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Making the Case for a Speech – Language Expert

as the most qualified person to teach your child reading

We get distracted when we talk about reading. We think about how to teach a whole class of children. We think about how to arrange our classroom.  We think about which words to put up on our word wall.  We think about which books we should buy.  We think of new ways to create letters – maybe we can write them in “coloured moon sand” with our fingers, or make them our of Play-Doh.  We think of the right intervention or boxed reading kit to buy.  We think of esteemed psychologists administering a battery of cognitive tests to determine a child’s IQ.

What gets missed in all of this is the CHILD.  We start focusing on all of these elements of literacy, all the factors and considerations of reading, and the complexity of reading instruction.  We take a big-picture perspective of literacy.

Instead, we can take a perspective from the child’s view, rather than the big picture.  What this opens up is the opportunity to see EACH child as a unique, individual learner.  This perspective helps us to slow down and consider how each child learns.  This view opens up a biological approach where we can consider exactly what is happening in a student’s brain as they learn to read.

Think about this: although we hugely complicate the world of literacy, reading and writing are really just speech and language that have been captured on paper or a screen.

Humans have been speaking for thousands of years.  We have biological systems for speaking.  Children start to organize their sound systems by hearing their mother speak while still in the womb!

Linking Speech & Language To LiteracyBrain imaging research shows us that we have specific areas in our brain that activate when we speak.  These speech areas are actually designated as SOUND areas and LANGUAGE areas.  When someone speaks to us, we “unpack” their sentences into words and sounds FIRST, and then we extract meaning.

We also compose what we want to say this way – we start with the sounds and compose our words, then combining words into sentences.

The sound area of the brain evolved over thousands of years for us to express ourselves and understand others using a “unit” of meaning – the speech sound.

Every language has a different set or “repertoire” of sounds, and a different set or “lexicon” of vocabulary words, but what is consistent across languages is that human beings are born “hard-wired” to begin acquire the class and patterning of the sounds in their native language – no matter what that language is.

That’s right, all humans are biologically hard-wired to acquire and operate at the sound-unit level of language.

However, some children do not fully develop an organized sound system.  There are many reasons – hearing loss, ear infections, genetics – but time and again, over and over, brain imaging research shows us that children who have trouble learning to read have reduced activation in the sound processing areas of the brain.

Why is this important?  Our system of reading and writing in English is based on our sounds, but it is coded.  We as humans have evolved abstract symbols to represent those sounds.  If you have disorganization in the sound system in the brain, you WILL have disorganization in the symbol system – letters.

Children with under-developed or disorganized sound systems have trouble learning to identify letters, name or label letters, and to pair letters with the correct sound.  And this difficulty ALL stems from the difficulty in the sound system.

Did you know that Speech-Language Pathologists have tests of phonological processing that they can administer?  Did you know that Speech-Language Pathologists also have therapies to train and organize the sound system in children?

This is important!  Many children with dyslexia get diagnosed with a learning disability or a reading disability.  Complicated plans get made.  They begin getting more repetitious instruction at a slower pace, to help them learn to read.  With a diagnosis, they get lumped into the class of Kids with Dyslexia.  They get treated the way they treat ALL kids with dyslexia!  Rarely does anyone look at this child as an INDIVIDUAL?  Rarely do these children see a Speech – Language Pathologist!

What does a Speech – Language Pathologist do?  What is a better solution?  Perform some speech and language assessment.  Remember, reading and writing are just speech and language on paper!  Perform some assessment, and make a learning hypothesis about what is happening in that individual child’s brain.  What are areas activating when they try to read?  Which areas are not?  Which areas are communicating effectively?  Which areas are not?

Next, create an innovative, custom-tailored, individualized learning plan.  What patterns of error does the child make when trying to read?  What does this tell us, and how to we ADAPT our instruction to address it? What underlying speech-language skills do we need to address in order for the English letter system to make sense?

Which sounds are the difficulty for this child?  We should teach THOSE ones!

Does the child have a strong vocabulary to pull from?  If not, they are not going to recognize words on paper when trying to match back to their lexicon.  Work on vocabulary!

Can the child access and comprehend grammar and language structure, to use context to predict the word class or word meaning, narrowing the potential matches in the lexicon?  Boosting comprehension?  If not – work on language structure!

See, a Speech – Language Pathologist will do something no one else does: take a speech-first approach.

Traditionally, reading approaches ask children to address an unfamiliar word on the page.  To recognize unfamiliar symbols, and retrieve their names.  To guess at which sounds can go with that letter or combination of letters (there are multiple answers – consider the letter “g” in the words gum, gym, genre, and laugh).  Then to guess at all those combinations of sounds from those combinations of letters to create a word, and compare that to their internal storage of vocabulary to see if there is a match.  This is a MASSIVE processing and working memory task.  It is cumbersome, inaccurate, slow, and FRUSTRATING.

For a disorganized brain, it is also nearly impossible.

In a speech first approach, we talk about a word.  We use it in a sentence so that we understand clearly which word we are talking about.  We use the word in context, to tap into language sentence structure.  We talk about what it means, to tap into our vocabulary and meaning.  We activate the meaning areas of the brain – those biological language centers.

We listen to ourselves SAY the word, and tap into the sound processing areas of the brain.  We straighten out any disorganization – we make sure we are saying every syllable and every sound accurately.  We count the number of sounds so that each sound will be represented by at least one letter when we write it.

When we spell, we start with a word that we clearly know from our vocabulary, that we are clearly saying accurately, and we begin to map each sound as we write the matching letter on the page.

In this way, we take the biological system that is hard-wired from thousands of years of evolution, and we LEVERAGE it to teach the man-made, artificial letter system that we invented to capture speech and language on the page.

Children learn to map the sounds they know onto the letters that they don’t.  They learn the letter system and crack the code.

We strengthen, organize, and clarify the foundational speech and language systems and skills that are necessary for reading and writing.  We USE those foundational skills to SYSTEMATICALLY teach the code, the system of letter-sound correspondence and letter patterning.

When this is done properly, brain imaging research shows that children’s brains actually change.  We begin to see MORE activation in the left side of the brain in speech and language areas, and MORE neural connection or communication between sound, language, and visual processing areas.

Effective literacy instruction, ESPECIALLY for children with dyslexia or learning disabilities, starts with an individual assessment of that child’s learning.  Underlying sound and language processing skills MUST be evaluated.  The child then requires a learning plan that addresses their unique strengths and challenges.  A speech-first approach that utilizes multi-linguistic and multi-sensory instruction will actually change how the child’s brain works – and how easily they learn literacy skills.

If you have concerns about your child’s child’s speaking, learning, reading, writing, or spelling, I highly recommend you talk to a Speech – Language Pathologist.