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Do Our Therapy Goals Make Sense or How to Create Functional Language Intervention Targets

In the past several years, I wrote a series of posts on the topic of improving clinical practices in speech-language pathology.  Some of these posts were based on my clinical experience as backed by research,  while others summarized key point from articles written by prominent colleagues in our field such as Dr. Alan KamhiDr.  David DeBonnisDr. Andrew Vermiglio, etc.

In the past, I have highlighted several articles from the 2014 LSHSS clinical forum entitled: Improving Clinical Practice. Today I would like to explicitly summarize another relevant article written by Dr. Wallach in 2014, entitled “Improving Clinical Practice: A School-Age and School-Based Perspective“, which discusses how to change the “persistence of traditional practices” in order to make our language interventions more functional and meaningful for students with language learning difficulties.

Image result for geraldine wallachDr. Wallach begins her article by describing 3  fairly typical to the schools’ scenarios.  In the first one,  a group of second graders with narrative retelling goals are working on a sequencing activity (“First the soup is on the counter, next it is opened, then it is cooked on the stove, last it is put in a bowl and ready to eat.”).

In the second scenario,  a group of fourth graders are working on following directions presented to them by the clinician (“Pick up the red triangle before you touch the large, green circle.”)

Image result for ambiguous newspaper headlinesIn  the third scenario,  a group of middle schoolers  are working on interpreting  newspaper headlines (“Jazz Helps Lakers Become Mellow in Victory.”)

Dr. Wallach then poses several overarching questions:

  • Do these goals make sense in the current context of research pertaining to language, learning, and literacy?
  • ‘Are the targets relevant to language and academic contexts beyond the “speech room” (i.e., are the choices, curriculum, and classroom relevant)?’
  • ‘Are they relevant to language learning in general?’
  • ‘Is the intervention’s focus encouraging performance (short-term learning that is context-bound) or long-term and context-independent learning?’ (p. 128)

She then delves deeper into where these goals come from as well as presents some suggestions regarding how these goals could be altered in order to make them more functional.

She begins by explaining that labeling SLP  provided school-based services as “speech” “creates artificial barriers, inaccurate perceptions, and inappropriate intervention recommendations that exacerbate an already complex situation, that is, meeting the language learning and literacy needs of students across a changing landscape of required knowledge and skills needed to succeed academically.” (128)

From there,  she explains why targets in the first two scenarios are inaccurate and not functional.  She explains that while working on improving narrative abilities is functional,  working on isolated sequencing abilities is not functional since in the context of her present scenario the child was not retelling an actual story. Furthermore, ‘the clinician’s focus on sequencing as an underlying skill comes from sources that are unknown’ and ‘the “transfer” to producing and comprehending temporal and causal narratives from the soup scenario is an assumption that research fails to support” (128) She adds, that  “Duke and Pearson (2008/2009) mirror these notions when they state that the “transfer [of taught skills and strategies] decreases as a function of distance from the original information domain” (p. 113).”    Then, of course, there is the usage of “expository text (i.e., a sequential text) rather than narrative text,”  further indicating that the goal is not functionally transferable.  The second graders are receiving a message that we are working on storytelling skills,  when in reality that is not what is taking place in the session.

To balance the above criticism, Dr. Wallach does describe a number of positive elements involved in what her fictional clinician in her scenario is doing: (e.g, using expository text knowledge, talking about language, etc.), but she also asks: (1) Is the activity developmentally appropriate? and (2) Are the metalinguistic task aspects too complex for children that age? (129).

Now, let’s move on to multiple step commands, a persistent intervention meme, created because our students have difficulty understanding instructions, paying attention in class, as well as processing and completing classroom assignments.

The problem is that the processing of multistep directions is influenced by a number of contextual, semantic, and linguistic factors.  By far, not all multistep directions are created equal. Some are far more contextually related and semantically constrained than others (e.g., “After you open the book, turn to page 120” vs. “Pick up the red triangle before you touch the large, green circle.”) (p. 129). Consequently, “following directions” is not a simple task of “memorizing the steps”, rather it is a complex process which involves activation of available semantic and syntactic knowledge, comprehension of sentences with a variety of clauses, as well as numerous other linguistic factors.

Unfortunately, the provision of decontextualized directions will not meaningfully assist the students with comprehension of school work and navigation of the classroom environment. As such, rather than teaching the students multiple step directions which will not meaningfully transfer to other settings it may be far more appropriate to teach the students how to request clarification from their speakers in order to break up complex instructions into manageable chunks of information.

In contrast, the goals and procedures in the 3rd scenario (see pgs. 127-128 for full details ) are actually supported by research in developmental disorders.  The SLP is helping students to be actively involved in language by activating their background knowledge, use new strategies, reduce competing resources, heighten the students’ metalinguistic abilities, as well as incorporating aspects of both language and literacy into sessions, making her intervention highly relevant to the curriculum.

Dr. Wallach then moves on to provide constructive suggestions regarding how intervention services can be improved in the school setting. This includes: “(a) creating intervention goals that are knowledge-based and help students connect known and new information; (b) balancing content knowledge and awareness of text structure in functional, authentic tasks that optimize long-term retention and transfer across grades and content-area subjects; and (c) matching students’ language goals and objectives to the “outside world” of curricular and classroom contexts.” (p. 130)

First, “research suggests that engaging students in prior knowledge activities increases the comprehension and retention of information” (p. 130). In other words, “when too much is new, comprehension and retention suffer; something has to “give” or be modified to facilitate learning” (p. 130).  She suggests using a familiar high-interest topic to teach a discrete amount of new information.  Here, the role of background knowledge is hugely important when it comes to learning. “Engaging students in prior knowledge activities that include questioning and other meaning-based strategies encourage them to use and express what they do know, talk about what they need to know and become more actively involved in interacting with spoken and written text (Wallach et al., 2014)” (p. 131).

To illustrate, Dr. Wallach provides an example from a ninth-grade science textbook, laden with complex information. She then explains how to “use of evidence-based strategies including self-questioning and clinician-led discussions to guide students” in better understanding the material via use of various frameworks (e.g., K-W-L) (p. 131). She also emphasizes how within a collaborative framework SLPs can focus on aspects of text structure to ask relevant questions about content.

From there she segues into a fifth-grade history text and explains that  “No kit or program from the hundreds that appear in ASHA Convention exhibit halls year after year will come to our rescue” (131), As such, SLPs need to teach their clients both macro (text organization) and micro (syntax, morphology, etc.) components of language so they could successfully navigate complex texts. A number of researchers (e.g., A. Kamhi, C. Scott, M. Nippold, B. Ehren, etc.) have highlighted the fact that our middle school and high school students lack the comprehension of complex morphosyntax. Hence, explicitly teaching it to out students will significantly improve both our clinical practice and their academic outcomes. Here, Dr. Wallach also recommends the work of “McKeown and her colleagues (e.g., Beck, McKeown, & Worthy, 1995McKeown et al., 2009McKeown, Beck, Sinatra, & Loxterman, 1992) when trying to understand the complex interaction between content and structure knowledge.” (p. 132)

After that Dr. Wallach segues into a discussion on how our clients’ language goals can be better aligned with the academic curricular demands. She states that SLPs need to delve deeper (or at all) into disciplinary literacy (teaching our students subject-specific comprehension and vocabulary). Here, collaboration with content-area teachers is very important. “For example, science involves many technical terms and definitions and requires clear and concise cause and effect thinking (Fang, 2004Halliday, 1993). “The noun phrases [in science texts] contain a large quantity of information that in more commonsense language of everyday life would require several sentences to express” (Fang, 2012, p. 24). ” (132). “Alternatively, social studies involves being able to put events into a context, comparing sources, and understanding the biases of the writer. Unlike science, authorship is important in history.” (132)

Dr. Wallach suggests a number of questions clinicians can ask selves about our students when determining therapy targets:

  1. Can they handle complex syntactic forms that are more common in written language than spoken language?
  2. Do they have an understanding of word derivations?
  3. Do our students know how to write a compare and contrast expository piece?
  4. Are they able to evaluate sources information?
  5. Do they use prior knowledge and experience to help them comprehend new information?

She then offers SLPs valuable ideas on how to create a thoughtful balance between general and subject-specific language targets (see pg 133 for complete details).

Dr. Wallach concludes her article with the following points.

  • Students with language learning disabilities are at a disadvantage in school due to having reduced/limited background knowledge and language proficiency as compared to typically developing peers. Hence “school-based SLPs must consider ways that students’ language abilities influence and interact with their academic success (Wallach et al., 2014). Our intervention should be seen as developing a set of language initiatives focused toward content-area learning (A. S. Bashir, personal communication, 2012; Wallach et al., 2009). ” 
  • Staying focused on the continuum of change across the grades is an important aspect of clinical practice in the school years. Likewise, as suggested by many authors, connecting our preschool endeavors to the horizon of school-age demands underpins our work over time
  • As we look to changes in service delivery models in schools including research that supports response-to-intervention (RtI) models (e.g., Wixson, Lipson, & Valencia, 2014), we can be optimistic that less relevant and nonfunctional practices will die natural deaths.” (pgs. 133-134)

There you have it! Numerous practical suggestions as well as functional clarifications from Dr. Wallach so SLPs can improve their treatment practices with school-aged children.  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:

  • Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Worthy, J. (1995). Giving text a voice can improve students’ understanding. Reading Research Quarterly30, 220–238.
  • Duke, N. K., & Pearson, P. D. (2008/2009). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. Journal of Education189, 107–122.
  • Fang, Z. (2004). Scientific literacy: A systematic functional linguistics perspective. Science Education89, 335–347. 
  • Fang, Z. (2012). Language correlates of disciplinary literacy. Topics in Language Disorders32, 19–34. 
  • Halliday, M. A. K. (1993). Some grammatical problems in scientific English. In Halliday, M. A. K., & Martin, J. R. (Eds.), Writing science: Literacy and discursive power (pp. 69–85). London, England: Falmer.
  • McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., & Blake, R. G. K. (2009). Rethinking reading comprehension instruction: A comparison of instruction for strategies and content approaches. Reading Research Quarterly44, 218–253. 
  • McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., Sinatra, G. M., & Loxterman, J. A. (1992). The contribution of prior knowledge and coherent text to comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly27, 79–93.
  • Wallach, G. P., Charlton, S. J., & Christie, J. (2009). Making a broader case for the narrow view? Where to begin? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools40, 201–211. 
  • Wallach, G.P. (2014). Improving clinical practice: A school-age and school-based perspective. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45, 127-136
  • Wallach, G.P., Charlton, S., & Christie Bartholomew, J. (2014). The spoken-written comprehension connection: Constructive intervention strategies. In C.A. Stone, E.R. Silliman, B.J. Ehren, & G.P. Wallach (Eds). Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders (pp. 485-501). NY: Guilford Press.
  • Wixson, K. K., Lipson, M. Y., & Valencia, S. W. (2014). Response to intervention for teaching and learning in language and literacy. InStone, C. A., Silliman, E. R., Ehren, B. J., & Wallach, G. P. (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders (2nd ed., pp. 637–653). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Helpful Social Media Resources:

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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

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Review: Kindergarten Language Benchmark Assessment (KLBA)

Recently I had an opportunity to use the Kindergarten Language Benchmark Assessment published by Speech Language Literacy Lab with a classroom of kindergarten students 5-6 years of age.  The KLBA is the screening and progress monitoring tool which tracks the development of appropriate early language skills and helps support the RTI model.

KLBA+test

This tool is comprised of four sections: auditory comprehension, following directions, categories and  narrative language, which are correlated to future reading success and academic competence. It is intended for monolingual and bilingual kindergarten children 5 to 6 years of age. It yields a raw score for each skill area and requires a very short administration time (around 5-7 minutes) .

The kit was created by Naomi R. Konikoff, MS, CCC-SLP and Jennifer Preschern, MA, CCC-SLP. It includes an administration manual, testing book, and 25 protocols.  Each protocol allows for 3 administrations (Winter, Spring, Fall) to monitor language growth in kindergarten students over a period of a school year.

Subtest description:

Auditory Comprehension subtest assesses the students’ ability to respond to -wh-questions based on short stories 3-4 sentences in length

Following Directions subtest assesses the students’ ability to follow 1-2 step directions.

Categories subtest assesses the student’s ability to receptively identify the similarities between 2 out of 3 presented items and then coherently verbalize their connection

Narrative Language subtest assesses the students’s ability to produce simple stories in order to determine their use of relevant story grammar elements.

KLBA 1

While there are a number of uses for this tool (RTI, to reduce over-identification of Limited English Proficiency students, evaluation of effectiveness of early language instruction, etc.),  since I’ve had it for a fairly limited time I used it as a screening instrument in order to determine whether a full comprehensive language testing was needed for the kindergarten children who were currently not mandated language services.

To confirm its reliability I also used it with children with known language impairment on my caseload, to determine how sensitive it was to detecting already existing language impairments.

The KLBA had indeed proven to be a reliable screening tool with the children I had tested. It cleared the children with typically developing language abilities (as per teachers reports and personal observations). In contrast when used with language impaired students on my caseload, KLBA had reliably identified their areas of weaknesses.  Children with language impairments were able to do quite well on several KLBA subtests due to the fact that they had already been receiving language therapy services. However, they invariably did poorly on the following subtests: expressive categorization and narrative production, which research has identified as being most sensitive to language impairment.

KLBA 2

Given the research behind the KLBA I find it to be another useful tool in my material repertoire. For more information on KLBA check out Speech Language Literacy LabTo purchase KLBA from their site click HERE. 

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App Review and Giveaway: Keyword Understanding

Today I am reviewing Keyword Understanding, a new app from Aptus Therapy.  The app was created to improve attention skills of children with auditory processing as well as receptive language deficits.

This app is great for children with processing difficulties which need to improve their ability to follow directions with a variety of embedded concepts. When you open the app you get the below screen which contains the following options. Continue reading App Review and Giveaway: Keyword Understanding