Children Should be Seen and Heard
The young woman sat on a tiny chair at a child-sized table reading a book with a little girl who sate attentively next to her. The pair pointed at the pictures and laughed at the antics of the characters in the story. “Dat horth ith thilly,” the pre-school student giggled. The speech therapist smiled. “You are right,” she said. “That horse is silly!” For the rest of the session, the little girl and the therapist talked about the book they had just read. And without even realizing it, the student was learning correct speech from the language prompts the therapist used.
Monica Harn, associate professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, recently received a $198,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. She is researching the effectiveness of a therapy called Addressing Multiple Aspects of Language Simultaneously (AMALS), which is designed to remediate problems with word meaning, word formation and word order for preschool children with language impairment. She’s comparing AMALS to the more traditional therapy that uses language prompts and repetition. Think “flash cards.”
With AMALS, the therapist uses an interactive, natural approach with repeated storybook reading. “You use the books as stimuli,” Harn, a licensed speech-language pathologist, explained. Preschool students are already familiar with books. “It’s a naturally occurring experience,” Harn said, adding that the therapist uses that advantage and then adds clinical strategies to increase correct language usage. And AMALS works regardless of any dialect a student might have, which is a plus in this region where Texas twangs meet with other language variations from cultures including Cajun, African American and Hispanic.
There’s an economic advantage with AMALS too. With the current shortage of certified speech-language therapists and limited resources and funding, AMALS works as well as traditional therapy and works quicker. “You get the biggest bang for your buck,” Harn said.
On all measures, Harn noted, both treatments work, but the AMALS treatment works at a higher rate. “The impact was greater with the AMALS treatment,” she said. In a 20-minute session, Harn explained, a clinician is able to apply 200 language prompts. The therapist can deal with many speech problems in one session by “naturally” talking with the student about a story.
“It doesn’t have to be a drill-and-practice format,” said William Harn, chairman of the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. He agrees that students with language impairments can learn through natural conversation with a therapist. “Her research brings a lot of benefit to our department,” the chairman said of his faculty member, who is also his wife. “This is the department’s first big grant. It raises the national profile of our department and Lamar University.”
He’s also hopeful that the students pursuing master’s degrees who are participating in the AMALS research will be inspired to go on to earn doctoral degrees. The department has a partnership with the Port Arthur Independent School District where graduate students work at satellite sites to deliver services to students with speech and language impairments. The clinical trial targeted 50 students. Harn is thankful for the positive and helpful attitudes of the administrators, faculty and staff at the school district concerning her research. Now that she knows that AMALS therapy works quickly and well, Harn’s next step is to measure the class performance of the children who received the therapy.
“Kids with language impairments are at a high risk for academic failure,” Harn noted, adding that they often have difficulties learning to read and write. It’s important to decrease the “snowball effect” of language impairment that leads to the risk of academic problems. “If you do this intense intervention early, then students will have maximal learning opportunities in the classroom and beyond,” Harn said.
The Need for Therapy
- By the first grade, roughly 5 percent of children have noticeable speech disorders.
- Between 6 million and 8 million people in the United States have some form of language impairment.
Source: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders