SLPs in the Assessment of Communication Competency of Students

Assessing the oral communication competency of patients of all ages and backgrounds is part and parcel of the daily work of almost all speech-language pathologists. Typically, this occurs as part of a specific referral or a report of a particular disorder or speech difficulties in a patient they are diagnosing. However, one area of expanding SLP practice involves assessing the communication competency in general or at-risk populations of older students, including college students.

The reasons for this increasing emphasis can be attributed to a new realization based on some very old findings about how communication apprehension and overall communication competency plays a significant role in the success of college students. Interestingly, these discoveries were first made decades ago. It was actually a longitudinal study conducted in 1990 following 50 college freshmen through their college experience that first identified trends and issues affecting academic success related to communication competency. The study found communication difficulties corresponded to both dips in GPA and to self-reported communication competency issues.

Nearly 20 years later, a 2009 study identified communication apprehension, whether driven by medical or psychological factors, as a causal agent in student success. It found that students who experienced apprehension when it came time to speak in front of people were more likely to have lower grade point averages and eventually drop out.

Neither study focused exclusively on at-risk student groups, but other studies have pointed to lagging collegiate success among ELL students who are unable to achieve an adequate level of English communication competency. As the number of kids in ELL programs in American public school systems approaches the 10% mark, there is an impending jump in the number of incoming collegiate freshmen who may benefit from SLP screening.

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Performing Accurate Assessments of Oral Communication Competency

Assessing oral communication skills is not a new task and there are many tools that have been developed, both within and outside the SLP community, for identifying issues. SLPs will be familiar with dozens of such tools, each of which may have different strengths and weaknesses depending on the target population to be screened.

  • OWLS (Oral and Written Language Scales) is one that is often used in primary school populations, but it is valid for individuals up to 21 years of age.
  • CASL-2 (Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language) also can be used on students up to 21, and includes a large number of sub-tests used for specific diagnoses.

Many tests like OWLS and CASL, however, do not include a true assessment of the skills that most colleges are looking at when considering communication competencies. In the academic context, oral communication can cover not just the ability to speak and comprehend accurately, but includes more subtle factors such as the ability to persuade, formulate arguments, and select appropriate vocabulary beyond the scope of the test formula.

ASHA’s Social Communication Disorders screening page incorporates some of those considerations by specifically evaluating the use of language in social contexts—exactly what most universities are interested in assessing and teaching.

Conventional SLP screening tests also tend to require expert administration and evaluation, which may simply be impractical with large groups of students.

In some cases, a comprehensive speech and language assessment may be called for. In those instances, an SLP will work one-on-one with the student to identify and describe possible impediments including:

  • Impairments in body structure and function
  • Comorbid deficits or health conditions
  • Limitations in activity and participation (functional communication skills)
  • Contextual factors (such as environmental or personal issues)

Primarily, however, SLPs working on these assessment projects will participate in designing rubrics that can be administered by less expert staff to screen students in large numbers, and in training staff how to properly use those tools. From time to time, specific cases may require their personal attention and evaluation.

The Expanding Practice of Communication Competency Examination and Screening

Universities themselves are also beginning to recognize and emphasize the importance of developing oral communication skills in their graduates. The University of Virginia, for example, has set a standard requiring that 95 percent of graduates be at least minimally competent in oral communication.

The university established a formal rubric for making that assessment in 2006 and began making video-taped evaluations of students to assure statistical compliance in all departments and colleges. Other colleges, such as Wayne State in Michigan, have instituted formal examinations that students must pass in order to graduate.

These, and similar efforts at other colleges and high schools, can benefit from the expertise of speech-language pathologists. Currently, many of these assessments are both designed and conducted by laypersons. Their methods and goals may overlook factors that SLPs are familiar with and better capable of addressing.