April 25, 2000 Features

Learning About Literacy: SLPs Play Key Role in Reading, Writing

A school-based speech-language pathologist is reading with a second grader to help develop her vocabulary. The story ends. The SLP asks the child to read back key words—but she can’t. What should the SLP do?

Members often contact ASHA to seek clarification of their roles in advocating for quality services, developing programs, and fostering collaborative relationships in the area of literacy instruction. Today SLPs play a key role in literacy, collaborating with teachers, providing instruction on phonemic awareness and related literacy skills to general education students, and assessing and providing intervention for students with reading and writing disorders.

ASHA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Reading and Written Language Disorders has developed a new position statement, technical report, and guidelines on the "Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists Related to Reading and Writing in Children and Adolescents." Chair Nickola Nelson weighs in on behalf of the committee with the following responses to questions related to the SLP’s role in literacy development.

Why should SLPs be concerned about literacy development? How do SLPs fit in?

When children have problems acquiring language, they are at high risk for difficulty in learning to read and write, and to listen and speak. Across the profession, SLPs are asking questions about how to make our services relevant to clients’ functional communication needs. Literacy is perhaps the most important factor contributing to academic and economic success, and also plays an important role in social interactions.

SLPs bring knowledge of communication processes and disorders and language acquisition to the literacy table. SLPs also have clinical experience in developing individualized programs for children and adolescents. We are not proposing a sole, or even primary, role for SLPs in literacy development, but are encouraging official recognition of the important and collaborative role that SLPs play.

What unique contribution can SLPs make to literacy instruction?

SLPs’ knowledge base about language development and acquisition, combined with skill in using diagnostic-prescriptive approaches to assessment and intervention, is particularly valuable in educational contexts.

Knowledge of language and its subsystems—phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics—is highly relevant for prevention, identification, assessment, and intervention for literacy problems. SLPs possess such skills, as well as skill in diagnosing and treating children with phonological disorders.

Their training in using the International Phonetic Alphabet to transcribe the sounds of language, along with their understanding of phonology and language processing, prepare them to design literacy programs to address difficulties involving phonological awareness, memory, and retrieval. Knowledge of phonology also helps SLPs tailor lessons for success, as they already know how to reduce stimulus complexity in sound segmentation activities.

Beyond phonology, SLPs have knowledge of morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic systems, which also are crucial for reading comprehension and written expression. A child who lacks morphological awareness may have trouble learning to spell words that require this insight (e.g., walked, humorous). Children whose spoken stories are not at expected developmental levels will also find it difficult to write stories. SLPs are trained to do fine-grained analyses of children’s strengths and weaknesses at word, sentence, and discourse levels.

Is this just another extra responsibility for SLPs who already have too much on their plates?

The committee is aware that some SLPs may perceive this as just another add-on responsibility, but clinicians who have been focusing for some time on helping children become more successful students and communicative partners have expressed their appreciation for documents that affirm that role. What we describe in the documents are not so much new roles as they are modifications of current roles.

For example, SLPs who work with infants and toddlers and their families may become more cognizant of strategies for facilitating communicative interactions that involve books and other forms of environmental print.

School-based clinicians who are implementing the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act and are focused on helping their students have increased access to the general education curriculum will have support and encouragement for many aspects of that responsibility.

Is this document only relevant to SLPs in school-based practice?

The committee tried to make it clear in the documents that, although school-based professionals are in a position to collaborate particularly well with teachers and others, they are certainly not the only SLPs who play a role in literacy.

We have taken care to outline the roles and responsibilities related to identification and prevention for infants and toddlers, as well as for school-age children. Many private practitioners have been assuming these roles for some time.

Hospital-based clinicians often are the first to see children affected by acute medical concerns, such as traumatic brain injury, and may also see children facing developmental issues.

Where can SLPs get training on literacy issues ?

Academic programs in communication sciences and disorders historically have varied in their provision of information about reading, writing, spelling, and higher-level language use. Currently, however, many educators and clinicians who are also SLPs are contributing textbooks, edited collections, journal articles, and in-service education programs about how to apply spoken language expertise to problems of written language.

It is the contention of the position statement and guidelines that university programs and other agencies are responsible for providing pre-service and in-service learning opportunities, and that speech-language professionals working with children and adolescents are responsible for taking advantage of such opportunities. SLPs can also seek assistance and information from other professionals.

What is the relationship between language and literacy?

The position statement includes information about the multiple and reciprocal linkages, which are further supported with references to the literature. The connections between spoken and written language, to quote the position statement, "are well established in that spoken language provides the foundation for the development of reading and writing; spoken and written language have a reciprocal relationship, such that each builds on the other to result in general language competence, starting early and continuing through childhood into adulthood; children with spoken language problems frequently have difficulty learning to read and write, and children with reading and writing problems frequently have difficulty with spoken language; instruction in spoken language can result in growth in written language; and instruction in written language can result in growth in spoken language."

Looking ahead, what does the future hold? Where will SLPs’ role in literacy take the profession?

SLPs have always focused on providing individualized services for clients. The role in literacy is a particularly relevant one, however, not only for students with language-learning disabilities, but also for individuals with other concomitant disabilities, such as mental retardation and severe communication impairments. The committee’s hope is that SLPs and speech, language, and hearing scientists will not be perceived as posing a threat to any other profession’s territory, but will be welcomed as collaborative partners contributing from our own unique perspective on a problem of concern to many.

cite as: Spracher, M. M. (2000, April 25). Learning About Literacy: SLPs Play Key Role in Reading, Writing. The ASHA Leader.


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