In many ways I’m back where I started. My first job as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) was working in schools. Now after 25 years I’m back in schools. Back where I started. But with more knowledge on board, more skills on board and a greater appreciation of the work that teachers do.
Some things have changed in the last 25 years and some things haven’t.
Teachers still work incredibly hard. Students still have incredibly complex needs. And parents still want their children to be able to read and write. None of this has changed.
What has changed is that schools are recognising more and more that speech pathologists can help them to teach students to read and write. Not just the students who are struggling but all students. Because we know that if we teach well and we teach explicitly all students will benefit.
In working collaboratively with schools it’s been a bit messy and even a bit chaotic at times. Schools are busy places; there are athletic carnivals, assemblies, grandparent days, learn to swim programs and excursions. We decided we would just get in and have a go. We knew our students could do better and we wanted them to do better.
At John Paul II Catholic School in Clarendon Vale we decided to start with phonological awareness – a fundamental skill needed to be a good reader. It’s the skill of being able to hear and manipulate sounds in words. Lots of teachers had heard about phonological awareness but didn’t know how to assess it or teach it. Most teachers didn’t learn about it as part of their teaching degrees. So that’s where we started. We learnt about phonological awareness as a staff, how to assess it and how to teach it. This learning involved the whole staff including the principal, vice principal and learning support teacher. Without the support of these key members of staff we’d still be here, at the start. But we had this support and now we’re further along, we’ve moved off the starting line.
Staff started to see that students were moving off the starting line too, they started to ask, “What else can we do?” They saw the value of learning together as a staff, the value of having a speech pathologist in their school every week and the value of working as a team. I would be invited into classrooms to work with the teachers. They would ask things like “What’s the best way to help them hear the sounds in a consonant blend?”, “They can hear the sounds but they can’t write them” and “Can you come in after recess when we are doing our phonological awareness and work with us?” So, I did. And we learnt together. Teachers learnt about teaching phonological awareness skills and I learnt how to do this with a group of what seemed to me like a zillion kids sitting in front of me on the mat. This was new to me; I’d only taught phonological awareness skills to one student at a time before, or 2-3 students together at the most. Teachers were kind to me, and gentle. They helped me. They reminded me of the names of students and got students with poor attention to sit at the front. They knew who needed to sit apart and who could sit together.
As this learning journey continued our principal and vice principal saw the bigger picture. Together we could learn even more, and our students could do even better. Our principal decided that we were in this for the long haul. Learning about the science of reading has become a priority for our school. Money has been invested in ongoing professional development and ongoing speech pathology support. Ongoing is the important word here, this is not a quick fix. There’s lots to learn and teachers are good at learning. They do it all the time.
Our principal found money for good quality resources to support the teaching of literacy. The learning support teacher asked me for suggestions about what to buy. We asked teachers what they needed. And now we’re about to start the process of developing a whole school literacy plan – based on science and research and what we know is the best way to teach reading and writing. We’re about to take another step away from the starting line. It’s a big step and an important one – and one we’ll take together.
At Sacred Heart Catholic School in Geeveston we’ve only just stepped off the starting line, our journey here has just begun and is newer. But the staff are just as keen, the principal and learning support teacher are on board and I can’t wait to see what we can achieve together.
Lisa Johnson is a Hobart-based speech pathologist with Speech Pathology Tasmania. Here she writes in support of Educator-SLP collaborative practice for Connect42’s Colleagues @ The Heart of Literacy initiative. This article was first published in The Mercury on 9th October 2020.