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Grant will help American Indian children with speech-language impairment

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

LAWRENCE  — When a child’s ability to develop speech or language skills is impaired, early action is critical. Whether due to hearing loss, cerebral palsy, autism or syndromes such as Down syndrome, such a child needs extra help to gain the language ability needed for education and socialization in childhood.

“Literacy, or reading and writing, are language-based skills learned in preschool and elementary school,” said Matthew Gillispie, clinical assistant professor of speech-language-hearing at the University of Kansas. “Children who exhibit speech-language impairment in early childhood, from birth to five, are at considerable risk for literacy challenges. Due to the relationship between speech, language and literacy disorders, speech-language pathologists are at the forefront of prevention, early identification and early intervention. We know that early intervention leads to better outcomes, no matter the developmental domain. Moreover, we continue to learn more about the positive impact of cultural competence and inclusion of culturally relevant material when teaching and providing intervention to individuals who do not culturally identify with ‘mainstream’ curriculum and instruction.”

Gillispie recently earned a $1.2 million personnel preparation grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs to establish the Culturally-Responsive Early Literacy Instruction (CRELI) program at KU.

For five years, CERLI will fund about 20 graduate students pursuing master of arts degrees in speech-language pathology while also gaining specialized skills to work with children from an American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) background with disabilities related to language and literacy.  

“Approximately .3 percent of speech-language pathologists in the United States identify themselves as American Indian, so one of the main goals of CRELI is recruit AI/AN scholars to the field and to KU,” Gillispie said.  

Beginning in January, CRELI student scholars will receive a full-tuition scholarship, a stipend for books and supplies, and faculty and peer mentoring. Their curriculum will include course instruction, clinical practicums and pairing with an AI/AN family who has a child with a speech-language impairment.

“Sixteen to twenty AI/AN children in the region will participate and benefit from extra speech, language and literacy services that will be provided by the CRELI student scholars and CRELI project leaders,” Gillispie said. “There is potential for these scholars to stay in the region after graduation and continue to serve AI/AN children. At the very least, these scholars are expected to serve AI/AN children somewhere in the U.S. Additionally, the parents and educators involved with CRELI will better understand the relationship between speech, language and literacy, as well as positive impact of culturally responsive instruction.”

Gillispie stressed that student scholars would be well prepared to work with children not only of an American Indian/Alaskan Native background, but also to understand the importance and foundational concepts of culturally responsive instruction to work with children from any cultural heritage.

“It’s important to understand that the term ‘American Indian/Alaskan Native’ is an umbrella term comprising hundreds of cultures,” he said. “There are 566 federally recognized AI/AN tribes in the U.S., and many others that are recognized by the states in which they reside. We’re all included in the concept of multiculturalism, not just underrepresented groups. For speech-language pathologists and other educators, culturally responsive instruction considers the cultures of their students and incorporates those cultures into the curriculum. Put simply, the child should see themselves in their curriculum.”

Gillispie said the CRELI student scholars would learn about the specific cultural characteristics of the AI/AN children with whom they are working, and also principles of culturally responsive instruction that apply when working with someone from any culture different than their own.

The KU professor’s American Indian background influences his scholarship. Gillispie is tribally enrolled in the Muscogee Creek Nation.

“I understand the importance of story-telling, or oral narratives, to American Indians, especially those that describe and teach the relationship between humans and Earth,” he said. “I appreciate how Earth's powers guide and influence the religious and spiritual beliefs of many American Indians. When working with AI/AN people, this cultural awareness and respect allows me to be more effective educator and speech-language clinician. I understand the importance of using culturally relevant stories, literature, materials and activities when working with people. “ 

The CRELI program will rely on faculty and scholars in the Intercampus Program in Communicative Disorders at KU and four nearby educational entities: Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Early Childhood Center, Little Nations Academic Center at Haskell Indian Nations University, Royal Valley School District and Holton Special Education Cooperative. The IPCD at KU has a long history of personnel preparation grants, including grants supporting AI/AN scholars. The IPCD is annually ranked in the top 10 among graduate programs in speech-language pathology in the U.S.