Speaking of Literacy

Episode 2: An Interview With Dr. Emily (Diehm) Gunaseelan

April 01, 2024 Iowa Reading Research Center Season 1 Episode 2
Speaking of Literacy
Episode 2: An Interview With Dr. Emily (Diehm) Gunaseelan
Show Notes Transcript

This episode features Dr. Emily (Diehm) Gunaseelan. Emily is a speech-language pathologist teletherapist at Green Hills Area Education Agency providing virtual speech-language therapy services to PK-12 students in southwestern Iowa. Prior to her switch to full-time clinical work, Emily worked as faculty in speech-language pathology undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio and St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. She is a founding member of the Structured Word Inquiry Research Vanguard (SWIRV) and a board member of the Iowa branch of the International Dyslexia Association. Her clinical and research interests include the evaluation and intervention of oral and written language disorders in school-age children, with a particular interest in morphology.

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Grace: You’re listening to Speaking of Literacy, the Iowa Reading Research Center’s podcast on the field of speech-language pathology and its impact on literacy development.

Natalie: This is a podcast intended for educators, students, and any individuals that work with kids who want to better understand the role of professionals in the speech, language, and hearing science profession and how their work supports the teaching of literacy and reading skills.

Grace: We are your hosts, Grace Cacini…

Natalie: …and Natalie Schloss.

Grace: We are undergraduate students at the University of Iowa studying communication sciences and disorders and are assistive technology coordinators at the Iowa Reading Research Center. We have come together to educate others about this profession and to present the current research and how it relates to reading and writing. 

Natalie: We welcome everyone to join us on this journey as we uncover the facts and outline the roles and responsibilities speech-language pathologists have in the reading development of the individuals they work with. Throughout this podcast, we will often refer to speech-language pathologists as SLPs. You can find definitions for terms like this, as well as links to things we mention in the episode, in our listening companion.

Grace: Welcome listeners of Speaking of Literacy. This episode, Natalie and I are joined with Dr. Emily (Diehm) Gunaseelan, a speech-language pathologist in Green Hills Area Education Agency with wonderful insight into reading and writing instruction, dyslexia in the school setting as a speech-language pathologist. I am honored to welcome Emily to the podcast. 

Emily: Thanks so much for having me. 

Natalie: We're so excited to talk with you today. To start off, could you introduce yourself and your work for us? 

Emily: Definitely. So, as you mentioned, I've been a speech-language pathologist for almost 14 years now. In that time, I've had lots of different positions working in schools, working in private practices, and then a lot of that time has also been working in the university setting teaching graduate  students and undergraduate students how to be a speech-language pathologist. Most of my research work has focused on the assessment and intervention of children with oral language disorders and how that impacts written language skills. A lot of my work has really focused on morphology within that as well as other stuff on narrative discourse skills and then how we best can prepare SLPs to serve students from these populations.

Grace: Awesome. We'd love to hear more on your educational and professional journey that got you to where you are today. We know we have an alumni here, but we'd love to hear more about that.

Emily: So, I went to the University of Iowa from ‘04 to ’08 and was enrolled in the speech-language pathology major, which both of you are enrolled in. After I graduated with my undergrad, I honestly was a little bit torn with what I wanted to do. I couldn't figure out if I wanted to be an audiologist or a speech-language pathologist. So ultimately, I just applied to one graduate school in SLP, which I know was unheard of, but applied to one graduate school, and I thought, if I get in, I’m meant to be an SLP. So obviously I got into that program, and it was just the best. I attended Florida State University down in Tallahassee, Florida, for my graduate program—amazing university, amazing program, lots of really knowledgeable professors who kind of helped support my interests in literacy as it relates to our field. After finishing that program down in Tallahassee, I then actually moved back to the Iowa City area, worked as an SLP serving parts of Iowa City, Coralville, in this area, and then, after only a year of that, decided to go back to Florida State to work on a PhD program. So I did that until 2015 and then started working in universities from 2015 to 2023. And then, just last year, I decided to make the shift to going back to full-time clinical practice just to kind of see: How does all of this work in the, quote, unquote, “real world”? How can we best serve students in schools that have speech and language disorders as well as literacy disorders, and how do we make sure that our research aligns with what's happening in real life practices and policies? So, I think there can be sometimes a disconnect between what research suggests we should be doing and then what the real world actually allows. So, I just wanted to kind of see what does this look like, and how can that inform research going forward? 

Grace:  Yeah, no, that's awesome. I think that connection is such a crucial part of this field but is not always talked about enough to kind of connect those two—that research and that clinical aspect. 

Emily: For sure. Yep.

Natalie: And that collaboration—like every SLP I've ever talked to is constantly reading research and constantly keeping up to date on the newest interventions and what is evidence-based. I would love to know your experience in the schools and what it's been so far as you've been working in the schools and working on literacy and speech and language and all these things, and how you see that connected to your PhD experience. 

Emily:  I would say the biggest shock that I had was just the length of a typical session. I think I was very much used to—even in a university setting training graduate students, most of our sessions were always at least 30 minutes if not an hour. And that probably is problematic as well, too. I think we should have more research on dosage and frequency,  and what do we really need to make an intervention be impactful? I think often we just kind of, you know, we'd go with the status quo of how long a session should be. And sometimes that's dependent on parent/caregiver availability to drop a child off, pick a child up. But I think that was the biggest shock for me going back to work in the schools, especially now working as a telepractitioner. I live in the Quad Cities in Iowa, but I serve students in southwest Iowa. Telepractice—It’s hard to run groups when you've got several kids around one computer. I often really do need more one-on-one or me with two students at most. So because of that, to get all of the kids in a day seen, most of my sessions and most of the IEPs that I inherited were written for kids to receive, you know, one to two, 10-to-15-minute sessions a week. And it is just interesting—We don't have a lot of research studies that look at especially language interventions and that short of a dosage. We've got lots of speech interventions, like the five-minute speech, five-minute artic model, but we don't have the same research base for what does language intervention look like in a 10-to-15-minute session. So that has been tricky to figure out. How can I really provide high quality, evidence-based instruction when I know that the time that I have is different than what was described in these research articles? 

Grace:  Yeah, I think that is a new perspective that I never even realized, just being in, still, the undergraduate stage and just only being able to observe from a clinical standpoint. The minimum is really 30 minutes that I've seen, and that's such a different format. Now, connecting with that kind of knowing that you only have a short amount of time, how do you collaborate with teachers, reading interventionists, and other members on the educational team? 

Emily: For sure, talking to teachers about—What are the skills that they're working on in the classroom? What are the units that they're studying? Is there a certain topic that all of the students are learning about that I can then pull into our sessions too so that I'm supporting students and building the same background knowledge that they're learning about in their classrooms? Talking to the special education teacher to see what is that teacher working on right now. “Oh, you're learning a new digraph with the students. Great, let me make sure that I pull that digraph in for some of my kids who are working on speech sounds too.” I can make sure that I focus on words that have not just their target speech sound but also contain that same digraph that they're focusing on with their special education teacher. So, I think there's lots of ways to collaborate. But you're right, the time piece is a challenging one, and I think it's something that—We know teachers' schedules are crazy, SLPs’ schedules are crazy. It's hard to find that time. Thankfully, schools are doing a pretty good job of having some PD days for teachers, where some of the principals I've worked with have been generous with offering time during those PD days to meet with teachers. I've had some teachers who give up their lunch breaks to talk to me. That's obviously not ideal and not something that I ever want to take their lunch break or my lunch break, but sometimes that's what we do, honestly. And then some after-school meetings with teachers—IEP meetings can be great for collaboration as well. When we're talking through—How do we support each other? Looking at both of the goals that we have, what can that look like going forward? 

Natalie: The school is such a unique place too because you have all of those professionals in one building or under one district, so students get all kinds of opportunities for instruction and implementation of therapy and intervention.

Emily: Yeah, and it definitely does. It takes effort, though. I think the model that a lot of speech-language pathologists follow tends to be more of that pull-out method, and when you've got a busy caseload, sometimes that's what you've got to do, right? So always supporting all of our SLPs who are dealing with the day-to-day struggles of the realities of a large caseload, and there's not always as much time for that collaboration. But I think, thankfully, we're, as a field, exploring different service delivery options. So, thinking about, like, a three-to-one service delivery option where you may have three weeks of service delivery and then one week of evaluations or collaboration or something that's more indirect work that week. I do something that's more of a weekly three-to-one type of model—so it should be more of called a four-to-one, right—where I see kids four days a week and then have one day that's more for my indirect services of evaluations, report writing, collaboration with teachers. So, thinking about how to get creative when some of the schedules that are put in place make it challenging to do that, finding other ways to collaborate. 

Grace:  Yes, collaboration is key, and I have so much respect for your ability to be creative with your schedule to fit in all that needs to be done to stay successful with your heavy caseload.

Natalie: Okay, so kind of going back to SLPs’ role in general and connection to reading, could you give an overview of how SLPs address issues related to literacy in therapy? 

Emily: For sure. I think you're spot on with the idea that the general public doesn't know speech-language pathologist’s role in literacy. But then even in the education system, teachers don't always understand how SLPs are involved with literacy. And I think a lot of that is—Our focus in schools, like it or not, tends to be on speech-sound production. And I think if you solely see an SLP as somebody who will see a child if they struggle to say sounds, pronounce words, you don't always connect that idea of oral language to written language. But just like I said, they're both language. It's just a different modality that you have between the two. So I think it's sometimes difficult for people to have been aware of the language part of our title of a speech-language pathologist and understand fully that all of the components that make up an oral language—your vocabulary, your morphology, your grammar—all of those same components are found in a written language, and the SLP has a lot of training in what the, sometimes, the oral and written side looks like. Even if you're an SLP, though, who's graduate training or undergraduate training mostly focused on oral language, that SLP still has the knowledge of all the building blocks of oral language that are then going to be impacted for a student who has a written language disorder as well. 

Grace: You know, that transitions into the other question we have, which has to do with your involvement with the dyslexia community, one example of that being a board member of the Iowa chapter of the International Dyslexia Association. Now, with that much involvement with the dyslexia community, what do you believe is the role of an SLP in supporting a child that has a dyslexia diagnosis?

Emily: So, it varies, right. I think we have the opportunity to provide education, first and foremost. We have, still—There's a lot of misconceptions about what dyslexia is and how that differs from a different type of language disorder. So, I think, first and foremost, our job is related to education and teaching people about dyslexia and written language disorders. I think that could easily be done in a school setting. That could be an SLP offering a formal professional education opportunity for teachers or other support staff in that school. But it could be as simple as a 10-minute consultation meeting where you're just talking about, “Let's look over some of these students’ test scores. Let's try to figure out what's happening here, why this student is scoring differently than the other ones. Let's look at a spelling sample together. Let's look at one of their timed reading passages together. Let's look at the words they miss and brainstorm together why we think maybe those words were challenging for that student.” So very much is about education. In the schools, especially in Iowa, we don't always use diagnosis categories with children. Sometimes we're just looking for what is the area of need, ensuring that our services that are offered through a special education lens matches those needs. That being said, I think there's been a really big push lately for all of us, even in states that don't use diagnostic labels on our reports to start doing so, because it helps families to understand what is the issue that their child is facing. It helps SLPs who inherit that IEP. If an SLP were to change schools or change caseloads, it helps the new SLP to understand what are the needs of this child and make sure that they really understand that, yeah, maybe they're speaking okay, they're speaking in multi-word sentences, you're hearing some complex vocabulary, right? It could be easy to think that that child has typical language skills until you really start digging deeper into, well, how is that impacting their literacy skills? So, for sure, assessment—That's kind of the next big thing that our role would be is to make sure that we're doing high-quality assessment. But test for symptoms of dyslexia as well as symptoms of a speech-sound disorder or language disorder because sometimes those co-occur, and then including the label of that in our assessments. I'm all for us, even in states that don't require those labels, for us starting to include those labels because I think it can be an impactful component of an evaluation for a family and leave that family to be able to better find other services as well once they understand what's been going on with their student. So assessment—So I've got education for the first one, assessment for the next one. And kind of related to that assessment piece too, I forgot to mention that SLPs are one of the few professionals whose scope of practice explicitly mentions the ability to diagnose dyslexia. So I think that, obviously, the SLP needs to have expertise and knowledge in that area in order to diagnose dyslexia. But at least they could be one of the few people in that district, in that community, in that city, in that area, especially in some of our rural areas, who have the expertise and the knowledge to be able to diagnose it. And then, lastly, I would say, SLPs are involved with dyslexia in the schools, with our direct intervention or working with teachers to embed some of those skills in a more classroom-based intervention model. So most of the kids that I see for therapy, they tend to have both an oral language disorder and a written language disorder. So developmental language disorder and dyslexia. So for those students, right, I've already been seeing them for their oral language disorder. We're now also working on their written language disorder. But I would say the same is true for even my students who have just a speech-sound disorder, even the kids who are really young. We know that even children with just quote, unquote, “just a speech sound disorder,” those kids are more at risk for later getting a diagnosis of dyslexia as well. So making sure that my intervention is talking not just about the sounds that we're practicing but also linking those sounds to graphemes within words, so that student—even at the preschool, kindergarten age—is getting exposure and practice with linking phonemes to graphemes. 

Natalie: I think you brought up a really good point about how it's not just writing or reading or literacy we're looking at when we're looking at intervention—It's every language skill before that. That's something we've talked about before, even. So, I was kind of wondering, how early can we start intervention for things like these speech and language skills that can impact reading? What would that look like at a really young age, like preschool or before, when they have access to an SLP?

Emily: Yeah, so I think most times you're not going to find a child diagnosed with dyslexia in the preschool age. But that doesn't mean that we can't look at research that looks at the prevalence of co-occurring disorders and making sure that we are modifying our instruction for students that we think are more likely, have a higher risk factor, if you will, to be later diagnosed with a written language disorder. So, kind of like I mentioned, I think it's important that we're thinking not only about their current skills, so their current speech skills, but also realizing how those current speech sound errors will likely impact later literacy skills. And it doesn't happen all of the time. We've got lots of kids who have a speech-sound disorder, language skills are great, and it's really just a speech thing. But then later on, that kid may still have a speech-sound disorder, but their spellings are great, their reading skills are great. You're not seeing any impact on literacy—fabulous. It's still not going to hurt that student for the SLP to start incorporating orthography within that session, though. If anything else, it really makes it easier for that child to have something tangible like a grapheme, a printed grapheme that they can connect to a phoneme that is kind of invisible. Like you can't see a phoneme. So having that connection only supports students to be able to then pay attention to that sound they're producing as well as how that sound appears in text that they're going to read. 

Natalie: Right. So if I wanted to go back and clarify, it's not like we can prevent dyslexia. Right, that's not what I meant. I meant giving early interventions so they have the best opportunity for development in the future and they're already starting off at a good point.

 

Emily: I think that's something that, if you look at—just more and more therapy materials nowadays are starting to do that. We're seeing more therapy materials include graphemes within visual cues or picture cards so that there is that increased attention given to “this is the phoneme, this is the grapheme or graphemes, multiple graphemes can represent that phoneme,” and starting to do that earlier. And as I'm saying this, I'm definitely speaking from a phonology-first standpoint right now, of thinking about how important it is for kids to understand all of the different sounds within their language and how those sounds can map on to the printed word, to graphemes within a word. But then getting into morphology too, we also need to be focusing on morphology because those sounds are going to change. Those sound-grapheme correspondences are going to change, especially when you start looking at words within a morphological family. All these words that share the same base, you're going to see pronunciation shifts within that. So making sure that we're not just talking to that child about “the letter ‘d’ says the /d/ sound,” because then if you get to a word like “walked,” well, now it's making the /t/ sound in that word, right? That morpheme, that “-ed” suffix, can make multiple different sounds. So, making sure that our instruction really is representative of the truth, of our orthography, of our written language system, and not just presenting our English alphabet as something that's a one-to-one correspondence when it's not. 

Natalie: Right. That kind of leads perfectly into talking about your research with morphology. Because we know that phonology and phonological awareness are so crucial to language and literacy and structured literacy instruction, but I feel like we don't hear as much about morphology's role, and it kind of goes to complicate things a little bit more. We have this perfect system of sounds and then it changes, and it works together, and it's so interesting. One thing I was wondering about is—How is morphology different than phonological awareness when we come to morphemes that are just a phoneme—so, like a plural possessive “s”—and how does that complicate things? It's just so interwoven. 

Emily: Yeah. You're exactly right. So, our spelling system, our writing system, is an interrelationship of morphology, etymology, which is the history of words, and phonology, the sound system of a language. So, to only focus on phonology would be misrepresenting how our writing system actually works. So in your example of that plural “s” affix or that possessive affix that you can add on to the end of the word, it makes more than just the /s/ sound right? It can also make the /z/ sound. So, thinking about how you have “dogs” or “cats,” and depending on the voicing of that final consonant of the word, you're going to get a different phonological representation at the very end of that word. But the spelling is going to stay the same because English spelling always preserves morphology—preserves meaning and the meaning of the base, the grammatical function of the different affixes—those will always be preserved before we try to preserve phonology. Imagine how crazy our writing system would have to be, how much it would not make sense, if all of our words were spelled just based on how we all pronounce words. 

Grace: It would be a lot of variability there. 

Emily: It would be so confusing, right? Just even within people who live in the Midwest versus the South versus the East, just different regional dialects that we all have. We would have to have different spellings for all of that and that would be chaos, right? It would be terrible. So, I think, looking at literacy instruction from a morphological standpoint, you're preserving the meaning first. You're preserving the well-ordered system that we have for representing spellings by looking at—What's the base of this word? What are the affixes attached? What are the functions of those affixes? How does that impact the meaning of the overall word? Because we know pronunciation is going to shift once we start adding affixes onto a base. That is part of how our language, our writing system, was developed. And it had to be so when we're thinking about all of the new words that get added within a morphological word family, how over time we have historically added different affixes and then that pronunciation shifts for that base element of that word. I think it kind of starts getting at your question of why morphology is important in addition to phonology, right. But the simple answer is just because morphology is the main kind of organizing principle of why words are spelled the way that they are. So morphology instruction has to be included within any type of literacy instruction, and it can include phonological instruction too. So I can look at that word “cats,” and I can look at that word “dogs,” and I can talk to kids about how that plural “-s” morpheme or that plural “-s” suffix that's added to both of those words has that meaning of “not one.” Because I can say “zero dogs”—That was always an interesting thing when somebody pointed it out to me. I think most of us say plural “s” means more than one, but what about zero dogs? That doesn't mean more than one, right? It means not one. So thinking about looking at the meaning of that affix and then talking about the sounds of it. And what a cool opportunity to show kids, “Oh look, we just discovered that the grapheme ‘s’ in this word is functioning as a suffix to mean not one, but it can be pronounced as a /s/ or /z/.” So being able to draw a little diagram—I’m all for using IPA with kids. I know some people would be like, wait what? You teach kids IPA? But I mean, it's the easiest way for me to explain to kids these concepts of this single grapheme right now, which is also a morpheme—to your point of how are they different—can make more than one phoneme when we pronounce that. 

Grace: Awesome. And off of that too, explain to our audience what were your findings, what were you investigating, that has led now to how you've taken the impact of morphology into the clinical setting again.

Emily: So I started in my master's program taking lots of higher advanced literacy courses. Because I went to the University of Iowa for undergrad, I had a lot of extra courses that I was able to take as an undergrad here. I could take several master's level courses, but just as an undergraduate student, which then gave me more freedom in my master's program at Florida State to take more literacy courses that I was really interested in because I had already taken a lot of the other electives when I was a student at Iowa. So I really started taking courses, advanced courses in literacy as a master's student and then in my PhD as well, as you mentioned, getting more into morphology. I was very lucky to work with several great collaborators and mentors when I was at Florida State. Kenn Apel was my first PhD mentor in my doctorate program, and at that time he was working on a project that was looking at the impact of morphological awareness instruction for K-3 students in schools that had very high percentages of kids who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch. So we were really looking to see—If we provide instruction in morphology, does that impact their morphological awareness skills? Obviously looking to see how it impacts that, but then also looking to see how it impacted their reading—their word-level reading or decoding skills as well as their reading comprehension skills. So that was kind of my first introduction to morphological awareness intervention. In that study, we found there was a benefit of morphological awareness instruction, that kids learned to spell words—polymorphemic words, words with more than one morpheme—they learned how to spell those words better after receiving the instruction compared to kids who did not receive the instruction. They became better at reading words that contained multiple affixes, and then they had a greater sense of the meaning of words that contained multiple affixes. So we were seeing these multiple impacts of morphological awareness instruction with young children. That work kind of continued. We did a couple other studies after that study related to similar things. Then, getting into when I was working as a professor at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio, there I became introduced to one of my colleagues, Dr. Kim Murphy, who works at Old Dominion University. And she introduced me to the work of Dr. Pete Bowers, who's up in Canada. Pete has a great approach to instruction that, once Kim told me about it, I was hooked. Everything made a lot of sense, and Pete's focus related to Structured Word Inquiry, his instructional framework for teaching literacy and morphology, really helped me understand so many things that I had always just considered like, “oh, you just gotta memorize it. Oh, that's just kind of the way it is. That letter is there, it's silent. I can't tell you why it's silent. It's just part of that word, just gotta memorize it.” His work really helped me understand how morphology, etymology, and phonology all together have created our writing system, and then how that changes the way that I teach morphology. So that then led to a couple other research papers or tutorials with some of my colleagues, including Dr. Kim Murphy, about what does a morphology-focused orthographic intervention look like and how do we make sure that we're providing kids with instruction. These kids who have both oral and written language disorders, or just dyslexia, just a written language disorder—How do we make sure that our instruction teaches them how the spelling, the English orthographic system, actually works, rather than teaching them lots of rules and things that are beneficial for a lot of kids. Phonics is definitely evidence-based, highly effective intervention. But we do have some kids with dyslexia that, even after they've been through really good, high-quality, evidence-based, phonics-based interventions, they still have difficulties. And oftentimes those interventions sometimes wait to teach morphology until after there's been instruction in just phoneme-grapheme correspondences. And, unfortunately, kids are going to start—I mean, I shouldn't say unfortunately—It's good that kids are exposed to seeing words that have multiple morphemes early. I think there's some statistics that talk about 25-30% of words that kids see when they are in first and second grade are going to be words that have more than one morpheme. So, this idea that we should wait to teach some of those things until kids have mastered all of the different phoneme-grapheme correspondences, we're just going to keep waiting for a lot of those kids, right? 

Grace: Yes, that’s a very interesting perspective I have never really thought of. So in your opinion based on the research you have been involved in, do you think [for] individuals that have dyslexia, it’s more important to focus on morphology or phonology?

Emily: So I think that's a great question. I think that's one that us in the research field have kind of been fighting over, trying to figure out what is the one that you should focus on when providing instruction. I would say you don’t have to pick one. You can provide instruction that incorporates morphology, etymology, phonology at all of the same time. Just when we talked about that example of cats versus dogs, that was an example of including morphology and phonology in the same instructional element. So, I think to feel like we have to choose one or the other or focus on one first is something that a lot of people feel, especially because there's been so much research on phonology, right, like, so much stuff out there. But, I mean, English is not based on just phonology. Our spellings are based on morphology first, then thinking about phonology in terms of if we could choose a different grapheme to represent the sound. Well, let's use the one that—there's lots of different reasons—but let's use the one that is expected in the situation, based on phonology. But that's not how all words are spelled. Sometimes a grapheme is chosen for many reasons other than just its sound. The example that got me at the very beginning was when I learned about the word “t-w-o.” Have you guys ever thought about that word “t-w-o” and that “w” in there? 

Grace: Not well enough or not hard enough for a while. 

Natalie: No, now I will. 

Grace: Yeah, now I will, I'm never going to look at it the same way.

Emily: So, what's that “w” in there doing? I think most of us would just say like, “Oh, it's silent, you just got to memorize it, right?” But if you look, and from a phonology perspective, kids are like “Wait, what? Twuh-oh?” If they're using the rules that they've been taught of applying grapheme-phoneme correspondences and sounding that out, it doesn't make sense. And it's frustrating to then be like, “Well, I'm doing what you told me to do, and yet I'm still not right. I'm still pronouncing it wrong.” But I guess, number one, I should say, the goal of reading isn't just pronouncing words. The goal of reading is understanding the meaning of words. So thinking about from that framework, as well as the framework of looking at—How is English orthography organized? We know morphology plays a role, etymology, phonology. Looking at that word “t-w-o,” if I understand that that “w” is an etymological marker to show me the relationship between words like “t-w-o,” in the words “twice,” in “twenty,” in “twelve,” and all of these other words where that “w” grapheme is pronounced, it now makes way more sense for why I have to include that “w” grapheme or marker, right. it's really a marker. It's not having a pronunciation in that word, “t-w-o,” right, but it makes way more sense to me as a kid, especially as a kid with dyslexia who is trying so hard to understand the rules that they're being taught and still arriving at mispronunciations when they're applying rules correctly. So kind of getting into that, or same with the cats and dogs example again, like kids will inherently know. Most kids will know how to pronounce “cats” with a voiceless “s” with the /s/ sound and dogs with the /z/ sound, right, cause that's just something we learn in oral language, but it helps them make sense of their language when we can talk about the morphology, etymology, and phonology. 

Grace: It's really interesting. I'm never looking at “t-w-o” the same way again!

Natalie: Yeah, no, I think the light bulb, Grace, in both of our heads just went off when you said like “twice.” It's like, oh, it all makes sense! I can see like for like a student, especially a student with dyslexia or another written or oral language disorder, how enlightening that would be to finally realize “Oh, that's why, and I don't have to memorize a million rules because English is complicated.” Because I think the more we talk about language, the more we realize it's just a perfect combination of all these different elements that somehow created this system. And that makes instruction so hard, cause like yeah, what do you pick? Which one do you choose? How do you incorporate them all? So, I was kind of wondering, do you have some examples of how we can incorporate—like teachers or SLPs—can incorporate morphology, phonology, and etymology too, all in the same lesson? 

Grace: Yeah, little tips and tricks for us, please. 

Emily: So again, I mentioned before that intervention approach called Structured Word Inquiry, and there's not been a lot of research yet. So I'll start with that, that Structured Word Inquiry as an intervention approach in and of itself has not been investigated with a randomized control trial in the same way that other interventions have been. But that being said, Structured Word Inquiry, what we call SWI, really teaches the English orthographic system in a truthful manner. And so sometimes I struggle with that, you know, when we get pushback of people saying, “Well, there's not research to support this.” Well, true, there's not. Yet there is more and more that's coming out. There are several studies that support the instruction of all the components of Structured Word Inquiry. But thinking about teaching and intervention, where you see, I can explain the “w” in “two” now, that type of stuff, to me, just makes it seem like, well, yeah, I know there's not a research study, but it helps us explain things—That has to be worth something. So thinking about that framework, the Structured Word Inquiry framework always starts with the meaning of the word, and I think sometimes in a phonology-first perspective, we can kind of take all these graphemes, and we're essentially pulling them out of words. We’re teaching phoneme-grapheme correspondences outside of a word, and then we kind of can fall victim to teaching a one-to-one correspondence when that is not the reality of our writing system. So thinking about a morphologically focused way to teach this, you're starting with a base word. Start with a base word. Start with a couple of affixes attached to that base word or base element, if that base element itself is not a word by itself, like a bound base. So, starting with a whole word. Now you're building vocabulary. I can talk about what this word means with kids. We can practice using this word in a sentence. We can look for words that are synonyms or antonyms of this word. We can talk about correct uses of the word or incorrect uses of the word to really make sure we all understand—What does that word mean? Which, again, if we're going back to the primary focus of reading, it's meaning. Looking up what that word means, and then, once we know what that word means, start looking at okay, well, what are the morphemes within that word? And then, how, within each morpheme, how are those graphemes functioning? How are those—the phoneme-grapheme correspondences within there—What’s the pronunciation of each of those graphemes? Let's look across words that share that same base. So I could look—I've, just this past week—I was working with some of my older kids on the bound base “dict” because we were doing a little experiment, so we were predicting what we thought was going to happen. So we were looking at the bound base “d-i-c-t” and then looking to see other words that shared that same bound base, right. So then we have “prediction,” “predicting,” “predicted.” Then we can get into other words that people don't always think of being related to that, right. So that bound base “dict” having something to do with a sense and meaning of “to say.” So if you're giving a prediction, you're saying what you think is going to happen before it happens with that “pre-” prefix on there, right? Which makes sense of what a prediction is. I had a little fifth grader who was arguing with me that—He did not think the word “dictionary” shared that same “dict” base. He was saying left and right, “Nope, it is not the same.” But if you look up the definition of a dictionary using an etymology dictionary, you can see that those two words are related. Dictionary, prediction—They both share that same “dict” base. So that's obviously an example for an older kid. But thinking about younger kids, you can do the same thing, where you're just giving a base element, talking about phoneme-grapheme correspondences within that base element, the meaning of those words, and then you're really building vocabulary across a large members of a word family, rather than building vocabulary one word at a time. Because that would take forever. So thinking again about how—I guess that would just be my advice, of starting with a word family—and not a sound-based word family, like sometimes we refer to in curricular materials like “cat,” “bat,” “hat”—that “-at” word family—I'm talking about word families that all share the same base element because then they're all going to share the same meaning, and then we can start looking to see how those affixes attached to it impact the meaning of that word. But we're learning about morphology. We can then investigate phonology within those, building vocabulary, finding instances of how etymology impacts it. So it can get—One word can turn into a two-week lesson, or one word could turn into just a quick ten-minute activity. I usually have—I choose words that have my kid's target sounds in them if they have speech and language needs. So then we're getting some practice with pronouncing those words over and over again with our target sounds, as well as them being exposed to new vocabulary words. Because for a lot of them, really understanding the words within a morphological family, sometimes they're not used to expecting those connections, like my fifth grader with “dictionary” and “prediction.” He was ready to tell me that it was a “d-i-c-t” prefix, and I was like, “Well, what's your evidence that there's a “d-i-c-t” prefix?” He couldn't tell me, but he thought there was a “t-i-o”—I think he said a “t-i-o” base. I think he was thinking about syllables, like he's thinking about sounds rather than looking for those units of meaning within a word. So I don't know if that—I think that answered your question getting at like, how would you start to talk about this? But choosing a word, a word family, and getting into all aspects of our writing system within that. 

Natalie: That's so cool, and there are so many things I think are amazing about that intervention because it really speaks to the comprehension part too, and it makes them learn across all sorts of domains, like their reading and vocabulary. They probably have to think about all the words they know in science and social studies, and I feel like it brings it all together. It also sounds fun. It sounds like you're playing games, but you're learning so much within that, and I think that's such an amazing thing that speech therapy can work on is how we can get kids especially involved in engaging ways so they like learning and it's not something that, “Oh, I have to go to speech today.” It's, “This is fun, we get to play little word games, and we get to learn all about these different types of linguistics.” I mean, I don't think a fifth grader is thinking about linguistics, but it's the whole concept. 

Emily: Well, and I think that's part of where we realize just how much knowledge it really does take to provide this type of instruction. And I think we've had research studies that previously have shown SLPs and teachers don't always have the knowledge needed to provide it, to provide this type of instruction. We've got lots of work that look at teacher's knowledge of phonology. I think that's changing, it's improving, our teacher ed programs are getting better at incorporating more phonics-based curriculum into the stuff that teacher candidates are learning. But we still see some speech-language pathologists whose knowledge of grammar and whose knowledge of morphology isn't always going to be aligned with this type of instruction. But I think the cool thing about a Structured Word Inquiry approach is that you don't have to know the answer. I have to be able to facilitate some thinking. I have to be able to help kids understand that we're going to be looking for not just phonemes, we're looking for morphemes as well. And understanding that, to think about the meaning of words, that I can't just look at a word and say, “Oh, there's the same two letters in the word ‘reach’ versus ‘react,’ right? Oh, I see four of the five same letters. Those words must be related.” You've got to think about what's the morphological structure of those words? “Reach” totally has an “ea” digraph—those two letters, two vowel letters that make one sound. “React” does not. It has an “re-” prefix and an “a-c-t” base. So thinking about how thinking through morphology, thinking through phonology, just really facilitates that learning. And I think when you understand things better, it's always easier, and people are—kids are—more willing to learn when things make sense. I myself get frustrated when I'm doing something, and I don't fully understand why I'm doing something. I'm just doing it because somebody told me I had to do it. That can be a frustrating thing. But for sure, [it] can totally be embedded into games. I love science experiments. I do science experiments with my kids all the time. We do something that's quick and easy, but then I'll pull out some key words that I really want to focus on during that science experiment. We'll usually have the kids target speech sounds in it, but then we'll also teach them about new vocabulary as well as morphology and then those pronunciation shifts. So in that example I gave before with “prediction” and “dictionary,” if they just think about the word “predict,” that “t” grapheme in the word “predict” makes the /t/ sound there. But now I go to “prediction” or “dictionary.” It doesn't make that “t” grapheme. So that's a great opportunity to discuss phonology within the context of vocabulary and morphology and all of that. 

Grace: This is where we have all those layers to peel off to make it all holistic in that way. Okay, as we wrap up, I kind of saved the hardest question for last. So I know it's always hard to give advice or that to parents, because you always want to be careful, but I do want to see, if you could give one piece of advice to any of our parents and/or educators listening to this podcast, and they're concerned with their child's reading and writing abilities, what would you want to share with them? What would you say is one big focus, if you're only allowed to say one, that you would want to enlighten them with? 

Emily: Well, first I would say trust yourself. Because I think parents oftentimes have these feelings that their kid is not developing appropriately in the terms of reading or writing skills, and sometimes teachers don't always share those concerns. So I think, number one: Trust yourself. But then, number two, go talk to your student's teacher just to have that teacher's perspective on how that student is doing. That teacher will know better than you as a parent how that child compares to peers in the classroom, of how they're learning the curriculum—those things that are being taught—That teacher will have a better understanding of that than that parent will. The parent may not always know what are all of the things being taught right now, and how is my child learning the things that are being taught. But all of that being said, I know we still have situations. I just had a situation about a month ago where a parent has had concerns for a long time, but teachers have not shared the same concerns. I had parents request an evaluation. I did an evaluation. Third-grade student had oral language disorder, had written language disorder, developmental language disorder, and dyslexia, but he had a pretty good sight word vocabulary—Like, his fluency scores were enough for him to just kind of keep squeaking by, so he never really raised any red flags at this school. But when you start really getting into more than just how many words per minute can this kid read, when I started investigating how does he take sentences, simple sentences, and combine them to create a compound or a complex sentence, when I started investigating his phonological awareness skills and investigating his knowledge of vocabulary, I'm now seeing lots of, lots of issues with both his oral language and his written language that, unfortunately, using the data that the school had access to, he seemed to still look okay. But I don't think as this kid progressed from third grade and beyond, I don't think he would have kept looking okay. I think his test scores would have continued to decline had we not been able to get an IEP put in place again for him to start providing him instruction and some of these things that he was needing, as well as making sure he had appropriate accommodations in place in the classroom curriculum. 

Grace: Oh, that's awesome. I love those. I love that they're focused more too, and I think that is representative of what parents can do right now, but not this large task for them either, but just listening, and I'm sure many parents feel comfort in knowing that too and that piece of advice there.

Natalie: Awesome. Yeah, I hear a lot of  trust and collaboration, and just bringing all that together in every aspect. 

Emily: Lecturing to students about the importance of collaboration and how it's critical to really see the best outcomes for students. Collaboration does take time, right? It is not easy to go into a brand-new role with new colleagues, new students, and to think that you can immediately just have amazing collaboration. Like I had those goals and I quickly realized—Oh, I need to be building more trust first with my teachers and my special education teachers. I need to be showing them what I do know because, like you said before, not everybody knows how an SLP is involved with literacy and how we can support literacy assessment or understanding literacy test scores or supporting literacy instruction in the classroom. So finding ways to kind of get creative, to let teachers know what I know without trying to sound like a know-it-all and jamming information down their throats or—I mean, I've already done this. I've already sent probably crazy amounts of websites and resources and lengthy emails that my teachers just didn't have time to read. So like realizing you got to start small and be patient and know that that collaboration will take some time to build to get to the point where I think it will be more possible for me to implement all of the really good collaborative pieces that I know are in the best interests of students and the best interests of teachers, are more preventative for everyone in the entire class, but it takes time. So, I think that would be my word of advice too for SLPs who are listening, or educators who are listening, to reach out to your SLP, or SLPs to reach out to their literacy specialists or special education teachers or Gen Ed teachers. Figure out what's going on in the classroom, as a good starting point, but then realizing it will take time for that true co-teaching model to develop or push-in services where you really feel like you're working together to make the most impact. So, to be patient with that as well and to give yourself some grace and knowing that it's not going to happen, like a lot of the research articles describe, right away. 

Grace: For sure, giving that advice—that just going for it, reaching out, nothing's a dumb question, we're all learning together—I think is just so important because I think both sides have so much to learn from each other at the end of the day. 

Emily: For sure, for sure, definitely. I agree with that. I think there's so many aspects of what my special ed teachers and my Gen Ed teachers know that benefit me and my learning and vice versa. I can sometimes explain things that maybe they haven't even thought to look at yet, but it's that collaborative power of us working together that can make that happen. 

Natalie: That's wonderful, and I know Grace and I want to thank you so much for talking with us and sharing all this information. It's wonderful for us to hear and wonderful for parents, SLPs, teachers, everybody listening, and we just appreciate it so much. 

Emily: Of course, I'm so happy to be here. Thanks so much.

Grace: Speaking of Literacy is a podcast from The Iowa Reading Research Center at the University of Iowa. It’s produced, edited, and mixed by Grace Cacini and Natalie Schloss, with support from Bailey Christensen. Expert review by Nina-Lorimor Easley, Lindsay Seydel, Stephanie Edgren, and Ramona Parrish with additional review provided by Kate Will, Olivia Tonelli, and Sydney Smithgall. 

Natalie: For further credits, including audio and music attribution, please see the link in the show notes. For definitions of key terms and links to research mentioned in the episode, check out our listening guide.

Grace: Visit us online at www.irrc.education.uiowa.edu for more information and additional literacy resources for educators and families. You can also follow us on X at @IAReading or on Instagram at @iowareadingresearchcenter.

Natalie: If you want to help spread the word about Speaking of Literacy, subscribe, rate, and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. If you are interested in being a guest on this show, complete our survey in the show notes, or send us an email at irrc@uiowa.edu.