In the schools, service delivery may differ (along with a myriad of other variables) in terms of session type—individual or group—and service provider—direct services by a speech–language pathologist (SLP) or services provided by a trained speech–language pathology assistant (SLPA) (or a combination of these). We know therapy leads to improved language skills in children with DLD, but how do we choose among the service delivery models out there? And how much does it matter? For example, can group therapy provided by an SLPA be just as effective as individual sessions provided by an SLP, all else being equal? The answers to these questions have implications for our treatment recommendations. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), this question hasn’t received a whole lot of attention in the research world…
The authors of this study provided an intervention targeting receptive and expressive language to school-age children in elementary schools in Scotland. All students had language disorder, with no concomitant hearing loss, articulation disorder, or fluency disorder. Students were randomly assigned to either an intent-to-treat control condition or one of four treatment conditions (all of which consisted of 30-minute sessions 3 times a week for a 15-week period):
individual sessions administered by an SLP,
group sessions administered by an SLP,
individual sessions administered by an SLPA, and
group administered by an SLPA
Receptive and expressive language (measured using the UK version of the CELF) were measured pre-treatment, post-treatment, and during a 12-month follow-up (to look at how well skills were maintained). Post-treatment and follow-up testing were conducted by other SLPs to avoid bias.
The results showed no significant differences between the treatment conditions. There were, however, differences in which outcomes improved: expressive, but not receptive, language gains were made between pre- and post-treatment. For the follow-up, across conditions, language gains were not maintained.
A strength of this study was its use of an RCT design with assessor blinding to promote replicability and minimize bias. Many of the intervention choices—length of sessions, number of sessions per week, and “active ingredients” of the intervention–were informed by previous research (all important things to consider!). In fact, one of the cool finds from this article is the structured intervention as detailed in McCartney (2007)—a therapy manual available free of charge.
Of course, one of the limitations in applying this study’s results is that all services took place in the UK context. It’s very likely that there are differences in child and professional variables between the UK and the US (e.g. training standards for SLPAs). The authors also suggest caution in extending these results to children who differ from the study sample (e.g. those with speech sound disorders).
So what’s the take-away? This study provides some evidence that group sessions and sessions provided by SLPAs can yield similar results to individual sessions provided by SLPs, that children with receptive and expressive difficulties (compared to expressive alone) may require more intensive therapy, and providing continued support is likely important for maintaining language skills.
Boyle, J.M., McCartney, E., O’Hare, A., Forbes, J. (2009). Direct versus indirect and individual versus group modes of language therapy for children with primary language impairment: principal outcomes from a randomized controlled trial and economic evaluation. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 44(6), 826–846.