It’s In the Cards: Serving Students With Spoken and Written Language Challenges When I first entered this profession and decided to focus on child language, I learned as much as I could about language development in the first five years of life. After all, that was when language developed. As I progressed through my studies, and, in particular, when I entered doctoral ... Features
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Features  |   January 01, 2002
It’s In the Cards: Serving Students With Spoken and Written Language Challenges
Author Notes
  • Kenn Apel, is professor and chair of the communicative disorders and sciences department at Wichita State University. His teaching, clinical, and research interests focus on literacy development in children, adolescents, and young adults. He also likes to play cards. Contact him by email at Kenn.Apel@wichita.edu
    Kenn Apel, is professor and chair of the communicative disorders and sciences department at Wichita State University. His teaching, clinical, and research interests focus on literacy development in children, adolescents, and young adults. He also likes to play cards. Contact him by email at Kenn.Apel@wichita.edu×
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Development / Professional Issues & Training / ASHA News & Member Stories / Normal Language Processing / Language Disorders / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Speech, Voice & Prosody / Features
Features   |   January 01, 2002
It’s In the Cards: Serving Students With Spoken and Written Language Challenges
The ASHA Leader, January 2002, Vol. 7, 6-7. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.07012002.6
The ASHA Leader, January 2002, Vol. 7, 6-7. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.07012002.6
When I first entered this profession and decided to focus on child language, I learned as much as I could about language development in the first five years of life. After all, that was when language developed. As I progressed through my studies, and, in particular, when I entered doctoral studies, I slowly became aware that language development did not stop at 5 years of age nor did it occur only in the spoken mode.
Why this was so earth shattering is beyond me. After all, for years speech-language pathologists had been concerned about spoken and written language in adults who lost language skills because of some brain trauma. It just didn’t seem to be an integral part of child language.
Have times changed and the cards been reshuffled? To a great extent, the answer is no. Actually, for more than 20 years, ASHA has been discussing language in relation to both the spoken and written (literate) modes. For example, ASHA has identified the written aspects of language in documents such as its position statement on Language Learning Disorders (ASHA, 1982), its guidelines for Speech-Language Pathologists Serving Persons with Language, Socio-Communicative and/or Cognitive-Communication Impairments (ASHA, 1990), and its report on Issues in Determining Eligibility for Language Intervention (1988), to name a few.
Why, then, does the notion of working on written language—that is, providing prevention, assessment, and intervention services in the areas of reading, writing, and spelling—seem so new? Maybe it’s because many of us did not have any pre-service education in these areas. As in other areas of our professional domain that slowly have been integrated into common, everyday practices, the idea of working with students who struggle with these literacy skills did not move along quickly.
However, with ASHA’s recently approved guidelines for the Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists With Respect to Reading and Writing in Children and Adolescents (ASHA, 2000); the mounting empirical evidence of the language bases of reading, writing, and spelling; and the federal government’s greater focus on literacy development, it seems now is the time to up the ante. SLPs need to be able to discuss fluently the relationship of spoken and written language and the qualities and knowledge bases they bring to the task of helping students with literacy challenges. They also need to understand the effects on their time and resources when working with students with literacy difficulties.
The Relationship of Spoken and Written Language: Two of a Kind?
I assume most SLPs agree with the definition of language that ASHA officially adopted almost 20 years ago: “Language is a complex and dynamic system of conventional symbols that is used in various modes for thought and communication … [and] is described by at least five parameters—phonologic, morphologic, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic” (ASHA, 1982; italics added). I also assume SLPs are well aware of these aspects of language within spoken language. The question is, are these language components found in written language as well? The answer is yes, but perhaps not always in the same manner or ways as in spoken language.
Similarities Between Spoken and Written Language. Both spoken and written language use a student’s knowledge of the five components of language. For example, just as we adjust our speech and language style to our listener, so do writers adjust their compositions to their readers. Thus, pragmatic skills are involved in both modes of communication. Semantic skills also are used in spoken and written language. When we are conversing with another or reading a text, we relate concepts to what we already know and often use our background and world knowledge to help us understand less familiar words. We also may use our morphological knowledge of specific root words and common prefixes and suffixes to comprehend words that, as a whole, are unfamiliar (e.g., anti-, establish, -ment). Thus, we use all of the language components for both spoken and written forms of language.
Differences Between Spoken and Written Language. Although the same knowledge bases are used for spoken and literate language, there are differences between these two modes in how these knowledge bases are used. Most notably, reading, writing, and spelling require a level of active awareness and thought about language that spoken language generally does not. Unlike spoken language, written language is removed from the present, thus requiring a greater focus on the linguistic information being written or read because of minimal, if any, nonlinguistic cues. The syntax contained in written language tends to be more formalized and complex compared to spoken language. Information across spoken utterances may be linked by intonation and phrasing, whereas the same information in written language is interconnected via specific linguistic cohesive devices. Written language also differs from spoken language in that it taps into students’ orthographic representations, or the mental images of words, morphemes, and letters stored in memory. This information is used in reading and spelling, but not in spoken language. The application of the different language components, then, varies in style and level of metalinguistic awareness between spoken and written language.
Applying Our Knowledge Base: An Ace in the Hole
Given the background of SLPs in the different language components, we are particularly suited to providing assessment and intervention services for children who have reading, writing, and spelling challenges via a variety of direct, consultative, and preventative service delivery models. For example, most SLPs now understand the importance of and the need to address phonemic awareness skills with students, especially those who are struggling with reading and spelling.
Drawing on our knowledge base in language, it is not a difficult stretch to understand the role morphological awareness plays in these literacy skills. We may not be completely aware of which root words are of Greek or Latin origin, but we do understand how meaning is bound and grammatical roles are conveyed through the use of root words and common prefixes and suffixes. We can apply this appreciation for morphology by helping students identify and relate their knowledge of root words to challenging inflected or derived word forms that must be read or written. Not only will an increased awareness of the semantic and syntactic functions of specific morphemes aid children in their reading and spelling skills, it also will serve to help children develop broader and deeper spoken vocabularies as well. This is one example of the linguistic expertise we may bring to helping students with literacy challenges.
Working With Students With Literacy Disorders: A Full House or a Royal Flush?
I often complain that there is never enough time in my language courses to cover all the areas and aspects of spoken and written language. Likewise, I often hear concerns from school-based or clinic-based SLPs that the inclusion of students with written language deficits into their caseloads will double or triple their workload. In other words, it seems the feeling is that their hands are full, and adding one more card to the deck will bring down the house. However, I would like to encourage all of us to see written language as the card that creates the royal flush in our hands. We have a tremendous amount of knowledge about language that we bring to the situation. This fact is often acknowledged by professionals both within and outside of our field. Along with the expertise and knowledge of other professionals, SLPs are well-suited and positioned to help students struggling in the areas of reading, writing, and spelling.
What is one to do, then, if students with written language disorders are to be served? Do we abandon students with spoken language disorders to make room for these students? Do we see more students but less often? Are we expected to work with a deck that has more than 52 cards? I would argue that the answer is twofold. First, as many of us have experienced, students with spoken language difficulties often demonstrate written language deficits as well. Thus, the student numbers are not changing dramatically; however, the focus may change.
We all have seen students who have a number of different language concerns. It may be that one student has speech sound production errors, spoken grammatical deficiencies, and difficulties in reading comprehension. Another student may demonstrate deficits in spoken narrative skills, reading decoding and spelling skills, and presupposition skills (e.g., knowing the type of language to use with adults vs. peers). In these cases, like so many others, we likely need to make some choices. We may not be able to provide services for all of the students’ concerns. So, we must prioritize, and determine which of the deficits have the greatest impact on the student’s academic and social performance. In this way, “adding” written language to our practice list does not necessarily add to our workload. As in many situations, we must make choices as to how we can best help the student at that point, as well as prepare the student for future academic and social needs.
There is a second answer to the question about the implications of serving students with written language disorders. All of us must become knowledgeable and current in the areas of reading, writing, and spelling. Not to do so would be to turn our backs on many of ASHA’s reports, guidelines, and position statements. In the box at right there are some references that I believe are helpful resources for acquiring or refining our knowledge about reading, writing, and spelling. Perhaps the most accessible of these documents are the technical report and guidelines for the Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists With Respect to Reading and Writing in Children and Adolescents (ASHA, 2000). Not only does this document effectively provide an excellent overview of reading, writing, and spelling development, but it also delineates the roles SLPs may choose to play in serving students with literacy challenges.
Addressing Spoken and Written Language Challenges: Do We Play or Do We Fold?
I believe SLPs must take an active role in both spoken and written language. For years, many of us have felt comfortable with our role with spoken language. My hope is that we will continue to expand and refine that role to involve written language as well. On the listserv for Special Interest Division 1, Language Learning and Education, Katharine Butler wrote, “Look to the mission of the schools…it is to graduate those who can read and write with at least a modicum of skill. SLPs have a real contribution to make to the education enterprise, and that is to become central to the mission of the schools…to create and, at the very least, to enhance, the skills of language and learning disordered children to become literate citizens.” This statement succinctly captures the great contribution SLPs have to offer students with literacy deficits.
I believe we must play our cards and address written language disorders in our roles as SLPs. There is a saying that goes: “You can’t win if you don’t play.” I believe that, in this case, students with written language disorders may not win if we don’t play. The cards have been dealt. I suggest we pick them up and play.
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FROM THIS ISSUE
January 2002
Volume 7, Issue 1