From the Editor...
Sam is a 12-year-old boy who recently began the sixth grade at a rural middle school. Like many of his classmates, Sam spent a relaxing summer playing baseball, fishing, and swimming at a nearby lake. However, now that the school year is underway, he is experiencing increasing frustration in the classroom. Unlike most of his classmates, Sam has a language disorder.
With the downturn in the economy and the shrinking supply of jobs that pay a living wage but do not require a postsecondary education (e.g., those in farming, construction, and sales), it is more important than ever that children such as Sam receive the specialized assistance they require to develop their spoken and written language skills to a level that will allow them to have reasonable options in life. By reasonable options, I mean that they are able to perform well enough in school that they might eventually attend and successfully complete a postsecondary program of study at a college or university that prepares them for the 21st century workforce.
Consider a recent report concerning the 10 fastest growing careers in 2010 (Career Explorer, 2010). Several of the jobs are in computer-related areas, including network systems and data communications analyst (#1), computer application software engineer (#5), and database administrator (#8). To secure and maintain employment in any of these areas, one would need to pursue at least a 2-year degree at a community college or technical school, which would require a sophisticated level of spoken and written language development. Demonstrating this point, a student who is enrolled in an introductory computer science course at a community college would be expected to read and understand the following passage from a required textbook:
The Wonderful World of Routing
The true beauty, the amazing power of TCP/IP lies in one word: routing. Routing enables us to interconnect individual LANS into WANS. Routers, those magic boxes that act as the interconnection points, have all the built-in smarts to inspect incoming packets and forward them to their eventual LAN destination. Routers are for the most part automatic. They require very little in terms of maintenance once their initial configuration is complete because of their capability to talk to each other to determine the best way to send IP packets... . A router is any piece of hardware or software that forwards packets based on their destination IP address. Routers work, therefore, at Layer 3, the Network layer. Classically, routers are dedicated boxes that contain at least two connections, although many routers contain many more connections. In a larger business setting, for example, you might see a CISO 2600 Series device, one of the most popular routers ever made. (Meyers, 2009, pp. 170–171)
This passage, written at an 11th grade reading level (Microsoft, 2007), is syntactically and lexically challenging. With a mean sentence length of 17.33 words and a clausal density score of 2.44, the passage requires the reader to process long and complex sentences that contain multiple levels of embedding—factors that may tax a person's verbal working memory. Moreover, the passage requires the reader to understand personification (built-in smarts, talk to each other), metacognitive verbs (inspect, determine), morphologically complex nouns (interconnection, configuration, capability), adverbial conjuncts (therefore, classically, for example), Aristotelian definitions (a router is any piece of hardware or software that...), and specialized acronyms (TCP, IP, LANS, WANS).
A young adult with a language disorder characterized by syntactic and lexical deficits would have difficulty understanding the textbook and the instructor's classroom lectures. Because of poor performance on exams and assignments, the student likely would fail the course and thus be prevented from pursuing a computer-related profession. Although the student may then pursue another career option, all others in the "top 10" list (e.g., medical assistant, fitness trainer, veterinary technician) also require training beyond high school that is similarly demanding.
If a sixth-grade child such as Sam has deficits in syntax, the lexicon, word decoding, and reading comprehension, those deficits are likely to continue into adulthood if left untreated by qualified professionals (Nippold & Tomblin, 2010). Moreover, Sam's frustration in the classroom is likely to increase as the language demands become even greater during middle school and high school, resulting in a diminishing sense of confidence, optimism, and enjoyment of academic pursuits.
On the other hand, if Sam's language deficits are promptly identified by a speech-language pathologist (SLP), they can be addressed through an intervention program that targets practical aspects of spoken and written communication, focusing on the language demands of the classroom. Regardless of the intervention model used by the school (e.g., response to intervention, identification for special education), an immediate, individualized, and appropriately intensive program of services will allow Sam to participate positively in the classroom and to make progress along with his peers.
Although some might argue that it is the classroom teacher's job to help Sam succeed in school, not the SLP's, in reality, it is the job of both professionals, working collaboratively, to help Sam reach his academic potential. Having many students in the classroom, the teacher is unable to devote sufficient time to Sam's learning needs, which are extensive, given his language disorder. Even if time were available to work with Sam, the teacher does not have the specialized knowledge of later language development and disorders to identify and treat his deficits.
In contrast, the SLP is well prepared to work with Sam by appropriately identifying his deficits through norm-referenced testing and language sampling and by carefully analyzing the language demands of the classroom to establish relevant goals for intervention. It is important to note that many of the demands of a middle school classroom are similar to those of a community college classroom, although at an earlier level. To illustrate this point, let's take a look at Sam's curriculum in a few of his classes to determine why he is becoming so frustrated with school.
In science, Sam's class is studying coral reefs, and students are expected to read and understand the following passage:
Like rain forests, coral reefs contain many animals and plants that produce potentially valuable chemicals. For this reason, it is important to protect the reefs from damage from many sources. Unfortunately, reefs are in danger from natural disasters and from humans. Natural forces, such as water that is too warm, can kill corals and produce a phenomenon called coral bleaching. Organisms that eat living corals, such as the crown-of-thorns sea star, can greatly damage reefs. (Coolidge-Stoltz, Padilla, Miaoulis, & Cry, 2002, p. 326)
Notably, this passage contains several features that often prove challenging to older children with language disorders. Syntactically, the sentences are long and complex, and several of them contain relative clauses (that produce potentially valuable chemicals, that is too warm, that eat living corals) that may tax a child's working memory. The passage also contains literate vocabulary in the form of adverbial conjuncts (for this reason, unfortunately), abstract nouns (sources, phenomenon), and technical terms (coral bleaching, organisms, crown-of-thorns sea star).
After reading about coral reefs and listening to the teacher's lectures, students are expected to demonstrate their knowledge of the topic by answering questions on an essay exam. They are also asked to make individual and group oral presentations to the class on the topic.
Moving on to social studies, Sam's class is studying early humans living in Africa. Today, the students are expected to read and understand the following passage:
Fossil evidence shows that the first known humans lived on the African continent millions of years ago. Paleontologists, or scientists who study fossils, have discovered human remains in Kenya, South Africa, and other African nations. Fossilized human footprints 3.6 million years old have been found in Tanzania. Scientists believe that humans in Africa were the first to develop language, tools, and culture. Then, over tens of thousands of years, they migrated to other continents. (Bednarz, Miyares, Schug, & White, 2005, p. 499)
This passage also contains features that typically prove challenging to older children with language disorders. Again, the sentences are long and complex. They also involve use of the passive voice (footprints... have been found), Aristotelian definitions (paleontologists, or scientists who study fossils), metacognitive verbs (discovered, believe), and other literate vocabulary (evidence, continent, paleontologists, fossilized, Tanzania, culture, migrated).
After reading the passage and listening to a class discussion, students are expected to explain in writing how fossilized skull fragments might have given paleontologists information about early humans. They also are asked to do some library research on additional discoveries of paleontologists and to present their findings to the class in the form of an oral report.
By spending time in a middle school classroom, we realize that to succeed in school, a sixth-grade child with a language disorder must be assisted to use and understand complex syntax and literate vocabulary; to learn new information through listening and reading; and to demonstrate knowledge through speaking and writing. Practical information such as this is invaluable in establishing functional goals for language intervention, thereby helping the child to realize his academic potential and to have reasonable options in life. Assisting children in this way also offers long-term benefits to society, helping to build a workforce of competent young adults who can give back to their communities through productive and stable employment.