Language, Literacy,
and the Brain

January 08, 2021

By Leah Wasserman, Middle School Language Therapist

In the spring of 2020, as it became apparent that my summer was going to be much slower than usual, I started thinking about professional goals that I haven’t had the time to pursue. Over the years I have attended several one- or two-day professional development lectures and conferences on the science of reading, such as how to more deeply understand how the reading brain works, the various types of reading disabilities, and the most effective, evidenced-based interventions and strategies for remediating these struggles. Yet it always felt as though I was just scratching the surface of all there is to learn in this area. So last year I decided it was finally time to take the leap and begin to work on a post graduate certificate related to reading and literacy. Over the summer, thanks to generous funding from the MMFS Parents Association, I was able to complete my first course at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Health Professions (MGH IHP) in their Certificate of Advanced Study for Language and Literacy.

I knew about the program at MGH IHP because I had already attended lectures by several faculty members, neuroscientists, and speech language pathologists who are on the forefront of this research. (Fun fact: Sarah Ward, MS CCC-SLP, who provided professional development to the MMFS faculty, is both a graduate of the MGH IHP Speech Pathology program and has been on the faculty.) As I began researching reading certificate programs, it became clear that the MGH IHP program was the most grounded in science and research, and that the faculty members are both practicing clinicians and researchers. It was important to me to find a program that values both the underlying neurocognitive research and how to apply it to clinical and educational practice; this program does both exceptionally well.

The first class of the program that I took over the summer was Language Foundations of Literacy. This class, taught by Lesley Maxwell, PhD CCC-SLP, was an overview of how we develop both oral language and reading skills from birth through adolescence. Maxwell reviewed well-known frameworks for understanding language and reading, including Bloom and Lahey’s Form, Content, and Use model (1978), as well as Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001). While these models were familiar to me, as they are part of the core underpinnings of speech-language pathology, I appreciated being able to review them with relation to the newest research. (There’s a lot more information in the field now than when I was last studying at the graduate level, just fifteen years ago.) Additionally, my classmates were a mix of SLPs, general education, and special education classroom teachers from all grades, and educators who held a variety of roles in their schools. We all brought interesting, thoughtful ideas to our discussion boards and were able to offer and learn from a variety of perspectives.

The class also reinforced the importance of oral language comprehension and expression to build strong reading comprehension skills. Reading adds an extra layer of processing (orthographic processing) to comprehension. However, the comprehension of the language once read relies on the skills that we use to comprehend spoken language. So keep reading out loud to your children and students, and have lots of discussions with them in the classroom and at the dinner table!

As I continue through the program, I am learning more about how to identify different types of reading and writing disorders and what aspects of the many cognitive-linguistic skills are at play for each disorder. This year I will continue to learn more about diagnostic tools that allow us to assess these skills accurately, and I will be taking courses in literacy instruction with different populations as well as leadership skills.

While I know this program will continue to enhance my personal skills in diagnosing and treating students with reading and writing disabilities, I hope it will also be a springboard for me to continue clarifying and updating the already excellent literacy program we have at Mary McDowell Friends School from a programmatic level. Thank you to the Parents Association for the generous support that has allowed me to pursue this next step of my professional development.

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