Bonnie Brinton

BRINTON, BONNIE:  Bonnie Brinton.  B-O-N-N-I-E B-R-I-N-T-O-N.

Well, obviously, kids come to school with, uh, a large repertoire of things they can do in terms of language, a whole lot has happened in those first five years.  Um, but you’re going to--even though you wouldn’t--so much has happened before, there’s been such an explosion, you wouldn’t believe it could happen again, but that’s exactly what happens is the children make the jump to literacy.  You see tremendous explosion in terms of vocabulary,  complexity, their ability to step outside their language and look at it as if it were an entity.  And, uh, to think about language in terms of, uh, um, talking about abstract kinds of things, uh, idioms, uh, those kinds of things.

Um, well you can think of that in terms of kinds of things that don’t happen a--and kinds of  things that do happen.  Uh, so in terms of what does not happen.  Typically, a parent will notice that a child is developing language more slowly.  You got a--a very late talker, um, typically.  Or a child who starts out and you see a few words, but then, uh,  a number of months later you still have just those same words when other children are kind of exploded in terms of their, uh, development.  Uh, the system sounds more immature, um, the child may have difficulty understanding, following kinds of directions, is more dependent on visual input, uh, those kinds of things.  Child may--what  I tell, uh,  clinicians and teachers to do a lot of times, they look at a child and they’ll say ‘Well, you know the child’s talking.  It sounds OK to me.’  And I’ll say ‘Do the close your eyes test.’  And I say ‘Close your eyes and think, how old is this child?’  And all--almost always the teacher will say, ‘This child sounds different or sounds young to me.’ 

Um, when we think of language impairment, uh, it sounds like it ought to be something neat and tidy like chicken pox, uh, but it rea--it really isn’t.  It, uh, it’s a term that stands for a heterogeneous group of disorders.  Um, what they have in common is they affect the child’s ability to, uh, produce language, to understand language, to use language.  Affects understanding, uh, production and you’ll see it manifest in reading and writing when the child hits school.

Well, things teachers might notice in a child is--first thing you might notice is a child might be quiet.  Uh, not always, but the child might be kind of  quiet and you say, ‘Oh, well. Some kids are more talkative than others and, you know, some are--tend to be a little bit shy.’  Uh, but then, uh, i--if you ask the child certain kinds of things, the child may have difficulty fielding those questions, that the answer may be nonspecific or not quite what you asked or maybe nothing at all or maybe kind of a pat answer.  The, uh, responses may be short, you notice it doesn’t sound as, uh,  complex as you think, uh, that it might.  You may have, uh, uh, a less mature use of words so it sounds a little bit like a--a younger child.  Um, since almost everything we do in the classroom is done through the medium of language, the child runs into trouble very, very quickly.  Uh, will have trouble understanding what you want him to do.  Sometimes a child who looks noncompliant or uninvolved or like he or she doesn’t want to do anything, uh, really didn’t understand what you want them to do and they make facially--you may see all those little things that you usually see, but then the child just didn’t get it, didn’t seem to get it.  Good--very good chance the child didn’t understand it. 

A child with language impairment pays a high price in terms of schooling.  When we think about--well, I--I think of it in terms of all what that child has access to.  With language impairment the child is, uh--language impairment denies a child access to his or her peers.  Um, to the social interaction, um, uh, with which the child will establish and maintain, uh, good solid peer relationships and, uh, relationships with adults as well.  And it denies a child access to knowledge because so much of what we do is conveyed through language and we expect the child to express what he or she knows through language, um, that that child has--has to find another way, has to find consemp--compensatory mechanisms, um, to learn that basic academic content, uh, that’s important to us.

I would like teachers to understand how important they are to a child with language impairment.  Um, that they really are, in many ways, the center of the child’s culture, perhaps the most important person.  And, uh, the teacher’s influence is so great and, uh, when you’re working with a child with language impairment you really have to make some  adjustments to make sure the child got it so that that child has access to what you want that child to know.  And that takes special effort and some special expertise, a--a man’s--a team approach.  Let the teacher take advantage of all the professionals that are available to him or her and the child draw--and that the teacher draw the parent and the child in, um,  in the educational process.

Well, in terms of--I think of it in terms of the culture of the classroom.  Who’s in charge?  The teacher’s in charge.  And who pretty much decides what’s acceptable and what’s valued?  The teacher decides what’s valued.  And frequently, may I say usually, what’s valued is--is closely tied to a child’s linguistic skill.  How well the child expresses himself or herself.  How well that child begins to learn to read and to write.  Those kinds of things so that the teacher decides what’s currency in the classroom and, uh, the teacher has to make special accommodations to, um, uh, kind of get around the language impairment to do two things.  One, to, um, provide access for the child to academic content and two, to facilitate language growth.  That’s--that’s--needs to happen.

When we think about, um, children with language impairment in the classroom, it’s been my experience that unless you have a very new teacher that child ha--that teacher has indeed had a child with language impairment in the classroom.  Now, whether the child has been properly diagnosed or whether it’s been identified or what label it wears, um, because one thing about language impairment is that it--especially in those elementary, uh, school years, it tends to change shape.  Uh, so example.  Let’s say we have a preschooler here who may be--two-year-old who isn’t talking, OK.  So we see what’s not happening and then when things start to happen,  ‘Well, they’re not happening the way I would expect.  Um, it doesn’t, uh, look as mature, it doesn’t look as complex, it doesn’t look as effortless as it does for other kids.’  Um, but then in the classroom the teacher tends to view that in terms of, uh, the child’s academic progress so it looks more like a learning disability.  And the terms  language impairment and learning disability are, in many cases, synonymous.  Same group of kids.  Um, so it--it tends to change shape and  manifest itself  differently, uh, as the child grows, so, um, perceptive teachers know something’s wrong here.  This child seems--ought--ought to be doing a little better and the--and--and there seem to be problems here and that--that frequently is rooted in language.  And so, um, because the teacher is so important to the child, the teacher needs to take advantage of the professionals, speech language pathologists in particular, that are available, uh, to help buoy up the, uh, language stimulation in the classroom for the child and to make it so that the child can understand what’s coming through, the child has more chances to understand and--and to, um, express himself or herself.

Um, major issue with regard to, uh, let’s say--let’s say as a teacher I have a child in my class and that child seems to be kind of withdrawn and that child isn’t communicating very well.   Seems to be a little isolated from peers, isn’t doing very well academically.  Um, and there’s a question in my mind:  Is it just that the child hasn’t learned English yet and we’re--and we’re doing things in English in here? Or is, uh, uh--could  there be another problem?  So with language impairment and second language learning the issue is difference vs. disorder.  And the bottom line is a child who has  a language impairment, that language impairment will be manifest in both languages.  The child’s doing fine in one language and just doesn’t know the other one, this is a different issue.

How prepared are teachers to address language impairment in the classroom?  Um, I think sometimes they’re more prepared than they realize, um, but there are a lot of factors that make it difficult.  Large class size, having too much to do, if you have behavioral problems in your class, all these kinds of things that just make, uh, that add on to your work day, uh, make it difficult to, um, address the needs of an individual child.  But, I have also found that the kinds of adjustments that a teacher makes for a child with language impairment won’t just help that child, they’ll help everybody in the classroom.  They will, um, buoy up the language support for many kids, those, uh, who have difficulties and those who are typically developing.

In our own research we work with, uh, issues about social competence and language impairment.  In other words, what are--what’s the social fallout of--of language impairment and how are, uh, what’s the relationship between social competence and language competence?  The--those are questions that have not been thoroughly addressed, we don’t really understand very well.  Now traditionally, when I think about kids  with language impairment, uh, lots of these kids, if you give them, uh, nonverbal IQ measure, they do just fine.  So, you have this feeling that, ‘I have language impairment here, but it is not associated with more general kinds of delays,’ uh, rather it seems to be, uh, well we call it more specific, um,  so you have this really jagged profile of the kinds of things that  kids can do and the language is at the thumb of the, uh, uh, profile here ever--every time.  If we think about  that, we, uh, traditionally over the years have worked really hard on things like, um, better, uh, syntactic production, get the child to--to be able to produce  sentences, uh, more complex sentences and produce those in--that match the adult form.  That the child would learn words, the child would learn ab-abstract  language forms, that the child would be able to understand complex directions, that’s really important in the classroom.  I think about those kinds of things and we had not thought about, um, the social impact of language impairment or social problems associated with language impairment and this is something we’d been interested in and, uh, this is where we have conducted our research over the last, oh, really, almost since we started which has been 20 years now, started as a child, of course.  Um, (laughs)  and so we would--we’d been in this and a--a lot of people in our field have--have not, so this is--there’s just a lot of things to do in  language impairment and we’ve been one of the few that have been over there and, uh, we wonder occasionally, swimming upstream, have we done the right thing. 

We have a boy in our clinic that we have followed since he was about four and a half, I have followed him.  Classic textbook case of what we might call ‘specific language impairment.’  Thirty-six point discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal IQ.  OK.  A bright little guy.  Great difficulty understanding and  producing language.  So if you give him something that is language based, then he’s going to have a lot of trouble, but you can see that he’s really bright and he can do a lot of other things, uh, really very well.  Um, so we watched this child very carefully and, uh, we teamed with the school personnel.  He’s had, um, therapy in our clinic, in a private clinic, therapy since he’s--from four ‘til now, he’s 14.  Um, he’s, uh, we tried to facilitate his inclusion in his classroom.  He’s not been pulled out, he’s been facilitated within his classroom.  Uh, supports have been put into place.  Really done quite well academically.  Um, does very well in science, which is his passion, he really loves that.  Um, reads below his age level or his grade level, but reads and reads for pleasure and reads by himself.  Uh, can understand, uh, in class but he needs a bit of redundancy, uh, but he--he’s ’s well organized, he works extremely hard. Really holding his own in a regular classroom with the proper support.  Really looks like a success story.  Sixth grade, comes home to his mother and with regard to the social milieu in which he finds himself, he says ‘I’m like a broken toy.  I just get passed from one person to another.  No one wants to play with a broken toy.’  I think we know the social ramifications of language impairment.  The isolation this child has faced associated with his language and communicative problems have affected his life, perhaps more than his academics.

We think about normal classroom interaction, um, and when  I think normal classroom interaction, I don’t think of interaction limited to a classroom context. I’m thinking about the halls, the lunchroom, uh, the playground, basically the school day, the school culture.  We think about a child with a--a language impairment, um, our research has demonstrated that, um, in that context those children probably--it--will be isolated and lonely probably.  And here it--and some of the reasons are:  They have difficulty  accessing play groups or work groups.   So you have a couple of children that are working on something or talking about something, um, it’s--it’s a bit of a task to enter that if you’re coming in as a third person or as a fourth person or you’re coming in as the new kid on the block and trying to enter that play.  There are certain kinds of things that have to happen.  Children with  language impairment have a great deal of difficulty making those things happen.  They have difficulty approaching the group, watching what’s going on and then making a contribution as on topic so that they have difficulty just getting into the interaction in the first place.  Once they get in they tend to be kind of silent partners.  Um, uh, in negotiation tasks, uh, they can--they may express what it is they want, but they have difficulty with more sophisticated strategies trying to make what they want happen, happen.  And, uh, when we ha--we’ve actually had triads with two typical developing children with a  child with language impairment and given them kind of a high stakes negotiation task.  They had to negotiate over something they really wanted and come to a group consensus over that. What happened was the two typically developing children made the decision and the child with language impairment was pretty much excluded, even though that child had opinions and stated those opinions.  It didn’t matter. 

Yeah, the--the interesting thing we’ve found in our research with children with language impairment is they  tend to be fairly  withdrawn and quiet kids.  So, you know, a--a child who’s kind of quiet you really don’t notice, um, conversational problems because the child isn’t conversing.  Oh you say, ‘Well, that ki--child’s kind of quiet.  A lot of people are quiet.’  Uh, , and what about personality factors?  And that’s really true.  I’m just kind of a naturally quiet person.  That’s--that’s OK.  But when children with language impairment tend to talk, they fairly quickly display themselves.  They display the conversational problems.  They  have difficulty gearing their contributions in conversation to the needs of their listeners.  I--I think that’s a key thing.  They have a hard time telling when that person got it, uh, what they should do to help that person understand, a hard time, uh, understanding they need to talk about somebody else’s topic as well as their own.  Um, hard time, uh, kind of keeping the mutual interest going.  And, um, other kids seem to pick up on this very, very quickly and they move on and leave this child alone.

I think what I’d like, uh, teachers and parents to understand about language impairment is that children with language impairment are first children and they have the same kinds of needs that other children have.  And, uh, this language impairment that they have is going to be a barrier, um, to some very important things.   Firsthand, establishing and maintaining social relationships with others.  Second, it will be a barrier to academic, um, progress.  Third, it will be a barrier to independence in your society, whether it’s a home society or classroom society or a wider society that--that the child is in.  And that that language impairment will tend to change shape over the years.  And at all points that child needs support to do two things:  To help that child establish and maintain relationships, uh, progress academically and be independent, so it’s kind of tri-fold--three-fold.  And at the same time, the child needs support so the language itself can improve and continue an upward, um, learning curve because these kids do learn language, they learn it much more slowly and, uh, with less facility, uh, than other children.

Um, language impairment tends to persist and be chronic, but it frequently changes shape.  So it would not be atypical to see a child go--we got a two-year-old here and this two-year-old’s just not talking and  parent gets a little nervous, grandparents are talking to the parents, you know their kids talk like this, oh oh, they’re a little concerned.  Uh, bring the child in and find out, mmm, yeah, it’s a concern, especially if the child isn’t understanding language very well.  Let’s say the child isn’t.  The child just seems to be visually pretty adept and can get information that way, but language, uh, uh, is just not an important way for them to communicate yet.  And they probably don’t like books because it’s no fun to sit on a lap and hear words that you don’t understand, the--these kinds of things, so.  And a child gets two, two and a half.  We get a few words in there, but they go kind of slowly, we don’t see this burst of language where a parent can no longer count the words, uh, very quickly.  That’s how the child looks young.   Uh, let’s say we get the child into preschool.  The child is probably producing language, but grammatically it doesn’t sound right.  Um, a lot of little things are left out.  Se--sentences are short, they’re immature and you still have stuff like ‘Me doggie home.’  Yet those kinds of things that you wouldn’t expect out of a child that age.  Let’s say you pop out of the picture and you come back when the child is five or so.  At this point, perhaps the child has learned a lot of, uh, grammatical constructions.  Sounds pretty better--sounds a bit better.  Uh, uh, language is cleaned up a bit in terms of, um, form.  Uh, sounds more grammatically correct.  The child may even, uh, test out there then.  And you say, ‘Oh, gee, he’s cured.  It’s--we’ve had--we’ve had a recovery here.  The--things are looking good.’  We dismiss the child from special services, everything’s fine.  Lo and behold about second grade when other kids are making a real jump to literacy and there’s a great increase in complexing what kids can do and what’s expected of them.  Lo and behold, we fi--we see this child falling behind academically.  He’s in deep trouble.  Where did this happen?  Well, now we may put a label of learning disability on the child when really it’s just the language and the recovery that we saw was, um, as one, uh, scholar clinician in our field puts it, uh, ‘an illusionary recovery.’  And here it is back again.  We may not realize that that is the same language problem that we’re seeing ma--manifest now, uh, in another medium and more complex tasks.

Something that puzzles teachers a lot would be the inconsistency of performancy, you can see with a child with language impairment.  So there may be one context in which a child can do something and you see another context and the child can’t do it.  Well, you’re beginning to think ‘Why won’t--why this inconsistency?  I--Is this behavioral?  Is the child chooses to do it in one context and not in another?  Uh, and the truth of the matter is if the child could do it, the child would  do it and--and that’s the best way to as--to--to approach that.  And I--I compare language impairment sometimes to, um, uh, I had the opportunity to visit, uh, a European country when, uh, uh, I was a kid and, uh, one of the things that surprised me is they didn’t sell eggs in neat little cartons like I was used to.  Rather, you bought eggs at a market and they put those in some newsprint which they folded into a cone and since people shopped every day they only bought a couple of eggs at a time.  But, as, uh, uh, American, hey, everybody knows you buy eggs in dozens and so you buy a dozen eggs and you’ve got a dozen eggs in a newsprint cone while walking along the street trying to negotiate a dozen eggs in a newsprint cone.  Demands a great deal of balance and concentration.  And, uh, it doesn’t take very much to happen for you to lose an egg.  Well, a child with language impairment is like that.  It’s like carrying a cone with too many eggs in it.  When the demands increase, and they can increase from any direction, any kind of demand, whether internal or external, when it increases you’re probably going to lose an egg and you can’t predict what egg it’s going to be.  So something may go so that will result in an inconsistency in performance, um, that may look puzzling, um, then you have to kind of back away from that and say ‘Well, what are the factors that made this hard?  What’s going on here?  Is the child nervous?  Is the child tired?  Um, have I removed the support of the here and now?’  In other words, I’m not talking about what’s in front of this child, I’m talking about the merry-go-round ride they went on yesterday.  Whole different ballgame.  Much, much more difficult. 

Well, we tend to think of kids with language impairment as they have deficits and if there’s so--something--as if there were something wrong that we have to fix.  And when we think of that kind of a model you can see why we have so many pull-out models where you pull a child out, work with a child, and put a child back.  It’s like my car.  Something goes wrong with my car, I want a mechanic.  I want a good mechanic.  And I expect to drop my car off and I want to leave the premises and do something else.  And I want to pick it up and take it right out on the highway and it will be fully integrated and included.  We tend to think of  chi--children with special needs, especially language impairment, like that.  I’ll drop him off at the speech pathologist, will you please fix him and put him back in my classroom and then he’ll be fully functional.  Uh, well, the child’s not a car and, uh, what we need is support in that classroom. Yes, the child may require some one on one, there’re many service delivery models, but we need to buoy up the support within the classroom to facilitate the child’s learning in an ongoing way, all the time and, uh, that’s why teaming among professionals and parents is so critical.  I think it’s the only way that we can provide adequate services and the only way we can give these kids a fair chance.