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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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