By Robbie Owens

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – At times called a ‘vocabulary gap’… the worrisome difference between the language skills of poor kids and their more affluent peers is something Dallas ISD and the University of Texas at Dallas are addressing.

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Experts said it’s a deficit that’s difficult to overcome… and yet a joint partnership between the two universities aims to help kids whose language struggles are mistaken for a lack of intellect.

“It’s not because they’re not smart,” said Jessica Carter, a bilingual speech language pathologist and clinical faculty member at UTD.  “It’s because they don’t have the language skills to set that foundation to show: ‘This is what I know. This is what I can do’.”

According to Carter, often that deficit is traced to socioeconomics where “the children are not hearing a wide variety of vocabulary… they’re not getting that experience with language.”

A growing body of research has suggested that the lack of language skills impacts a child’s ability to progress in all subjects.  So it is critical, said Carter, to identify and support those students early.

Right now, Carter oversees a pilot program that puts UTD speech pathology graduate students in classrooms at several DISD campuses. The grad students work with PreK and kindergarten students who have been flagged for early intervention.

“Something is happening and they’re not able to understand what the teachers are trying to tell them to do, they’re not able to express themselves,” siad Carter who explained that ‘speech pathology’ is a diverse field that encompasses disciplines ranging from language to articulation, stuttering and cognitive therapy.

At Maple Lawn Elementary today, it was evident that UTD graduate students Kaitlyn Purinton and Adilene Romero were passionate about helping their young clients.

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“We take a lot of time teaching, ‘how do you answer a ‘who’ question’,” said Romero, a graduate of DISD’s Skyline High. “If I sit with them and say ‘who’ is a person or an animal?’ they don’t get it.”

Romero said she was inspired to enter speech pathology because of a non-verbal younger sister who is autistic, and was driven to help other children in poor, minority communities as well. “That’s what kind of motivates me.”

Romero admitted that books and the conversations with parents that build strong vocabularies don’t happen often enough in poor households, so early intervention is even more critical in the school community.

“If it’s not caught here, these kids may languish for years before anybody realizes they really don’t know this information,” said Carter. “Six weeks before the STAAR is not going to undo years of missed opportunities for language development.”

But, student improvement is not all that DISD has riding on the success of the UTD partnership.

According to Carter, there’s a serious shortage of speech and language experts—forcing district officials to pay top dollar to provide those services to students through contractors. UTD has also provided curriculum at DISD’s nationally recognized Townview magnet to help encourage students to enter the field and hopefully return to DISD to use those skills.

Romero graduates in December and already has plans to use what she’s learned very close to home.

“They need me more. So, that’s kind of where I want to go.”

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