Jeannene M. Ward-Lonergan, PhD, professor of speech-language pathology and Jill K. Duthie, PhD, CCC-SLP, associate professor of speech-language pathology, identified a need for literacy services in the community surrounding Pacific. They also observed that the scope of practice for speech-language pathologists has expanded beyond speaking and listening to include reading and writing. In response they established the Language-Literacy Center (LLC), made possible through a Strategic Educational Excellence Development grant from the University’s Strategic Investment Fund.
The LLC offers assessment and treatment sessions to students in grades 1-12, free of charge. “We really feel that there is a need to provide literacy services for students with language disorders in our area,” said Dr. Ward-Lonergan. “We provide services free of charge to meet the needs in the community.” Speech-language pathology (SLP) graduate students met the LLC’s first group of clients in September 2015.
Alina Crom ’17 emphasizes that the services the LLC offers are fundamentally different than tutoring, which focuses on passing a certain test or class. In contrast, at the LLC, clients are taught learning strategies. These lifelong skills can be applied to a wide variety of areas in the classroom and beyond. Dr. Ward-Lonergan explains that students are taught “a set of steps they follow, that they can use wherever they go, not to just get through one assignment.”
In addition to representing a wide range of skill levels, the clients are culturally and linguistically diverse. “The children are at a variety of levels in their need for intervention,” said Dr. Duthie. “Some children are working on very beginning reading skills, some haven’t yet learned how to decode simple words. Others are reading, but not at their grade level.” What the clients have in common is that they have a mild to moderate language disorder. Dr. Ward-Lonergan explains, “They have a significant difficulty comprehending and/or producing language.” Crom found that many of the clients have what she describes as “splinter skills.” She elaborates, “[They were] really strong in one area, such as reading, but would have trouble in other areas.”
The LLC gives SLP students the opportunity to apply, in a clinical setting, the concepts they are learning in their courses. Dr. Ward-Lonergan elaborates, “Students have an opportunity to engage in evidence-based practice with these clients.” She explains that the SLP profession has expanded to increasingly include written language. As the profession evolves, the ways in which graduate students are trained has been updated to reflect the changes, ensuring that graduates are prepared for the demands of the profession when they enter the field. Pacific’s SLP students gain clinical experience at the Scottish Rite Childhood Language Disorders Center, which focuses on speaking and listening. In contrast, the LLC focuses on “how to assess and treat written language disorders,” shares Dr. Ward-Lonergan.
Through the LLC, students are given an immersive clinical experience. Christi Shaver ’17 explains that the students are responsible for planning their therapy sessions. Dr. Ward-Lonergan and Dr. Duthie are available to offer guidance, but the students are responsible for deciding how they are going to address the topic, how to tailor it to the client and how to make it engaging. One way the students make therapy fun for the client is to create themed lessons around their interests, such as bugs or superheroes.
The SLP students agreed that working with this age group requires flexibility, creativity and patience. Caitlin Elam ’17 shared that she had a client with behavioral issues. “I had to get a token system going to keep him on track,” explained Elam. Shaver emphasizes the importance of starting speech therapy at a young age. “This is such a formative time in their lives,” said Shaver. “If they can get this extra help early on it can make a huge impact on the rest of their educational career.”
Dr. Ward-Lonergan and Dr. Duthie see the benefits for both the graduate students and the community. Dr. Duthie shares, “We hope to obtain funding to continue to provide these services beyond our two year grant.” Shaver found working with clients at the LLC to be an eye-opening experience. She shares, “Reading as it connects to writing, as it connects to the overall language system, is more complex than I could have ever imagined.” Everyone involved was overwhelmed by the positive outcome of their experience with the LLC. “Every single one of our kids improved greatly,” said Alex Fernandez ’17. Dr. Ward-Lonergan adds, “Their parents are very excited about the progress they are making.”