Phonological Memory and Phonological Planning

I have been writing about the children in our intervention study for children with Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS). So far about half of the children referred to us appear to have difficulties in the domain of phonological memory with their overt phenotype corresponding to the subtype described by Dorothy Bishop Dodd as Inconsistent Deviant Disorder. Shriberg et al. (2012) have developed the Syllable Repetition Task as one means of identifying deficits in “memory processes that store and retrieve [phonemic, sublexical, and lexical] representations. We have been using this SRT test to differentiate children who have deficits in phonological planning versus motor planning. I described the profile that corresponds to difficulties with motor planning (transcoding) in a previous post. Today I will discuss the phonological memory or phonological planning profile that we see in approximately half of the children that are referred to us with suspected CAS.

These children can be identified by a qualitative analysis of their SRT performance and by their performance on the Inconsistency Test of the DEAP. Starting with the SRT, one child in our study for example was able to achieve 12/18 consonants correct when imitating 2-syllable items but only 5/18 consonants correct when imitating 3-syllable items, thus exemplifying the classic profile of a child with phonological memory difficulties – better nonword repetition performance for short versus long items. Qualitatively he tended toward consonant harmony errors even with some 2-syllable items, /bama/=[mama],  /maba/=[mama],  and then more frequently with the 3-syllable items, /nabada/=[mamada]. Addition of syllables and vowel errors also occurred, /manaba/ = [mamadada],  /manabada/=[mimadama]. Poor maintenance of phonotactic structure and vowel errors were also observed on the Inconsistency Test, “helicopter” = [hokopapɚ], “elephant”= [ɛmpɩnt], which yielded an overall inconsistency score of 78% as many words were produced with multiple variants, e.g., “butterfly”= [bʌtfaɩ], [bʌtwaɩ], [bʌtətwaɩ].

The most striking illustration of the difficulties these children have with the storage and retrieval of phonological representations comes during our treatment sessions however. In this research program we are teaching the children nonsense words in meaningful contexts. For example in one scenario we teach the children the names of “alien flowers” and in one of the treatment conditions we use graphic stimuli, paired with gestural cues if necessary, to represent the syllables and phonemes in the words and phrases that we are teaching. Many of the children in our study learn all of the nonsense words without difficulty (5 words per goal/condition introduced over 6 45-minute sessions). However children with the phonological memory difficulties have great difficulty learning the words (SLP: This is a speet. Say speet. Child: speet. That’s right, speet. What is it? Child: I don’t know. SLP: Yes, you do it’s speet, the purple one, the purple one is speet, remember, say speet. Child: ‘speet’. SLP, you’ve got it, the purple flower is speet, it’s a speet, what is it, it’s a … Child: um, I don’t know, and so on).


The most effective intervention to use with these children closely mirrors the procedures described by Barbara Dodd as the “core vocabulary” approach and demonstrated by Sharon Crosbie in the video that accompanies their chapter in the Williams, McLeod and McCauley (2010) book. The video is lovely and shows how to use graphic stimuli and a chaining procedure to teach the child to produce a word consistently – the idea is to encourage the child to develop and implement their own phonological/motor plan rather than relying on an imitative model. The children respond to this technique really well and will learn to say the new words such as “speet” and “stoon” quickly and accurately. The trouble begins when our student SLPs want the children to use the new words spontaneously in phrases (e.g., “water the speet”). They have great difficulty remembering the word or even the carrier phrase without the imitative model and I have to work really hard to teach the student clinicians to withhold the imitative model in favour of using other cues to stimulate spontaneous production of the target words and phrases (SLP: What is it? Let’s start with the snake sound here…).

We have wonderful video of student SLPs learning these techniques as well as children achieving their goals. Tanya Matthews and I will be presenting them at ASHA 2014. The difference in the way that you implement therapy with these children is subtle but important. I am pretty sure that Case Study 8-4 in our book had a phonological planning deficit rather than the motor planning disorder that he was treated for. I can’t help but think that if he was treated with these techniques he might have made some progress in the three years that we followed his case (whereas he made literally no progress at all until he was treated with a synthetic phonics approach in second grade). I’d love to hear from you if you have any other ideas about how best to treat children with phonological memory problems and inconsistent deviant disorder.





Auditory Motor Integration Intervention for CAS

In March 2013 I described the research we are conducting in my lab to identify individual differences in response to two different approaches to the treatment of Childhood Apraxia of Speech. I also described the unique single subject randomization design that we are using and presented some data for one child without revealing the interventions that corresponded to the condition that worked best for this particular child. We have subsequently replicated this result with another child so today I am going to write about the features of the intervention that children with difficulties in the area of transcoding appear to benefit from most clearly. Recall that transcoding is revealed in part by addition errors on the Syllable Repetition Task. In the case of the child profiled in the previous blog, he added nasal consonants at syllable boundaries when asked to repeat the syllable strings and he was just as likely to do this for short strings as for long, e.g., “mada” → [bᴂndə] and “manabada” → [mandabad]. This child also had difficulty with multisyllable repetition during the maximum performance tests but no difficulty with the single syllable diadochokinetic rate. Within word inconsistency was borderline with inconsistent word productions largely reflecting single feature errors (voicing errors for example). Altogether the impression is of a true apraxia or motor planning disorder (as opposed to a phonological planning deficit, a more common problem that I will describe in a future post). Thus far we have assessed 18 children in this study and remarkably only 3 have presented with this particular profile.

Two of these children have shown the best response to an intervention that is directed at promoting auditory-motor integration. It includes input-oriented procedures that are described in Chapter 9 of my book combined with output-oriented procedures described in Chapter 10. The procedures are used to promote the consistent use of stimulable phonemes in the context of word shapes that are difficult for the child so that the focus is more on holistic movement patterns at the whole word level than on individual phonemes. In the case described here we taught novel “monster names” that had a strong-weak-strong stress pattern and word internal coda consonants such as “Biftenope” and “Hapnidreem” and assessed for carry-over to phrases with similar structures (pumpkin pie, bat mobile). 

One reason that we designed an intervention approach that focused on auditory-motor integration is that there is evidence from the animal literature suggesting that this might be a foundational problem in the case of apraxia. Kurt, Fisher and Ehret examined sensory-motor association learning in mice with two different FoxP2 mutations. The task involved learning to avoid electronic shock by leaping a hurdle (or not) to the other compartment of a box in response to varied tones that signaled the location of the shock. Mice with either mutation were impaired in their response, one more severe that the other, in comparison to wild-type mice that learned the task without difficulty. The second reason that we designed an intervention with an auditory-motor integration component is that the ability to modify motor plans in response to auditory feedback and in relation to an auditory target is theoretically essential to the acquisition of speech motor control.

So what does an intervention that focuses on auditory-motor integration look like? Not surprisingly it has procedures that focus attention on the auditory-perceptual aspects of speech as well as procedures that focus on motor practice, none of the procedures themselves being novel or surprising. During the prepractice portion of each treatment we ensured that the child had a good perceptual representation for the target words using auditory bombardment and focused stimulation in meaningful contexts as well as error detection tasks as described in my teaching blog (scroll down to week 22). We also taught the child to monitor his own speech and respond differentially to his own correct or incorrect productions of the target words. For example an appropriate activity might be for the child “call” the monster and to then place the monster in his sleeping bag in the tent if he heard himself produce the name correctly or to place the monster in an alternative sleeping bag out in the rain if he heard himself produce the name incorrectly (our students are endlessly creative and this variation on the game has proved to be popular with the children this year).  The practice part of the session, for the most part, proceeds as one would expect for any child with CAS, focusing on high intensity practice while the SLP provides just enough stimulation prior to each attempt to elicit a correct response more often than not. However, every effort is made to avoid providing too much feedback. Working in blocks of five trials each, summative knowledge of results is provided whenever possible – this means that the child is given an opportunity to evaluate his own responses in relation to his own auditory goal without interference from SLP input, and then compare his own judgment with the SLPs count of correct responses at the end of each 5 trial run. Edy Strand writes about the importance of giving the child time to integrate feedback in her chapter with Derbertine in Caruso and Strand (1999) and describes precisely how to do this. Given a high rate of responses (over 100 trials per 20 minute practice session) and an average of 70% correct responses, this child was able to make excellent progress as measured by both same day and next day probes (see green bars on his chart here). A second child with the same profile also showed a significant benefit in favour of this approach. A third child is still being treated and it will be some time before we will know if he completes the protocol and then many more months before blind coding of his results will be finished. But, we are hopeful!

Advocacy and Research

On May 9th, 2014 at the annual conference of Speech-Language and Audiology Canada I was immensely honoured to receive the Eve Kassirer Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement. At the time I understood that I had two minutes to make some remarks and then we were asked to reduce to one minute so I improvised to what I recall was pretty much babble so I have decided to expand upon those remarks in my blog with cross-posting to the SAC site. I do recall that I had enough presence of mind to thank the award committee and my nominees Françoise Brosseau-Lapré and Susan Rafaat to whom I am extremely grateful.

Judy Meintzer, President of SAC, made a lovely introduction that focused on some of my administrative accomplishments, many having to do with student education, and therefore it is perhaps not surprising that my most accomplished student Françoise, now an Assistant Professor at Purdue University, nominated me for this award. In my own mind however my career has been primarily marked by my efforts to conduct research that will have direct implications for clinical practice or health care policy and to subsequently communicate those implications to clinicians and policy makers. Over the course of my career I have been gratified by the recognition that these efforts have received. My doctoral dissertation on infant babble for example was not such a large thing but subsequent efforts to highlight early vocal development as an important stage of language development were recognized with CASLPA’s media award in 2000. Similarly my contribution to research on the topic of maximum performance tasks is tiny but my efforts to teach SLPs to apply this assessment technique accurately and to promote its use even with young patients was recognized with a CASLPA Editor’s award in 2007. My work in the area of phonological awareness and speech sound disorders is well known but it was my communication of the implications of this work to pediatricians that was recognized with the Dr. Noni McDonald award, also in 2007. The international recognition that I received with ASHA Fellowship in 2012 reflected in part the clinical nature and reach of my research. I think that it is no accident that I received the Eve Kassirer award now when I am fully immersed in the Wait Times Benchmark project – this is a Pan Canadian Alliance initiative coordinated by Susan Rafaat that I will write more about in a forthcoming blog.  Again, my focus is not just on ensuring that the wait times recommendations are evidence-based but on developing an effective and well-branded communication strategy for promoting the use of those benchmarks.

So now I get to the points that I was trying to make somewhat inarticulately on the evening of May 9th. I had spent much of the conference talking to conference attendees about the Wait Times Benchmark for Speech Sound Disorders while handing out the cards announcing the new recommendation. I had many interesting conversations about the challenges of reducing wait times in different jurisdictions across Canada. I know that individual SLPs often feel powerless to effect change or make a contribution to solving a problem that big. The solutions however lie simultaneously in advocacy and research. This is where membership in your national association, in the Canadian context, SAC, is so critical. SAC has proven itself to be absolutely superb at advocacy and the power of SAC’s voice is completely dependent upon the size of its membership. Effective advocacy is also reliant upon good information – reliable and relevant to the practices and policies we are promoting. SAC has used survey research very effectively to communicate about interprovincial variation in the achievement of national standards for infant hearing screening for example and their chart showing SLP and audiologist numbers per capita is stunning. Just as important is the need for more clinical research to help clinicians deliver services more effectively and efficiently if we are going to meet benchmarks for timely and effective provision of care. It is a matter of great concern to me that Canada has no research funding body equivalent to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and therefore it is very difficult to get funding in Canada for applied research in speech-language pathology or audiology. The SAC Clinical Research Grants program is a miniscule first step however that must be encouraged and expanded.

To recap, if we are going to ensure that children and adults with hearing, communication and swallowing difficulties get the services that they need when they need them, the most important action that we can make as individuals is to join SAC, encourage our colleagues to join SAC, and promote SAC’s efforts to fund clinical research.