Interview with Dr. Therese O’Neil-Pirozzi of Northeastern University

Therese M. O’Neil-Pirozzi, ScD, CCC-SLP is an associate professor in Bouvé College’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northeastern University in Boston MA. As a practicing speech-language pathologist, Dr. O’Neil-Pirozzi’s teaching, research, and service are clinically based and extend across the lifespan. Her areas of focuses include: language and health literacy of low income families, neuroplasticity and the brain, and effects of brain injury on survivors and their families.

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. O’Neil-Pirozzi and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

What got you specifically interested in studying low-income language literacy?

Before I became a member of the Northeastern University community, I helped provide
community service to individuals who were homeless through my Church. When I started
working at Northeastern, I wanted to figure out a way to combine this community service work,
which was very important to me, and my work as a Speech-Language Pathology professor. I
came up with the idea to run children’s storytelling groups at local family homeless shelters,
which led to my doing research on low-income language and health literacy.

What are some of the main differences in language development in children of differentsocioeconomic status and when do they become noticeable?

Research has documented socioeconomically-related language development differences in
children as young as 3 years of age, with low socioeconomic status being associated with
decreased vocabulary growth and vocabulary use. Fast forwarding, these, in turn, are
associated with decreased grade school reading comprehension abilities and other academic
difficulties (e.g., reading).

How can school speech-language pathologists (SLPs) better support low-income students’ unique speech needs?

All school systems and all schools are not alike. Depending on the particular school system and
the school(s) in which an SLP works, (s)he may provide support to low-income students in
multiple ways: by working with the students, by working with students’ parents, and by working
with students’ teachers. For example, with the students, SLPs may provide during-school or
after-school 1:1 and/or group language-based activities. These activities may stimulate the
students’ language development, reinforce what they are learning in the classroom, and increase their social skills and self-confidence. Also, school SLPs may lead or participate in children’s book drives, back-to- school backpack programs, library initiatives, and other school or community-based service projects/fund raisers to provide students with language learning essentials and other opportunities that they would not otherwise have, at school and at home. Informed by awareness of the cultural beliefs and practices of students’ families, SLPs may work with students’ parents to teach them evidence-supported language strategies that they may use during everyday activities to facilitate their children’s language development. Empowering parents with strategies to manage their children’s behavior may also be beneficial. SLPs and teachers may work together to support low-income students by co-facilitating reading groups, reinforcing students’ efforts and successes, and analyzing errors so that they may be remediated. Close SLP-teacher collaboration may facilitate students’ repeated exposure to new information, thereby contributing to successful acquisition and generalized use of language-literacy learning targets.

Are there additional ways to bridge the gap in language development between children ofdifferent socioeconomic backgrounds?

University SLP programs, Early Intervention programs, community health center programs,
homeless shelters, and, as mentioned above, community service programs are additional venues through which the gap in the language literacy development of children of different
socioeconomic backgrounds may be addressed.

Which of your research in this area are you most proud of and why?

I am very proud of my research demonstrating that it is possible for parents who are homeless,
even with their own language literacy difficulties, to learn to use language facilitation strategies
with their young children. Given the importance of language and literacy to successful life-long
outcomes including quality of life, I am proud of this work because of the potential that it offers
parents AND children who are homeless for improved language literacy abilities.

You have also done a lot of research in traumatic brain injury patients- this has been an area of interest for you for over 20 years, what has changed the most about treatment for these patients? How have outcomes improved?

With all of the neuroimaging diagnostic and therapeutic techniques that have become available
(and the promise of more to come), the understanding and impact of neuroplasticity on patient
treatment has changed greatly over the last 20 years. This is a very exciting time for all
professions who work with patients post-traumatic brain injury, and we’re only just beginning to
apply research discoveries in this area to facilitate treatment outcomes. Additionally, and just as importantly, treatment outcomes have improved because of an increased emphasis on improving patients’ community-based function, life participation, and quality of life.

What piece of research in this area did you enjoy working on the most?

I really enjoy conducting research with interprofessional colleagues that utilizes neuroimaging
techniques (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography, and transcranial direct current stimulation) to investigate maximizing patients’ cognitive- communication outcomes.

What advice do you have for current and future SLP students?

3 pieces of advice:

  1. Speech-Language Pathology is an amazing career choice with lots of possibilities- take
    advantage of every opportunity that comes your way and be open to discovering new things about yourself and the profession;
  2. Your mastery of theoretical knowledge and clinical skills, your ability to establish a good
    rapport with your patients/clients/students, and your ability to ‘think outside the box’ are three key ingredients to a successful graduate program and career;
  3. The glass is always half empty or half full- your choice…

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