As a newly minted speech-language pathologist, I thought I understood the importance of literacy. Then I met "Eddie."
Eddie was a high school student who could not read. His frustration and failure had become negatively etched into his self-concept. Instead of enjoying school, he hated it. Instead of turning in assignments, he avoided them. Instead of participating in regular education, he was placed in special education.
An evaluation completed when Eddie was in high school showed that he had significant deficits in phonemic awareness and alphabetical principle, both critical early literacy skills. Given these difficulties, it is not hard to envision what learning to read was like for Eddie in elementary school and how difficult remediation was in high school. In his final years of school, Eddie had lost motivation to learn.
My encounter with Eddie transformed my role within the schools I served as well as in my district. He changed my thinking from the idea that "reading is important for academic success" to the reality that "reading is an essential life tool." Prior to working with Eddie, I assumed a more traditional role as a school-based SLP, focusing on articulation, language, fluency, and voice. Through this experience with Eddie, I realized that SLPs possessed the unique expertise desperately needed to help our schools live up to their primary responsibility of creating a literate community. My academic training fostered a thorough understanding of language development, phonemic awareness, sequential skill development, assessment, and data analysis that allows me to directly contribute to students' reading achievement. More importantly, I felt an urgency to reach at-risk students in every kindergarten and first-grade classroom across my school district.
This urgency led me to advocate for more effective literacy practices. Through collaboration with administrators, teachers, SLPs, reading teachers, and school psychologists, we initiated a change from the ineffective "wait-to-fail model" of special education to a "preventative model" for identifying students at risk for literacy failure. After collecting district-wide data on all kindergarten and first grade students' knowledge of the alphabetic principle, phonemic awareness, letter naming, and oral reading fluency, we determined students were not meeting critical milestones.
We began discussions on how best to provide intervention for at-risk students and document outcomes of literacy achievement. I went from having limited contact with my colleagues in regular and special education to having ongoing discussions regarding the benefits of evidenced-based assessment and reading practices. I was asked by administrators, teachers, and parents to make in-service presentations on early literacy development and to consult with staff in neighboring school districts to discuss the role of the SLP in literacy. This professional development component is critical in changing the SLP's job description.
Although this process may sound simple, many roadblocks were encountered in reaching the goal of implementing more effective literacy practices. These roadblocks included large caseloads, traditional perceptions of the SLP in the public schools, antiquated reading instruction practices, and resistance to change. I was reminded daily about the complexity of implementing change and the necessity of moving forward incrementally. In the end, students' gains in reading achievement showed us that we were on the right road to achieve our goal. More than 80% of identified students were adequately responding to intervention, many avoiding special education.
SLPs around the country can embark on a similar journey. Several factors were helpful in overcoming roadblocks:
- Administrator support—An instructional leader who is willing to advocate and understands how to best utilize your expertise is critical. A willingness to step out of the box and shine a light on your literacy expertise will assist in garnering support.
- Caseload management—To provide early intervention, controlling caseload size is crucial. Does every student on your caseload truly need the expertise of an SLP? If not, find the most appropriate service provider. I've found that my speech-only caseload grew proportionally higher than my related service load, but my overall numbers fell as a result.
- Community resources—A partnership with a local speech-language pathology academic program has been an invaluable resource. The highly motivated participation of graduate students facilitates service delivery to a larger number of students. They can provide assistance with screenings, interventions, and data collection. Supporting undergraduate and graduate education is also a means to train new SLPs in this leadership role.
- Research and data—Educate yourself on all facets of literacy. Collect and share the data!
- Collaboration—Professionals in the schools working individually cannot defeat learning disability. The challenge is too great, our individual impact too small. Collectively, our expertise is leveraged to create the greatest impact.
My valuable learning experiences along this journey have recently led me to a new school district, where I am now working in an elementary school that serves approximately 500 students who speak 15 different languages, of whom almost half qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program. Given this challenging population, we must quickly discard the "wait-to-fail" model or most of our children will do just that—fail. The SLP's expertise is vital in making this transformation. I spend half of my time as an SLP and half as the literacy intervention coordinator. In this dual role, my vision for instructional leadership remains the same. Schools must:
- Believe that all kids can be taught to read and that prevention of reading difficulties is far more cost-effective and efficient than remediation.
- Screen all students to identify those who are not meeting critical milestones in early literacy.
- Utilize evidenced-based models of literacy intervention and group instruction, and routinely monitor the progress of at-risk students.
- Facilitate an ongoing professional dialogue about literacy.
Most importantly, schools must prevent students like Eddie from leaving elementary school without being able to read.