By Laine Zizka ’19
By the time children with hearing loss enter adulthood, they often read at athird or fourth grade level. Students and faculty at the Davies School of Communication Sciences & Disorders are working to shrink that gap.
Imagine sitting in a classroom as your teacher lectures the class, everyone nodding along and taking diligent notes – but you hear nothing and understand even less. This is the reality many children with hearing loss experience as they attempt to navigate the education system.
The answer for many is the cochlear implant, an electronic device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear by transmitting sound to a receiver behind the ear.
“Children who wear cochlear implants don’t hear exactly the same way as children who are developing normal hearing,” said Emily Lund, an associate professor at the Davies School of Communication Sciences & Disorders. “Typically, if you receive a cochlear implant, the goal is for you to develop spoken language.”
Lund received a grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to pursue a three-year project leading to a subsequent five-year study at her Childhood Hearing Loss and Language Development lab.
The grant is a wonderful achievement for TCU and Harris College, enabling ground-breaking research to be performed and creating opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to learn a new side to their field.
“The work Dr. Lund is doing is really incredible,” said Clare Benes, a speech-language pathology senior and Lund’s research assistant. “She does care about this population, which has been really cool to see. She’s been a really great mentor on this project.”
By connecting the dots created by existing knowledge and creating new knowledge through research, Lund and her students hope to serve as catalysts for new ways for children with hearing loss to learn.
“I’ve been exploring the hypothesis that maybe [phonological awareness] is also related to their vocabulary knowledge,” Lund said. “They learn different vocabulary and words than do children with normal hearing because of the age at which they get the implant and what it’s like to listen through those implants.”
Phonological awareness is the subconscious recognition that words are made of different sounds – something that is very difficult for children with hearing loss to develop.
“If I sit down and try to teach you ‘cat’ and ‘cap,’ and you have trouble with hearing, chances are you’re only going to learn one of those words or you’re going to be really confused about what I taught you,” said Lund.
Children with cochlear implants are already at a disadvantage when it comes to learning how to read – which can affect every other part of their education. In fact, the median reading level for 18-year-olds with hearing loss is at about 3rd or 4th grade level.
Sadly and despite massive leaps in technology, that level has not changed in 30 years.
“Some of these skills are likely important for learning to read,” said Lund. “Are they flat-lining? Are they growing for the kids with normal hearing? [We are] just trying to figure out the trajectory.”
Along with her graduate and undergraduate students, Lund has put 91 kids between the ages of four and seven through a test battery that included speech tests, hearing tests and phonological awareness activities.
“We are taking kids at age four and giving a variety of measures,” Lund said. “In my smaller study I was just looking at vocabulary and phonological awareness, so we’re kind of testing everything now.”
Lund is looking forward to continuing her research with another three-year grant. In the next three years, she plans to partner with a researcher at University of South Carolina. The have put together summer camps for children to develop vocabulary knowledge, reading level, syntax and academic readiness. The groups will have their progress evaluated at six-month intervals.
“Now we need to ask the question, ‘What is happening to these things as time moves on?’” said Lund.
Lund posited three possible places where the breakdown might be happening: number of words being learned, word organization or phonological awareness regardless of vocabulary.
In any case, all three of these tasks are very difficult for kids with hearing loss.
“I’m more confident in my prediction that vocabulary is a piece of the story about why phonological awareness is not developing,” said Lund.
Both graduate and undergraduate students have helped in the project and seen its progression from grant to ultimate success. The experience gained in Lund’s lab also has potential to spur passion for research in future speech pathologists.
“This research allows us to continue advocating for children with hearing loss,” said speech language-pathology graduate student Laura Ridings. “This information can now lead us to more questions and more research studies to help us continue to learn more about children with hearing loss.”
That passion comes from the time spent in the lab, interacting one-on-one with each child and their family.
The project is not just meaningful to those currently taking part; it will have a lasting impact on children who benefit from the resulting knowledge for the rest of their life.
“Obviously, they’re behind but how do we keep them from being so far behind that they’re never going to catch up?” asked Benes. “It really shows that we do need to learn about it more because we need to figure out how we can best help these kids.”