In the fifth episode of The Sounds-Write Podcast, Alison Perry and John Walker discuss all-things speech pathology. Alison talks about the intersection of her work as a speech therapist and as a Sounds-Write trainers. She talks about her passion for teaching and the joy of teaching children to read. Enjoy!
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Hello and welcome to the Sounds-Write podcast. In this episode you'll hear Alison Perry and John Walker discuss all things speech pathology. Alison is a speech pathologist based in Brisbane and she's also the founder of Soundality. Alison discusses the intersection of her years of experience as both speech therapist and Sounds-Write trainer. I hope you enjoy the episode.
So, hi Alison, maybe can you tell us a bit about speech pathology then please?
Thanks, John, I'd love to. Speech pathology, yeah, has been a really big part of my life for about 15 years now. I first became interested in speech therapy when I was, I suppose, reflecting on what I wanted to do with my life as a late teen. I actually didn't even know what a speech therapist was when I first stumbled across it in university guide but when I consider that I really enjoyed teaching piano and clarinet throughout high school and both my parents are now retired primary school teachers, perhaps it wasn't a big surprise that this is where I ended up. So, I just have that passion for teaching and sharing what I know in an easy-to-understand way. And I've had people say, but why didn't you become a teacher? And I just thought, well, perhaps I knew too much. I'd spent too many long afternoons and evenings at my mum's school while she prepped, and I really understand that teachers don't quite get the holidays that many people assume they do. So, yeah. When I came across the speech pathology degree in the university's guide, I called a local speech pathologist who was in private practice out in Wilberforce in the Hawkesbury Valley in Sydney. And she really kindly spent a good 20-30 minutes with me just sharing her experience and I really liked what I heard, and the rest is history.
Right, yeah, that sounds really interesting. It's funny because when I was last in Sydney, I got talking to a speech pathologist and I had no idea of how wide the range of speech pathology is. Would you like to talk to us a little bit about that and why it was that you went for a particular field or a niche, if you like?
Absolutely. I think the professional title we have here commonly in Australia as a speech pathologist really falls short of coming close to describing the breadth of our training and the range of services we offer. I think many more people are adopting and other countries generally use the term speech language therapist because you get the speech and the language part in there. But people know about speech pathologists as helping people who stutter or who have a lisp, maybe, but it is much, much more than that. So, a speech pathologist is a qualified health professional. We work with people of all ages. So really, from birth to the end of life. Generally speaking, very broadly, speech pathologists help people to communicate, and they also help people if they're having trouble eating or drinking. This might look like supporting people when you have trouble understanding or talking with others. Of course, no surprise here, but they help people with reading and spelling and maybe also using technology or other ways to communicate. And, yeah, as I mentioned, a field that not many people know unless they've come across a speech pathologist, usually in the hospital system, is that we also help people who have trouble swallowing and that can make eating and drinking difficult. So, for me, I don't think I was cut out to be working in the hospital system. It's a bit of a sensory overload, with the bright lights and noises and beeping and all the things. As much as I enjoyed it, it just wasn't my calling. So, working to support families with children was where I ended up.
Good. Great. In our work in Australia, one thing that I've noticed is that there are huge numbers of speech therapists all over the country, whereas in Britain that certainly isn't the case. We might have a speech therapist attached to maybe half a dozen schools, or a local authority might have a couple that they employ. But in Australia it's absolutely huge, isn't it? There are large numbers of them, and they seem to be especially in demand in schools for catching up children who've fallen behind.
Yeah, it's been really interesting hearing the different roles here in Australia versus the UK. Speech pathologists in Australia are not routinely employed within the schooling systems. It varies quite drastically from state to state, and I think many people in those education systems would agree that it's heavily underfunded, but that's a whole other discussion altogether. I think, in part, the reason that speech therapists are in such high demand in Australia for teaching children to read is, at least in part, an unfortunate reflection of how the education system leaves many students without adequate reading and spelling skills by middle and upper primary. I'm not saying this is a blanket thing and there are significant improvements happening. The groundswell is certainly there now, but I think in the past, what I've heard from a lot of parents who've sought my services is that they've been reassured that the child just needs more time, or don't worry, they'll catch up or just keep reading to them at home. Either that, or maybe the intervention that was provided in the school system hadn't been grounded in the science of reading and what we know best about how children learn to read. So, they might have been reinforced, lots of guessing and looking at the picture and those kinds of strategies which we know don't serve children well long-term. So, I think then, by the time a child is hitting middle primary and beyond, which is where a lot of the referrals start to come in, is when parents take their matters into their own hands. Or perhaps the options for support at school are either limited or absent. That's a whole other issue. But why is it that parents are seeking support from speech pathologists specifically? I think it's because we have a really thorough understanding in the language system, a very structured, systematic way of approaching many things that we do in assessment and therapy. And then, of course, there's a significant overlap between the existence of language difficulties or disorders and reading disorders as well. So, yeah, a few big reasons why, but obviously it would take a bit more time to unpack.
Yeah, yeah, good. So how do you manage your two roles? Because, you know, I know that Laura was talking about you being a Sounds-Write trainer as well. How do you manage to combine the two roles? How easy is it to combine the two roles, do you think?
Yeah, I feel really quite fortunate to be in the position I'm in, having come from a background sort of at the coal front, where I am supporting families and working with children who, for a range of reasons, have had trouble learning to read and write. But being able to draw on my background knowledge as a speech pathologist and then overlaying this sort of specialist knowledge I have there in phonics and really how to teach reading and spelling very effectively, allows me to support those families where children have perhaps more than one area of need, which is not uncommon. As I just mentioned, we've got such an overlap between spoken language difficulties and written language difficulties. With a programme like Sounds-Write, when I'm using it in therapy, because it has that clear, structured approach and I'm aware of the importance of following that with fidelity, that becomes the core of my instruction. But we can also, and I think many speech pathologists are doing this really effectively, starting to weave in those oral language or speech-sound therapy goals without diluting that fidelity to instruction. So, yeah, it's something that ends up being extremely rewarding and you can have very effective change in improving a student's, not just their written language, but their oral language as an almost side product to that, too. And then on top of that, of course, yeah, I have the absolute pleasure of being a Sounds-Write trainer, so being able to reach a much wider audience to share what I know works so effectively. So, the fact that each time I run a training course, I can train a group of people, now with the online course from all across the world, in fact, to do what I do.
Good. Well, one thing I've been meaning to ask you, I was talking to a group of speech therapists in Australia. Do they receive any kind of formal training in how to teach reading and writing when they're training to be therapists?
That's a good question. I think it's an area that is lacking in training and one of the main reasons, pieces of evidence I have for that is the sheer number of speech pathologists who seek professional development in a specific phonics method, with Sounds-Write training. I was studying about 15 years ago. So, at the time that I did that, I did my training, there was very, very little regarding teaching reading and writing. In fact, I remember at the end of a lecture on phonological awareness, I put my hand up and asked the lecturer, because I was that student, I still am that student. And I asked her, what about teaching reading? Because I felt like, book closed, we're done, subject is finished. I said, hang on, but what about teaching reading? And the response I had at the time was that that was the school's responsibility or the teacher's responsibility, and that's all there was to it at the time. But I remember feeling unsatisfied, even as a second- or third-year student. So, when I graduated and started working, I went to a non-for-profit organisation and then into private practice, but primarily working with school aged kids. Time and time again, there were kids coming through my door who really struggled with their reading and spelling, and I wasn't well equipped to know what to do beyond just frantically kind of scrubbling things together and doing the best I could with what I knew at the time. And it was then that I discovered Alison Clarke's Spelfabet website and Ros Nielsen. So, she's the author of a few assessment tools and was running some professional workshops at the time. Then when I started at the Dyslexia Spelled Foundation, I obviously then met you, John, and did my Sounds-Write training, which is where there were many 'aha!' moments and a bit of confirmation of what I was already doing, but a lot more of, right, that's a much better way to do it. From what I hear, though, things have improved in the 15 years since I trained and more recently graduated speech pathologists are telling me that they covered the Reading Rope. So Scarborough's Reading Rope and Gough and Tunmer's Simple View of Reading. So, there are some theoretical models there that are covered. But beyond that, generally they're saying, well, they don't feel well equipped to know how to assess and treat a student with literacy learning difficulties.
Right, yeah, it's a shame, actually, because it seems to, it's perfect, isn't it, to bring teachers and the knowledge of speech pathology together and combine them. And it's a pity, actually, that they're not given more training in actually how to teach reading and writing and the steps that you really need to follow. Yeah, there probably isn't time, actually, given all the other things that you have to cover, by the sounds of things. But anyway, so, one thing I did want to ask you is, what will your advice be to someone who's now thinking about a career in speech pathology? What would you say to them?
I'd say do it, because I love it. I love my job and I think that's such an important thing to have. But if your mind's already set on it and you've called out that local speechie in, had a bit of a yarn to them and thought, yes, that sounds a bit of all right. Just to be prepared for lifelong learning, like your undergraduate degree or your master's degree will equip you with a really good foundation. But beyond that, there is so much more to learn, and things change. There's a lot more discussion at the moment around working with autistic people and the therapies and the language around that is very different to what I was trained in 15 years ago. It's not an area I work specifically in now, but I certainly know that if I was to get back into working in that area, I would really need to scrub up my knowledge and my skills and get with the times. So, be prepared for that and seek support. You're going to learn so much from the people you work with. So, I mean, the professionals you work with, but also the families that you work with. I think I've learned just as much from the families I've worked with as they've learned from me over the years. And I think really encouraging people to seek support. There are so many avenues for formal and informal, paid and unpaid professional development and networking with sort of like-minded speech pathologists. So, draw on that, because I think the burnout, potential for burnout is real. Like many helping professionals, we've got to be careful and kind to ourselves. But it can be a really rewarding and a career with such longevity if you set yourself up for success as much as you can.
Yeah. Now, that seems to chime very nicely, actually, with this conversation I was having with a speechie in Australia not long ago. And I was saying, well, you know, what are you doing now and where do you hope your career is going to go next? And she said, well, the next thing I'm looking forward to, is to working with really young children. And I was really surprised to hear this, you see. I mean, since then I've found out that, of course, that that is an area in which speech pathologists work. And after that, after two or three years doing that, she might actually change again to helping people who've had strokes or helping people to learn to speak again. So, I was really quite amazed by all this. And it sounds to be quite an exciting profession if you choose to enhance your knowledge all the time, I suppose.
Yeah. And be prepared to be vulnerable and start - not start new - but, yeah, I think dive deep and be brave and shake things up a bit.
Yeah. I mean, when I started teaching, of course, it was easy to move. I trained as a primary and a secondary teacher, so I've always found it really easy to move between the two areas. Of course, these days you can't do that so easily. If you train as a secondary teacher, you can't really move to primary very easily and vice versa as well. But, yeah, I've always found it incredibly rewarding to learn from so many people right across the field. Okay, so one question I have for you is, I'm sure we all have these moments, but do you have a crowning moment in all the years of experience that you've had working with children which you could tell us about?
Love this question. As I said, I'm fortunate to find my job really rewarding and it's hard to choose just one. I have in my email inbox a little folder that is thank you notes, and I tuck them aside as I remember my mum telling me that she did as well, you know, thank you notes from parents. But I continue to come back to one particular young man I worked with, more recently actually, I'll use a pseudonym because his mum might actually end up listening. It's a boy who I met when he was in Grade 3, so, as an eight-year-old. And his sort of case notes were that he's an autistic boy diagnosed with ADHD and a few months before we met, had been diagnosed by a clinical neuropsychologist as having an intellectual impairment as well. He had a history of lots of therapies from a young age, a very supportive family environment. So particularly his mother really spent a lot of time understanding how to support him at home and following up with the suggested strategies and home practice and all of that. So, when we met a few years ago, he didn't have any functional reading or spelling. At school he'd been getting some small-group support and was slowly starting to develop some letter-sound knowledge, he could recognise a few high frequency words, but beyond that, that's kind of where his skills ended. And so, we started Sounds-Write from the very beginning. And I was really, found it, not just with this family but with all my families, I think it's so important to explain why we're doing what we're doing and giving the family not just the tools, but that understanding for why and how to support their kids at home, as well. So, yeah, this boy's mother was always really active in our sessions and very involved in providing home practice from the start. So, I think that's part of this success story. But after a few terms of therapy and just, it was good fun, I always looked forward to our sessions and after a few terms of therapy, they had a trip down to Sydney and were walking around Darling Harbour in the evening and there was some sort of light show, where there were lights projected up onto the buildings around the harbour and I'm pretty sure it was on the opera house. And this boy walking with his family said, mom, what does 'lift' mean? Well, why does it say 'lift'? I'm pretty sure this is the word, but it was a CVCC word. And she went, oh, you know, 'lift'. And it was maybe the name of the festival or whatever it was, but she turned to the older brother, who hadn't had difficulties learning to read, and said, did you tell him what it was? No, he'd read it for himself. And it was that moment where so many other people, if they'd recounted that story, it wouldn't have meant much, but we were in tears in the lesson while she's telling me, because it was the first time he'd read print in his environment, because it was the first time he'd been able to. /l/ /i/ /f/ t/ 'lift', and he did it. And I got in touch with this family again recently because I do think about them from time to time. I've been on maternity leave for the last few years, so I have not been working with them personally, but he's off to high school next year and mum reported that he can now read a lot of picture books with fluency and comprehension. She said, this morning we're doing some maths homework sent home from school and he could read the maths questions, and this year he could read all of his birthday cards. So, I just think, from the boy I met four years ago who couldn't read and write, to a young man who's entering high school with safety skills so he can read signs and complete forms and read the safety labels and the social side of things, communicate with his mates via text. There is just so much to it. So, yeah, it's probably not surprising that that's why he's the one that I come back to.
Goodness, it sounds great. I mean, what an inspiration. Great story. The thing is that you've opened the world up to this boy and that should inspire other people to want to do exactly the same thing.
Yeah, I think with all the challenges that he faced and how easy it would have been just to swipe it off and go, well, no, these are the difficulties he has, these are his labels. But he still has absolutely the right to learn to read and spell like any other child without those additional difficulties. And with the kind of instruction he received and the intensity of practice, it made it possible for him.
Yeah, I mean that's absolutely right. You just so rarely hear people say, it's every child's right to learn to read and write. And it's been, in the past anyway, so easy really, to write these children off and to say, well, of course, they'll never learn to read and write properly in the way that we do and things like that. Whereas, in fact, we've shown many, many times, haven't we, how we can really be successful in teaching children to read and write. Of course, after that, it depends on them to some extent what they make of it, but we do our bit. Great. Okay, thank you so much for talking to me this morning, Alison. It's been great to listen to what you have to say and it's very interesting listening to your crowning moment and for you to tell us all about speech pathology and how it relates to teaching children to read, too.
Thank you so much, John, I've really appreciated the opportunity.