The United States is a mixing bowl of ethnicities, languages, and cultures—a condition more apparent than ever in the nation's public schools. According to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau report, almost one in five school children are from immigrant families and speak English as a second language; by 2030 it's predicted that more than 40% of the entire school-age population will be English-language learners (ELL).
The resultant challenge for speech-language pathologists is to provide services to the children
who need them without over- or under-diagnosing communication deficits. To meet this demand, some visionary curricula have emerged in communication science and disorders training programs across the country. Here are two that began earlier this year.
MOSAIC: Penn State University
Having grown up in a fairly homogenous environment, Gordon Blood, head of the Department of Communication and Science Disorders at Penn State University, understands what it's like to expand one's cultural horizons as an adult. Although he got a good taste when he studied in West Africa as a junior in college, his true eye-opener came when he married his wife, Ingrid, who was born in Eastern Europe, moved to the United States as a child, and didn't learn English until age 5. Ingrid didn't have an underlying communication disorder and is now an audiologist, a partner in the MOSAIC program, and a fellow ASHA member; but tales of her childhood experiences have changed how Blood views the school system for English-language learners.
"Ingrid was raised in the Catholic Church and there is this prayer, 'Hail Mary, full of grace,' that she remembers thinking went 'hairy Mary full of grapes,'" he laughed. "She has all these amazing stories of learning English and the culture and they gave me a valuable perspective."
Blood gained perspective on how difficult it is to learn English, and also on how cultural differences can affect testing outcomes. "Not only do these children need to learn English, which is a difficult language to learn, but they may have never been asked a question that an adult already knows the answer to," he said. "For example, if an adult says to a child, 'show me the bird,' and the child knows the adult can see the bird, in some cultures they may not know what to make of that. It's more than just the language."
To help future SLPs address these concerns, the MOSAIC (Multiplying Opportunities for Services and Access for Immigrant Children) program at Penn State was created in August with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Over four years, the new pre-service master's-level program will train 22 speech-language pathology students to provide evidenced-based services to ELL immigrant children. The program is particularly targeting immigrant children in rural areas and has partnered with education departments in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia—states that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are the next-biggest growth areas after traditional immigrant gateway states such as Texas and California. And, said Blood, these states most likely are not as well-prepared.
"Rural communities tend to have smaller populations, more closely knit communities, greater intergenerational histories, and fewer resources than urban communities," said Blood. "The migration [of immigrant families] has a greater impact in these smaller, rural communities on everything from schools and social services to jobs and day care."
And that's where MOSAIC graduates will step in. Students will take specialized academic courses, such as "Immigrants, America, and Language," "English-Language Learners with Disabilities," and "Rural Schools: Children with Communication Disabilities," and participate in other training and mentoring that will culminate in a 15-week field placement in an ethnically diverse rural area in one of the partner states. Students apply to be in the program, and although bilingualism isn't required, Blood looks for candidates who are open to learning about and, ideally, have some experience with other cultures.
Second-year speech-language pathology graduate student Adam Riggle, who has worked with bilingual children in the past and grew up in a diverse urban neighborhood, hopes that his experience in the MOSAIC program will help him to continue to work with bilingual children in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
"This program really fit in with what I was already researching," Riggle said. "I find it interesting how bilingual children learn compared to monolingual children, and I hope that I can take what I learn through this program and apply it in the field as a school-based SLP."
And according to Blood, a program that trains SLPs like Riggle to be more culturally competent isn't just a nice idea, it's a necessity.
"We're talking about serving a population that is growing," he said. "The primary goal is to develop SLPs who are culturally proficient, which means not only do they understand the differences, but they appreciate and foster them."
STEPS: Indiana University
STEPS (Speech Therapy Education, Practicum, and Services), another program that recognizes the need for providing culturally competent services, began this fall at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington.
Much like the MOSAIC program, the four-year STEPS program received funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Unlike the MOSAIC program, which focuses on children from many culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, director Raquel Anderson has chosen to focus specifically on the rapidly growing Latino and Spanish-speaking population in Indiana.
"We did this for practical reasons," said Anderson, an associate professor in IU's Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. "Here in Indiana, the Spanish-speaking population jumped from 4% to 6% in one year, which is pretty significant."
Although only three students are enrolled this fall, the program ultimately will graduate 26 students. Once accepted into the program, STEPS students take specific courses related to diversity issues, communication disorders in public schools, and Spanish-language acquisition disorders. The program requires students to have a minimum of 50 clinical hours with bilingual children, and then—under the supervision of a supervisor—an externship in a school with a large Spanish-speaking population. Students are required to have intermediate-level fluency in Spanish "to fully participate in the program," Anderson said.
First-year graduate student Silia Dutson, who grew up in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, didn't have any difficulty with the language requirement, but is learning more in the STEPS program than she anticipated.
"There's so much to cover—the language development, the different problems bilingual kids have that monolingual kids don't have," Dutson said. "It's not just knowing the language, but understanding the background."
Although the growth in the Spanish-speaking population has been more visible recently, the need for bilingual SLPs in the schools has been evident for some time, Anderson said. Years ago, when working as a clinician in the schools, she saw unfortunate trends developing. Despite the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires assessment in the student's primary language, some children with underlying disabilities weren't being flagged for intervention: no bilingual SLPs were available, and the children weren't fluent enough to be tested in English. Other students were relegated to special education classes for years when they shouldn't have been.
"I constantly saw the need," Anderson said. "I saw a lot of students being misdiagnosed and I've seen some horrible faux pas—not maliciously intended, of course, but simply because [the teachers] didn't have the knowledge or didn't think things through. We need more people who have the background and the language skills."