Naomi Konikoff, co-founder of Speech Language Literacy Lab, is also an SLP in a small district in Skokie, IL, where she works with preschool through second grade students. Below, Naomi explains how she helped the school move to prevention-focused Speech Language Department.
When I arrived at my current district, the Speech Language Department was on a caseload model. There were about 80 IEP students from preschool through second grade being served by two SLPs, not including students being seen through a makeshift RTI program for articulation. The district administration knew things were not working well, so they hired an additional part time SLP.
At the beginning of the year, I thought my numbers seemed manageable: 50 IEP students and 10 RTI students. And then the referrals started coming in.
It was not difficult to decide which students potentially needed help with articulation. A quick screening using developmental norms allowed me to determine who to see, who could wait until later in the year or the following year, and who was not going to require therapy at all. Language was entirely different.
I took my first few language referrals straight to evaluation. Some of these students still have IEPs today, 5 years later. Many required services for 2-3 years. Some, however, were dismissed within a year, and I began to question if an IEP had been appropriate in the first place.
My second year, I started noticing a pattern. The same few teachers at each grade level were constantly referring me students, while other teachers made no referrals.
After seeing that many students were not identified until second grade with needs, I decided that a teacher referral system was inefficient and ineffective. This is not to say that teachers don't know their students; they know them better than anyone else. However, teachers are not trained to differentiate speech/language deficits from speech/language differences. Because of this, many students were over-looked and second-language learners were often over-identified. This is not the way I wanted the speech/language departments to function.
To change this, my speech language team and I decided to try an RTI model for language services. We started at the core, by providing whole class language lessons in general education classrooms. Every classroom had the opportunity to sign up for four weeks of 30 minute lessons (once per week), targeting key language skills: answering questions/listening comprehension, following directions/basic concepts, categorization/vocabulary, and narrative structure. By going into classrooms, we gave teachers the tools to implement effective Tier 1 instruction in their classrooms every day.
In order to determine which students needed more language help than Tier 1, we trialed the Kindergarten Language Benchmark Assessment (KLBA). This 4 minute 3x a year assessment allowed us to create local norms and compare students. We decided to provide Tier 2 services to the bottom 25% of the class, regardless of the students' primary language. If students did not progress in our Tier 2 services, a teacher-led language direct-instruction program, we moved to Tier 3.
Over the course of the year, 7% of students received Tier 2 intervention through Language for Learning direct instruction, and 5% of students received Tier 3 intervention directly with the SLP.
Initially there was pushback. Teachers felt that Tier 2 was an extra responsibility for which they did not have time. As a department, we tried to praise and support the change process. The entire team, including administration and teachers, agreed to trial the new plan for a year. The data was astounding. Students receiving Tier 2 grew substantially in their skills, and many were dismissed by the end of the year. Teachers could see the effectiveness of Tier 2 language instruction, and they wanted more. No student was over-looked, and all students progressed in language skills.
This school year, we are working to implement language RTI with 1st and 2nd grade students. When students enter 1st grade, we use the previous spring's KLBA data to determine who needs to continue in services (Tier 2 or Tier 3). Progress monitoring these students helps us make decisions about movement between tiers throughout the year.
For the remaining students, we still rely on a referral model. We use a district created screener to determine need for service, and use reading data to determine who starts at Tier 2 and who starts at Tier 3. Students who do poorly on the screener and are below average in reading start at Tier 3 right away. Students who do poorly on the screener and are within normal limits for reading start at Tier 2. We then use progress monitoring to make decisions about movement.
Using an RTI model has had many positive impacts on our school. A few worth mentioning:
- Teachers feel engaged and accountable for their students language learning.
- Through SLP modeled Tier 1 mini-lessons, teachers are given the tools they need to effectively provide language instruction at the Tier 1 and Tier 2 level.
- Fewer students require long term intervention, keeping SLP caseloads manageable.
- Fewer students require full evaluations, keeping paperwork to a minimum, and freeing up SLP time for other responsibilities.
An RTI process for language ensures that students are not over-looked early, while also reducing over-identification of students with language differences.