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  1. Wallach, Geraldine P. PhD, CCC-SLP, Issue Editor

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Part 1: A Look Across 25 Years

The following example was presented to a class of relatively new graduate students in communicative disorders in the spring of 2005. That is very close to yesterday. The students were asked to evaluate this snapshot of a language intervention session. They were asked to discuss the clinician's purpose, where she might be going with the session, and the overall communicative value of the session, among other things. The example taken from Topics in Language Disorders 1(1), published 25 years ago, a date that was unknown to the students evaluating this example goes this way:


During a language therapy session, a clinician showed a child a picture of a man eating a hotdog. The clinician asked, "What is the man doing?" The child answered, "Eating a hotdog." The clinician responded, "That's good, now say the whole thing, "the man is eating the hotdog.'" - (Wallach & Lee, 1980, p. 100)


The graduate students provided a number of possibilities relating to the questions raised. Some thought that the purpose was to improve the child's syntactic proficiency, which is not necessarily a bad thing to do. Others expanded on the idea that the clinician might move to other syntactic forms and events to be described in a series of pictures. The students also made many astute observations about the example, including the "stilted" nature of the interaction and the pragmatic awkwardness of the communication between the child and the clinician. What surprised me about this and other examples, however-many of which will be presented in this issue-was that the majority of students were less critical than I thought they might have been at this point in the evolution of the fields of language learning and language disorders. What is even more interesting (or disturbing) is that the graduate students' field observations as reflected in their reports indicated a significant amount of "is verbing" therapy going on out there for school-age students (not far from the format presented above) among other intervention approaches that one would have expected to have gone to a timely demise by now. Consequently, a key question among the others we will ask in this issue is, Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about where we are in language learning disabilities?


In this anniversary issue, authors in Part 1 take a hard look at the state of the art in language learning disabilities, just as the initial authors did in the premiere issue of Topics in Language Disorders (TLD) a quarter of a century ago (Wallach, 1980). The authors reflect on the articles published at that time from two perspectives: (a) the more things change, the more they stay the same and (b) what should, and could, be added to the articles if they were written today. Part 1 of the anniversary issue ends with a look forward to the future and some provocative thoughts from Dr. Sylvia Richardson, who has been and continues to be a leader extraordinaire in the related fields of pediatric medicine, speech and language pathology, and learning disabilities and dyslexia. The issue provides readers with a unique perspective by looking back 25 years to evaluate what a group of nationally recognized leaders from clinical, educational, and research backgrounds had to say about some of the significant connections between language proficiency, literacy, and classroom success. These connections are among the most discussed and studied today.


As with TLD 1(1), published in December 1980, TLD 25(4) (September-December 2005) is concerned with a number of still-current topics, including the primacy of language in learning and reading disabilities, the changing ways professionals view language disorders across time and contexts, the challenges related to decoding and reading comprehension instructions, and the nature of instructional and curricular language demands. The authors ask their readers to reflect upon a number of questions while they are digesting the issue, such as, Where have we been and where are we going in language learning disabilities? Have we prepared the preschooler with language disorders for academics? Are current intervention and instructional methods for language and literacy effective? Where do clinical and educational techniques come from? Can we ever bridge the gap between theory and practice? and What might current research tell us? In brief, What have we learned during the past 25 years?


Part 1 of the issue, "Language Disorders and Learning Disabilities: A Look Across 25 Years," is divided into five articles, with an invited author presenting her views about where we have been and where we are going based on a review of two original articles, each from TLD 1(1). The articles address the following: (a) A Conceptual Framework in Language Learning Disabilities: School-Age Language Disorders; (b) Language and Literacy: 25 Years Later; (c) Looking for Evidence-Based Practice in Reading Comprehension Instruction; (d) The Context of Discourse Difficulty in Classroom and Clinic: An Update; and (e) Pulling the Pieces Together: The Doctor Is In.


In the first article, I reflect on the two prior articles I cowrote for the inaugural issue with, respectively, Stark and Lee. I point out that our understanding of what language intervention should look like above the age of 6 has improved in terms of the wealth of information available about "what to do" and "why to do it." I suggest a "no excuses" attitude toward leaving behind approaches based on "is verbing" or "central auditory processing training" (Wallach, 2003). Less optimistically, however, I suggest that many "outdated" and inaccurate models of language and learning are still alive and well, even when research suggests otherwise. For example, it is difficult to spend time in a classroom without hearing the terms "auditory and visual learners." In the introductory article, I ask readers of the journal to ask themselves what they think effective communication, language, and literacy might be and consider whether their intervention choices are driven in that direction, that is, what is their theoretical base and are their practices consistent with it? Furthermore, I ask clinicians and educators to ask themselves, Why am I doing this? I see progress in language learning disabilities as being slower than it might be, but I lean toward a guarded, yet optimistic, view of the future.


In the second article, Dr. Kathleen Whitmire takes on the difficult task of looking at how well we have prepared the language-disordered preschooler for academics. As Snyder did in 1980, Whitmire recognizes the pervasive nature of language disorders. Also, along with Snyder, she recognizes the intimate relationship between early language intervention and academic success. Whitmire presents an up-to-date analysis of the federal mandates that are driving assessment and intervention and putting literacy in the forefront of school-based discussions. Whereas Snyder was relatively optimistic in 1980, Zigmond, Vallecorsa, and Leinhardt (1980) from the reading camp were less optimistic about the state of reading instruction then. They, in fact, had mirrored Stark and Wallach's opening article for TLD 1(1) by questioning the validity of "hypothetical constructs" that go beyond observed behaviors, such as, Are "prerequisite" skills like visual sequencing practice related to real reading? Although the original authors did not use the term evidence-based practice 25 years ago, they clearly hit at the notion of empirical support for clinical practice. Zigmond et al. noted then that although there is empirical evidence for a number of "best practices," the relationships among the various practices remained unclear. In the current update, Whitmire sheds light on two interventions for language and reading and sees much deeper connections in practice today-an advancement from 1980. She also points out that we have come a long way in understanding adolescent literacy.


In the third article, consistent with Wallach's and Whitmire's suggestions about future directions, Dr. Barbara Ehren tackles directly the new buzz phrase of the post-millennium era, evidence-based practice. She looks at the landmark and solid work of Roth and Perfetti (1980) and Pearson and Spiro (1980), and presents a current model of reading comprehension. Recognizing that a number of concepts within the earlier models are still current, such as the notion that reading is a constructive process, Ehren looks to data-based answers for clinical and educational practice. The original authors recognized wisely that their models of reading comprehension were still evolving. Ehren brings the models up to 2000-plus standards but also recognizes that creating comprehensive models of reading comprehension remains a work in progress. Ehren adheres to the basic premise that reading and its intervention should be "strategic" and provides readers with examples of how to implement some of these provocative notions in daily practice.


In the fourth article, Dr. Nickola Nelson provides an update on efforts to bring specialists out of their clinic and resource rooms, still a difficult journey for many, but one that began at least 25 years ago. Nelson reflects upon the language of instruction and the language of the curriculum-two concepts that were especially new in 1980 for speech-language pathologists, who were not necessarily trained to work outside of the contexts of their therapy rooms. Berlin, Blank, and Rose (1980) and Carlson, Gruenewald, and Nyberg (1980) brought such concepts to life 25 years ago. Today Nelson discusses how far we have come and still have to go with curriculum-based language assessment and intervention. She focuses on the need for collaboration in new service delivery models and how to improve scaffolding interactions within classroom-based instruction and intervention as key to helping children with language disorders gain access to instructional discourse.


Concluding Part 1, I pose a series of questions to long-time expert in language-learning disabilities and dyslexia Dr. Sylvia Richardson. Richardson brings her unique perspective to the table by pulling together and taking apart some of the concepts discussed about the nature of language and learning and reading disabilities. Having crossed many discipline boundaries in her own career, Richardson answers questions that cross similar boundaries in the field, emphasizing the importance of recognizing "dyslexia" as a language disability.


Part 1 of this issue of TLD 25(4) is a unique endeavor. Readers are invited to look with authors across time at two distinct eras. We look back 25~years to see from whence we have come. We also look ahead and hope that we, like our students, will continue to grow in our understandings and in the sophistication of our methods. As in the inaugural issue in 1980, articles in this 2005 anniversary section pose more questions than they answer. As issue editor, now as then, I point out that "[t]he balance between theory and practice, coupled with the sharing of information among disciplines, may enable us to come up with creative ideas as to where we might go from here" (Wallach, 1980, p. x). Looking back, we can say for certain that, although there have been many advances both in theory and practice, some things remain the same-there are no simple answers to complex questions, and there are no cookbooks or tight recipes for language learning disabilities that apply to all. I take these two "truths" to be a good omen.


In closing, as we reflect upon our reflections, it must be noted that none of this would have been possible without the leadership and encouragement of the "Goddess" of language learning disabilities, Dr. Katharine G. Butler. As Editor-in-Chief of TLD, Kay mentored all of us. She invited us to be issue editors time and again. She cheered our innovative ideas and led us to take the road less traveled. Kay has always been an innovative and creative thinker. She broke the mold of traditionalism and narrow thinking and nurtured the "Language Learning Disability (LLD) movement" of the 1960s and 70s along with wonderful colleagues like Dr. Joel Stark, perhaps the "Godfather" in this field. We, the contributors for this anniversary issue (Part 1), are lucky to have basked in Kay's light. Through Kay, we learned what good teaching is all about. We learned to take chances because she gave us the knowledge and self-confidence that enabled us to fly both personally and professionally. This issue is a testament to Dr. Katharine Butler's unique contributions to the children and adolescents we all serve more effectively because of her influence.


Geraldine P. Wallach, PhD, CCC-SLP, Issue Editor




Berlin, L. J., Blank, M., & Rose, S. A. (1980). The language of instruction: The hidden complexities. Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), 47-58. [Context Link]


Carlson, J., Gruenewald, L. J., & Nyberg, B. (1980). Everyday math is a story problem: The language of the curriculum. Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), 59-70. [Context Link]


Pearson, P. D., & Spiro, R. J. (1980). Toward a theory of reading comprehension instruction. Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), 71-88. [Context Link]


Roth, S. F., & Perfetti, C. A. (1980). A framework for reading, language comprehension, and language disability. Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), 15-27. [Context Link]


Snyder, L. S. (1980). Have we prepared the language disordered child for school? Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), 29-45.


Stark, J., & Wallach, G. P. (1980). The path to a concept of language learning disabilities. Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), 1-14.


Wallach, G. P. (2003). Preface. In K. DeKemel (Eds.), Intervention in language arts: A practical guide for speech-language pathologists (pp. iii-v). Philadelphia, PA: Butterworth-Heinemann. [Context Link]


Wallach, G. P. (1980). Issue Editor's foreword: Language disorders and learning disabilities. Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), ix-x. [Context Link]


Wallach, G. P., & Lee, D. S. (1980). So you want to know what to do with language disabled children above the age of six. Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), 99-113.


Zigmond, N., Vallecorsa, A., & Leinhardt, G. (1980). Reading instruction for students with learning disabilities. Topics in Language Disorders, 1(1), 89-98. [Context Link]