Graduate students in the Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) program at Montclair State recently had the opportunity to apply their studies and knowledge and directly impact children and families at the U.S.- Mexico border and in Trenton, NJ, with a shared-book reading project.
The project, born through a conversation and partnership with Dr. Lesley Sylvan, assistant professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department, and Dr. Susanna Block, a pediatrician and volunteer at a medical clinic serving migrant families in Matamoros, Mexico, sought to find a way to support migrant parents worried about their children’s language development.
This project was designed to allow students to increase their knowledge of working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities in challenging circumstances and demonstrate for students the potential roles SLPs can play in supporting language and literacy skills in vulnerable communities.
Research has shown that exposing children to age-appropriate books and providing children the opportunity to engage in interactive shared book reading helps them to not only develop oral language skills more quickly but also develop the necessary foundation to learn to read. Shared book reading also enhances the bond between caregivers and children and protects children from the negative impacts of stress.
However, the reality is that many parents lack the knowledge and resources needed to effectively read with their children and a staggering number of children do not have access to books at all. This issue is prevalent both locally and internationally but is especially prominent on the Mexico-United States border where thousands of migrants, including mothers and young children, are seeking asylum from their home countries.
In partnership with colleagues Dr. Robyn Becker and Rosemary De Stephen, Dr. Sylvan involved graduate students enrolled in courses on children’s language disorders both in the 0-5 population (CSND 583) and the school-aged population (CSND 587) in the project to conduct research about the challenges that families from at-risk populations faced related to language development and strategies for training parents on interactive book reading techniques.
Based on their research, students in these two classes created brochures with general tips for language and literacy development and informational sheets about interactive book reading. Students also developed curated bookmarks with age appropriate vocabulary and comprehension questions in three different age brackets (0-2, 3-5,and 5-8 years old).
Dr. Becker, who embedded this project in CSND 583, remarked that, “students seemed to welcome the opportunity to embed a project in a graduate course which created materials for an authentic purpose and had the potential to be used in a meaningful way.”
Montclair State’s chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (MSSLHA) partnered on this project by collecting books and fundraising money to buy specific books to support this project. Rosemary DeStephan, the staff advisor of MSSLHA, remarked, “I couldn’t think of a better program and cause to be part of. Providing literacy resources to these children and families will promote language, academic and cognitive growth in a fun and engaging way.”
Dr. Sylvan worked with her graduate assistants to develop a website specific to this program where parents could access digital books with guided questions to expand their access to books.
The initial pilot of the project was carried out in March of 2022 when Dr. Block visited the U.S.-Mexico border to volunteer at a medical clinic, where she helped to distribute the more than 250 children’s books that were collected in addition to resource materials created by the graduate students and assistants.
Recognizing the need for access to books and information about shared book reading reaches far beyond the U.S.-Mexico border, Dr. Sylvan and her students collected and distributed nearly four hundred books to Mercer Street Friends, a local organization located in Trenton, New Jersey, that provides support to children, families, and communities living in poverty.
Karen Hoppock, the director of Parenting and Adult Services at Mercer Street Friends, noted that the donation of books has a huge impact on the children. “Our families love receiving books to read to their children; for some of them it is the first time they may have seen or heard children’s stories.”
Upon completion of the project and course, Brianna Garcia, a graduate student in the speech-language pathology program, reflected upon the experience. “Going forward in my work as a future speech-language pathologist (SLP), this project will always remind me that there will always be children and families that rely on us to help them succeed,” she said.
“Whether these families are on a difficult journey across the US-Mexico border to seek refuge, have low socioeconomic status, or have cultural differences that may affect their children’s language and literacy skills, the knowledge and tools SLPs have can make all the difference in how they succeed.”
“This project influenced me to want to be more involved in the community and engage with families, as they play an important role in the child’s communication development,” explained student Courtney Lockhart. “Every child should have access to literacy resources and resources that can promote their overall communication.”
Following the success of the initial pilot of distributing books and information in the clinic in Matamoros and Mercer Street Friends, Dr. Sylvan plans to continue this project to provide even more children with access to books and more family information about the importance and impact of interactive book reading and continue to involve graduate-level classes and student clubs as appropriate.
“It is exciting to identify new partnerships and develop new ideas related to spreading the word about the impact of interactive book reading,” says Dr. Sylvan. She is in the process of promoting the idea of ‘reading prescription’ to be part of routine medical visits and is partnering with an NGO at the US-Mexico border to develop dedicated spaces to share children’s books in playgrounds for refugee children.
Through these ongoing and future projects, students completing their master’s degree in speech-language pathology at Montclair State will continue to have the opportunity to see how both their expertise and energy can be harnessed to serve a greater need in the community related to language and literacy development.