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Supporting Children of Poverty: Special Considerations for the School-based SLP

Supporting Children of Poverty: Special Considerations for the School-based SLP
Angie Neal, MS, CCC-SLP
July 12, 2019

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Learning Outcomes

After this course, readers will be able to:

  • Explain how poverty can negatively impact language learning and academic success.
  • Identify 3-5 considerations that are important to share with school teams related to the impact of poverty on academic success.
  • List at least 5 ways to improve students’ depth of vocabulary knowledge.

This course is on poverty and school-based services.  I am currently a school-based SLP in a state with 62% of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is the criteria used to measure income. The district I work in has 59% of students receiving free or reduced lunch and in a school with 72% receiving free or reduced lunch. Previously, I was in a district with 53% of students receiving free or reduced lunch and in a school that was 26%.  The point is that I have seen both extremes and how these populations are very different and how they are the same. 

My disclosures are that I am the author of “Simply Social at School” and I do have some materials on Teachers Pay Teachers.  I am receiving an honorarium for this course and have no non-financial relationships to disclose. 

I’d like to start with a quote to put everything into perspective:

“If children come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job easier. If they do not come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job more important.” - Barbara Colorose

I love this statement.  The job of teaching any kind of skill is rarely easy.  Some skills are easier to teach than others and some children are easier to teach than others. But here's the difference - the children who do not come from strong, healthy, functioning families need us.  It's important that we appreciate just how much we are needed and the difference that we make.

One point of clarification, the term “low socioeconomic status” is a broad generalization.  A better description is, “children from a low language environment” because there are some students from a low socioeconomic status or environment who are surrounded by family and/or a community that talks with them and engages with them.  These children are not as likely to demonstrate impoverished language skills. The flip side is that there are students from middle and high socioeconomic status environments who don't enjoy rich conversations with a variety of people or have people read to them. Those children actually do demonstrate impoverished language skills.  Keep that in mind moving forward.

Academic Impacts of Poverty

I want to identify exactly how much we are needed and how poverty or a low-level language environment impacts academic success.  Poverty is one of the strongest predictors of reading achievement.  For the United States, as a whole, 27% of 4th-grade students scored below basic-level on the NAEP assessment (NAEP, 2005). However, children falling below the poverty level, the percentage was 34.6%.  If you're a language and literacy nerd like me, this one really hits home. Poverty predicts how difficult it will be for children to learn to read.  It's like a magic 8 ball. We can ask, “Will children from low socioeconomic status or low language environment have difficulty learning to read?”  Shake it, shake, shake, shake and the little triangle will invariably pop up and point to 'yes'.

How does this relate to graduation rates? About 60% of children who are not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade, do not graduate from high school on time.  That's a rate four times greater than that of proficient readers. For children who are poor for at least one year and were not reading proficiently, that portion of failing to graduate rose to 26%. Children who were poor, lived in poor neighborhoods or concentrated poverty, and are not reading proficiently, the proportion jumps to 35% (Hernandez, 2012).

What should stand out is the difference that only one year of poverty makes.  Again, this is looking specifically at 3rd grade, which is a pivotal year, especially since many states now have retention requirements. If they are not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade, they are four times less likely to graduate by the age of 19 compared to a student who does read proficiently by that time.  If poverty is added to the equation then the student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time compared to his or her proficient, wealthier peers. 

How does this relate to college graduation rates?  According to Teach for America, only 8% of students growing up in poverty graduate from college by the age of 24. That's compared to 80% of students in more affluent areas. In other words, the effects of the gap extend beyond test scores, and they make a significant impact on achievement throughout students’ academic careers. Eighty percent is a big difference.

Before continuing, I want to share some insight about a study that is commonly cited in the research – the Hart and Risley 1995 study that found the 30-32 million word gap between children from the wealthiest families and children from the poorest families.  Part of what Hart and Risley found was that it was not just the number of words, but the quality of words and the way words were spoken were very different. Additionally, how often parents responded to children also contributed to the significant difference in the word gap.  For example, they found that parents with a high socioeconomic status responded to their children about 250 times per hour, whereas parents from a low socioeconomic status responded to their children fewer than 50 times per hour.  That adds up and is a predictor of academic outcomes. Hart and Risley followed the children in the study and found that the amount of talk the children were exposed to through age three also predicted their language skills and their test scores at age 9 and 10.

In order to participate in the study, Hart and Risley required that participants come from homes with "permanent instability" as a condition for participating.  Based on their description, they have to not be living in public housing and they have to have two parents. Meaning, if the child was living in public housing and had single parents, they were excluded from the study.  If they had been included, do you think the finding would've been more or less than that 30 million word gap?

In fairness, there are those who reject the study’s findings and say that there is no word gap. But Dr. Tim Shanahan explains the study that is often cited to refute the Hart and Risley study was done by Sperry, Sperry, and Miller in 2018 and published in The Journal of Child Development. Their basic argument was that there was no difference. Some children were hearing fewer words but it wasn't necessarily children in poverty. However, their study was not a replication study. It was actually very different from Hart and Risley's. In fact, that 2018 study didn't even include a higher income sample. So I think that's interesting to know.

However, there are studies as recent as 2017, such as Gilkerson and colleagues, who used technology instead of people to listen in and collect data. Their sample was from 329 families, which is more than both of the previous studies combined, and they found a four million word gap between children of high and low socioeconomic status. That doesn’t sound like a lot compared to 30 million, but it is still a huge gap.   Remember, this all gets compounded over time.  The bottom line is that the Hart and Risley study, while not perfect, continues to suggest that early language environment makes a significant contribution to later academic success.

But why and how does it affect kids academically? By and large, students who come from homes of poverty simply don't get as much language exposure as peers from homes of higher income levels or higher levels of language environments.  This affects oral language development at early ages so that by the time they enter school, they're already behind.  I actually see more and more of this with our K5 students. K5 teachers have noticed this trend over the past three to five years.

Why Does Poverty Affect Reading?

As SLPs, we know that oral language lays the foundation for written language. But this is not universally known. Actually, there are some individuals in education who feel the opposite. They think that children learn written language as naturally as they acquire spoken language. However, the research does not support this in any way.

Children who begin elementary school with a deficit in their vocabulary knowledge are at risk for reading failure and academic underachievement (Catts, Adolf & Weismer, 2006; Marzano, 2003; Nagy, 2005).  That word knowledge gap between groups of children begins before they enter kindergarten. Hart and Risley found that three-year-olds from advantaged homes had oral vocabularies five times larger than children from disadvantaged homes. They also found that in the typical hour (i.e., 60 minutes) the average child in a welfare home will only hear 616 words whereas a child in the average professional home will hear 1,253 words.  You can see how this starts to add up.

Additionally, the difference of vocabulary is so great that children with low socioeconomic status and low language environment would need a 40-hour week preschool program in order to match the vocabulary of what is heard in the homes of working-class families.  You may be wondering why aren't they being spoken to or read to in low socioeconomic homes? Well, many parents are working two and three jobs, which limits the opportunities for reading those stories at bedtime or having those discussions around the dinner table. But the implication is when words are not heard then concepts are not learned.

Let’s consider phonology because it is another important piece, especially as it relates to reading. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to arrive at school having heard far fewer words and therefore having fewer words in their phonological lexicon. Couple this with the fact that exposure to words in the preschool years also promotes phonological awareness. Assuming there's no genetically-based phonological core deficit, the reasons for the reading gap between the two socioeconomic groups becomes clearer (Kilpatrick, 2015).

Think about this. Not only are these homes impoverished due to lack in quality and quantity of conversation, but the likelihood of these children having books in the home or being read to is not very high. To a certain extent, it's what I actually refer to as the “Dr. Seuss excuse”.  Meaning, they haven't heard all of the great rhyme, alliteration, vocabulary, and syntax that comes from children's literature.

Also, consider the impact that healthcare has on them. Children of poverty often have less access to healthcare as well as parents who are less likely to be alert to healthcare needs.  The result may be things like frequent ear infections. And frequent ear infections, as we know, often lead to speech and language delays, including possible delays in the development of phonological awareness.

Remember that children don't learn words by having each one explicitly taught. They learn words indirectly. Either through daily conversation, being read to, or reading on their own. This actually becomes a huge deal in upper elementary aged students. But, children who are at risk haven't engaged in conversations as often. They don't alert to when they hear words that aren't familiar to them. They aren't listening as carefully when they are read to, and then later on, they aren't very good readers on their own.  

Research suggests that when it comes to learning to read, students make sense of the words they read by comparing them to the words they have heard.  When children don't hear new words, they don't learn new words and concepts. When children aren't spoken to, they hear less complex sentence types. When they aren’t read to, they aren't exposed to all the wonderful things that come from children's books, which includes complex vocabulary that's more than what we use in everyday language. And they aren’t exposed to phonological awareness skills, which is one of the five essential components of learning to read.

Let's see what happens when we, as mature readers, have gaps in our vocabulary. The following comes from a great book by Alex Quigley called, Closing the Vocabulary Gap:

“______ is marking a _____ on a measuring _____. This involves ____ the relationship between _______ of a measuring ____ and _____ or _________    _______, which must be ______. For example, placing a _____ in melting ice to see whether it reads zero, to check it has been ______ correctly.”

What was that passage about? Can you answer the following questions?

  1. What is needed to mark a scale on a measuring instrument?
  2. True or false? An example of calibration is to place a thermometer in melting ice.
  3. What is the relationship between indications of measuring instrument and reference values that must be applied?

Where you able to answer any of those questions? Probably not.  That’s what it looks like when you don't know 75% of the words in a text.  Let's try the same passage with only 5% of the words unknown.

“________ is marking a scale on a measurement instrument. This involves establishing a relationship between indications of measuring instrument and standard or reference values, which must be applied. For example, placing a thermometer in melting ice to see whether it reads zero, to check it has been ________ correctly.”

The two missing words are calibration and calibrated.  Readers need to know at least 95% of the words they are reading in the text.  Actually, with some higher level text, it may actually be more than 95%. The other 5% of word meaning can usually be inferred from the context.  For the most part, I bet that based on the content-specific nature of this passage, it's probably still hard for you, as it was for me.

To reframe this back to our own perspective, as mature readers, when was the last time you read something where you didn't understand 75-90% of the words? Probably not very recently.  How do you think this would affect a student’s score on the SAT, the ACT, or any other standardized measure of academic content knowledge? Again, what does this look like over time?

What This Looks Like Over Time

In 1990, Chall found that low-income students in 2nd and 3rd grade tended to score around average in national reading tests, but in 4th-grade, they began to drop and continued to drop as they progressed to higher grades because tests in earlier grades focused on decoding, not vocabulary knowledge.  There were high performing 1st graders doing twice as many words as low socioeconomic status students.  This only gets magnified as they progress through grades. Why? Because of the growth of vocabulary that comes from reading text and reading comprehension, students start to gain more of their vocabulary through what they read. We will talk more about this later with regard to the three tiers of vocabulary.

To earn CEUs for this article, become a member.

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angie neal

Angie Neal, MS, CCC-SLP

Angie Neal is a school-based speech-lanuage pathologist from Greenville, SC. She earned her Certificate of Clinical Competence after obtaining her Master's Degree from San Francisco State University. Mrs. Neal has worked in inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation settings with both children and adults. She completed ASHA's Leadership Development Program for School-based SLPs in 2013 and presented at ASHA on the topic of social communication in the school setting at the national convention held in Philadelphia, PA in 2016.  She presents throughout the United States on topics related to social communication, language and literacy and effective school-based therapy.  Mrs. Neal is the author of The Pirate Who Couldn't Say Arrr (Tate Publishing), Spelling that Makes Sense (TPT) and Simply Social at School (Super Duper Publications).  

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This course will provide SLPs with a critically important view of how and why poverty has a tremendous impact on both language learning and academic success. Key strategies for working with school teams and conducting therapy will also be shared.

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