A Cooperative Approach: SLPs Turn to Classroom Teachers for Support
Originally published November 2022
By Adam Stone
Specialized instruction in speech and language used to take place outside the classroom. The speech-language pathologist (SLP) would pull the student aside periodically for training in a range of skills.
That might include “sound, speech, expression, feeding and swallowing, voice, fluency, and even social skills as it relates to self-expression and interpersonal relationship skills,” says Armida Carr, SLP and owner of the Arizona-based speech therapy centre New Horizon Therapy. Overall, “the role of the speech-language pathologist is to evaluate, diagnose, and treat language.”
These days, SLPs are increasingly looking to do this in collaboration with classroom teachers. Cooperative effort is a major trend in the SLP world, with K–12 general education teachers frequently working in support of the pathologist.
“People are going towards the multidisciplinary approach,” says Erin Stone, an SLP who works with the Special School District of St. Louis County, MO. “Research shows that the more people are bombarding our kids with similar strategies and techniques, the quicker they’re going to be able to show progress.”
Speech and language difficulties can present themselves in a number of ways.
“When we talk about reading and writing, delays in the acquisition of productive skills and receptive skills are quite common,” says Anna Gupta, teaching quality assessment manager at online language learning platform Novakid.
Students “will likely have difficulties in sound articulation. Speech of such students might seem to be unclear despite their efforts to pronounce sounds properly,” she says. “Learners might find it difficult to distinguish minimal pairs—big/pig, cab/cap—or rhyme words. Difficulties with sounds acquisition and production may cause anxiety while listening, reading or writing.”
Such problems will certainly impact classroom learning, hence the growing focus on a cooperative approach. More often than not these days, “we see more of a collaborative relationship with classroom teachers,” says Aruna Hari Prasad, MA, CCC-SLP, associate director of school services in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
In practical terms, this calls for open lines of communication between the teacher and the SLP, who may strategize together in support of a student’s specific needs. In the past, “if I was just providing services in my office, I could just address the goals and objectives that [were] on the student’s IEP under speech language, and not necessarily think about how to integrate them with the curriculum,” Prasad says.
Today, “it becomes more of a planning and logistical practice for the SLP and classroom teachers to meet ahead of time, discuss the curriculum, to discuss what kinds of roles they’ll play in addressing that curriculum,” she adds. “All of those things need to be discussed and decided upon … so the students’ needs are being met most effectively.”
A bilingual SLP and assistant clinical professor at the University of New Hampshire, Meg Morgan said she has seen a growing emphasis on integrating the work of the SLP into the classroom community. That’s important, she says, because there are opportunities within the classroom setting to identify and remediate language gaps in real time.
“For example, I was in a classroom and they were working on past tense, adding the ‘-ed’ onto the ending of words. Some kids who aren’t acquiring language naturally don’t understand it, because it’s actually very complex. The ‘-ed’ can sound different based on what it’s attached to. It can make a T sound at the end of jumped. It can make the D sound at the end or played,” she says.
When classroom teachers and SLPs coordinate their efforts, they can better help a student to overcome those kinds of hurdles. As a bonus, other kids in the room may have an easier time understanding, even if they aren’t struggling with language issues. “It can lead to some interesting conversations about why we do things the way that we do,” Morgan says.
In St. Louis, SLP Erin Stone points to a number of ways in which the emerging cooperative environment may impact classroom teachers, and she describes some best practices for teachers looking to a support the work of the SLP, without adding too much too their own already-full plates.
“In a perfect world, a receptive general education teacher could be making sure that modifications and accommodations special to that child’s language or speech needs are being carried out in the general education classroom,” she says.
“Let’s say a student struggles with vocabulary and processing. A teacher might not have a word bank [i.e. a vocabulary list] for the entire classroom, but the student with the language disability might need one in order to succeed on an activity worksheet.”
This will require some advance planning and coordination. “The general education classrooms tend to move a little bit faster than what our students can keep up with,” Stone explains. “If a teacher gives us vocabulary words one day before they’re going to start instruction, that doesn’t give us enough time to really make the modifications, to build in a multitiered presentation of materials.” A few days’ lead time is preferable.
Creating that added resource of course means extra work, but in Stone’s view, cooperation can make it possible for classroom teachers to support SLPs with minimal added effort.
“If you’re creating a worksheet, for example, you can do chunking. You present five questions with a five-word word bank, and then the next five questions and another word bank,” she says. Do this a few times, “and it quickly becomes a habit.”
ASHA’s Aruna Hari Prasad says that by working together in this way, teachers and SLPs can work toward common objectives. “Let’s say students have read a piece of literature, a chapter in a textbook or a short story, and the skills that need to be addressed are higher-order thinking skills like making inferences, drawing conclusions,” she says.
“Those skills are definitely part of the common core curriculum, as well as state learning standards,” she notes. “And they tie in closely with what an SLP might do—thinking about what information is available in the text, looking for those context clues.”
By coordinating their efforts, the teacher and the SLP can drive higher-level outcomes both in the general classroom setting and within the context of the SLP’s objectives. “Together they can look at the student holistically and think: What are the student’s learning needs? What are the main issues that we want to address?” Prasad says. “Then each provider can look at the core skill that they’re working on as part of that whole, and can think about how they can contribute to targeting that skill.”
A Natural Alignment
Current thinking in the SLP community suggests there is a natural alignment between the SLP’s work and the general teacher’s goals.
“SLPs teach phonological awareness, knowledge of the sound system underlying language development; and phonemic awareness, phoneme-level knowledge, which is a primary predictor of reading success,” says Avinash Mishra, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at Sacred Heart University.
“Tasks may include parsing words into syllables, rhyming, alliteration … and individual sound manipulation,” Mishra says. “SLPs work on narrative formulation, story elements, sequencing, and story grammar—how to organize and develop a cohesive story including key characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution.”
The point being, those are all things that classroom teachers address as well. So there’s a natural fit here, and everyone benefits from closer collaboration.
This need not be a heavy lift. “The teacher and SLP may just need to share their different goals and objectives,” Prasad says. “The teacher would say, ‘We’re covering this piece of literature today and the these are the learning outcomes for my lesson.’ The SLP might say, ‘That’s great because that actually syncs with what I have to address for my students.’”
For teachers looking to engage with SLP efforts, Anna Gupta from Novakid points to a number of practical strategies that SLPs commonly use, which can easily be adapted into the general classroom.
- “To teach reading, phonogram drill cards are a great idea,” she says. These might be separated by color: green for vowels, white for consonants, blue for suffixes. Because the speech and visual components are interconnected, “it really helps students with SLPs to memorize sounds and learn to read easier and faster.”
- Teachers can also use multisensory teaching methods. “This means the student will see it (visual), hear it (auditory), and move with it (kinesthetic),” Gupta explains. For example, “you may use sand to write letters/words, or ask your student to make them out of paper.”
- Classroom educators also can practice phonological awareness. “You may include some exercises on distinguishing a particular sound or minimal pairs,” she says. “For example, you may ask your student to clap when he or she hears words with a particular sound.”
Simple strategies like these can support the work of the SLP. Moreover, they can benefit the entire classroom population, by giving students a wider array of choices as they interact with language and acquire new communications skills.
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.