WKU Undergraduate Seeks to Impact the Course of Child Language Disorders through Vital Research

Growing up in Clarksville, Tennessee, Baylee Lackey’s mother–an educator–had ample experience mentoring students to explore what career paths might be fulfilling for them.

“Early on, my mom pointed out that I had similar interests and personality traits to my school’s Speech Therapist, which piqued my interest in the field. When I arrived at WKU and took an introductory Communications Sciences class, I was immediately hooked–and the rest is history!”

Hands-on Research to Enhance Coursework Learning

Students at WKU are surrounded by opportunities to explore their interests via coursework across dozens of academic departments. However, what is unique about WKU is the support given to undergraduates in pursuing academic research that promotes creative learning with real-life applications outside of the classroom.

With the support of of WKU’s Dr. Brian Weiler, a professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders and scholar member of the Center for Child Welfare Education and Research, Baylee became an undergraduate research assistant in a study that screened the language skills of kindergarteners in order to determine potential risk for Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). The language screening was carried out across five elementary schools in Bowling Green, KY.

Untreated DLD can have significant adverse long-term effects on children, including poor literacy skills, impaired school learning and academic achievement, difficulty reading and trouble with social interaction and making friends. Since studies show that the prevalence of DLD in the kindergarten-aged population is approximately 7%, the risk of untreated DLD adversely affecting the youth population is critically high. However, if DLD is identified early, significant progress can be made in mitigating these issues through appropriate treatment.

Baylee’s study utilized the Quick Interactive Language Screener (QUILS), which was designed to assess distinct areas of language development in children from diverse linguistic, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. QUILS is efficient and quick to implement–which is extremely important for use in school settings, as most schools only have one speech language pathologist.

Importantly, Baylee noted that the schools assessed in Bowling Green were highly diverse, which was key for getting appropriate representation among the study subjects.

“The schools we surveyed had student populations with anywhere from 21-80% racial and/or ethnic minorities, and anywhere from 35-100% of students qualified for free or reduced school lunch,” she says. “This means that the 272 kindergarteners that were screened in the study gave us a good idea of how children from across the state might fare on the QUILS.”

Baylee Lackey presenting her findings on kindergarten language screening at the Annual Convention of the Kentucky Speech-Language-Hearing Association in February 2020. Baylee is a graduating senior at WKU majoring in Communications Sciences and Disorders that pursued independent research in her field of study under WKU’s Dr. Brian Weiler.

The findings of Baylee’s study showed that approximately 16% of primarily mono-lingual English-speaking kindergarteners screened with the QUILS failed this screening. Additionally, the overall rate of screening failure at a school was associated with the percentage of non-white students at the school, as well as the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch.

What does this mean? “These results suggest some relationship between a school’s demographic and/or socioeconomic composition and the number of students demonstrating risk for language impairments” Baylee says. This is important because it suggests that schools with greater populations of racial/ethnic minorities and children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately at risk for increased failures on language screenings.

With the right mentor, finding career passion is possible

Under Dr. Brian Weiler, Baylee was able to apply her learnings from the classroom to advance a vital field of child language research that could change the lives and development of children with DLD. “Use of the QUILS screening universally in kindergarten settings can help schools serving a wide diversity of children identify those at risk for DLD early–and get them the help they need to mitigate long-term effects,” she says.

Using her coursework and research as a foundation for the future, Baylee plans to continue her education as a Hilltopper in the Fall in pursuit of a Master’s of Science in Speech-Language Pathology. “I am truly amazed at all the available resources, guidance and support offered by the staff at WKU. The research I have been involved in has truly changed my life and career path, and I have been so fortunate to be able to pursue my passion. I can’t wait to continue my studies at the graduate level this fall!”

Baylee Lackey and Dr. Brian Weiler at the Annual Convention of the Kentucky Speech-Language-Hearing Association, where Baylee won an award for her research on kindergarten language screening.

For more information on research, coursework, and programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders at WKU, please see the Communication Sciences and Disorders department webpage as well as the website for the newly formed WKU Center for Child Welfare Education and Research.