Sunday, January 29, 2017

Unraveling Confusion: Helping Students with Academic Success

At ASHA this November I attended a session in which the presenter reminded us, "you are not tutors." That comment made an impact on me because there are often times when students bring their classwork to speech therapy. I want to help them, yet sometimes can't. For instance, I don't understand how math is being taught. Truth be told, I struggled learning math 50 years ago! Sometimes the work they bring doesn't align with their speech-language goals and while I would love to help, I am not a tutor. That is important to remember. However, as SLPs, we do support curriculum areas like vocabulary, critical thinking and speech-language targets that are critical for academics and there are many instances where we can and should help students with their assignments. That is our job in the school.

No, we are not tutors. It seems though, our particular area of expertise is sometimes the exact thing our students need when they are struggling to understand a concept. This is most prevalent when students enter middle school. By the time these students enter sixth grade, often they have been on our caseloads for as many as seven years. While they have had seven classroom teachers, two or three special educators and a whole passel of para educators, we have been the constant. We understand their language difficulties and know how to tailor material so they can understand it. We get that they need constant cycling back to previously taught material. We understand that they need very explicit language. We understand that they need a highly linear approach. We know they may need this instruction in a one-on-one context. We are often the right ones to unravel the confusion and relieve academic frustration.

So when a student's paraprofessional recently came to me expressing the difficulty she was having explaining sonnet writing to a seventh grade student, I changed my therapy plans from inferencing to sonnets. My daughter had to write a love sonnet in eighth grade. She is a good student with no language difficulties and she struggled. It took her hours and I recall seeing the teacher who gave the assignment the next morning and saying, "Sonnet this!" We laughed, but it was a very challenging assignment, one I have never had to do myself. This year it is being done in seventh grade! For our students with language difficulties this assignment can be a doosie!

I am neither an English teacher nor a poet, so began my crash course in sonnets. This is how I broke the task down for my student:

  1. I provided the order and parts of a sonnet (fourteen lines, three quatrains of four lines each and a concluding couplet).
  2. We talked about sonnet vocabulary and the definitions of: quatrain, couplet, metaphor, stanza, iambic pentameter, rhythm, and syllable.
  3. I explained the requirements of a sonnet: number of lines, rhyming pattern, ten syllables per line
  4. I explained a sonnet must have meaning in terms of a theme, a conflict and a conclusion. 
  5. We practiced the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyming structure and the stress pattern of the lines with random words.
I whipped up some visuals and graphic organizers so my student could practice iambic pentameter and the syllable structure of each line before deciding on a theme. You can access these here.

At the end of one of our therapy sessions, this student said, "You explain things to me so I can understand. I like that." That is what we do. Our expertise in language and breaking information down into its component parts and knowledge of our students and their needs often make us the right people to unravel confusion. The next morning I popped into this student's English class. He already had three lines to his sonnet written! I could see his anxiety decreased with his understanding and I was very happy. Next week we'll work on inferences!


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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. Thank you for this post Annie! No, we are NOT tutors! Unfortunately I feel that many SLPs have a difficult time differentiating this point. Overlapping with what is being taught in the classroom is crucial, but the way we teach is very different. SLPs are able to get to the core of a student's difficulties and strengthen weak foundation skills. Your example of switching from inferences to sonnets is a great example!

    1. Agreed! This particular student really helped me see how our "teaching" is crucial in developing understanding sometimes. I love to see how his facial expression changes when it clicks!