Education changes so quickly that it can be difficult to keep up. I found myself crunched for time, with a caseload of 35 students, constant meetings, and endless paperwork.
Something needed to change. I had looked at a significant amount of research data on reading, evaluated many children struggling with language and literacy, and talked to many administrators. I began to ask myself tough questions: How could I use my knowledge about articulation and language to make a difference in early intervention for reading in K-2? Was I strong enough to take a professional risk to close the literacy gap? How would school staff and administration respond to a service delivery change?
Seeking answers to these questions began the long journey on the road to literacy teaming.
From Problem to Pilot Program
In my 15th year of working with speech and language students, I was assigned to case-manage kindergarten special education students in addition to my regular responsibilities. Little did I know that this would change the course of my career.
That year I learned a tremendous amount about the developmental process of learning to read. I gained a better understanding of balanced literacy instruction, which emphasized phonics and whole language, as well as the importance of phonemic awareness. I realized that I could no longer tolerate the "wait-and-fail" model of special education. Waiting until children meet the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) definition of learning disabled to provide students with the specific kinds of intervention they clearly needed much earlier, wasn't working for me anymore.
Special-education referrals were increasing at an alarming rate, and I evaluated both children who exhibited a true learning disability and those who I call "curriculum casualties" who did not respond to the curriculum. Too much of my time was taken up by unnecessary referrals for children who showed a pattern of weakness in phonemic awareness and literacy.
Studies show a clear connection between children with speech and language impairments and delayed early literacy skills (Catts, 1991; Catts & Kamhi, 1986). It made sense that early reading intervention could help prevent reading difficulty in children with speech and language delays. What if early reading intervention strategies were integrated with articulation and language treatment for children in grades K-2? If early reading intervention helped children identified with speech and language delays, then that intervention should be beneficial for other children struggling with early literacy skills.
I surrounded myself with others who shared the same visions and values in educating children. The support of colleagues who were willing to take risks for the benefit of children was critical.
Pilot Program to Practice
We began a responsiveness-to-intervention pilot program of pullout small-group instruction to teach phonemic awareness and early writing skills to struggling learners in the first and second grades. We utilized parts of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment and other informal district assessments to guide our instruction.
Students—both on and off my caseload—who were either at-risk or struggling with sound-symbol relationships demonstrated success in gaining a foundational base for literacy. Those students who may have exhibited a slower pace of learning, weak auditory skills due to delays in articulation and/or language development, low memory skills, or significant attention issues now had targeted small group instruction to address individual areas of need. Feedback from teachers and reading staff working with these children and parents was amazing.
As with any change in the schools, resistance was strong. We encountered outdated policies, entrenched ideas, and hesitant staff. We made detours, taking into account acceptable solutions, knowing in our hearts that this change in literacy instruction was the right move for students.
A few years later we moved into a new building with a new principal who recognized our accomplishments. With this guidance, literacy teaming developed from a pilot program to practice, moving from small-group pullout instruction to whole-class participation with teachers' involvement.
Literacy teaming combines the best concepts of literacy coaching and professional learning communities and integrates them into a collaborative approach to teaching literacy. Literacy teams can include the SLP, the special education teacher, the resource teacher, student teachers, related service providers, and administrators.
In our building, children with speech and language needs in K-2 are clustered into literacy-teaming classrooms and receive speech and language services in the classroom during a literacy block. The children I served who were struggling with emergent literacy were placed in groups of four to six students according to ability level and were seen at least three times a week for 30 minutes. These students included those who were at risk and those who had speech and language difficulties. Progress was monitored every four to six weeks, with struggling readers assessed more frequently, and then students were regrouped according to need. All literacy-team teaching staff met for 45 minutes weekly to review assessments and progress, ask questions, learn from each other, and plan for the next week.
Inspired by students' progress, we expanded this approach into several first-grade classrooms where I combined students receiving speech-language services and at-risk students, with similar results. In kindergarten we waited until mid-year to begin literacy teaming to give children a chance to solidify alphabet and sound-symbol skills. Once again, I provided intervention using a balanced approach to literacy instruction with an emphasis on phonemic awareness. These instructional concepts were then transferred to written language. Individualized education program (IEP) objectives were addressed by the SLP through direct instruction or through consultation with staff.
The collaborative approach provided an opportunity for team members to expand their professional-development horizons and to become more creative in addressing children's language concerns. Most importantly, team members have been able to effectively serve the students who otherwise might have become "curriculum casualties."
The Role of the SLP
Literacy teaming demonstrated the impact of speech and language intervention on students' academic achievement. I incorporated articulation and language therapy objectives directly into group literacy sessions in the classroom. Progress occured at a faster pace with greater carryover and I was able to work more efficiently with more children.
Serving children in the classroom gave me a different perspective on my students' pragmatic skills, oral and written language needs, vocabulary needs, and language comprehension skills. I also was able to alert regular education teachers to at-risk children, coordinate service delivery with other disciplines, and incorporate developmentally appropriate literacy activities into K-2 classrooms. Our responsiveness-to-intervention approach met the needs of learners by intervening early with high-quality instruction from teaching staff.
Literacy Teaming in the Future
John Kotter, in his business fable "Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions," writes about resistance to change and intractable obstacles. He presents steps involved in successful change.
When I put two of these steps into practice—surrounding oneself with a guiding team and empowering others to act—I was able to make a transformative change to leadership as an SLP. I had taken a risk in advocating for change and found myself going down a path with challenges and opportunities as well as roadblocks. Along on my journey were collaborative colleagues and wonderful students who simply needed a more specific type of instruction geared towards their learning styles.
Literacy teaming has offered me a manageable and effective way to serve students, bringing my journey to a satisfying end—and a new beginning.