Baylor Researcher Explores How Text Messages and Emails Can Improve Literacy for Young Adults with IDD

Baylor University researcher Alison Prahl, PhD, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, is exploring how the use of functional text (emails, text messages, etc.) can optimize literacy outcomes for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

January 27, 2023
Alison Prahl works with a young adult with IDD

What are college students reading these days? Certainly, they are absorbed in their assigned textbook readings, but a wide range of other communications constantly demand their attention and engagement as well—text messages, emails, social media, etc. While the academic reading is necessary for a letter grade, these other forms of communication are necessary for daily living.

Alison Prahl, PhD, CCC-SLP, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, is applying this principle to her research into optimizing literacy outcomes for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

According to the United Nations Development Program, the global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is as low as 3%. While programs and strategies supporting continued literary development for young adults with IDD do exist, most are focused on academic literacy. This is the challenge that Prahl began to ponder in her work as a speech language pathologist.

“I started to think about what it would look like to work on what really matters, like functional texts. I began reflecting on my daily life. What do I read day in and day out? It’s the text messages and the emails and following recipes when I cook,” she said. “One of the novel things we’re trying in this project is teaching reading comprehension strategies that are well established in the current literature base, but we’re having individuals with IDD practice them in this functional text.”

Prahl’s work comes during a time when higher education opportunities for students with IDD are drastically increasing, with over 300 college programs available across the United States. In addition, advances in healthcare have significantly extended the life expectancy of individuals with IDD.

“These individuals are living longer and outliving their parents, so we have to think about how we can help them to become independent, to contribute, and to be employed,” she said.

By focusing on improving functional literacy for young adults with IDD, not only are the positive outcomes more relatable to everyday life, but the content may also be more enjoyable for the individual. For example, a 19-year-old reading at a first-grade level may not be interested in first-grade level children’s books, but she could be more attentive to a text message from a friend.

In order to assess the effectiveness of a functional approach to literacy development for young adults with IDD, Prahl is conducting pilot programs to observe the impact of these innovative interventions. She has already conducted one small trial and will continue to refine and scale the project over time.

For an upcoming iteration of the project, two groups of young adults with IDD will be formed—one to receive the functional literacy intervention and one to act as a control group, receiving traditional literacy intervention. The interventions will be offered virtually, which allows for an expanded participant pool and improves accessibility, particularly for a population that may face barriers to participating such as limited transportation options.

For one of the intervention strategies, Prahl describes teaching individuals to orient themselves to the text before they even begin to read. With a focus on functional literacy, Prahl and her team will display a piece of text on a screen, which the individual will hopefully identify as a text conversation or an email from an employer. This activates background knowledge and prepares the reader to begin actually reading the message.

Prahl’s research is being funded by an American Speech-Language-Hearing (ASHA) Foundation grant as well as a $522,404 R21 Early Career Research Award from the NIH National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (which she received on her first submission). Her early work on the subject was recently published by the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities journal of the American Association on Intellectual Developmental Disabilities.

CSD Functional Text IDD Research

As she continues to expand her project, Prahl expresses gratitude for those who are working alongside her, including her Baylor Communication Sciences and Disorders undergraduate and graduate students.

“I think one of my favorite things about my job is mentoring students in research,” she said. “They’re getting a glimpse into what it’s like to be a speech language pathologist or audiologist. And if they end up working with pediatric clients, they’re likely to have a client with intellectual and developmental disability on their caseload at some point in their career.”

Prahl’s students are assisting with material development, monitoring procedural fidelity, and managing data. As the project progresses, she also expects her students to have the opportunity to contribute with conference presentations and other dissemination efforts.

In addition to her students, Prahl has also engaged an advisory board to provide counsel and recommendations throughout the research process. The board includes stakeholders with relevant interests, such as a local parent of a young man with IDD, a teacher, a participant from a previous pilot program, and a transition specialist from a local district.

“One hope is that the advisory board will help to close the gap between research and practice,” Prahl explained. “Every step along the project, I’m stopping to make sure it’s not just my idea of what I think is best, but I’m always getting opinions from people who are the boots on the ground and dealing with this day in and day out.”

As she considers implementation and translation of her research, Prahl suggests the eventual development of an intervention package that could be provided to staff or volunteers of programs who work with young adults with IDD along with training to better serve these individuals. She also hopes to explore the efficiency of functional intervention strategies with even younger individuals—high schoolers, middle schoolers, or elementary-aged children.

“People have recognized that individuals with IDD are an important part of society. They are living longer, so how can we help them contribute in meaningful ways and improve their quality of life?” Prahl said. “It’s somewhat terrifying to be doing this large scope of a project. A lot of money has been given to me, and I want to be responsible with that. But it’s my passion. I really love what I get to do and the impact that we can make.”