Beyond the alphabet: strengthening speech skills

Dec. 17, 2009, 2:40 p.m. | By Tasnia Habib | 11 years, 1 month ago

Speech pathologist coaches Blazers to be better communicators and students

Click. Kae Denning-Evans turns on the tape recorder. It starts rolling and the student begins her lines and the session begins. Then, another click. The tape stops. The student replays the tape, listening carefully for any mistakes in his or her speech. Denning-Evans makes sure the student finds his or her mistakes and corrects them.
No, Denning-Evans is not leading a play rehearsal — she is conducting a speech pathology session.

At Blair, a number of programs support communication, such as the Communication Arts Program and the ESOL classes. Unlike students in these two programs, however, students in speech pathology must learn basic communication skills. As the lone speech pathologist at Blair, Denning-Evans helps students with speech and language disabilities improve their speaking and communication through a variety of therapies.

Speech pathologists like Denning-Evans are an integral part of MCPS in their work to help students strengthen the building blocks of learning. The effects of speech disabilities run deeper than the loss of communication skills. Denning-Evans describes speech and language disabilities as "very pervasive in all areas." According to Vivian Sisskin, a professor at the Hearing and Speech sciences department at the University of Maryland, inability to communicate affects the students' academic and social skills. Many students cannot do well in school because they lack abilities such as understanding directions. Therefore, speech pathology is an invaluable tool for certain students' achievement in all subjects in school. "We are the underpinning of all curriculum," says Denning-Evans.

Photo: Kae Denning-Evans helps students improve their language skills.

Denning-Evans was attracted to the profession because she relished the challenge of providing such a crucial service. Growing up around animals, Denning-Evans wanted to be a veterinarian as a child. In high school, her interest started to turn to medicine. Denning-Evans decided to volunteer at the Easter Seals Society, an organization that provides services to disabled people, where she was exposed to different types of therapy, including speech pathology. The experience stuck with her and she became interested enough to turn it into her career.

Although in U.S. culture, speech impediments are casually referred to as language disorders, speech and language disabilities include many different types of handicaps. According to Sisskin, the most common speech disorders among adolescents are language based, most prevalently difficulty comprehending others. Most of the students Denning-Evans works with have language-based disabilities.

In speech therapy, Denning-Evans provides the services that are necessary for these students to overcome their disabilities, which generally develop in childhood. Students are referred to Denning-Evans by parents or teachers who may notice the student having difficulty in speech in the classroom. First, she must complete an evaluation of the student. The therapy sessions are different depending on the student's disorder. "‘ABC won't work for all students," says Denning Evans. For example, a student who has trouble remembering directions might try a strategy where he or she repeats the same information over and over again. A student who has a stutter would not benefit from that strategy; instead, he or she will practice saying the beginnings of words so he or she can pronounce the word smoothly. But speech pathology does not only provide communication skills; many students also learn interaction norms. According to Sisskin, sometimes students in speech pathology are taught social cues, such as how to change topics in a conversation or to understand sarcasm in jokes.

A typical therapy session starts at a basic level and progressively becomes more difficult. Denning Evans will provide different target behaviors for the student to reach. Tape recordings are a popular tool to allow students to determine if they have met their target or not.

These therapy sessions can completely change how a student feels about him or herself. Denning-Evans says she enjoys providing a service that will help give students self confidence. She has seen the effects of therapy, and how it can improve one's sense of worth. Before she was in the school system, Denning-Evans used to be in a private practice. She had a client that was a young child, who could comprehend language very well, but could not express his thoughts very well. Through therapy, the child became much more verbal and expressive. The parents of the child would watch during the therapy session, and were able to take the exercises as a model to use at home. Denning-Evans says this was an experience that showed her how effective speech therapy can be. Another student who had a severe stutter during high school came back to Denning-Evans because he needed more help. She says that this type of "positive follow-through" really emphasizes the benefits of therapy and lets them sink in.

Despite her successes, Denning-Evans faces challenges in her job. She is often disheartened by students who chose not to follow through with therapy. One student who had selective mutism, meaning he chose not to speak, did not follow Denning-Evans' recommendation to go to a professor at the University of Maryland that Denning-Evans recommended to him. Denning-Evans was disappointed by the outcome. "You work so hard and there's no follow through," she says.

Even with great challenges, Denning-Evans finds her job as a speech pathologist rewarding. She is most happy to help students boost their self-esteem. She remembers one student for whom it was very difficult to find the words for his thoughts. Through consistent therapy, the student improved considerably by the end of the year. Helping these students with the ability to communicate, which most people take for granted, is what Denning-Evans enjoys about her job the most. "When you are unable to communicate, it holds you back," she says, "This should not be holding them back."

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Tasnia Habib. Tasnia Habib has nothing else to do but to write for the incredible Entertainment section of Silver Chips. More »

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