SOME WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
Speech program to expand in city schools
It was a simple question — what makes a beetle an insect? — but Heather Coe, a speech pathologist in a second-grade classroom at Rochester’s School 25, wasn’t satisfied with a simple answer.
“The legs,” Nicholas Zaso, her student, mumbled. Not good enough — Coe wanted more.
“Because it has six legs,” he offered. Better, but still not there.
“It’s an insect because it has six legs,” Zaso said at last, adding for good measure that it also has a head, thorax and abdomen. Bingo.
Complete, vocabulary-rich sentences like that, enunciated clearly, are the key to learning to read and communicate, and K-2 students at School 25 are producing more and more of them. That’s thanks to STEPS to Success, a small program for language-impaired children that will be expanded in the Rochester School District in 2014-15.
The six STEPS classrooms are cotaught by a general education teacher and a speech pathologist. Half the students have severe speech articulation deficiencies: they can’t make most consonants, or can’t properly form syllables, or can’t string together even a
See SPEECH, Page 8A
School 25 student Nekhai Gladney plays a game of words to improve speech articulation as part of the STEPS program in his classroom. CARLOS ORTIZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Article Continued Below
See SPEECH on Page A08
Continued from Page 1A
The only sounds one boy had mastered by the time he got to kindergarten were vowels and H’s. Asked for his name, he’d shyly defer (most likely) or say ‘ ha-he- ho.’ Only after several months working with speech pathologist Meredith Paris could he introduce himself properly as Cameron.
The speech pathologists teach the students finger-spelling and organize units on problematic sounds: an ‘sp’ combination (like ‘spill’), an ‘r’ at the beginning of a word or a ‘p’ at the end of it.
The general education teacher enforces the sounds by tailoring her lessons for the entire class to include them. If the children are working on ‘ch’ sounds, for instance, the teacher might have them learn addition by tallying cherries or chipmunks.
Having two teachers also allows both more time to encourage vocabulary growth, elicit full sentences and respond in kind.
“General education teachers are busy, busy, busy, so maybe they’d accept a one-word answer,” School 25 principal Deborah Lazio said. “But when we have two teachers, you have the time to get kids to talk.”
The program works. About 20 speech-delayed kindergarteners enter the program each year; by second grade, about two thirds of them are either declassified from special education or require far less intensive help, according to Chris Suriano, the district’s executive director of specialized services.
They also get pulled out of the classroom for individual therapy less frequently, meaning more time spent on coursework.
“It’s high-intensity, front-loaded services early on in a kid’s education, with the benefit of fewer services down the road,” Suriano said. Children with specific diagnosed speech articulation problems aren’t the only ones who benefit from the two-teacher approach.
Poor children, like most of those in Rochester, generally get less exposure to complex language than more affluent ones. Their parents don’t read to them as often or engage in extended backand- forth conversations that sharpen their language skills. One well known study showed poor children may have heard as many as 30 million fewer words by age 3. Rochester’s STEPS approach aims to make up some of that ground, even among those without a diagnosed language deficit. “What you’re risking is reading and writing,” Paris said. “If you don’t get an intact sound system, you’re messing with fire.”
In the same recent second- grade class, the children were asked to write a list of adjectives describing insects. They came up with creepy, dirty, ugly, tiny and weird, among others (including, daringly, ‘sexy,’ which led to a minor ruckus and subsequent lesson on word etiquette).
The program is now only at School 25, where it’s existed in its current form for eight years. The proposed 2014-15 district budget includes funding for teacher-speech pathologist teams in 14 additional K-2 classrooms throughout the district.
Unlike the STEPS program, the new classrooms won’t primarily serve kids with speech articulation issues, but rather target the general problem of language deficit among young children.
There is no similar program at the prekindergarten level, partly because the logistics are more difficult with community providers, but Suriano said the district is looking for better ways to reach those younger children.
Meanwhile, the gains add up. One morning last week, a boy in Paris’ kindergarten class asked: “I doe to the bathroom?”
Before releasing him, she coaxed out a better question: “Can I go to the bathroom?” Earlier in the year, she said, “bathroom” was ‘ da-doo .’ “It’s tons of incidental learning,” Paris said. “It happens every single time someone opens their mouth.”
“What you’re risking is reading and writing. If you don’t get an intact sound system, you’re messing with fire.”