Alberta Education offers Program Unit Funding (PUF) through Early Childhood Services for children with delays or disabilities between the ages of 2 years 8 months and 6 years.
It is a great program, aimed at early identification and intervention with a particular lens for barriers to learning within an ECS program.
There are different criteria that can qualify a child for services, such as having a severe language disorder, having a moderate language disorder as well as a delay in motor skill development, or having a severe speech sound impairment with a co-occurring language impairment that is at least moderate in severity.
However, there are some imperfections in the system. One profile I see frequently is children with a severe phonological disorder that only score as mildly impaired in their language scores. Because these children do not meet criteria for a moderate language disorder, they do not qualify for funding.
The tragedy here is that a phonological disorder is not actually a speech sound disorder. Not really; not PRIMARILY, when we look to its root cause.
Within a phonological disorder, there ARE errors in speech, certainly. We typically see speech sound omissions and substitutions. However, the CAUSE of those errors is typically difficulty in the sound processing system in the brain. While such children have difficulty saying words, they also have difficulty PROCESSING words.
This can lead to difficulties in acquiring new spoken vocabulary and comprehending longer, more complex sentences. It also leads to delays in learning expressive grammar structures – using copular and auxiliary verbs, marking word endings, and learning to use pronouns.
What I often see is that these children have difficulty with SOME language tasks, but not ALL. The result? They score in the low average or mildly disordered range on comprehensive language assessments and do not qualify for funding.
Where this gets frustrating is that research indicates that a language disorder may exist at the sound/word level, or the sentence/discourse level. A student with a language disorder may have difficulty processing language at either level – or both. (Bishop & Snowling, 2004; Catts, Adlof, Hogan, & Ellis Weismer, 2005).
It is important to understand that challenges with sound processing, such as those that occur in a phonological processing disorder, are cognitive-linguistic in nature. Phonology is a term to refer to the sound system – the sound inventory and rules governing the patterning of sounds – in a given language. Phonology is a language-based construct.
Students with phonological deficits do not accurately process sound information – and sound conveys meaning. Even if this disorder manifests with speech sound difficulty or disorder, the root or nature of the disorder is language processing. These students are not processing meaning, and therefore not processing language, effectively.
In other words, a student with a severe phonological disorder actually HAS a severe impairment in language – and as such, they should by definition qualify for funding.
Unfortunately, there are only a few comprehensive language assessments that are acceptable to generate scores to qualify for PUF funding, and they do a poor job of examining the sound and word level processing scores of children.
As Speech-Language Pathologists, we do have robust tests that we can administer to assess sound processing, but sadly these test scores are not considered in a PUF application.
Why this is important is that the very intention of PUF funding is early identification and intervention to prevent later academic difficulties. Well, sound processing is requisite for learning letter-sound correspondence, the alphabetic principle, and fluent decoding skills.
I see over and over and over again children in Gr. 1 and beyond that fail to read, and almost always score below average on tests of phonological processing.
Often these children were identified early through their speech difficulties and received speech therapy.
These are children that we can identify early, and we can predict as early as age 3 that they are going to have difficulty learning to read – and yet these children often do not meet criteria for funding, leaving parents to seek support privately to get the help they need.
I appeal to parents, educators, and Speech-Language Pathologists to educate yourselves on the long-term effects of a phonological processing disorder – it impacts FAR MORE than speech.
A cautionary note – these disorders manifest in speech, but speech therapy is ineffective to remediate a phonological processing disorder. Addressing speech patterns is just the tip of the iceberg! Once speech patterns stabilize, there is no outward manifestation of the disorder – but the sound processing system in the brain may STILL be disorganized! We know that disorganization in the sound system leads to disorganization in the letter system. Children that exhibit phonological errors are at massive risk for reading failure.
I argue that children that exhibit phonological errors in speech should be assessed across all modalities of phonological processing; and that those test scores should be accepted when considering the appropriateness of PUF funding. We would be able to prevent MANY diagnoses of learning disability, reading disability, and dyslexia that occur in Gr. 3 and beyond. This would be a solution to really get out in front of a problem. Because make no mistake, a child in Gr. 4 that is not reading is a BIG problem that will likely never get resolved without specialized help. And the tragedy is that it is predictable – and preventable.