPs in situations in which they must address inappropriate therapeutic targets based on an audiologist’s recommendations.  Even worse, in many of these situations, the diagnosis of APD limits the provision of appropriate language-based services to the student.

Since the APD controversy has been going on for years with no end in sight despite the mounting evidence pointing to the lack of its validity, we know that SLPs will continue to have students on their caseloads diagnosed with APD. Thus, the aim of today’s post is to offer some constructive suggestions for SLPs who are asked to assess and treat students with “confirmed” or suspected APD.

The first suggestion comes directly from Dr. Alan Kamhi, who states: “Do not assume that a child who has been diagnosed with APD needs to be treated any differently than children who have been diagnosed with language and learning disabilities” (Kamhi, 2011, p. 270).  In other words, if one carefully analyzes the child’s so-called processing issues, one will quickly realize that those issues are not related to the processing of auditory input  (auditory domain) since the child is not processing tones, hoots, or clicks, etc. but rather has difficulty processing speech and language (language domain).

If a student with confirmed or suspected APD is referred to an SLP, it is important, to begin with formal and informal assessments of language and literacy knowledge and skills. (details HERE)   SLPs need to “consider non-auditory reasons for listening and comprehension difficulties, such as limitations in working memory, language knowledge, conceptual abilities, attention, and motivation (Kamhi & Wallach, 2012).

Image result for language goalsAfter performing a comprehensive assessment, SLPs need to formulate language goals based on determined areas of weaknesses. Please note that a systematic review by Fey and colleagues (2011) found no compelling evidence that auditory interventions provided any unique benefit to auditory, language, or academic outcomes for children with diagnoses of (C)APD or language disorder. As such it’s important to avoid formulating goals focused on targeting isolated processing abilities like auditory discrimination, auditory sequencing, recognizing speech in noise, etc., because these processing abilities have not been shown to improve language and literacy skills (Fey et al., 2011; Kamhi, 2011).

Instead, SLPs need to target we need to focus on the language underpinnings of the above skills and turn them into language and literacy goals. For example, if the child has difficulty recognizing speech in noise, improve the child’s knowledge and access to specific vocabulary words.  This will help the child detect the word when the auditory information is degraded.  Child presents with phonemic awareness deficits? Figure out where in the hierarchy of phonemic awareness their strengths and weaknesses lie and formulate goals based on the remaining areas in need of mastery.  Received a description of the child’s deficits from the audiologist in an accompanying report? Turn them into language goals as well!  Turn “prosodic deficits” or difficulty understanding the intent of verbal messages into “listening for details and main ideas in stories” goals.   In other words, figure out the language correlate to the ‘auditory processing’ deficit and replace it.

Image result for quackeryIt is easy to understand the appeal of using dubious practices which promise a quick fix for our student’s “APD deficits” instead of labor-intensive language therapy sessions. But one must also keep something else in mind as well:   Acquiring higher order language abilities takes a significant period of time, especially for those students whose skills and abilities are significantly below age-matched peers.

APD Summary 

  1. There is still no compelling evidence that APD is a stand-alone diagnosis with clear diagnostic criteria.
  2. There is still no compelling evidence that auditory deficits are a “significant risk factor for  language or academic performance.”
  3. There is still no compelling evidence that “auditory interventions provide any unique benefit to auditory, language, or academic outcomes” (Hazan, Messaoud-Galusi, Rosan, Nouwens, & Shakespeare, 2009; Watson & Kidd, 2009).
  4. APD deficits are language based deficits which accompany a host of developmental conditions ranging from developmental language disorders to learning disabilities, etc.
  5. SLPs should perform comprehensive language and literacy assessments of children diagnosed with APD.
  6. SLPs should target   literacy goals.
  7. SLPS should be wary of any goals or recommendations which focus on remediation of isolated skills such as: “auditory discrimination, auditory sequencing, phonological memory, working memory, or rapid serial naming” since studies have definitively confirmed their lack of effectiveness (Fey et al., 2011).
  8. SLPs should be wary of any prescriptive programs offering APD “interventions” and instead focus on improving children’s abilities for functional communication including listening, speaking, reading, and writing (see Wallach, 2014: Improving Clinical Practice: A School-Age and School-Based Perspective).  This article  “presents a conceptual framework for intervention at school-age levels” and discusses “advanced levels of language that move beyond preschool and early elementary grade goals and objectives with a focus on comprehension and meta-abilities.”

There you have it!  Students diagnosed with APD are best served by targeting the language and literacy problems that are affecting their performance in school. 

Related Posts:

 

 

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The End of See it, Zap it! Ankyloglossia (Tongue-Tie) Controversies in Research and Clinical Practice

Today it is my pleasure and privilege to interview 3 Australian lactation consultations: Lois Wattis, Renee Kam, and Pamela Douglas, the authors of a March 2017 article in the Breastfeeding Review: “Three experienced lactation consultants reflect upon the oral tie phenomenon” (which can be found HERE).

Tatyana Elleseff: Colleagues, as you very well know, the subject of ankyloglossia or tongue tie affecting breastfeeding and speech production has risen into significant prominence in the past several years. Numerous journal articles, blog posts, as well as social media forums have been discussing this phenomenon with rather conflicting recommendations.  Many health professionals and parents are convinced that “releasing the tie” or performing either a frenotomy or frenectomy will lead to significant improvements in speech and feeding.

Image result for evidence based practicePresently, systematic reviews1-3 demonstrate there is insufficient evidence for the above. However, when many professionals including myself, cite reputable research explaining the lack of support of surgical intervention for tongue tie, there has been a pushback on the part of a number of other health professionals including lactation consultants, nurses, dentists, as well as speech-language pathologists stating that in their clinical experience surgical intervention does resolve issues with tongue tie as related to speech and feeding.

So today, given your 33 combined years of practice as lactation consultants I would love to ask your some questions regarding the tongue tie phenomena.

I would like to begin our discussion with a description of normal breastfeeding and what can interfere with it from an anatomical and physiological standpoint for mothers and babies.

Now, many of this blog’s readers already know that a tongue tie occurs when the connective tissue under the tongue known as a lingual frenulum restricts tongue movement to some degree and adversely affects its function.  But many may not realize that children can present with a normal anatomical variant of “ties” which can be completely asymptomatic. Can you please address that?

Lois Wattis:  “Normal” breastfeeding takes time and skill to achieve. The breastfeeding dyad is multifactorial, influenced by maternal breast and nipple anatomy combined with the infant’s facial and oral structures, all of which are highly variable. Mothers who have successfully breastfed the first baby may encounter problems with subsequent babies due to size (e.g., smaller, larger, etc.), be compromised by birth interventions or drugs during labor, or incur birth injuries – all of which can affect the initiation of breastfeeding and progression to a happy and comfortable feeding relationship. Unfortunately, the overview of each dyad’s story can be lost when tunnel vision of either health provider or parents regarding the baby’s oral anatomy is believed to be the chief influencer of breastfeeding success or failure.

Tatyana Elleseff: Colleagues, what do we know regarding the true prevalence of various ‘tongue ties’? Are there any studies of good quality?

Image result for prevalencePamela Douglas:  In a literature review in 2005, Hall and Renfrew acknowledged that the true prevalence of ankyloglossia remained unknown, though they estimated 3-4% of newborns.4

After 2005, once the diagnosis of posterior tongue-tie (PTT) had been introduced,5, 6 attempts to quantify incidence of tongue-tie have remained of very poor quality, but estimates currently rest at between 4-10%.7

The problem is that there is a lack of definitional clarity concerning the diagnosis of PTT. Consequently, anterior or classic tongue tie CTT is now often conflated with PTT simply as ‘tongue-tie’ (TT).    

Tatyana Elleseff: Thank you for clarifying it.  In addition to the anterior and posterior tongue tie labels, many parents and professionals also frequently hear the terms lip tie and buccal ties. Is there’s reputable research behind these terms indicating that these ties can truly impact speech and feeding?

Pamela Douglas:  Current definitions of ankyloglossia tend to confuse oral and tongue function (which is affected by multiple variables, and in particular by a fit and hold in breastfeeding) with structure (which is highly anatomically variable for both the tongue length and appearance and lingual and maxillary frenula).

For my own purposes, I define CTT as Type 1 and 2 on the Coryllos-Genna-Watson scale.8 In clinical practice, I also find it useful to rate the anterior membrane by the percentage of the undersurface of the tongue into which the membrane connects, applying the first two categories of the Griffiths Classification System.9 

There is a wide spectrum of lingual frenula morphologies and elasticities, and deciding where to draw a line between a normal variant and CTT will depend on the clinical judgment concerning the infant’s capacity for pain-free efficient milk transfer. However, that means we need to have an approach to fit and hold that we are confident does optimize pain-free efficient milk transfer and at the moment, research shows that not only do the old ‘hands on’ approach to fit and hold not work, but that baby-led attachment is also not enough for many women. This is why at the Possums Clinic we’ve been working on developing an approach to fit and hold (gestalt breastfeeding) that builds on baby-led attachment but also integrates the findings of the latest ultrasound studies.

I personally don’t find the diagnoses of posterior tongue tie PTT and upper lip tie ULT helpful, and don’t use them. Lois, Renee and myself find that a wide spectrum of normal anatomic lingual and maxillary frenula variants are currently being misdiagnosed as a PTT and ULT, which has worried us and led Lois to initiate the article with Renee.

Tatyana Elleseff: Segueing from the above question: is there an established criterion based upon which a decision is made by relevant professionals to “release” the tie and if so can you explain how it’s determined?

Image result for release tongue tieLois Wattis: When an anterior frenulum is attached at the tongue tip or nearby and is short enough to cause restriction of lift towards the palate, usually associated with extreme discomfort for the breastfeeding mother, I have no reservations about snipping it to release the tongue to enable optimal function for breastfeeding. If a simple frenotomy is going to assist the baby to breastfeed well it is worth doing, and as soon as possible. What I do encounter in my clinical practice are distressed and disempowered mothers whose baby has been labeled as having a posterior tongue tie and/or upper lip tie which is the cause of current and even future problems. Upon examination, the baby has completely normal oral anatomy and breastfeeding upskilling and confidence building of both mother and baby enables the dyad to go forward with strategies which address all elements of their unique story.

Although the Hazelbaker Assessment Tool for Lingual Frenulum Function (ATLFF) is a pioneering contribution, bringing us our first systematized approach to examination of the infant’s tongue and oral connective tissues, it is unreliable as a tool for decision-making concerning frenotomy.10-12 In practice many of the item criteria are highly subjective. Although one study found moderate inter-rater reliability on the ATLFF’s structural items, the authors did not find inter-rater reliability on most of the functional items.13 In my clinical experience, there is no reliable correlation between what the tongue is observed to do during oral examinations and what occurs during breastfeeding, other than in the case of classic tongue-tie (excluding congenital craniofacial abnormalities from this discussion.

In my practice as a Lactation Consultant in an acute hospital setting I use a combination of the available assessment tools mainly for documentation purposes, however, the most important tools I use are my eyes and my ears. Observing the mother and baby physical combination and interactions, and suggesting adjustments where indicated to the positioning and attachment technique used (which  Pam calls fit and hold) can very often resolve difficulties immediately – even if the baby also has an obvious frenulum under his/her tongue. Listening to the mother’s feedback, and observing the baby’s responses are primary indicators of whether further intervention is needed, or not. Watching how the baby achieves and retains the latch is key, then the examination of baby’s mouth to assess tongue mobility and appearance provide final information about whether baby’s ability to breastfeed comfortably is or is not being hindered by a restrictive lingual frenulum.

Tatyana Elleseff: So frenotomy is an incision (cut) of lingual frenum while frenectomy (complete removal) is an excision of lingual frenum.  Both can be performed via various methods of “release”. What effects on breastfeeding have you seen with respect to healing?

Lois Wattis:  The significant difference between both procedures involves the degree of invasiveness and level of pain experienced during and after the procedures, and the differing time it takes for the resumption and/or improvement in breastfeeding comfort and efficacy.

It is commonplace for a baby who has had a simple incision to breastfeed immediately after the procedure and exhibit no further signs of discomfort or oral aversion. Conversely, the baby who has had laser division(s) may breastfeed soon after the procedure while topical anesthetics are still working. However, many infants demonstrate discomfort, extreme pain responses and reluctance to feed for days or weeks following a  laser treatment.  Parents are warned to expect delays resuming feeding and the baby is usually also subjected to wound “stretches” for weeks following the laser treatments. Unfortunately, in my clinical practice I see many parents and babies who are very traumatized by this whole process, and in many cases, breastfeeding can be derailed either temporarily or permanently.

Image result for research studiesTatyana Elleseff: Thank you! This is highly relevant information for both health professionals and parents alike. I truly appreciate your clinical expertise on this topic. While we are on the topic of restrictive lingual frenulums can we discuss several recent articles published on surgical interventions for the above? For example (Ghaheri, Cole, Fausel, Chuop & Mace, 2016), recently published the result of their study which concluded that: “Surgical release of tongue-tie/lip-tie results in significant improvement in breastfeeding outcomes”.  Can you elucidate upon the study design and its findings?

Pamela Douglas:  Pre-post surveys, such as Ghaheri et al’s 2016 study, are notoriously methodologically weak and prone to interpretive bias.14 

Renee Kam:  Research about the efficacy of releasing ULTs to improve breastfeeding outcomes is seriously lacking. There is no reliable assessment tool for upper lip-tie and a lack of evidence to support the efficacy of a frenotomy of labial frenula in breastfed babies. The few studies which have included ULT release have either included very small numbers of babies having upper lip-tie releases or have included babies having a release upper lip ties and tongue ties at the same time, making it impossible to know if any improvements were due to the tongue-tie release, upper lip-tie release or both. Here, to answer your previous question, to date, no research has looked into the treatment of buccal ties for breastfeeding outcomes.

There are various classification scales for labial frenulums such as the Kotlow scale. The title of this scale is misleading as it contains the word ‘tie’. Hence it can give some people the incorrect assumption that a class III or IV labial frenulum is somehow a problem. What this scale actually shows is the normal range of insertion sites for a labial frenulum. And, in normal cases, the vast majority of babies’ labial frenulums insert low down on the upper gum (class III) or even wrap around it (class IV). It’s important to note that, for effective breastfeeding, the upper lip does not have to flange out in order to create a seal. It just has to rest in a neutral position — not flanged out, not tucked in.

Lois Wattis: I entirely agree with Renee’s view about the neutrality of the upper lip, including the labial frenulum, in relation to latch for breastfeeding. Even babies with asymmetrical facial features, cleft lips and other permanent and temporary anomalies only need to achieve a seal with the upper lip to breastfeed successfully.

Image resultTatyana Elleseff: Thank you for that. In addition to studies on tongue tie revisions and breastfeeding outcomes, there has been an increase in studies, specifically Kotlow (2016) and Siegel (2016), which claimed that surgical intervention improves outcomes for acid reflux and aerophagia in babies”.  Can you discuss these studies design and findings?

Renee Kam: The AIR hypothesis has led to reflux being used as another reason to diagnose the oral anatomic abnormalities in infants in the presence of breastfeeding problems. More research with objective indicators and less vested interest is needed in this area. A thorough understanding of normal infant behavior and feeding problems which aren’t tie related are also imperative before any conclusions about AIR can be reached.

Tatyana Elleseff: One final question, colleagues are you aware of any studies which describe long-term outcomes of surgical interventions for tongue ties?

Pamela Douglas:  The systematic reviews note that there is a lack of evidence demonstrating long-term outcomes of surgical interventions. 

Tatyana Elleseff: Thank you for such informative discussion, colleagues.

Related imageThere you have it, readers. Both research and clinical practice align to indicate that:

  • There’s significant normal variation when it comes to most anatomical structures including the frenulum
  • Just because a child presents with restricted frenulum does not automatically imply adverse feeding as well as speech outcomes and immediately necessitates a tongue tie release
  • When breastfeeding difficulties arise, in the presence of restricted frenulum, it is very important to involve an experienced lactation specialist who will perform a differential diagnosis in order to determine the source of the baby’s true breastfeeding difficulties

Now, I’d like to take a moment and address the myth of tongue ties affecting speech production,  which continues to persist among speech-language pathologists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

For that purpose, I will use excerpts from an excellent ASHA Leader December 2005 article written by an esteemed Dr. Kummer who is certainly well qualified to discuss this issue. According to Dr. Kummer, “there is no empirical evidence in the literature that ankyloglossia typically causes speech defects. On the contrary, several authors, even from decades ago, have disputed the belief that there is a strong causal relationship (Wallace, 1963; Block, 1968; Catlin & De Haan, 1971; Wright, 1995; Agarwal & Raina, 2003).”

Related imageSince many children with restricted frenulum do not have any speech production difficulties, Dr Kummer explains why that is the case by discussing the effect of tongue tip positioning for speech production.

Lingual-alveolar sounds (t, d, n) are produced with the top of the tongue tip and therefore, they can be produced with very little tongue elevation or mobility.

The /s/ and /z/ sounds require the tongue tip to be elevated only slightly but can be produced with little distortion if the tip is down.

The most the tongue tip needs to elevate is to the alveolar ridge for the production of an /l/. However, this sound can actually be produced with the tongue tip down and the dorsum of the tongue up against the alveolar ridge. Even an /r/ sound can be produced with the tongue tip down as long as the back of the tongue is elevated on both sides.

The most the tongue needs to protrude is to the back of the maxillary incisors for the production of /th/. All of these sounds can usually be produced, even with significant tongue tip restriction. This can be tested by producing these sounds with the tongue tip pressed down or against the mandibular gingiva. This results in little, if any, distortion.” (Kummer, 2005, ASHA Leader)

In 2009, Dr. Sharynne McLeod, did research on electropalatography of speech sounds with adults. Her findings (below) which are coronal images of tongue positioning including bracing, lateral contact and groove formation for consonants support the above information provided by Dr. Kummer.

Once again research and clinical practice align to indicate that there’s insufficient evidence to indicate the effect of restricted frenulum on the production of speech sounds.

Finally, I would like to conclude this post with a list of links from recent systematic reviews summarizing the latest research on this topic.

Ankyloglossia/Tongue Tie Systematic Review Summaries to Date (2017):

  1. A small body of evidence suggests that frenotomy may be associated with mother reported improvements in breastfeeding, and potentially in nipple pain, but with small, short-term studies with inconsistent methodology, the strength of the evidence is low to insufficient.
  2. In an infant with tongue-tie and feeding difficulties, surgical release of the tongue-tie does not consistently improve infant feeding but is likely to improve maternal nipple pain. Further research is needed to clarify and confirm this effect.
  3. Data are currently insufficient for assessing the effects of frenotomy on nonbreastfeeding outcomes that may be associated with ankyloglossia
  4. Given the lack of good-quality studies and limitations in the measurement of outcomes, we considered the strength of the evidence for the effect of surgical interventions to improve speech and articulation to be insufficient.
  5. Large temporal increases and substantial spatial variations in ankyloglossia and frenotomy rates were observed that may indicate a diagnostic suspicion bias and increasing use of a potentially unnecessary surgical procedure among infants.

References

  1. Power R, Murphy J. Tongue-tie and frenotomy in infants with breastfeeding difficulties: achieving a balance. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2015;100:489-494.
  2. Francis DO, Krishnaswami S, McPheeters M. Treatment of ankyloglossia and breastfeeding outcomes: a systematic review. Pediatrics. 2015;135(6):e1467-e1474.
  3. O’Shea JE, Foster JP, O’Donnell CPF, Breathnach D, Jacobs SE, Todd DA, et al. Frenotomy for tongue-tie in newborn infants (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2017 (3):Art. No.:CD011065.
  4. Hall D, Renfrew M. Tongue tie. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2005;90:1211-1215.
  5. Coryllos E, Watson Genna C, Salloum A. Congenital tongue-tie and its impact on breastfeeding. Breastfeeding: Best for Mother and Baby, American Academy of Pediatrics. 2004 Summer:1-6.
  6. Coryllos EV, Watson Genna C, LeVan Fram J. Minimally Invasive Treatment for Posterior Tongue-Tie (The Hidden Tongue-Tie). In: Watson Genna C, editor. Supporting Sucking Skills. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2013. p. 243-251.
  7. National Health and Medical Research Council. Infant feeding guidelines: information for health workers. In: Government A, editor. 2012. p. https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/n56.
  8. Watson Genna C, editor. Supporting sucking skills in breastfeeding infants. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2016.
  9. Griffiths DM. Do tongue ties affect breastfeeding? . Journal of Human Lactation. 2004;20:411.
  10. Ricke L, Baker N, Madlon-Kay D. Newborn tongue-tie: prevalence and effect on breastfeeding. Journal of American Board of Family Practice. 2005;8:1-8.
  11. Madlon-Kay D, Ricke L, Baker N, DeFor TA. Case series of 148 tongue-tied newborn babies evaluated with the assessment tool for lingual function. Midwifery. 2008;24:353-357.
  12. Ballard JL, Auer CE, Khoury JC. Ankyloglossia: assessment, incidence, and effect of frenuloplasty on the breastfeeding dyad. Pediatrics. 2002;110:e63.
  13. Amir L, James JP, Donath SM. Reliability of the Hazelbaker Assessment Tool for Lingual Frenulum Function. International Breastfeeding Journal. 2006;1:3.
  14. Douglas PS. Conclusions of Ghaheri’s study that laser surgery for posterior tongue and lip ties improve breastfeeding are not substantiated. Breastfeeding Medicine. 2017;12(3):DOI: 10.1089/bfm.2017.0008.

Author Bios (in alphabetical order):

Dr. Pamela Douglas  is the founder of a charitable organization, the Possums Clinic, a general practitioner since 1987, an IBCLC (1994-2004; 2012-Present) and researcher. She is an Associate Professor (Adjunct) with the Centre for Health Practice Innovation, Griffith University, and a Senior Lecturer with the Discipline of General Practice, The University of Queensland. Pam enjoys working clinically with families across the spectrum of challenges in early life, many complex (including breastfeeding difficulty) unsettled infant behaviors, reflux, allergies, tongue-tie/oral connective tissue problems, and gut problems. She is author of The discontented little baby book: all you need to know about feeds, sleep and crying (UQP) www.possumsonline.com; www.pameladouglas.com.au

Renee Kam qualified with a Bachelor of Physiotherapy from the University of Melbourne in 2000. She then worked as a physiotherapist for 6 years, predominantly in the areas of women’s health, pediatric and musculoskeletal physiotherapy. She became an Australian Breastfeeding Association Breastfeeding (ABA) counselor in 2010 and obtained the credential of International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) in 2012. In 2013, Renee’s book, The Newborn Baby Manual, was published which covers the topics that Renee is passionate about; breastfeeding, baby sleep and baby behavior. These days, Renee spends most of her time being a mother to her two young daughters, writing breastfeeding content for BellyBelly.com.au, fulfilling her role as national breastfeeding information manager with ABA and working as an IBCLC in private practice and at a private hospital in Melbourne, Australia.

Lois Wattis is a Registered Nurse/Midwife, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Fellow of the Australian College of Midwives. Working in both hospital and community settings, Lois has enhanced her midwifery skills and expertise by providing women-centred care to thousands of mothers and babies, including more than 50 women who chose to give birth at home. Lois’ qualifications include Bachelor of Nursing Degree (Edith Cowan University, Perth WA), Post Graduate Diploma in Clinical Nursing, Midwifery (Curtin University, Perth WA), accreditation as Independent Practising Midwife by the Australian College of Midwives in 2002 and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in 2004. Lois was inducted as a Fellow of the Australian College of Midwives (FACM) in 2005 in recognition of her services to women and midwifery in Australia. Lois has authored numerous articles which have been published internationally in parenting and midwifery journals, and shares her broad experience via her creations “New Baby 101” book, smartphone App, on-line videos and Facebook page. www.newbaby101.com.au Lois has worked for the past 10 years in Qld, Australia in a dedicated Lactation Consultant role as well as in private practice www.birthjourney.com