The Connection Between Language and Literacy

by Emily Davis ’15
March 18, 2015

Emily Davis ’15 is a Community Fellow with the Swearer Classroom Program and an aspiring speech-language pathologist. 

When I first sat down with Xavier* to go over his phonics flashcards, I smiled at him blankly as he chattered away, completely unable to make out anything he was saying. Although this was my seventh semester as a literacy tutor with the Swearer Classroom Program at D’abate Elementary School, I was still a bit taken aback as I sat there, trying to decipher his words.

As I am not a licensed speech-language pathologist, I would not be able to officially diagnose any communication disorders he had, but I still started to analyze Xavier’s speech to try to figure out what the problem was. He seemed to me to have both articulation and language disorders—he had trouble with certain sounds (he would say “w” for “r” and “sh” for “s”) as well as grammatical errors (substituting “her” for “she”). These pronoun errors are surprising to see in a first grader – they are much more common in toddlers and preschoolers.

So it was not surprising that Xavier’s teacher chose him to receive one-on-one tutoring in reading skills. Language and literacy are so intertwined, and students who have speech and language disorders often have reading disorders as well. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are especially at risk for language delays and reading difficulties.

When I tell people at Brown that I plan to go to graduate school to be a speech-language pathologist, I often receive a blank stare or confused questions: “Do you go through med school for that?” “Oh, so you want to work in a school, you must want to be a teacher?” “Is that a Ph.D. program?” Graduate study in speech-language pathology is a two-year clinical program that certifies you to treat a variety of clients with communication disorders---adults with aphasia from traumatic brain injuries, elderly people with dementia, and toddlers with autism, to name a few. Speech-language pathologists practice in a variety of settings, from hospitals to at-home early intervention, private practice to skilled nursing facilities.

My heart, however, is firmly planted in the schools. Every public elementary school in the country has (or shares) a speech-language pathologist. They work with children with articulation disorders, language disorders, reading disorders, fluency disorders (stuttering) and autism.

One of my main sources of motivation for being a school speech-language pathologist has been the literacy work I have done through the Swearer Classroom Program with kids like Xavier. I have loved working with the kids one-on-one and in small groups in a positive, uplifting school environment. Even though I am only responsible for a very small part of it, it is rewarding to see the progress they make over the school year. While learning not to get the “y” and “w” flashcards mixed up may seem like an insignificant gain, it is small steps like these that allow for future reading success.

My work at D’abate has allowed me to understand the importance of early reading skills and the variety of factors that have an impact on them. I believe that one of the most rewarding aspects of being a speech-language pathologist will be seeing how treating a child’s communication disorders can translate into academic progress.

*not real name