I am getting questions about our PHOPHLO project now that a part of it has inexplicably made Science Daily  so I will provide a summary of the project here with a few of the outcomes. This project is a collaboration between me and Laura Gonnerman at McGill University and Phaedra Royle at the University of Montréal. The testing of the children was coordinated by Phaedra’s post-doctoral student Alexandra Marquis under my supervision. The purpose of the project was to develop a screening test that could be administered to francophone children at the beginning of first grade to predict difficulties in the achievement of written language skills at the end of second grade. The project proceeded in three phases.

Pilot Phase. We began by administering a battery of tests of oral language skills to children in kindergarten and first grade classrooms in two schools. The tests included two tools developed by Françoise Brosseau-Lapré and me for the ECRIP trial, specifically a version of SAILS assessing the children’s perception of the word “gris” (French word for ‘grey’) and the Test de Conscience Phonologique Préscolaire, a measure of rime and onset matching that does not require any spoken responses. The third was a test of articulation accuracy developed by a former masters student Marianne Paul and subsequently validated by me and Françoise, Test de Dépistage Francophone de Phonologie . The fourth test was a measure of spoken morphological skills, Jeu de Verbes,  assessing the ability to produce appropriate past tense morphemes (a bit like a French ‘wug’ test), developed by Phaedra Royle at the University of Montréal. We also collected ratings of the children’s abilities from the teachers and conducted item analyses to develop a screening test from all this data that was a much shorter version of these four measures (44 items in total, about 20 minute administration time compared to 80 minutes). We have published two papers describing the children’s performance during Phase I, with comparisons across the unilingual French children and the multilingual French children (about 40% of the Phase I children spoke a language other than French at home; the language at school is 100% French). Rvachew et al. (2013), published in Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics  , reported that (1) there were no statistically significant differences in articulation accuracy across these two groups; (2) there was a slight tendency toward more errors involving the features [+voice] and [-anterior] nonetheless; and (3) all groups produced more errors in unstressed syllables. Marquis et al. (2012), published in Travaux interdisciplinaires sur la parole et le langage, reported that there were significantly fewer errors for the verb group [é] than the other verb groups tested.

Phase I. During this phase we administered the new screening test to 91 first grade children with approximately half being unilingual speakers of French and the remainder being multilingual. We also asked for teacher ratings of the child’s risk for future difficulties in the acquisition of writing skills and we piloted a measure of spelling abilities with a subset of these children in the latter half of the first grade year. Kendall Kolne, a doctoral student co-supervised by Laura and I, has just submitted a manuscript to Language and Literacy describing the relationship between the children’s performance on the Phase I tests, some other demographic measures,  and the teacher ratings. First, we found that language background, the education levels of parents, home literacy practices, and oral language skills (as measured by our screening test) all differentiated whether or not the children were identified by their teachers as at-risk for future writing difficulty. With respect to predicting first grade spelling skills, teacher ratings accounted for more variance than our screening test but the screening test and the teacher rating combined predicted the most variance in spelling ability (52% overall),and there was some unique information provided by the screening test. I leave it to the reader to decide whether it is good news or bad news that our 20 minute screen is as good as or is only as good as the teacher’s opinion! We did find a few interesting exceptions where the teachers relied overly much on family background information, leading to over and under estimation of risk for a few children. We have not yet done an analysis to find out how well the teacher ratings hold up over the longer term.

Phase II. In the final phase of the project we administered three tests of written language skills to the Phase I children when they reached the end of second grade (we were able to test 78 of the original sample at this time). The primary outcome measure was a standardized test of spelling that included nonwords, real words and sentences (BELO; Georges, F., & Pech-Georgel, C. (2006). BELO – Batterie d’évaluation de lecture et d’orthographe: Éditions Solal). We found that the screening test administered in first grade was a reasonably good predictor of BELO scores: the sensitivity of the PHOPHLO (i.e., proportion of true positives identified) was 66% while the specificity (i.e., proportion of true negatives identified) was 92%. I expect to submit a manuscript describing these results next year. We also administered two additional measures of written morphology skills developed by Phaedra Royle and Laura Gonnerman. Alex Marquis presented some of these results at the Romance Turn IV Congress in September 2014 and it is this presentation that made the big splash. They reported on the relationship between oral morphosyntax skills measured in first grade and written morphosyntax skills measured at the end of second grade. The written task involved reading sentences and choosing the correct one of three alternatives, e.g., Paul a/as/à une amie. (in this case the first alternative is the correct one). The interesting finding was that the multilingual children performed much more poorly than the unilingual children on the oral language task but there were no differences between these two groups on the written language tasks including the morphosyntax task or the spelling task. More interpretation is found in the Science Daily piece.

Post study phases: Laura Gonnerman is following these and other children into the later grades and confirms a mixed pattern of strengths and weakness in the multilingual group relative to the unilingual French group. She is also looking at the efficacy of certain teaching strategies. I am working with a company (iLanguageLabs) to create a software version of the PHOPHLO. It is nearing completion and I am hopeful that it will be available on the chrome store in 2016 for use by teachers and orthophonistes (SLPs). As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and in this case the proof will be in cross validation with a new and larger sample of children. I will seek funding and move forward with this phase when the app is fully operational. For myself, I am prone to be a bit cautious with my conclusions until the “proof” is in, which could be years yet.

Cross-linguistic perspective on “atypical” error patterns

As a clinical phonology instructor working in a linguistically and culturally diverse environment I am conscious of the need to prepare my students for clinical practice with children who may speak languages that are not English. I am forced to narrow my focus in the classroom to English normative data because there is only so much time and because most of the available clinical data pertains to English. At the same time I know that those students who plan to practice in English-dominant environments will have some bilingual children on their caseloads. That part of my class that plans to stay in Montreal will be working in a bilingual environment, switching hourly between English dominant and French dominant patients who often know a second or third language. Finally a good proportion of the class are international students who plan to return to their home countries to practice in a language that is neither English nor French. Therefore the question of how best to ensure that they have analytical tools and background knowledge that will allow them to apply what they have learned in an English context to other languages is paramount. Sharynne McLeod’s work and the Multilingual Children’s Speech website  is enormously important in this regard.

I really enjoyed the systematic review by Hambly, Wren, McLeod and Roulstone on “the influence of bilingualism on speech production”. I especially liked the introductory summary of Stackhouse and Wells’ psycholinguistic model whereby phonological development is “simplified into three phases: input → storage → output”. This model figures prominently in our book and was one influence on the organization of our discussion of treatment procedures in Part III. In their review, Hambly et al. describe many papers that recount instances of apparently atypical error patterns in bilingual children with typical or atypical speech development. Many of these patterns reflect transfer from one language to another such as unexpected voicing patterns, trills or spirants crossing over from first language Punjabi, Russian or Spanish to second-language English. The papers reviewed also described patterns that were rare across languages however: for example, the rare occurrence of backing in a variety of first and second language contexts lead some authors to the conclusion that backing is universally rare and therefore always atypical. Francoise and I are aware of a context in which an error pattern that might be mistaken for backing is not rare however. Our papers describing typical and atypical French phonology take a multilinear and multirepresentational approach and highlight the disconnect between the persistence of a phonological pattern approach to the description of children’s speech despite the important insights offered by the psycholinguistic approach to phonological development.

Although the theoretical underpinnings of phonological processes are not necessarily implied when clinicians and researchers speak of phonological patterns I think that it is helpful to recall the theoretical roots of this approach. The original idea was that the child’s underlying representations were adultlike even though the child’s motor abilities were not up to the task of producing speech that matched adult expectations. Therefore one assumed that the child’s underlying representation for a word such as “cone” would be /kon/ but an innate simplification process would front the /k/, leading to [ton]* in the output. The error pattern in “cone” → [ton]*, “key” → [ti]*, “cake” → [tet]* is called velar fronting, implying that an underlying present velar is fronted during the transition to the output form. The opposite pattern, in which a front sound, e.g., /t, d, s, z/ is produced as a back sound, e.g., /k,ɡ,ʃ,ʒ /, is referred to as backing but is atypical by virtue of infrequence. I am not going to recount all of the evidence against this position here but suffice it to say if it doesn’t work for phonological development in the case of a child learning one language according to a typical trajectory it is even less tenable as an explanation for mismatches in bilingual children’s speech and it is clearly not tenable as an explanation for mismatches in the speech of children with a phonological disorder.

Continuing with the example of backing I am going to show that this is a poor description of apparent backing errors in English or French speaking children with a phonological disorder. In English speaking children, backing alveolar consonants is indeed rare and thus termed “atypical”. The atypical nature of the error is further enhanced by the phonological problem that it represents: when analyzed from a multilinear perspective, fronting means that the child is using the default Coronal feature or is delinking the marked Dorsal feature, resulting in a simplification; on the other hand, backing is in most contexts phonologically impossible since it involves adding a marked feature unless the child has a very unusual phonological system in which Dorsal is the default place feature. How then does the error arise? Answering this question requires that one examine the articulatory roots of the child’s problem as was done by Fiona Gibbon in her description of “Undifferentiated Lingual Gestures in Children with Articulatory/Phonological Disorders.” Electropalatography shows that this error pattern is rooted in an abnormal lingual gesture during speech that is pervasive, affecting all the lingual phonemes and often resulting in other atypical errors such as lateral distortions of sibilants. One thing that is important and interesting about the child’s error pattern is that it is revealed to be not backing of front sounds at all since all the lingual phones are produced with a similarly undifferentiated gesture (neither front nor back but whole tongue dorsum in contact with the palate); the listener’s percept of a front or back sound is determined by the timing of the release phase of the gesture. In this case, in English, the error is a highly atypical error reflecting a motor speech problem that is not accurately described as backing.

Now, turning to French, we have published raw data from francophone children with a phonological disorder in the Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology: we have observed that in both typical and atypical development it is very common for French speaking children to substitute a back sound for a front sound in a very particular context, specifically the /ʁ/-clusters. We show first of all that the output form [kʁ] is easiest for the children to acquire and thus the place features of the two consonants appear to facilitate production of each other, e.g., as in ‘crayon’ /kʁɛjɔ̃/ → [kʁɛjɔ̃]. Second, in the case of /tʁ/-clusters, spreading of place from the /ʁ/ to the unspecified place node on the /t/ is very common resulting in an apparent backing error, e.g., as in ‘train’ /tʁɛ̃/ → [kʁɛ̃]*. Interestingly, we see the spreading of the Dorsal feature from the second segment in the cluster back to the first segment of the cluster even when the /ʁ/ target is produced as [w] and in the case of /w/ clusters (recall that this phone has both labial and dorsal place features), e.g., “doigt” /dwa/ → [ɡwa]*. Finally, we observe even more unusual productions such as, ‘framboise’ /fʁɑ̃bwaz/ → [kwɑ̃bjaz]*, suggesting that the features of /f/ are difficult for the child to capture perceptually in these words, perhaps resulting in substitution of a preferred form in the complex onset. We have seen similar error patterns in the speech of francophone children with typically developing speech. The conclusion to be drawn in the case of French is that this error is not a backing error at all; it is a spreading error that makes perfect sense in its typical context. In this case it is not atypical, neither from the perspective of its frequency nor from the perspective of its phonological origins.

I have shown that an error pattern that may look similar on the surface can have a very different origin in two languages and thus be atypical in one and typical in the other. My overall conclusion from this discussion only partly echoes that made by Hambly et al: it is true that SLPs need more information about how phonology develops in children who are learning different languages and multiple languages. However it is even more important for SLPs to have the analytical tools to describe children’s phonology at multiple levels of representation (perceptual, articulatory, phonological) and to identify the origin of children’s error patterns after taking all these domains of phonological learning into account.

Further Reading

If you are not familiar with multilinear phonology, here is a source  intended for a clinical audience:
Bernhardt, B., & Stoel-Gammon, C. (1994). Nonlinear phonology: Introduction and clinical application. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 37, 123-143.

For another example of “backing” that is typical in another language, see:
Li, F., Edwards, J., & Beckman, M. E. (2009). Contrast and covert contrast: The phonetic development of voiceless sibilant fricatives in English and Japanese toddlers. Journal of Phonetics, 37(1), 111-124.

For our complete multirepresentational explanation of francophone children’s cluster productions, ask us for a copy of this manuscript:
Rvachew, S. & Brosseau-Lapre, F. (accepted with minor revisions). Pre- and post-treatment production of syllable initial /ʁ/-clusters by French-speaking children. In M. Yavas (Ed.), Unusual productions in phonology: universals and language-specific considerations. Psychology Press/Taylor Francis.