October 1, 2013 Columns

From My Perspective: A+ Speech-Language Goals

School-based speech-language pathologists can help improve students’ academic outcomes by aligning their goals with the Common Core State Standards.

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School-based speech-language pathologists, do these look familiar?

  1. By the end of the first reporting period, student will use personal pronouns in sentences after models 80 percent of opportunities.
  2. By the end of the first grading period, student will categorize familiar objects with 3 of 4 trials correct on 3 documented dates.
  3. Student will follow a 2- to 3-step direction using manipulatives in 8/10 trials.

My PerspectiveThese goals no doubt resemble those you typically see on your students' individualized education programs. In fact, they are real IEP goals for kindergarten and first-grade students receiving services from SLPs. Unfortunately, they are not aligned to the Common Core State Standards, nor do they target development of academic language skills—and that is cause for concern.

If we school-based SLPs do not align our work with that of others working in schools—including general education teachers and reading specialists—we may dilute our impact on students' language-related achievements. In addition, we may deny our students the benefits they can experience through collective impact—that is, when all constituents share a common goal.

The CCSS—standards that specify common learning outcomes in language arts and mathematics from kindergarten through grade 12—are available on the Internet. I encourage readers to examine these if they are not yet familiar with them.

There have been plenty of critics of the CCSS—the most recent development in the standards-based reform movement, with origins largely in George W. Bush's authorization of No Child Left Behind. To present a recent example, Valerie Strauss' Jan. 29, 2013, column in the New York Post shared the perspective of two educators who asserted that the CCSS robs children of their childhood. My favorite part was Strauss' claim that there is no "convincing research" showing that children who have certain skills in kindergarten—such as being able to read some words—will be more successful in the later years. But there are literally dozens of rigorous, well-controlled longitudinal studies (see online sources for examples) showing that kindergarten children who are skilled readers fare better—much better, actually—in future reading achievement than children who are poor readers. If these studies are not examples of "convincing research," I don't know what is!

The CCSS, in my opinion, advance the educational experiences of children in the public schools in several important ways. By tailoring our treatment goals to these standards, we can improve students' speech-language outcomes and, potentially, their overall success in school.

So how do the CCSS advance the educational experiences of children in the public schools? Why do I think we, as SLPs, should align our treatment goals to these standards? There are three major reasons:

  • The CCSS are an improvement over individual state standards. This is particularly true of the English Language Arts standards, with which I'm most familiar. I've been involved with the generation, revision or review of many states' standards over the last decade (since No Child Left Behind), and have seen many standards that are developmentally misguided with respect to "standardizing" children's language skills. For instance, in one state, standards stipulated that children should learn to mark plurals in kindergarten. Long-standing developmental research, including Roger Brown's foundational work published in 1983, shows that plural-marking typically occurs in toddlerhood (before 30 months). It's not surprising to see such glaring errors in state-level standards, as these often are generated by panels that include few—if any—developmental experts. On the contrary, the CCSS followed a multi-year, carefully constructed process of development and refinement that involved the input of numerous constituents, including developmental experts. As a result, the English Language Arts standards provide a rigorous but developmentally appropriate representation of what we can expect of children with respect to language and reading skills across the grades.

    By matching goals to the standards articulated in the CCSS—which present a thoughtful but rigorous progression of language-related accomplishments for students from kindergarten on—we can explicitly link goals we are addressing in treatment to those of the general curriculum. So a goal like "Student will categorize familiar objects" (from a kindergartner's IEP) would be revised to "Sort common objects into categories (e.g., shapes, foods) to gain a sense of the concepts the categories represent" (to quote the CCSS).
  • CCSS, with adoption by many states, provide a means for addressing transience among students—particularly those of lower socioeconomic status—in our public schools. Due in large part to housing insecurity, students of lower socioeconomic status in the United States are highly mobile. When the curriculum is fractured, as it tends to be when each state has its own standards, many of these students have little opportunity to develop even basic skills. Adoption of shared educational standards provides at least one way to support the students who are most at risk in our public schools. By ensuring our goals map explicitly to those of the CCSS, students who are highly mobile and served by SLPs are more likely to be exposed to a common educational experience.
  • CCSS provide a key mechanism for increasing the academic relevance of our work. There is little evidence suggesting that the goals we address for students with language problems focus on improving their academic language skills. However, explicitly targeting academic language skills would greatly improve the academic relevance of the SLP—and the goals we have for students.

    "Academic language" refers to the specialized language used to talk about disciplinary content within school settings; it is lexically, syntactically and pragmatically specialized. For instance, academic language tends to contain a relatively high volume of morphologically complex words drawn from Latin and Greek. In their chapter in "Whither  Opportunity?", Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski provided a good example of academic language: "Postsecondary education is a key path to upward mobility in the United States." This sentence is rife with morphologically complex words (postsecondary, education, mobility) with Latin origins. The lexical relations among words (path, mobility) are also relatively refined. Although we would not expect young children to understand such language, the foundations for understanding can be built in the early elementary grades. For instance, CCSS for first-graders seek to promote academic language skills by supporting students to "Use frequently occurring affixes as a clue to the meaning of a word."

We need to ensure that we design goals to elevate the academic language skills of students with language disorders. This goal is important not only to promote links to the curriculum, but also to ensure that our goals are rigorous and farsighted with respect to children's academic futures. A recent examination (manuscript in review) of the treatment provided by 77 SLPs working with kindergarten and first-grade students that I conducted with Mary Beth Schmitt, Kim Murphy, Tricia Biancone and Amy Pratt showed that virtually no targeted words were academic in nature. By bringing our goals into line with the CCSS—which have a strong emphasis on improving students' academically related language skills—our goals for students will become more academically relevant. In turn, so will we.

Laura M. Justice, PhD, CCC-SLP, directs the Preschool Language and Literacy Lab at The Ohio State University. justice.57@osu.edu

cite as: Justice, L. M. (2013, October 01). From My Perspective: A+ Speech-Language Goals. The ASHA Leader.


Bailey, M. J., & Dynarski, S. M. (2011). Inequality in postsecondary education. In G. J. Duncan and R. Murnane (Eds), Whither Opportunity. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Brown, R. (1983). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Catts, H. W., Fey, M. E., Tomblin, J. B., & Zhang, X. (2002). A longitudinal investigation of reading outcomes in children with language impairments. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 45, 1142–1157.

Hamilton, L., Stecher, B., & Yuan, K. (2008). Standards-based reform in the United States: History, research, and future directions. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Justice, L. M., Schmitt, M. B., Murphy, K., Biancone, T., & Pratt, A. (2013). Vocabulary intervention in the public schools: Targets and techniques employed in speech-language therapy. Manuscript in review.

Nagy, W., & Townsend, D. (2012). Words as tools: Learning academic vocabulary as language acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(1), 91–108.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). Common Core State Standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington D.C.

Pence Turnbull, K., & Justice, L. M. (2012). Language development from theory to practice (2nd edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Schmitt, M. B., Justice, L. M., Logan, J., Schatschneider, C., & Barnett, C. (2013). Alignment of children’s language problems to their IEP goals. Manuscript in review.

Skibbe, L. E., Grimm, K. J., Stanton-Chapman, T. L., Justice, L. M., Pence, K. L., & Bowles, R.P. (2008). Reading trajectories of children with language difficulties from preschool through fifth grade. Language, speech, and hearing services in schools, 39(4), 475–486.


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