Is Acoustic Feedback Effective for Remediating “r” Errors?

I am very pleased to see a third paper published in the speech-language pathology literature using the single-subject randomization design that I have described in two tutorials, the first in 1988 and the second more recently. Tara McAllister Byun used the design to investigate the effectiveness of acoustic biofeedback treatment to remediate persistent “r” errors in 7 children aged 9 to 15 years. She used the single subject randomized alternation design with block randomization, including a few unique elements in her implementation of the design. She and her research team provided one traditional treatment session and one biofeedback treatment session each week for ten weeks. However the order of the traditional and biofeedback sessions was randomized each week. Interestingly, each session targeted the same items (i.e., “r” was the speech sound target  in both treatment conditions): rhotic vowels were tackled first and consonantal “r” was introduced later, in a variety of phonetic contexts. (This procedure is a variance from my experience in which, for example, Tanya Matthews and I randomly assign different targets to different treatment conditions). Another innovation is the outcome measure: a probe constructed of untreated “r” words was given at the beginning and end of each session so that change (Mdif) over the session was the outcome measure submitted to statistical analysis (our tutorial explains that the advantage of the SSRD is that a nonparametric randomization test can be used to assess the outcome of the study, yielding a p value).  In addition, 3 baseline probes and 3 maintenance probes were collected so that an effect size for overall improvement could be calculated. In this way there are actually 3 time scales for measuring change in this study: (1) change from baseline to maintenance probes; (2) change from baseline to treatment performance as reflected in the probes obtained at the beginning of each session and plotted over time; and (3) change over a session, reflected in the probes given at the beginning and the end of each session. Furthermore, it is possible to compare differences in within session change for sessions provided with and without acoustic feedback.

I was really happy to see the implementation of the design but it is fair to say that the results were a dog’s breakfast, as summarized below:

Byun 2017 acoustic biofeedback

The table indicates that two participants (Piper, Clara) showed an effect of biofeedback treatment and generalization learning. Both showed rapid change in accuracy overall after treatment was introduced in both conditions and maintained at least some of that improvement after treatment was withdrawn. Garrat and Ian showed identical trajectories in the traditional and biofeedback conditions with a late rise in accuracy during treatment session, large within session improvements during the latter part of the treatment period, and good maintenance of those gains. Neither boy achieved 60% correct responding however at any point in the treatment program. Felix, Lucas and Evan demonstrated no change in probe scores across the twenty weeks of the experiment in both conditions. Lucas started at a higher level and therefore his probe performance is more variable: because he actually showed a within session decline during traditional sessions while showing stable performance within biofeedback sessions, the statistics indicate a treatment effect in favour of acoustic biofeedback but in fact no actual gains are observed.

So, this is a long description of the results that brings me to two conclusions: (1) the alternation design was the wrong choice for the hypothesis in these experiments; and (2) biofeedback was not effective for these children; even in those cases where it looks like there was an effect, the children were responsive to both biofeedback and the traditional intervention.

In a previous blog, I described the alternation design; there is another version of the single subject randomization design that would be more appropriate for Tara’s hypothesis however.  The thing about acoustic biofeedback is that it is not fundamentally different from traditional speech therapy, involving a similar sequence of events: (i) SLP says a word as an imitative model; (ii) child imitates the word; (iii) SLP provides informative or corrective feedback. In the case of incorrect responses in the traditional condition in Byun’s study, the SLP provided information about articulatory placement and reminded the child that the target involved certain articulatory movements (“make the back part of your tongue go back”). In the case of incorrect responses in the acoustic biofeedback condition, the SLP made reference to the acoustic spectrogram when providing feedback and reminded the child that the target involved certain formant movements (“make the third bump move over”). Firstly, the first two steps are completely overlapping in both conditions and secondly it can be expected that the articulatory cues given in the traditional condition will be remembered and their effects will carry-over into the biofeedback sessions. Therefore we can consider the acoustic biofeedback to be an add-on to traditional therapy. We want to know about the value added. Therefore the phase design is more appropriate: in this case, there would be 20 sessions (2 per week over 10 weeks as in Byun’s study), each session would be planned with the same format: beginning probe (optional), 100 practice trials with feedback, ending probe. The difference is that the starting point for the introduction of acoustic biofeedback would be selected at random. All the sessions that precede the randomly selected start point would be conducted with traditional feedback and all the remainder would be conducted with acoustic biofeedback. The first three would be designated as traditional and the last 3 would be designated as biofeedback for a 26 session protocol as described by Byun. Across the 7 children this would end up looking like a multiple baseline design except that (1) the duration of the baseline phase would be determined by random selection for each child; and (2) the baseline phase is actually the traditional treatment with the experimental phase testing the value added benefit of biofeedback. There are three possible categories of outcomes: no change after introduction of the biofeedback, an immediate change, or a late change. As with any single subject design, the change might be in level, trend or variance and the test statistic can be designed to capture any of those types of changes. The statistical analysis asks whether the obtained test statistic is bigger than all possible results given all of the possible random selection of starting points. Rvachew & Matthews (2016) provides a more complete  explanation of the statistical analysis.

I show below an imaginary result for Clara, using the data presented for her in Byun’s paper, as if the traditional treatment came first and then the biofeedback intervention. If we pretend that the randomly selected start point for the biofeedback intervention occurred exactly in the middle of the treatment period, the test statistic is the difference of the M(bf) and the M(trad) scores resulting in -2.308. All other possible random selections of starting points for intervention lead to 19 other possible mean differences, and 18 of them are bigger than the obtained test statistic leading to a p value of 18/20 = .9. In this data set the probe scores are actually bigger in the earlier part of the intervention when the traditional treatment is used and they do not get bigger when the biofeedback is introduced. These are the beginning probe scores obtained by Clara but Byun obtained a significant result in favour of biofeedback by block randomization and by examining change across each session. However, I am not completely sure that the improvements from beginning to ending probes are a positive sign—this result might reflect a failure to maintain gains from the previous session in one or the other condition.

Hypothetical Clara in SSR Phase Design

There are several reasons to think that both interventions that were used in Byun’s study might result in unsatisfactory generalization and maintenance. We discuss the principles of generalization in relation to theories of motor learning in Developmental Phonological Disorders: Foundations of Clinical Practice. One important principle is that the child needs a well-established representation of the acoustic-phonetic target. All seven of the children in Byun’s study had poor auditory processing skills but no part of the treatment program addressed phonological processing, phonological knowledge or acoustic phonetic representations. Second, it is essential to have the tools to monitor and use self-produced feedback (auditory, somatosensory) to evaluate success in achieving the target. Both the traditional and the biofeedback intervention put the child in the position of being dependent upon external feedback. The outcome measure focused attention on improvements from the beginning of the practice session to the end. The first principle of motor learning is that practice performance is not an indication of learning however.  The focus should have been on the sometimes large decrements in probe scores from the end of one session to the beginning of the next. The children had no means of maintaining any of those performance gains. Acoustic feedback may be a powerful means of establishing a new response but it is a counterproductive tool for maintenance and generalization learning.


McAllister Byun, T. (2017). Efficacy of Visual–Acoustic Biofeedback Intervention for Residual Rhotic Errors: A Single-Subject Randomization Study. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60(5), 1175-1193. doi:10.1044/2016_JSLHR-S-16-0038

Rvachew, S., & Matthews, T. (2017). Demonstrating treatment efficacy using the single subject randomization design: A tutorial and demonstration. Journal of Communication Disorders, 67, 1-13. doi: