Interdisciplinary Research Frontiers: A Developmental Psychologist’s Perspective As a professional who has served on the faculty of programs in both literacy and communication sciences and disorders (CSD), I have been puzzled for some time by the failure of these disciplines to capitalize more fully on the many possibilities available for collaborative scholarship and practice. One key advantage ... Features
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Features  |   April 01, 2007
Interdisciplinary Research Frontiers: A Developmental Psychologist’s Perspective
Author Notes
  • C. Addison Stone, is professor and chair of educational studies at the University of Michigan. Contact him at addisons@umich.edu.
    C. Addison Stone, is professor and chair of educational studies at the University of Michigan. Contact him at addisons@umich.edu.×
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Normal Language Processing / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Features
Features   |   April 01, 2007
Interdisciplinary Research Frontiers: A Developmental Psychologist’s Perspective
The ASHA Leader, April 2007, Vol. 12, 7-18. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.12052007.7
The ASHA Leader, April 2007, Vol. 12, 7-18. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.12052007.7
As a professional who has served on the faculty of programs in both literacy and communication sciences and disorders (CSD), I have been puzzled for some time by the failure of these disciplines to capitalize more fully on the many possibilities available for collaborative scholarship and practice. One key advantage of such collaboration is the possibility of fostering greater understandings of the myriad connections between language and literacy. Both disciplines acknowledge such connections; indeed, each discipline at times seems to think that it has a monopoly on such knowledge. However, there is much mutual learning about the key dynamics of the language-literacy interface to be fostered by interdisciplinary collaboration.
Potential Value of Interdisciplinary Work
Professionals in the literacy field have much to offer their colleagues in CSD regarding the role of context and cultural practices in shaping language processes. In particular, literacy professionals can foster greater appreciation of the role of instruction in general, and discipline-specific discourse expectations in particular, in determining the language patterns evidenced by school-age children. Through implicit word choice and phrasing, as well as explicit feedback, teachers model expected vocabulary usage, syntactic constructions, and discourse moves that are valued in specific contexts. In stressing the power of differential instructional contexts in shaping patterns of language usage, literacy scholars (e.g., Hicks, 1996) provide insights into key dynamics of language development that complement the more context- neutral developmental emphasis of many CSD scholars.
Similarly, professionals in CSD have much to offer their colleagues in literacy regarding the role of language processes in reading. In particular, their emphasis on real-time processing and the quality of phonological representations can serve to highlight for literacy specialists the role of basic language processing in the acts of reading and writing (e.g., Catts & Kamhi, 2005).
Barriers to Collaboration
Given the obvious potential of such collaborations, it is interesting to consider why we haven’t seen more efforts in this direction. One explanation for this inaction relates to the fundamental problems of disciplinary inertia and the institutional walls and canyons that separate these two disciplines on virtually all university campuses in the United States. In addition, fundamental barriers exist between the epistemological and methodological perspectives of the two disciplines. Although there are certainly some notable exceptions, professionals in CSD work primarily within a cognitive science or cognitivist perspective (Duchan, 2003), while many of those in the literacy field work within a sociocultural or situative perspective. One significant exception to this generalization relates to scholars in the literacy arena who focus on the role of phonological processing in reading disabilities, the majority of whom work within a cognitivist perspective. Another exception is the work of CSD scholars who take a sociocultural perspective on discourse (see, for example, the January 2007 issue of Topics in Language Disorders).
Some key distinguishing features of the cognitive science and sociocultural perspectives characteristics of the CSD and literacy disciplinary communities are listed in Figure 1. The different background orientations along each of the dimensions highlighted here can result in impatience and misunderstanding when scholars attempt collaborative approaches to research questions. For recent discussions of these issues, see Purcell-Gates, Jacobson, & Degener (2004) and Stone (2004).
Although there are clear challenges to surmount in building bridges across this epistemological barrier, collaboration is essential in capitalizing on the potential synergies of interdisciplinary research. To do so, we must, at minimum, foster greater understanding within each discipline of the approaches to conceptualizing language, literacy, and developmental processes that are inherent to these two perspectives.
Scholars and practitioners within each discipline must meet their counterparts with an openness to learning and to potential collaborative approaches to problem-solving. Ideally, such openness will lead eventually to an integrated perspective on language and literacy, and to more powerful approaches to addressing the pressing needs of at-risk children and adults (Purcell-Gates, et al., 2004; Stone, 2004).
To accomplish this goal, it is not sufficient that each discipline tolerate a minority presence within its walls; rather, we need cross-disciplinary collaboration. Such collaboration will serve to increase the frequency with which established or budding scholars (i.e., doctoral students) from each discipline find homes in the other.
Figure 1: Distinguishing Features of Epistemologies in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) and Literacy
  • Dimension of Difference, CSD: Cognitive Science Perspective, Literacy: Sociocultural Perspective
  • Primary Focus of Study, The de-contextualized individual, The social network
  • Central Constructs, Information flow and processing constraints, Cultural practices
  • Conception of Literacy Instruction, Literacy as skill; instruction as training, Literacy as activity; instruction as guided apprenticeship
  • Primary Mode of Inquiry, Objective measurement, Rich description
  • Conception of Literacy Problems, Skill deficiency, Peripheral participation in valued practices
Collaborative Cross-Fertilization
How can we accomplish cross-fertilization between the disciplines? Three possible strategies are research collaborations, doctoral training initiatives, and public relations efforts. A potentially rich approach for research collaborations might involve challenging a multidisciplinary team to examine the same data set using multiple lenses. One focus for such inquiry might be on complementary barriers to learning opportunities, e.g., linguistic limitations that prevent entry into social communities, and community memberships that limit opportunities for language exposure/practice. Alternatively, the focus might be on complementary approaches to intervention, such as targeting both vocabulary enrichment and facilitation of social engagement in a coordinated effort.
Doctoral training initiatives might foster cross-departmental intellectual communities through interdisciplinary fellowships or research rotations. Another approach might involve “cross-hiring” of faculty, the admission of graduate students with background in the other discipline, and/or encouraging CSD master’s graduates to pursue PhDs in literacy. Finally, public relations initiatives could include CSD presentations at literacy conferences (and vice versa), or the cross- marketing of publications by professional publishers.
Although such efforts would not be easy, the potential payoff would be a broader array of research initiatives in CSD, the richer grounding of literacy scholarship in language processing, and, potentially, more applications to under-populated CSD doctoral and faculty positions. The biggest gain, however, would be a richer understanding of language and literacy development and more effective approaches to intervention.
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April 2007
Volume 12, Issue 5