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High school students' speech patterns studied

March 3, 2014

With the intent of better serving students in need of speech-language assistance, a group of researchers this spring are embarking on a study aimed at understanding high school students' speaking skills.

Wauwatosa is among the school districts participating in the effort.

In recent weeks, most parents of students at East and West high schools received two mailings — one from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and another from the district — with detailed information on the study and its purpose.

The lead researcher on the project is John Heilmann, an assistant professor of UW-Milwaukee's department of communicative sciences and disorders. Wauwatosa resident Tom Malone, a retired speech language pathologist, is assisting with the logistics.

Gathering data

Wauwatosa already has participated in a similar study of middle school students. But, Malone said, the district does not have ready access to real-world data reflecting how high-schoolers communicate.

"We're looking to collect a wide range of samples because there's not a lot of information out there on older kids," Malone said. "There are times where it can be challenging to communicate with a student and get them to open up."

For the high school-level study, Heilmann will analyze students' speech and language skills through the framework of a persuasive and expository dialogue.

Participants will be asked to be part of a role-playing exercise involving a scenario with a school administrator, boss or government official. Topic matter could include an issue or law. Students also will be invited to discuss their favorite activities.

"The idea is to make it a real-world kind of situation," Malone said. "If you think about kids' favorite games and sports, it takes a lot of language for them to explain how a game is played. They need to put together a very complex sentence."

As with previous speech-language studies in Wauwatosa, parent permission will be required for each student who participates. Malone said all data collected will remain confidential.

Practical applications

A firm time line for the study has not been put in place, but Malone said the research process will wrap by the end of the school year. Afterward, the data will be compiled, and the district's administrative staff will review the findings.

"It's not just going to sit some place," Malone said.

Therese Kwiatkowski, director of student services, said the data will help establish a baseline and assist the district in working with high school students in need of additional support in speech and language.

"When you have good research around typical language development, it can be very useful," Kwiatkowski said. "There is a shortage of good studies out there."

The findings also will compile so-called language sampling data that will be used to assist Kwiatkowski and Karen Malecki, speech and language diagnostician and program support specialist, in determining best practices for students in need of testing.

Looking for diversity

Malone said a firm number has not been set on the number of participants, though he stressed the goal is to have a cross-section of Wauwatosa's high school student body.

"We don't want all of the participants to be 'A' students," Malone said. "We want a mix."

The goal, he said, is to have students of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds taking part.

Letters were sent to about 2,000 families across Wauwatosa. Not all applicants will be chosen. Participants will receive a $10 Target gift card.

"We thought it would be a nice way of showing that we value their time," Malone said.

Other participating high schools are in the Brown Deer, Nicolet, Shorewood, Madison and West Allis-West Milwaukee districts.

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