Umbrella skills for expressive language
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Can you say "Kwuggerbug?" Not knowing how to rhyme and change first sounds of words would put Dr. Seuss readers at a loss.
Fortunately — thanks to their phonology skills — successful readers possess the ability to break an unfamiliar (or in this case a nonexistent) word into parts and to rhyme an unfamiliar syllable with a familiar one to sound out words they’ve never seen previously.
Phonology, a set of expressive skills needed for learning to read, is the final umbrella skill belonging to the framework we have followed for this series on expressive language from an SLP perspective. It is considered by ASHA to be one of the five language domains along with semantics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics.
The colorful example referring to the bully in the Dr. Seuss book "Horton and the Kwuggerbug and More Lost Stories" was shared by Judith Roman, M.A., CCC-SLP, clinical faculty member at Northwestern University’s Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning, who has so generously contributed her experience and expertise to these articles.
Along with phonology, we’ll look at the impact of expressive language on academic areas and consider special concerns in the final article of this series.
Phonology’s key role in expressive and receptive language
"Phonology is the ability to rhyme and to clap out syllables of words, to separate compound words and to create new words — cowboy, cowgirl, but you can add cow mommy and cow daddy! Without good skills in phonology, reading becomes quite difficult," says Roman.
"Phonology includes being able to break words into syllables and sounds and then to isolate parts of words, especially the beginning and final sounds of words," she explains. "It includes understanding word families and rhyming concepts."
Researchers have found that when children develop phonological awareness — the ability to manipulate speech sounds or phonemes in spoken words — it significantly contributes to their reading and writing development.
"Successful readers don’t sound out every single word on a page. They recognize syllable boundaries and word similarities," emphasizes Roman. "Knowledge of phonology allows students to learn new words more easily by providing the tools to parse words, compare them to other similar words and to then pronounce them."
"That’s how young readers can figure out how to describe Horton’s bully, the 'kwuggerbug!'"
Combining phonology, to say the words, with semantics, to encode the words’ meanings, allows for stronger word learning.
Expressive language and writing, one boy’s success story
While it’s common to associate speech and language therapy with verbal language, expressive language refers to writing as well as speaking. Roman shares a touching story of a boy who vastly improved his writing as a result of therapeutic work on an expressive communication challenge.
The boy was referred to speech and language therapy in around second grade for stuttering. Interestingly, it turned out that his problem wasn’t stuttering, a motor skills issue affecting the muscles in the mouth.
Instead, he had a word retrieval problem related to semantics so he repeated the previous word while looking for his next. His difficulty with semantics not only affected his verbal speech, but also his writing at school.
Life at home became challenging as well. As one of four children, there was rarely enough time for him to share about his day at dinner. His siblings got frustrated because he took such a long time relating his story.
"Along with working with him on the word level, we worked with him on the macro level," relates Roman. "One way was to help him develop the ability to tell short stories that get to the point quickly and long stories that include all the details."
At home, the boy’s mother would let him know when it was appropriate to tell his short version; for example, if they were in a hurry to get somewhere. But she would assure him that later at home she’d listen to his long story that included all the details he thought were important.
Roman adds that it’s important to understand that the therapeutic process involves a working partnership with parents and sometimes the child’s school-based speech language pathologist, which means lots of time spend working with family styles, priorities and needs.
"The boy changed tremendously," says Roman. "After therapy, his teacher shared that he was one of the best writers in the class."
Roman is quick to note that such dramatic improvement isn’t the case for everyone who enters therapy. Many factors come into play in the time it takes for each individual to make changes. Some children are selective in using the strategies they learn and practice in therapy — they may gauge whether a situation is worth making the effort to employ their strategies.
While some children may not seem to take proper advantage of their new tools from therapy, it is a myth that left alone these difficulties will get ironed out with time. As demonstrated by this example, children have so many different profiles therefore professional assessment is invaluable when it comes to potential language and speech issues.
Expressive language challenges and ESL students
While some of the techniques suggested in the article series for working with language may seem familiar to ESL teachers, there are distinct differences in addressing expressive language issues with first language speakers and ESL speakers.
Roman makes it clear that learning English as a second language is a completely different skill from having difficulty with expressive language. For example, people who are learning a second language might struggle to think of a word — not because they didn’t effectively encode it related to a semantic difficulty — but because they haven’t had sufficient opportunity to learn it yet.
"On the other hand, those with language disorders have had the opportunity to learn the word along with their peers and something in the process didn’t work well," clarifies Roman. "That being said, it is possible to be a speaker of multiple languages and have an expressive language disorder present in those multiple languages."
When it’s important to work differently
In conclusion, Roman urges us to bear in mind that expressive language difficulties are not a child’s fault.
"Children with language disorders honestly also wish they could communicate more effectively and efficiently. They become frustrated because they confront the difficulty all day every day in many speaking situations. Trying harder doesn’t work. Trying again doesn’t work. Therapy focuses on trying differently — and often can make good changes."
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