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Arnold School of Public Health


Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders grows literacy expertise

February 20, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Five years ago, the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD) didn’t have a literacy program per se. They had one outstanding faculty member whose research interests center on literacy (Assistant Professor Suzanne Adlof) and several other strong specialty areas (e.g., neurogenics, cochlear implants, hearing under adverse listening conditions), but the department lacked a strategic focus on progressing this particular persistent public health issue. Today, COMD has four tenure-track faculty members with complementary literacy expertise and a fast-developing program that has already outpaced the majority of their peer COMD programs at other universities.

“Despite the fact that literacy, the written form of language, is an extremely important part of communication and speech-language pathology, it’s rare for COMD departments to have four tenure-track faculty dedicated to advancing literacy research and clinical treatment,” says COMD Professor and Chair Kenn Apel, who joined the Arnold School in 2012 as a well-known literacy researcher who quickly set out to help the department develop a strong literacy core. “Something else people do not often realize is that literacy is very much a public health issue. It serves as a gateway to career opportunities, healthcare access, social support, and many other factors that affect health outcomes.”  

The Arnold School’s location in S.C. was another reason COMD decided to build a literacy program. According to The Literacy Center, our state has the 13th highest rate of functional illiteracy in the U.S. Delving into the statistics of a single county (Beaufort), we learn that 10 percent of adults don't have a high school education and 11 percent lack basic prose literacy skills.

Despite the fact that literacy, the written form of language, is an extremely important part of communication and speech-language pathology, it’s rare for  COMD departments to have four tenure-track faculty dedicated to advancing literacy research and clinical treatment.

-Kenn Apel, COMD Chair

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that, in 2015, 35 percent of fourth graders in S.C. tested below the basic level for reading achievement (higher than the national norm) and only 33 percent were at or above the proficient level (lower than the national norm). Similar trends can be seen with S.C. eighth grade students.  

For their first step in growing their literacy program, COMD recruited a critical mass of literacy experts to join the department. Adlof, who came to the Arnold School in 2011, specializes in reading comprehension and vocabulary along with language and reading difficulties in children. Apel arrived a year later, bringing expertise in orthography (i.e., the development of reading, writing, spelling). Assistant Professor Krystal Werfel (literacy achievement in children with hearing loss) accepted a position in 2013 followed by Associate Professor Lesley Wade-Woolley (children learning a second language and the role of prosody (i.e., speech rhythm) in reading and spelling development) in 2015.

With their literacy team assembled, COMD has begun churning out publications on literacy through their laboratories and collaborations. From infants to preschool to school-age children and beyond, these four faculty members and their partners (e.g., graduate students, clinical faculty, researchers at other institutions) cover literacy across the lifespan and from numerous angles. They all have background in speech and language development as well—a critical perspective for combining their work with the outreach and clinical treatment they provide at COMD’s USC Speech and Hearing Research Center and within the broader speech-language pathology community in S.C.

Something else people do not often realize is that literacy is very much a public health issue. It serves as a gateway to career opportunities, healthcare access, social support, and many other factors that affect health outcomes.

-Kenn Apel, COMD Chair

COMD master’s in speech-language pathology students assist with literacy research. They also learn about literacy development through their coursework and see patients at the Center—under the supervision of clinical faculty members. These clinical faculty members work closely with the literacy faculty to develop and adhere to standard assessment and treatment protocols for literacy patients.

For example, Clinical Associate Professor Angela McLeod worked with Apel to develop an intervention for a school-age patient who was struggling with literacy. They then developed a manuscript for publication based on the outcomes of that intervention, bridging research and practice and enabling others in the COMD field to adopt their evidenced-based approach to treating literacy patients. McLeod also collaborated with Adlof in the development and testing of summer literacy interventions provided to at-risk children over three consecutive summers. Results of the first feasibility study were recently published, and a manuscript reporting the results of a follow-up randomized control trial is in preparation.

While the up-and-coming literacy sector within COMD is already making a difference through strengthening educational opportunities in literacy for students and offering comprehensive clinical care through the Center, the team plans to continue expanding their reach. “Our goal is to establish a literacy center that is free standing yet integrated within the USC Speech and Hearing Research Center,” says Apel. “In this literacy center, we would see members of the general community, but we would also engage the student population at USC. We’ve already been conducting pilot programs working with student athletes to take steps in that direction.”

Our goal is to establish a literacy center that is free standing yet integrated within the USC Speech and Hearing Research Center.

-Kenn Apel, COMD Chair

The literacy program is also doing its part to help S.C. meet the requirements of the Read to Succeed Act, which was passed by the S.C. Department of Education to ensure that educators are committed and able to support reading development and help combat poor literacy rates among school-age children. In response to this legislation, COMD has expanded the curriculum for master’s students in the area of literacy.

The department underwent the certification process to become providers of literacy workshops for speech-language pathologists within the education system. Divided into three workshops, COMD is conducting 60 hours of literacy education for more than 80 speech-language pathologists. These modules include topics, such as the role of speech-language pathologists in helping students with reading/writing/spelling difficulties, how these literacy skills develop, working with special populations (e.g., children with hearing loss, second language learners), and others.  

Although COMD’s literacy program was comprised of only a single faculty member five years ago, their presence has expanded to include a depth of expertise within the department and outreach that stretches across the state. As long as literacy statistics remain discouraging, particularly for the state of S.C., the Arnold School will continue to lead efforts to address this critical public health issue through this flourishing literacy program led by the COMD department.  


Related:

Adlof leads development of online tutor to accelerate vocabulary acquisition

COMD student Sara Straley wins national award to support master’s thesis research

August graduate leverages COMD research and clinical placement opportunities to find ideal career

Apel earns the highest honor awarded by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

COMD's Lesly Wade-Woolley leads international conference for the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading

Apel recognized with Honors of the Council award from the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders

Suzanne Adlof receives Early Career Contributions in Research Award from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association