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In this week’s episode of the SLP Now podcast, I sat down with Corey and Mikayla from Ascend SMARTER Intervention to talk about literacy. This dynamic duo works together at a Denver-based educational consulting practice dedicated to getting SLPs the support they need to feel confident in structured literacy-intervention.

Corey, the founder of Ascend, is a data-driven + analytical educational therapist and diagnostician who is deeply passionate about helping struggling readers close the gap between where they are and where they want to be.

Mikayla joined the Ascend Team in 2017. She is a passionate and eager educational therapist with a background in psychology and special education, who cares deeply about helping kids see that they are capable of learning and helping them change their lives.

I’m so thrilled they joined me to share what they’ve learned in their years of practice, and hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

So grab your beverage of choice (I’ll have a chai tea!) put your feet up, and listen in.

Key Takeaways

– How Corey and Mikayla came to learn so much about literacy
– The role an SLP plays in literacy
– What sets us apart from special educators and teachers
– The literacy processing triangle and why it matters (Phonology, Orthography, Semantics)
– How to identify a student’s core deficit
– Curriculum-based measures and standardized measures
– How our role changes depending on the core deficit, especially in a school setting
– Why it’s critical to have assessment in oral language and reading comprehension
– Why we need need a structured, systematic approach to literacy
– Examples of how SLPs can implement this in practice

Links Mentioned in the Podcast

Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF)
Wechsler Individualized Achievement Test (WIAT)
The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP)
The Phonological Awareness Test (PAT)
Smarter Intervention Training Program
Click here to access the freebie links!

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Thanks so much!


Marisha: Hi there, and welcome to the SLP Now podcast. Today we have Corey and Mikayla here to help us dive into all things literacy. You guys have been asking a bunch of questions about this, and I feel like Corey and Mikayla are the perfect people to break this down for us.

Marisha: So Corey and Mikayla are a dynamic duo, and they are determined to get effective and accessible literacy intervention materials into the hands of struggling students everywhere. They have a really unique setup. They have a educational consulting practice in Denver, Colorado. They work with SLPs and educators to help them feel confident about their structured literacy intervention, and they also work students in their clinic as well.

Marisha: So a little bit about Corey. She is a data driven and analytical educational therapist and diagnostician. She's deeply passionate about helping struggling readers close the gap between where they are and where they want to be. She spent over 10 years working at leading research and clinical institutes, including Johns Hopkins University, Children's Hospital Colorado, and the University of Denver before opening her own private practice, Ascend Learning and Educational Consulting in 2015.

Marisha: Then Mikayla joined the Ascend team in 2017 and has been working as an educational therapist for the last two years. She's a passionate and eager professional with a background in psychology and special education. Her passion is in helping kids see that they are helping of learning and helping them change their life.

Marisha: So they clearly have a really unique set of experiences and I can't wait for them to share all of this expertise. Also in addition to all of the private practice work and consulting they do, they work all over the country with online professional development training programs. We'll share links in the show notes to find out more about all of the amazing things that they have going on.

Marisha: So without further do, Hi Corey and Mikayla.

Corey: Hi.

Mikayla: Hello.

Marisha: How are you? Amazing. I cannot wait to dive into this topic. Before we get into all of the nitty-gritty, all the tips and tactics that you have for us, I'm really curious. How did you guys, both of you, come to learn so much about this topic in particular? I'm really curious about a little bit of your story.

Corey: Absolutely. So first of all thank you so much for having us. We are so excited to share all things literacy, because Mikayla and I are both so passionate about this, and especially passionate about the role that SLPs play here. So first of all, thank you.

Corey: So in terms of how I got into this field. I actually started out my career working with students on the autism spectrum at Johns Hopkins University. That really sparked my love of language, and development in children as a whole. From there I moved onto working in neuropsychology, so working specifically with neuropsychologists with students who had any number of academic, language, social-emotional struggles. And I loved that so much. It was so interesting seeing just the different backgrounds of students and how those would come together, what assessments showed you about what they needed. From there I started to recognize, wow, I can see the profiles of these students. I can see where there are holes and where there are gaps, but I'm really curious about what it looks like in terms of actually closing those gaps and helping those students make real measurable gains and differences in their lives.

Corey: So from there I transitioned into the Learning Services Department at Children's Hospital Colorado. We were so lucky to be in an umbrella with a learning support team, a speech language team, and an audiology team. So we were really under this big umbrella which gave me this really unique and interesting opportunity to get to work closely with our speech and language team to see how we could support these students together who had learning issues. And I started to see there's major overlaps, specifically in the area of literacy, although it expands way beyond that. But specifically literacy in terms of what does that look like from a reading interventionist or a learning therapist role. And what does that look like from a speech language pathologist role. I just love it.

Corey: I absolutely loved my time there and I wanted to have the opportunity to work more closely in this multi-disciplinary way. So ultimately that's where I jumped into private practice. I have just absolutely loved continuing to learn about literacy. I've taken every training under the sun, from Orton-Gilllingham, to Lindamood-Bell, to just about anything I could get my hands on, because I was so fascinated in how the brain developed literacy skills. So that's my background. That's how I really moved from the beginning to the end of where I'm at in my career right now in terms of literacy.

Marisha: That's amazing. Such a unique set of all these different skills. And then what about you Mikayla.

Mikayla: Yeah. So when I was in school. I had a background, like you mentioned before, in psychology and special education, and knew that when I graduated I wanted to do something with children. I've wanted to help kids ever since I was a child myself. But I really didn't know exactly what that was going to look like. So I did few different things and worked in a couple of different roles in classrooms and with speech language pathologists, and tried to get any experience I could to help me narrow it down. We joke that this opportunity kind of fell out of the sky a little bit. I just decided I was going to move to Colorado, and went searching for an opportunity and for a job, and ended up finding Ascend and finding Corey.

Mikayla: When I first spoke with her I disclosed that I didn't have a background in literacy intervention. I knew I wanted to work with kids. I had had some experience in an educational setting. But I didn't have any literacy background. But she trusted me and I came onto the team and got all of my training through her and her expertise, and all of the knowledge she's built up with all of her amazing experiences, and all of the amazing roles she's held in the past. I jumped in. I did my research, and I started working with students. And I've been working here for the last two years as an educational therapist, as well as a part of our team supporting SLPs in that online professional development space. And have really started to jump into the executive functioning space and how it relates to literacy as well as all of the private practice pieces that come with that.

Marisha: Oh, that's amazing. You mentioned executive function. We've been getting a ton of questions about that. Maybe we need to talk about that more in another episode. How interesting. But since we're focusing on literacy today, I'm really curious. I talk about literacy based therapy all the time. I love using books in therapy. But when it comes to the core foundations of literacy and when you're looking at orthography and all of those different components, I know, at least when I was first starting out, I was a little bit unsure of what my role was in that. So can you help break that down for us a little bit?

Corey: Absolutely. So I am, again, so passionate about specifically SLPs and their role in literacy, because I think when we can fully understand how the reading and writing brain works, we can really understand how the background and training that SLPs have supports this development just incredibly.

Corey: So really when we think about how the reading brain works and what the neural processes are in order to be able to read, spell, write with competence we have to look at three specific areas. I like to look at this as a literacy processing triangle. That's really what it's been known to be called, at least in our field over here in the learning world, that literacy processing triangle. It's made up of three distinct components.

Corey: The first piece is phonology. That's kind of one of those foundational building blocks. So we know when we think about core components of literacy development, phonological awareness skills is a huge one that we look at. And it's really tied into the phonology development, so understanding of the sound structure of our English language.

Corey: The second piece that's really important, that's kind of the next building block there, would be orthography. So orthography is being able to see and look at letters or symbols and recognize what that letter is. So we've created the little picture that we've decided to call an A, and we need to be able to make that recognition. So that's what the orthography is, is really the sight piece of that processing triangle.

Corey: And then the last piece is semantics. So semantics, clearly as you know as a speech language pathologist, is the understanding or the comprehension of the language. So really this marriage of the sounds, understanding the sounds, understanding the pictures or seeing the visual component, and then being able to create comprehension off of that. So I always like to use the word "bat" for example. When we're looking at the word bat, we know we have distinct sounds, b-at, that are coming together. We know that we have those distinct letter patterns. You could look at a B. You could look at an A. You could look at a T. And we need to make that connection between the orthography and the phonology, so the sound and the symbol. And then we need to be able to make a comprehension out of that. So we need to recognize that "bat" is a concept that I know, and it could either be a baseball bat. It could be a nocturnal flying animal. But we need that whole connection to come together.

Corey: And it has to come together really quickly. So really it has to come together in less than half of a second in order to be able to read or write with fluency that would be necessary for comprehension or composition that is up to grade level standards at any age. So I think understanding that that's the neural process that has to happen. When we really break that down we recognize that SLPs have a really critical understanding of phonology, of the sound structure of our language. That's what you work on. That's what you target. Also you have a really critical understanding of semantics and creating comprehension from the oral language. Because essentially when we're reading we are just creating oral language in our head. Same thing when you're writing. You're just taking oral language and putting that down onto paper.

Corey: And so understanding that, SLPs understand more about phonology and semantics than most people who are actually working in this field. As a special educator, as a reading interventionist, we don't receive training or background on how to develop phonology, how to develop semantics. So what that leaves us with, is it leaves us with this understanding of the orthographic piece, the letters. A lot of people will say, "Oh, phonics instruction," and things like that. That's what's going on. That's what the special educator does. That's great. And in that background we got training on orthography, but nothing else.

Corey: So I think it's really important to recognize SLPs can absolutely play this critical role in making that whole connection come together. Whether that's working directly with students or whether that's providing professional development or support to your special education team to help them better understand how they can further develop that semantic piece or that phonology in the work that they're doing. So that's my long-winded answer to your question there.

Marisha: That is so incredibly helpful. I'm just picturing that triangle in my head. I've heard you present on this before but the first time you presented on it, I was like, "Oh, I've got phonology." And orthography, you're right, was a little bit trickier. And then you mentioned semantics. I'm like, "Oh, we're got this." So they are definitely areas that we're super familiar with, and it's a matter of then just figuring out how we can leverage that to work with students who have literacy deficits. And then also figuring out how to provide support to the team. That's such a helpful perspective. I'm really excited to be able to dive into that a little bit more.

Marisha: But before we talk about what we can actually do, because I'm sure there's different profiles that we see with students who you are seeing for literacy support. And then how do you go about identifying that core deficit to figure out which approach makes the most sense? And how to start navigating that all together?

Corey: Yeah. I think you make a great point here, and I wanted to create just a little bit of clarity here too. Because I also realize one of the things that I said in terms of an SLPs role in literacy, one of the things that I think is important to think about as we start thinking about core deficits, is that really SLPs as special educators are working with students who this process isn't coming naturally. So typically what we're going to be doing is we're looking at that literacy processing triangle, and we're recognizing that students who are not gaining literacy skills, so either reading or writing, at a level that's not consistent with their peers, have a breakdown somewhere.

Corey: In that literacy processing triangle something is not connecting. So it could either be phonology. It could be orthography. Or it could be semantics. But there is a break somewhere in there. Or we might have some students who have some foundational skills in each of those areas but the fluency, so the act of that coming together in less than half of a second, is not necessarily happening. So what we're doing in special education, in speech language pathologists' role in the schools and privately, is we are working with the students who have those breakdowns. If you have students who are reading and writing on grade level, clearly they don't have a breakdown. That whole system's running smoothly. We're not working with them.

Corey: So you bring up this question about identifying a core deficit. We've got two ways in which we can do that. We can do it through curriculum based measures or we can do it through standardized measures. I'll let Mikayla speak to the curriculum based measures and how we can start taking a look at identifying the core deficit that way. And then I'll chat a little bit about standardized measures that we can use as well.

Mikayla: Absolutely. So like Corey said, we have these two different types of assessments that we'll use in order to figure out where that deficit and where that breakdown in the triangle is falling. When we have a curriculum based measure we will look at a number of different things, like their chronological awareness, which we will get more into later on. We'll look at their phonics and we'll look at their comprehension to see, Okay, when we're looking at that triangle are they breaking down in any of these areas?

Mikayla: And now a curriculum based measure is great because when we're using a standardized measure which Corey will bring up in a second, we can only do those every so often. They have time constraints on them. But if you're looking to see if what you're doing is making progress from week to week and more frequently, we can absolutely be using a curriculum based measure. So progress monitor every few weeks or every month to see where are students falling in terms of the instruction they're receiving. And where can we put more supports to fill in those gaps as we go.

Corey: And then in terms of the standardized measure typically what we're doing is we're looking at assessments that are going to specifically target those core areas as well. So we're looking at specific assessments to target phonological awareness or phonology. We're looking at orthography measure. So usually that's like a phonics based assessment, and seeing like, "Hey, if we give you a list of all of the different letters and sound patterns, can you provide the sounds that that pattern makes?" And then some type of semantics assessment.

Corey: So in the terms of literacy we're usually looking at reading comprehension because that's kind of the highest end pillar of what we're looking at with the reading. So in terms of assessment, we typically like to give a battery that contains both the curriculum based measure as well as the standardized measure. In the beginning we might look at something like the CTOPP, so the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, as a really great way of looking at phonological awareness. We might also look at the Phonological Awareness Test, which is another great one, the PAT. There's a number of really great ones out there. I know a lot of people have said, What about this one? Or, what about that one? There's a lot of great phonological awareness tests out there. It doesn't matter as much what you're using as long as you're getting some baseline of how is this student doing in terms of their understanding of the sound structure of the language.

Corey: One of the things we love about curriculum based measures is that you can start to dive down a little bit deeper sometimes that you'll get with like the CTOPP give you kind of a big picture. You'll see, Oh, phonological awareness is breaking down but I don't know exactly where. Those curriculum based measures can help you pinpoint exactly where it's breaking down.

Corey: Then we can also take a look at the orthography piece. So again that phonics based piece. And you can do that through a number of different assessments. So a word identification and spelling test. You can do that through, again, a phonological awareness test also has an orthography component which I absolutely love. So that's something that you can do. And then you can also use curriculum based measures there of just giving letters and saying, Okay, do you know what these say? Sometimes that's something that's more appropriate for a special educator to be doing. So this is where you might have that multidisciplinary approach whereas a speech language pathologist you're looking at the phonological awareness piece. And then you're handing off that orthography piece to a special educator, which is great too. And it's great to have that consistent communication.

Corey: Then in terms of reading comprehension, we like to have a standard, formal measure of reading comprehension that we can look at to see how our student's performing in comparison to their peers and their aged based buddies in the classroom. But then also having a curriculum based measure so that we can start to recognize if comprehension is breaking down, is it breaking down because they can't identify main idea in detail? Is it because they can't make inferences? Is it because they have limited vocabulary? We have to start to recognize what's causing the breakdown. So that's another reason why we like to use those standardized assessments as well as the curriculum based measures.

Corey: So it's important as a speech language pathologist, one, if you're going to be working with literacy, to understand where literacy is breaking down. But in addition you may have some students who come to you, and come to your caseload, and they're primarily concern is actually language, right? That's ideal as a speech language pathologist to be working with students whose primary concern is language. And if that's the case, what we don't want to do, is we don't want to pull too far away from what you're already doing and we want to figure out how we can start to just incorporate little tidbits of literacy in. Because we know that students how have language based disorders are at a very high risk of having literacy based disorders as well.

Corey: So it's important to recognize as you're working through this multidisciplinary team, if you've got a student who's struggling with both language and literacy skills, we need to really start looking at what's the bigger issue. So that you can determine when you're working with these students, are you trying to pull a special educator into what you're doing? Or if literacy is the primary concern and there's just some little hints of language struggles, then can we offer that special educator more support on that end?

Corey: And really want we can do if we're using those standardized assessments, is we can see is semantics is really the biggest hole, and the biggest gap. And you have maybe a little bit of difficulty in orthography and a little bit of difficulty in phonology. Then that's a language kid. That's your primary language kid. Those are the ones that you see most often. If we're seeing that orthography is the primary deficit, then that's somebody who's going to be best supported by your special education team that you can potentially offer some support on how can they amp up their instruction in phonology and semantics. If you've got a kid whose phonology is the primary deficit, then it gets to be a little bit interesting. We can talk more in the next episode about phonological awareness, and when you've got a kid whose primary deficit is phonology who's the best person to support and what does that look like.

Corey: So, again, there's my super long response to identifying a core deficit.

Marisha: That's so helpful, and I am so excited to dive into all of the things that come after this. But I was curious. Do guys typically used a curriculum base measure for the orthography component. Because you mentioned that some of the phonological awareness assessments, you mentioned that sometimes they look at orthography. Is there anything in particular that you would recommend for that? Just so we know what we might be looking for in a special educator's assessment.

Corey: Yeah, absolutely. So we do have a baseline assessment that we provide, and we're happy to share that with your listeners just so they can kind of start to get an idea of what are the things that we're looking at and what are the umbrellas that that fall under. When we developed our baseline assessment we tried to make sure that we had a very clear picture of here's the phonological awareness piece to that triangle. Here's the orthography piece. Because really you just need to know that students have sound-symbol correspondence. So it's really just knowing all of your letter patterns and what sounds would they make.

Corey: So in terms of standardized assessment, we use the word identification and spelling test for that. But we have a curriculum based measure that works really well for that too, if people don't have access or just want to give something to their special education team and they don't have a standardized measure. We don't want you to skip it just because you don't have access to it. So that's why we created our curriculum based measure as well.

Marisha: Yeah. That's so helpful. And I've found that a lot of general education classroom teachers are giving these types of assessments, especially in the early grades. So it's just knowing what to look out for, or even just what to ask for if you're curious about that. Because a lot of this data is being collected all of the time, so that would be super helpful.

Marisha: I'm also curious if you have any favorite assessments for the comprehension component. Because I know as SLPs we got lots of assessments that look at that. I was just curious if you had any favorites.

Corey: Yeah, so I think there's two things that we need to look at when we are looking at comprehension. Because what we have to recognize with that semantics piece is that you're looking at oral comprehension. So what does a student understand when the information is provided orally. So I know a common one that's given from SLPs is the CELF, and they've got that Understanding Spoken Paragraphs, which is helpful. We've need to have that information to know what happens when we don't have to read. And then we also need to have a reading comprehension measure.

Corey: So here in our clinic what we use, we use the WIAT. People call it all kinds of different things, but the Wechsler Individualized Achievement Test, because it has both a listening comprehension section as well as a reading comprehension section. Another great one is the Tested Integrated Language and Literacy Skills, the TILLs, is a great assessment that will give you information on both the oral comprehension and the reading comprehension.

Corey: Whatever assessment that you're giving, of if you're giving a battery of assessments and you're trying to pick from what you have available to you, is just making sure that you have that measure of both oral and reading comprehension. Because we need to see if there is a breakdown between the two. And that's another way to see which is primary. If we're thinking about core deficits, if a student's listening comprehension is stronger than their reading comprehension we know we have a reading gap that we need to fill. If a student's reading comprehension is stronger than their listening comprehension, we've got a language gap that we need to fill.

Corey: So in terms of the semantics piece, I think you can use what you have but just make sure that you have a reading comprehension measure and a oral comprehension measure.

Marisha: Yeah. That's so helpful. I'm really glad that you shared those specific tests to look out for. Because again those were tests that either we're administering or the special education teacher, or maybe even the school psychologist, is giving. So a lot of that information is already out there. We just need to know what to look for. So super helpful.

Marisha: And then was there anything else that you wanted to share in terms of identifying the core deficit before we talk about our roles based on the different deficits? Or are we good to dive into that?

Corey: No. I think the only other thing that I would add, like you just said, is that oftentimes especially if you have a student on an IEP and so, if you're in the schools and you're servicing these kiddos, most of them are probably on IEPs. And so really it is just taking the data that you already have available to you as part of even that eligibility assessment or that triannual assessment. So if you've got some of those measures, you can take a look back because a lot of these things are relatively stable without intensive intervention as well. So even if the testing's not super recent, which is ideal to have super recent testing. But even if you have to go back and look at historical data you can take a look at those assessment periods and see, Okay, what data do we have.

Corey: And in a best case scenario you have data around language. You have data around academic performance, specifically that literacy performance. And best, best case scenario, you also have some phonological awareness testing. That one I see a little bit less. In looking at IEPs we don't get that quite as often, but that's another critical, critical piece that we want to have included in those IEPs. So if you are part of that assessment team and have any pull or say, potentially just saying, Hey, it looks like we don't have a phonological awareness measure. Is that a way that we could add that in? So that you have that data moving forward.

Marisha: Yes. So helpful. Thank you for breaking that down a little bit more for us. Such good information.

Marisha: So now let's talk about our role. I know that school based SLPs especially, we are spread pretty thin. So what have you seen from your consulting and working with other SLPs, can you tell us a little bit about what you see them doing in terms of the three components of the triangle? And just giving a really quick overview of just those three core components.

Corey: Yeah. I'll let Mikayla take this one away.

Mikayla: Yeah. So like I said before, when we figure out what a student's core deficit is we're typically finding that there is some kind of gap or some sort of deficit in one of those three points in the triangle. If we are finding that it's an orthographically based deficit, the students are struggling in that orthography corner of the triangle, this is typically where we'll see them best supported by a special educator or in a general education classroom, depending on the severity of that deficit.

Mikayla: If it's a phonological deficit, and they are struggling in the phonology area, this is something where we really recommend that an SLP come in and be involved as with semantics because of the unique training and the unique background SLPs have in those two areas. So whether that's the student coming in working with the SLP or the SLP providing that professional development and that training to the special education team, we definitely want them involved in that phonology area.

Mikayla: I won't dive too deep into the role changing in that area yet because I know in the next episode we're going to dive specifically into phonological awareness and what that will look like. But that's where we're going to want to see an SLP come in as well as semantics, which I'll let Corey talk about a little bit.

Corey: Yeah. So in terms of what the role is going to look like for a student who a semantics deficit, this is where it's really critical where we have that assessment in both oral language and reading comprehension. Because in terms of the literacy processing triangle and that top piece, that semantics piece that we're thinking about, we could have a semantics breakdown for one of two reasons.

Corey: So one could be that we have an oral language issue and that students just aren't comprehending even if the information is provided orally to them. So what the role is going to look like for a speech language pathologist is addressing that is going to be exactly what you've always been doing. You don't need to change anything. You don't need to do anything different. You just need to recognize this is what's going to support the reading comprehension. So the reading comprehension gap, it's not just about teaching reading comprehension strategies. If they don't have the oral language, they're not going to be able to do it in print.

Corey: The bottom line is that we have this hierarchy of skills and oral language skills have to be developed before we can start looking at being able to do those same skills in reading. Or at the even highest level, being able to produce written content. We can't expect a student to be able to produce an essay or to be able to produce something like that if they can't comprehend language at this more basic level.

Corey: So in terms of what that looks like in an oral language, just do what you do. That's perfect. And recognize and be able to tell your team, Hey, we don't have the reading comprehension because we don't have the oral language comprehension. So that's what we're working on in our speech language therapy.

Corey: If we recognize, Hey, yes, we have a semantics deficit, but it's more specifically a reading comprehension deficit, and it's not necessarily an oral language deficit. Then what that role can look more like is, it can look more like supporting your special education team and helping them understand, Hey, here are the reading comprehension strategies that we need to use based on what we already know about how oral language develops. And keeping in mind that depending on your team, we just didn't receive background or training or anything on how to develop these skills. So oftentimes all we're really given is a bunch of worksheets and we're not quite sure what's the hierarchy in which we should be teaching reading comprehension skills and things like that.

Corey: So in terms of, depending on the core deficit, and depending on what that looks like, we need to recognize that that may impact how much your role is directly facing a student, versus how much of that is supporting your team.

Marisha: That's so helpful. And I love that you're building that decision tree for us. It's like we're doing that assessment, looking at the results, figuring out which point of the triangle is the biggest down, and then we get to decide. Like if it's orthography, that's something that we can leave to the special education teacher. We don't have to get a ton of training or anything to be able to support that. But there are SLPs who do focus on that when it comes to specializing in private practice. Maybe we can talk about that in just a second.

Marisha: But then so there's that decision tree. We've got the orthography happening. Then if it's phonology, we can do what we typically do. And if you have any questions about that, we'll deficit tie into that next time. And then with the semantics, a lot of it we get to continue doing whatever we have been doing. But I love the point of looking at oral language versus reading comprehension, and then potentially supporting the special education teacher in that way.

Marisha: So I just feel like that little tree helps break it down and make it so much less overwhelming. So thank you for that.

Marisha: And then, I'm curious too. Can you give some examples of maybe what you would recommend to a special education teacher? Just giving a couple of tactical examples of what that would look like in terms of how the SLP could support the special education teacher. What are some examples that you think that could help?

Corey: Absolutely. Yeah. It's a great question. So what I would say is that some of the best training and resources that I have seen in the area of reading comprehension specifically ... So thinking about that piece first, or that semantics piece first ... they're coming from speech language pathologists. And the reason that the best reading comprehension strategies and techniques that we're getting are coming from speech language pathologists is because of the understanding of, again, how oral language develops.

Corey: So oftentimes what we see happening in the special education world, and again I have a background with special education myself, it's because we just didn't get this training. But what happens is we're really looking at just worksheets. So when we're teaching reading comprehension we're giving students a passage to read through, and then we're just randomly asking them questions about it. Or we have different resources that we've got that just have random reading comprehension question. And what happens is we're just giving those over and over and over again hoping, praying, that with enough exposure that students are going to get it.

Corey: But what we know is that our struggling students don't get these skills by just repeated exposure, exposure, exposure. They need explicit instruction. So one of the things that I've seen coming out really well, or a good suggestion, that you as a speech language pathologist could make to your special education team would be, Hey, we actually need to explicit voice down how to start to recognize a main idea and key detail. So for example, one of the first things that you guys do as speech language pathologists, is you work on categorizing, right? You work on categorizing different concepts and different topics into little categorization maps. And essentially that's going to be the foundation of building our main idea and key details.

Corey: So really what it is in terms of giving them some suggestions is helping them understand, Hey, in order to be able to do main idea and key details, we need to understand how to categorize. Here are some different activities that you can use as a special educator to start to work on categorization. So just some of those types of things are really helpful.

Corey: I think one of the other things that can be helpful is helping them recognize that reading comprehension is not just like one big block of themes. But really it's an umbrella. And that we actually need to start breaking that down to main idea and key detail. Making inferences. Understanding vocabulary. Each of those individual pieces are critically important. We have a resource that breaks this down a little, so again, we're happy to share with your listeners in what are those pieces that really come under that umbrella term of reading comprehension. And just starting to say, Hey, here are the things that we do. Here's some resources that specifically fall into helping them understand how to make inferences, or how to do some of these things. Because there's just been a gap in understanding how exactly that needs to look in terms of oral language straight onto reading comprehension.

Corey: So really go ahead and just use this umbrella map that we're going to give to you. You can start to use that to try and understand, Okay, does your special education team understand that reading comprehension is not just a big block but it's actually a number of discreet, individual tasks that need to come together to comprehend material.

Marisha: That is so incredibly helpful. And just that perspective. I feel like we would be a little too ... because unless we spend time in the special education teacher's classroom, we don't know how she's teaching those components. So what you mentioned about in general, and this is of course a generalization, but a lot of teachers don't have that training. So they are just using those general worksheets. If we just spent a couple of minutes in the classroom observing her teaching that, we would really quickly be able to see, like, Oh, wait, wait, wait. We can tell this student is struggling to make inferences. That's why they always get a 60% score on that. Whereas the teacher might not be able to identify that. And I'm sure that all of us, we have easy access to a visual or some kind of activity to help break down that really specific skill.

Marisha: So I love that as a way to bridge the gap. And it's just seeing what they're doing and seeing what we can add or do to support. I love that perspective. That's super helpful.

Marisha: Let's skip into some super specific examples. Actually before we do that, let's talk about the orthography. So there are SLPs who do focus on orthography, right?

Corey: Absolutely. Yep. For sure.

Marisha: So what does that look like? If there's an SLP who's interested in diving into that, what would you recommend?

Corey: Yes. If you have SLPs who, especially like you mentioned, there are a subset of SLPs who, one, either are primarily responsible for supporting all of the literacy needs in the school. Less so in public schools and more so potentially in private schools. But definitely that can happen, or those who are looking to bridge the gap in private practice. So I'll let Mikayla speak a little bit to you what that looks like in terms of the SLPs that we work with who are either using this because they're fully responsible for literacy in the classroom as far as the support, or are using this in private practice as well.

Mikayla: Yeah. Absolutely. So starting at the most basic level, of that sound level, when you are working with a student on their sounds, just showing them a card that has a letter on it so that they can tie a visual from the sound that they're trying to produce to the letter that makes that sound. So, for example, if you're working on the letter "f" when you're asking them to make that sound, having a letter card there with the letter f on it so that visually they can see what letter they're trying to produce the sound for.

Mikayla: Then moving up to the word level, it's going to be the same thing. If they're trying to say a word, showing them a word card so that they can make that connection on the literacy processing triangle from the sound that they're producing to the word. And then tying it back up that semantic piece as well. So like Corey said earlier with bat. If they're trying to say bat instead of pat or you're working on something with that word, inaudible to get them to produce it, showing them the word and asking them about the semantic piece will tie in that orthography.

Mikayla: We like to say if an SLP wants to pull orthography in it's definitely something that's doable. It does not have to be hard. It's just adding in that one extra step to what you're already doing so that students can get that full connection of the triangle there and see how it connects.

Corey: So in terms of just adding this in, and honestly you can do those pieces even if you have a special education team who's supporting. Because oftentimes what's happening is these kids are getting breakdowns, like they're getting all these skills is isolation and they don't see how it connects. So that's a great way to create that connection between what you're doing and what the special education team is doing too. So keep that in mind. You have to just do that if you're fully responsible for literacy. You can do that regardless of your role in the school.

Corey: In terms of if you are fully responsible for literacy, what we do want to make sure with orthography that is very important, especially if you have a student who's very much struggling in reading and spelling. You want to make sure that you're using a systematic approach. So we want to make sure that we're using a sequential order in which we're teaching these letter patterns. Too often what I see is that students who are struggling with literacy are struggling because they're just getting kind of a random phonics approach, or are getting this piece mealed approach, and they don't necessarily have anybody who's working them through a systematic instruction of like, first we're going to teach all of the consonants. And then we're going to teach diagraphs. And then we're going to teach blends. And we're going to move onto more complex sound patterns as we go.

Corey: What we need to make sure of is if you're are doing this is private practice, or if you are supporting literacy as the sole literacy provider, you to make sure if you're targeting orthography, you are using a scope and sequence of letter introduction. So that's when we start to look more at a structured literacy approach as a whole as opposed to supplementing what you're doing and just adding some literacy sprinkles in. Literacy sprinkles are great. I love literacy sprinkles. But if you're fully responsible for supporting a student's literacy development and they are struggling, we need to make sure that we are using a structured, systematic approach. It's often been known as Orton Gillingham, the field is sort of shifting away from that term to more of a structured literacy approach. But it's the same idea that we're making sure that we're doing that in a systematic way.

Corey: So I want to be clear. There is a difference in what it looks like when you're supporting literacy as a primary deficit, and when you are supporting literacy as a sprinkle onto your language based therapy.

Marisha: Yeah. Absolutely. That's super helpful. Because I'm sure if we Googled Orton Gilllingham we could find some different trainings that way. Do you have any other recommendations in terms of where to go if an SLP is looking for that?

Corey: Yeah. Well, we have a training that we absolutely love that we put together. The way that we put this together, we really put it together with the thought of giving people the least amount of overwhelm possible. So what is the least amount of information that you can take and consume and be able to implement right away. And so the great thing about Orton Gillingham is that has a fantastic background. The methodology there is amazing. We absolutely love it. The problem is when you go to Orton Gillingham training you're still responsible for developing a comprehensive curriculum using the methodology that they've just taught you.

Corey: So what we went ahead and did is we took all of the best parts of those trainings. We stuck them together and then built a curriculum around it so that you can jump right in. Because what we've learned, and I'll let Mikayla speak a little bit to this, but what we've learned is that action brings a lot of clarity. So as you start getting in there and working with students, you start to make these connections of, Oh, orthography, the semantics, the phonology. You start making that literacy processing triangle connection more. But you have to get in there, and you have to be working with students. What we learned is that you kind of need a backbone to that.

Corey: You need some type of curriculum or something that you can use to start getting into action. Because when you go to Orton Gillingham you have a lot of great thoughts and ideas, but nothing that's actionable. And so without that action you lack clarity. So I'll let Mikayla speak a little bit to that because she came from this perspective of, No idea what literacy ... like I don't know what structured literacy looks like. How does that pull together?

Mikayla: Yeah. So the reason I brought up in the beginning that my background didn't include a literacy training is because so often we work with SLPs or other professionals that come into our program, we hear, Oh, literacy isn't my space. Or I don't have a background in it. I can't do this. And I'm the first to say, I didn't have a background in this either, but with the proper tools you absolutely can do this.

Mikayla: And that's especially true for SLPs, knowing you already have so much training in phonology and semantics. So with that structured scope and sequence in curriculum that Corey mentioned, all we really had to do, or when I started all I had to do was follow that program that we'd built so that I can be hitting on the orthography, phonology, and semantics together in order to get students back to being on grade level and help with their literacy skills.

Mikayla: So it definitely helps to get in there with students and see how this works because there are so many terms floating around and there are so many different moving parts to it. There's those three points to the triangle, how they're connecting, executive functioning like we talked about in the very beginning is a huge part of how those three points are connecting. And it's not until you're really sitting there with a child seeing how it's all coming together for them as an individual that you really start to see, okay, if I'm working with a student and they're constantly doing this, that means I need to pull in more support for the phonology piece of the triangle. Or if they're doing this, I need to be pulling an inference worksheet for semantics instead of main idea. We can absolutely find all from assessments, but the action will absolutely bring clarity as you move through the therapy with a child to see what they need and what you need to be doing in order to get them back to where they want to be and closing the gap for them there.

Marisha: I love that. You guys have so many amazing actionable tips. It's the best. I especially loved how, Corey, you called these literacy sprinkles. And I loved Mikayla's example of just having sound cards. Like if we're working on sound in isolation with our articulation kiddos. And then as we move into the word level, including those words. I'm sure we could continue that throughout the entire level, and include that written input as much as possible. But I'm curious if you guys have any other magical literacy sprinkle examples you could share.

Corey: Oh, goodness. So many literacy sprinkles. We can definitely dive even deeper into this in the next episode, but there's a lot of things that you can be doing in terms of every single one of those pieces of the triangle and thinking about what that looks like. So, yeah, Mikayla offered such an amazing example of an orthography literacy sprinkle of we're targeting this concept. So because we're targeting this concept let's just pair it to print. Anytime that you're are targeting anything, if you can even just write it down if you have a whiteboard or something.

Corey: You don't have to have a ton of materials. I think that's one of the things that I always felt like. Like, oh, I can't get into that piece because I don't have all my beautiful printed organized materials around it, which I know Marisha, you're right there with us loving like the organized beautiful materials, which are amazing. But sometimes you're in a session and you're like, I honestly can't pull another thing. So when you're thinking about that orthography piece, you can just write it on the whiteboard. You don't have to have complicated materials to make this work. So keeping that in mind for the orthography piece, just pair print to whatever you're doing.

Corey: In terms of phonology, one of the things that you can be doing is, if for example, you're working on the "k" sound and you're providing the word cupcake and you're hoping that they're going to get cupcake for you. We could also break that down and say, great, how many syllables in cupcake? Great. How many sounds in cupcake? Can you show me what those letters look like? And of course, you don't have to get too much into that if you don't have time, but something as simple as, I just asked a question of you. I didn't have extra materials, I'm just asking you for that. Or I'm working on the "k" sound for you, so let's play a little game. I'm going to tell you a bunch of sounds and I want you to guess what word I'm thinking of. And you might get [inaudible 00:50:31]. What word am I thinking of? You can even have them produce those back to you, and all of a sudden you've added a phonology component there where you're asking them to blend sounds together. That's fantastic. That's what they're doing when they're reading. We need that to be a really fluent process.

Corey: And then in terms of semantics what you're doing with your literacy based therapy in pulling books in and things like that. That is the perfect way to be making sure that you're building and developing those oral language skills. And then you're immediately pulling that connection in with the printed text and being able to see how does this translate into what I'm reading.

Corey: Then for your older students you could even have a little written response that they provide you. And that's really closing that gap too, between oral language, reading, and writing. Those three pieces that we like to think about. So those would be the big things that I would definitely recommend. We can talk, again, more about phonology specifically because there's a lot that can be done there specifically to support these little literacy sprinkles inside of your session.

Marisha: Such good information. And I'm curious too. Do you have any tips in terms of the written responses. Because I know that our sessions are so short and we're trying to get so much done in that time. Sometimes if a student writes out a sentence for me a lot of times there's lots of different errors that we could be focusing on. Do you have any tips in terms what would be most ... How do we decide what to focus on there? Or how can we maximize the time that we spend on that writing?

Corey: Yes. That is such a great question because I've had a number of people ask me. Like, I don't have time to work on handwriting. And I don't have time to work on the spelling. And I completely understand that. So I think in terms of an SLP's role one of the best things that you can be doing for writing support is anytime that you are using any type of graphic organizer or visual that you're using to help instruct a certain concept. So for example, if you were looking at main idea and key details, if you had some type of graphic organizer that you were using for that, just showing them quickly how they could write even just a couple of words into that mind map of sorts. Because I think as an SLP, one of the best things that you can bring is an understanding of really the function of language and how that works as opposed to the actual, like the spelling and the capitalization and the handwriting and all of those.

Corey: I think those are tasks that you're going to leave to your special education team. Those are things that we can really pass off to them. One of the things as an SLP that you might want to look at is can they recognize errors. Like, Hey, we're going to send out the cops. That's one thing that we use a lot. Let's send out the cops real quick. I just want you to tell me, do you have capital? Do you believe that you have good sentence structure or good organization? Do you have a punctuation? Do you have spelling? One of the things that you can look at, not that you have to fix all of those things, but just do you even recognize it? Do they even have any of that executive functioning or metacognitive skills to recognize that their sentence wasn't good? Sometimes they know. Sometimes they'll say, I don't think this sentence is structured appropriately. And sometimes they don't.

Corey: And I think really the key role of an SLP is to be able to articulate where those errors are for the special education team. So, hey, we did a sentence and there was a lot of errors that I could correct. What I noticed was I noticed we struggled with mechanics, the capitals and the punctuation. Or we struggled with sentence structure. Or we struggled with the spelling piece. And really just identifying that to hand it off. Because I think as an SLP you have too much other pieces of the puzzle on your plate to be able to get into anything more in depth than that.

Corey: So, again, I would focus primarily for writing, if you're doing anything oral language, if you're doing anything reading comprehension wise with graphic organizers, have them just produce something quick, short, just tangible. It can be a couple of words in each of those so that they can start their thinking and organize their language around what they want to write. But in terms of sentences and thing like that, I think it's really going to be more about collecting data and providing that data to your special education team.

Mikayla: Okay. And on that same note, one of the activities that I'll do with my students, I try to overlap as much of this as I can, is if we are working on the "k" sound, like Corey mentioned earlier and the student was tasked with figuring out the word milk after having the different sounds, I'll then have them use that in their sentences. So I'll say, Okay, you need to use the word when you're writing a sentence. You need a who or a what, your subject, did what, predicate, and then adding the adverbial, why, when, where, or how. And we have that nice record organizer for them so that we're hitting on all of the same skills, overlapping to save that time. A lot of it can be saved for that special education team and that teacher, but if you have the extra minute, definitely having them break down the syntax of that sentence. And breaking it down there, making sure they can use the words appropriately in that vocabulary piece is always great data to take. I always find it super interesting with my students when I have them do that.

Marisha: I love that example, and that's especially helpful when we're working with mixed groups too. Because we might have a student working on saying that final k sound and then maybe someone else is working on irregular past tense verbs, and someone else is working on pronouns. All sorts of goals together. And so that example is such a great way to put all of those skills together. We often have visual and graphic organizers to support that, like Mikayla said, and so it's just a way to put those skills together, and then to anchor it with that written response. Maybe even the kids can work together on that. I love that. Such a good example.

Corey: Yeah. And we have a great visual for that too. So we will share that. I have a little packet that you guys can just download, but that shows exactly what looks like in terms of us. Like here's the word that we're targeting, or the sound pattern that we're targeting, and then here's your little graphic organizer in terms of the who or what, did what, why, when, how. I do, I love that Mikayla, because I think that's such a great language construct that we can start to take a look at and that a lot of our students are really, really struggling with.

Marisha: Love it. And then I had just one random question related to the written responses. Do you know of any research or anything that shows whether there's a benefit to ... If I was modeling the graphic organizer on the board and each of the students had their own, if there a benefit for them to be copying what I write? Or it is better for them to generate on their own? Do you have any feedback or input there?

Corey: Yeah. So in terms of teaching those graphic organization strategies, usually there's going to be a hierarchy. So in the beginning when you first introduce a new organization, or graphic organization strategy, you would model that for them. So you would go through the passage, or go through your book, or whatever you're using to target that concept and then you would show them, Here's what I'm thinking. Like let's do this graphic organizer together. I'm going to walk you through my process. So let's go ahead and you copy mine as a model, and then you use that as your model moving forward.

Corey: But then you want them to graduate to that next level of them being able to take that and do it on their own. And so it's a great opportunity too, if you're using those graphic organizers, once you've explicitly taught it, you've modeled it, they have a model to follow. They're going to do their own. If you've got a mixed groups, too, or even just a group of any students, it doesn't matter how well aligned they are in their topics, but it's a great opportunity for conversation. Because what you're going to get, is you're going to get students going off the graphic organizer a little bit differently. So you can talk about, Oh, how interesting that so and so put this, and so and so put that. And all of a sudden you have a perspective taking activity. All of a sudden you've got a lot of gems of information coming out just from that conversation of them filling that out independently.

Corey: So there's a lot of great research around the benefit and the use of graphic organization strategies as a primary tool for teaching reading comprehension. Yeah. It's really good to graduate them away from the modeling onto independent work with it.

Marisha: And does that also apply is they're doing writing? Let's say last session I had them write a sentence and there were just way to many issues with it. Would it still benefit the student if I wrote down a sentence or a word and have them copy it onto their organizer or whatever? Does that same kind of model apply when it comes to written language?

Corey: Yeah. For sure. Absolutely. And that's why we really like the idea, too, of really modeling the sentence frames that Mikayla brought up. So the who or the what, did what, why, when, how. Because a lot of times there are a lot of errors in that written structure. So what we do, I can let Mikayla speak a little bit to this, but in our earlier curriculum what that look like in terms building that skill by providing some of that to them. So I'll let you talk a little bit about that, Mikayla, our little sentence building.

Mikayla: Yeah. So in the beginning I will definitely model for the students. But I'll typically ask them then to create a sentence, maybe using that same key word, but choosing their own answer. So if I gave them, okay, the who is Jenny. Drank her milk. At the table. Okay, now you need to pick a new who and the adverbial. So maybe they'll say, Oh, Rogan spilled the milk this morning. And try to get them to model those different pieces so that they can see how mind came together, but then they need to come up with their own pieces so that they're applying and generalizing what I gave them. But it's easier said than done, so often I'll ask my students and they will try to give me the same who for five sentences in a row. And the same did what for five sentences in a row. So I need to give them that extra task of saying, Okay, you're going to write five sentences. Maybe they all have that "k" sound in the key word, but you can't use the same person twice. Or you can't use the same action twice.

Mikayla: So it's definitely working on so many skills all together, including some of those higher level thought processes. And just that creative writing piece, trying to come up with who am I going write about and how do I make them different. But modeling is going to be super, super important for them as they go. Sometimes I'll have students try to break up their sentences with a who did what, and then the why, when, how. And they are breaking it down incorrectly. I had one the other day come in and they put the action in the why box because they tried to break it up word for word instead of the different pieces of the sentence. So it's definitely going to be child dependent how they're performing and what errors they make in all these different pieces.

Mikayla: But we are big on modeling here, and scaffolding. So sometimes my students will ask, "Well, can't you give me an example first?" And I'll try to graduate them through and say, "Oh, I gave you an example last time, and you did really well. I want to see if you can do this on your own today." And then we'll work together to figure out how we can make it better or if it's correct. And definitely trying to scaffold it for them throughout the process.

Corey: I think a key piece to keep in mind here, is if you have students who can't do that at all, the way that you scaffold that down even further is that we have a number of times where we will offer the who or what. So we'll give them three choices of a who or what. And then we'll give them three choices of a did what. And we'll give them three choices of a why, when, how. So like at our more basic level we actually have word cards that we will provide for each of those. And then basically it's like a choose your own adventure with your three choices. So we call them silly sentences, and you can just pick.

Corey: So the great thing about that is then it is sort of copying. So then underneath of that we'll have them write the sentence. Then what we're looking for is, Okay, did you add a capital? Did you add a punctuation? You had the words in front of you, essentially to copy, but the great thing is, is what we do, we align that to whatever concept we're targeting. So if we're targeting the "k" sound, we're going to have a bunch of just different who's that have a "k", a bunch of different did what's that have a "k", and a bunch of different why, when, or how's that have a "k", to try and get them practicing. So, again, you're really pulling in multiple of those skills at the same time so that they can see how is the work that I'm doing with my articulation group, how does that also then correlate into what I'm reading and what I'm writing. Reading and writing are reciprocal processes. So we always keep that in mind too.

Mikayla: Absolutely. And you can also work on, once they've got those skills down and being able to identify or produce the three different pieces and put together a correctly formed sentence, seeing if they can reorder it to work on some of those pieces as well. So instead of having, I went to the park on Saturday, reordering it and saying, On Saturday I went to the park. And seeing if they can manipulate those sentences in that way for a higher level skill as well.

Marisha: So good. So many amazing tips. Thank you, Corey and Mikayla. I can't wait to dive into phonological awareness in the next episode. It's going to be amazing, just like this one was.

Marisha: For those of you listening, if you want to access any of the resources that we mentioned, including their freebies and links to what Corey and Mikayla are up to, if you want to learn more about them, you can head to And then we'll all get together again next week to talk all about phonological awareness.

Corey: Thank you so much.

Mikayla: Thank ...



Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

Reader Interactions


  1. Where are the free framework and graphic organizer resources that were mentioned in the podcast? I really enjoyed the episode!

  2. This is exactly what I needed for collaboration at my K-2 Primary School! Timing could not be more perfect. I used the literacy triangle during an IEP meeting on Monday to show the parents that two of the three pieces are impaired. The response was so positive despite the news that he is struggling academically- they finally had the answers they were searching for. Thank you for sharing- I’m be looking in the curriculum from Corey and Mikayla for sure!

  3. I love this podcast and particularly appreciated this episode. I would be happy to write you a review, but I’m an Android user (perhaps the only one among SLPs!), so was hoping there was a forum somewhere other than itunes. In any case, I find this podcast to be one of the best SLP ones out there. I especially love that many of your guests are the the very top experts in the field whose work I’d be looking up anyway, and also the emphasis on evidence-based interventions. I frequently feel like I learn a lot and come away more confident and inspired. Looking forward to future episodes.

  4. Really superb interview. Excellent suggestions. Wondering if the graphic organizers and sentence frames were ever shared? I saw the literacy guide but I did not see those particular resources mentioned toward the end of the interview. Thanks for conducting this interview!

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