Over the last five years I have talked with and heard from hundreds of school-based speech-language pathologists about many of the issues covered in this special schools issue of The ASHA Leader. As a member of Special Interest Division 16, School-Based Issues, I also am aware of the vast differences in school settings across the country and the unique challenges you face in your particular settings.
I would like to focus this discussion on the role of the SLP in closing the education gap and promoting literacy. In the interest of full disclosure, my "day job" is at Leap Learning Systems in Chicago, where I am dedicated to using our skills and knowledge as SLPs to do just that. But there are some big differences between operating a nonprofit and the daily realities of working in a school district. At Leap we raise funds to provide professional development; parent training and language wellness to schools, agencies, and after-school programs; and scholarship funds. We don't have to face the constant pressures felt by school-based SLPs—having to meet the needs (and the IEP minutes) of children with speech and language disorders, completing diagnostics within time constraints, perhaps supervising students and paraprofessionals, and handling a wide range of other school duties. But at the same time I strongly believe that SLPs are uniquely qualified to help students on the road to literacy and a brighter future.
Some SLPs who work in schools are unsettled by the idea of adding attention to literacy within clinical interventions that focus on language. This concernis demonstrated in the recent debate on the topic of literacy in the letters column of The ASHA Leader. We must address the issue raised by these members of job pressures and workload/caseload, which is a high priority for ASHA's schools unit.
In this issue of the Leader some members relate their clinical experiences in addressing literacy and response-to-intervention (RTI) in their school settings. Sue Ciampaglio, an SLP in the Harford County (Maryland) Public Schools, writes about creating a successful collaboration with general education teachers, a reading specialist, and paraprofessionals to raise the literacy level of low-performing students.
Nicole Power and Kim Kysar tell about taking a leadership role in Oklahoma school districts that were the first to adopt an RTI model. They redefined their roles, caseloads, and service delivery models in a way that benefited all of the students. RTI and the workload/caseload issue certainly will affect the way school-based SLPs function in their traditional roles and how those roles may change.
There are many wonderful examples of SLPs leading the way toward literacy by helping others understand that language is the basis of literacy. As a colleague said to me, "You can have language without literacy, but you can't have literacy without language."
The language underpinnings of literacy and the innateness of language form an undeniable and often inseparable bond between the language wellness of a child and his or her ability not just to learn to read but to learn and interface with the world on many levels. Language-poor children have fewer words spoken to them, with shorter utterances, and greater numbers of discouragements (Hart & Risley). These children also may not learn the school language of negotiation, self-advocacy, and prediction nor the language underpinnings of math and science.
It is difficult to imagine that we as SLPs would withhold our knowledge of language development when we know that many children are not ready for reading or kindergarten because of the lack of an environment that is rich in language. These children are not special-needs, but rather, as my ASHA colleague Charlette Green in Atlanta says, ABTT—"ain't been taught that."
When I discussed the heartfelt Leader letters on literacy with Laura Justice, another ASHA colleague and a professor at Ohio State, she noted, "In the area of literacy and language, the segmentation of professional responsibilities now seems artificial." She went further, saying, "This expansion into literacy is desperately needed given what we are learning in research and from trends in educational policies."
Whatever your perspective on the role of SLPs in promoting literacy, it is imperative that SLPs working in the schools see that we must use our expertise to contribute to a child's success in academics and in negotiating life pathways. Our ability to relate intervention outcomes to state standards will shape our future. The collaborative nature of RTI should facilitate progress within the context of the regular education classroom and should lower the number of children identified as special-needs. Serving in this capacity shouldn't always translate into taking on more students, even though it involves us with every student's school success. In fact, if done well, it could actually provide relief to burgeoning caseloads and responsibilities.
Schools are being judged as a whole, and we will best serve students by being good team players who offer all our expertise to help teams enhance the language skills—and therefore literacy—of all the children we serve.