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Thirty millions reasons for speech pathologists and teachers to collaborate

Speech pathologists in schools are working within the Response to Intervention, RTI, framework and are making a real difference to student outcomes. The 30 million word gap by the age of 3 was a research finding which showed that some children are exposed to many less words than their same age peers. Explicit collaboration between speech pathologists and teachers, using the RTI framework, effectively brings together diverse and complimentary skills which can close this gap within schools processes. It is the opportunity to change student lives.

Thirty million reasons for speech pathologists and teachers to collaborate

Speech Pathologists in schools working within the Response To Intervention framework

Mala Ferdinando, March 2018

The 30 million word gap by the age of 3 was a research finding (Hart & Risely 2003) which demonstrated how varying types of parental interactions with children led to some children being exposed to 30 million words less than their same aged peers. This is an important finding given that vocabulary has repeatedly been shown to be a strong predictor for reading success (National Reading Panel 2000; Munro 2007; Fernald et al 2013).

The gap is present when children learn to read in early years of schooling and later, if early reading intervention doesn’t bridge the gap, when students need to "read to learn" the gap increases. Their reading delay creates difficulty in most other subjects. In this way they fall further and further behind. Stanovich (1986) calls this the Mathew effect where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. To improve student outcomes, our intention is not to impoverish the rich, in order to ensure equity, but rather to bridge the gap and improve all student outcomes - to prevent the poor getting poorer.

Seven year old Alice started school with this 30 million word gap. Her parents, for a range of social and economic reasons, had limited family discussion, interactions and reading. She was falling behind. Not just in reading acquisition, but with many cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences. She was frustrated as she felt that reading affected everything she tried to do.

As speech pathologists in schools we work within the whole school context, rather than simply using a traditional clinical model in a school setting. The Response To Intervention (RTI) framework is a framework used within many schools to determine the best supports for all students. John Hattie lists RTI in the top 10 factors that have a high impact (or effect size) on student learning (Hattie 2011). Using the RTI framework, schools analyse student data to provide appropriate evidence based intervention to support each student. The RTI model integrates assessment and intervention within a multi-level paradigm to maximize student achievement and promote positive classroom interactions. Regular assessment and review is required to determine ongoing placement within each RTI tier (Speech Pathology Australia 2017). Ongoing monitoring is fundamental to ensure support is modified early as required. A core premise of RTI is that intervention is evidence based and progress is constantly monitored. Breakspear (2017) considers change in teaching practice and improvement in student learning to be a “complex problem” that requires “continual experimentation, learning and refinement”. These are all key factors of the RTI model and its proven success.

Two years ago when Alice started in prep school her school was using the RTI framework with Speech Pathologists. Vocabulary testing at school ranked her according to her test score and she was placed in RTI Tier 3 requiring intensive support. Alice had considerable difficulty. She didn’t understand the story being read in class or the topics being introduced as she did not comprehend many of the words being used. Following collaboration with speech pathologist and teacher, key vocabulary for the shared class book and new learning topic was identified. Prior to the book being read or the topic being introduced Alice worked with the speech pathologist to practice saying the words and discussing what each word meant. Synonym lists were created and sentences practiced using the known synonym and a smaller selection of the key words. These words were practiced with the speech pathologist and with the class teacher and with parents through a supported parent home practice program.

This model of education is most effective when there is strong collaboration between teachers and speech pathologists. It is counterproductive to work in isolation. Only by collaborating do we harness the experience and knowledge across diverse skilled professionals, share common best practice and evidence based goals, and develop new ideas for improving student outcomes. In order to do this effectively, we, as speech pathologist in schools, ensure that we have a sound awareness of curriculum expectations and school processes. Regular planning sessions between speech pathologists and teachers are integral to the success of students when using RTI in schools. This leads to effective and consistent support being provided to all students at the level suited to their learning needs. Class goals can be set at the outset. These are monitored and measured. Work requirements, practice opportunities and supports can be determined for each tier in the early stages of classroom curriculum planning.

Within two years Alice achieved grade level benchmarks with her reading. Measurement and testing placed her at the RTI Tier 1 support level requiring only targeted teaching to further improve her vocabulary. Alice’s vocabulary continues to grow as she is exposed to more vocabulary through more books. She enjoyed using the word-of-the-week in fun ways. Her attitude towards learning changed and became more positive as she saw herself achieving her learning goals.

We have 30 million reasons for speech pathologists and teachers to collaborate. And the RTI framework is a proven model to measure and monitor progress. Explicit collaboration between Speech Pathologists and teachers effectively brings together diverse and complementary skills within schools processes. It is the opportunity to change student lives.

How do you use RTI?

Please share your school practices on using RTI.

The RTI framework

The aim of RTI is to improve all students’ outcomes and provide the appropriate level of support in order to achieve it. The RTI framework is based on 3 tiers.

Diagram 1.  Response to Intervention framework

Diagram 1: Response to Intervention framework

Students may be placed in different tiers for various needs. A student might be tier 3 for vocabulary but tier 1 for number recognition. The type of speech pathology (and classroom) support would vary for each tier. Tier 3 student may receive regular support to target individual goals within a curriculum area. These students may be on Personal Learning Plans with more explicit instruction, repeated opportunities for practice and have modified work requirements. Tier 2 students may receive regular small group support. This might occur in classroom focus groups with teachers, with speech pathologist intervention or LSO involvement to increase opportunities to practice a skill. Tier 1 support may occur in planning sessions with classroom teachers and speech pathologists. Tier 1 support would occur with teaching input focused on a specific outcome in the classroom, or whole class activities facilitated by the speech pathologist. Support and work requirements would be formulated to ensure skill development. This ensures that shared focused goals are achieved for the whole class through curriculum based tasks. It ensures that all students are provided with opportunities to achieve their full potential.


Breakspear S. Embracing agile leadership for learning – how leaders can create impact despite growing complexity downloaded 13/1/18

Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A., & Weisleder, A. (2013). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science, 16(2), 234–248.

Hart, B. & Risely, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooked Publishing (2004 printing)

Hattie, J (2017) downloaded 20/1/18

Munro, J. (2007) OLSEL website downloaded 13/1/18

National reading Panel (2000) downloaded 1/2/18

Speech Pathology Australia (2017) downloaded 11/1/18

Stanovich, k. (1986) Matthew effect in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly.

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