Interview With Dr. Erika Levy of Columbia University
April 7, 2019
Erika S. Levy, Ph.D., CCC-SLP is an Associate Professor of CSD at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research focuses on treatment efficacy for increasing intelligibility in English-, French- and Korean-speaking children with the motor speech disorder of dysarthria due to cerebral palsy, as well as in English-, Spanish-, and Mandarin-speaking individuals with dysarthria due to Parkinson’s Disease or other neuromotor disorders. Dr. Levy is a trilingual speech-language pathologist and worked as pronunciation coach for Big Bird and Elmo of Sesame Street.
Note: You should consult with your doctor or speech pathologist for recommendations on treatment. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Levy and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeechPathologyMastersPrograms.com
How did you come up with the idea for a summer camp designed to help children with cerebral palsy with their speech?
I had worked as a speech-language pathologist at United Cerebral Palsy before joining the faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University and became highly aware that there was little evidence base for treating motor speech disorders in children. It was difficult to know what treatment techniques to implement to help the children with cerebral palsy (CP). When I joined the faculty of Teachers College, my office was on the same floor of Professor Andrew Gordon’s movement camp (for upper and lower extremities) for children with CP. I would hear children with the motor speech disorder of dysarthria in his movement camp. One by one, I would work with some of the children. In the process, I developed my own speech treatment (Speech Intelligibility Treatment) aimed to increase the children’s intelligibility. At one point, Professor Gordon spoke to me about needing a control group for his movement camp for a randomized controlled trial he was planning. That led me to transform my speech treatment into a speech treatment (research) program that takes place in a fun 3-week day camp setting with similar timing to Professor Gordon’s movement camp. Our speech treatment became each other’s control groups and now children with CP come for this free CP Speech Camp every July! We are also beginning to examine treatment effects for individuals with Moebius Syndrome and other neuromotor disorders. Results thus far are looking promising!
How do you manage to incorporate therapy continuously throughout the camp’s duration while keeping the children engaged?
I rely on the ingenuity of my wonderful master’s students! Under the guidance of my doctoral students and me, the master’s students (“camp counselors”) find ways to make the hard work of speech treatment enjoyable. We find out what the children (“campers”) like to do and we engage them in activities they love, elicit a lot of speech, while using the intelligibility-enhancing strategies that are part of the treatment. For example, one camp counselor came up with the idea of using Jenga blocks with words the camper needed to say, to make the repetitive work of saying words an enjoyable activity. We also do group activities, such as decorating cookies or making smoothies, in which the campers need to communicate their wishes to have the final product be what they were hoping for. And of course there’s always song (and sometimes dance) involved – we make sure the children really have a camp experience, something many have never had before. We love to see them thrive as they gain confidence in their ability to communicate, and that is engaging and motivating in itself.
What have you learned from this camp?
I have learned how heterogeneous the communication needs of children with CP are, yet how children with very different skills and life experiences can learn from each other and have a great time in the process. I have also learned how creative, talented, compassionate, and effective our master’s and doctoral students can be!
What are some of the obstacles to getting children with cerebral palsy the care they need to improve their speech intelligibility?
Children have come from many states and internationally–last year we had children from NY, California, and England! However, although it is a free day camp, transportation can be a challenge and expensive for those who do not live in the vicinity, so that has been the other major challenge.
Outside of the setting of our speech camp, the greatest obstacle to appropriate speech treatment in CP is the paucity of information out there on how best to treat children with motor speech disorders. Additionally, preventive measures such as stronger prenatal care and early intervention might reduce the prevalence and severity of the speech deficits. And finally, most of the (sparse) literature on childhood motor speech disorders is in English and about English; thus, more information is needed on other languages in order to reach children worldwide with treatment that is appropriate for them. We implemented my Speech Intelligibility Treatment with French-speaking children with CP in Belgium (as French was my first language). My doctoral students also work on motor speech disorders in Korean CP (and Mandarin and Spanish speakers with Parkinson’s Disease). I hope that more research in other languages will yield treatment options for more individuals with motor speech disorders internationally.
How do you select new research projects?
I immerse myself in the literature and notice a critical gap that someone needs to fill and I begin to think about the best way to fill it, taking into consideration my areas of expertise. Often colleagues in and out of Teachers College will have complementary knowledge and skills, so I discuss my ideas and collaboration with them.
What aspect of your research are you most proud of?
I am proud that my research is meaningful – that I can see a difference it makes in the lives of the people I work with. My published research is reaching speech-language pathologists and researchers, who I hope will continue and implement this work. I am also proud that we work in many languages and therefore help linguistically underserved populations. I would like to add that the research faculty at Teachers College are all certified speech-language pathologists and perform clinical/translational (as well as basic science) research. The research and clinical faculty are also very committed to bilingually/biculturally-relevant practices, so I am not alone!
What advice do you have for those considering a career in speech pathology?
It’s a wonderful career, with many options. So if you are fascinated by the diverse fields we cover (including speech, language, and swallowing), consider what your unique contribution might be—and persist until you’ve made the difference you want to make.
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