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CSD Professor Wins Editor’s Award at ASHA

Cynthia Thompson, professor of communication sciences and disorders and neurology in the School of Communication, recently won the 2008 Editor’s Award from the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology (AJSLP). The journal is a quarterly publication of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), a professional, scientific, and credentialing group with more than 130,000 members.

Cynthia and Lewis accept ASHA's Award

Cynthia Thompson and Lewis Shapiro accept ASHA’s 2008 Editor’s Award.

Thompson received the award for her article “Complexity in Treatment of Syntactic Deficits,” which appeared in the journal’s February 2007 issue. It was co-authored by Lewis Shapiro, a professor in the School of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at San Diego State University.

The award was presented in November at the annual ASHA conference awards ceremony, which was held in downtown Chicago.

As Thompson explains, their award-winning article was a compilation of more than 16 years of research. The first paper was published in 1993, followed by others in 1998 and 2003. Their research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1992.

Thompson and Shapiro studied the learning patterns of individuals with stroke-induced aphasia and syntactic deficits – that is, those who have difficulty producing and comprehending sentences, particularly sentences requiring abstract knowledge of syntax or grammatical sentence structure.

The individuals in the study went through a treatment program based in linguistics that was designed to help them re-learn the underlying structure of sentences they could not produce or understand. They were trained in different types of sentences, which led to a surprising discovery. Thompson and Shapiro found that when the most complex sentence structures were trained first, there was an improvement of less complex, untrained sentences that were syntactically related to the more complex ones.

“This goes against basic principles of learning and rehabilitation,” Thompson says, explaining that their finding is counter-intuitive. It is often assumed that the most effective training begins with an easier task or function, and then progresses to a more complex one. But in Thompson and Shapiro’s research, the opposite appears to be true.

At the time, they were training sentences based upon syntactic relatedness, unconcerned with the notion of complexity. Thompson thus describes their discovery as “serendipitous.”