Speech Therapy and Aging: Brain Plasticity and Cueing Hierarchies


(photo credit)

Given our knowledge of the plasticity of the brain, are we as clinicians or caregivers, able to help to develop new links with a behavioral model, by using gradated cueing hierarchies?  Could this low-tech and pharmaceutical-free form of treatment  have neurologically based implications for rehabilitation and adaptation in communicatively challenging settings?

Perhaps more testing with fMRI scans may be necessary to really prove the theory. Therapy approaches using cueing models have been well documented in the literature in speech therapy treatment for aphasia.  However, the way we use clinician originated cues can help create new links and expedite a broad area of cognitive and linguistic improvement, or maintain the functional status quo, unless we analyze the kinds of cues we are using and the amount of independence we are carefully eliciting from the client.

By looking at each task and cue needed on a continuum from simple to complex, concrete to abstract, you can construct a grid of where on the continuum the client functions and how you can provide a cue or help them provide their own cues for success.

The idea that the damaged axons and dendrites in the brain are looking for connections and stay active when the brain is activated, prompted me to want to create a cueing continuum (see http://carmichaellab.neurology.ucla.edu/integrated-view-neural-repair-after-stroke.) On the theory that the client can develop new pathways , if we always fill in the missing word or provide the first phoneme, then the client will never have to learn where to get it, via their own written word, for example.  But how do we get from writing the word for the client to having the client write the word in the air and say it? It all depends on the residual abilities, but the concept can be applied to everyone.

We have a 60 year old gentleman with TBI who is learning how to semantically cue himself to find a word. Initially, he had severe speech and cognitive impairments. Now, in conversation, he often uses circumlocution to get his point across. However, sometimes specific words are warranted, and this is difficult for him. He can sometimes spell the word aloud even though he cannot speak it. We had him do this several times with great success. Our next task was to remind him that he could do this to help himself.  Later we only asked him what he would like to do.  We are helping him build those dendritic links ( and learn to use a skill) by carefully reducing the amount of clinician prompting or cueing during the sessions and writing down the strategies for him to practice at home. Although there are many approaches to cueing, none of them seem to describe cueing in a continuum from most invasive to most independent. Many clinicians describe the cues as semantic or phonemic.  I found that there were nuances in cueing that I had learned over the years to allow the client to gradually become independent. When I had difficulty transmitting these ideas to my students, I created a loose continuum to mark where our clients fell given specific objectives, and how we could get their neurons to get closer together behaviorally if not actually by breaking the cues down.

Along with the goals we establish for our clients, no matter their abilities, we must always be evaluating their behavior and trying new materials and varied activities to facilitate language.

As we converse with others, we derive cues from the environment and from the people with whom we are speaking (that is part of the reason why conversation amongst the adult neurologically language-impaired looks better than when we test them by looking for specific words and longer utterances).

Our goal with cueing is to develop self-cues and elicit more language. A self-cue can be as basic as a gesture or a drawing, but if the client is doing it and communicating to me what he did for the weekend, then he has been successful. Often when the stress is lower or the focus is away from speaking, the words and incidental phrases flow more freely. The best reward is to see the expression on our client’s face when he says a few words effortlessly because he was engaged in the activity. But this is not we what we are trying to do. We are trying to give him real tools for those times he cannot utter a word.

When the client leaves the therapy room, we want him or her to be able to use their own skills, rather than rely on others. Since they may not be able to develop their own means of self-cueing, we include self-cue skill development as part of the therapy plan.  The client may or may not have the ability to provide his or her own cues, yet. But throughout the therapy and rehabilitation process, we work toward the skills of self-cuing no matter the level, such as writing, gesturing, drawing pictures, and talking about the item or activity with words that are available.

The Cueing Hierarchy Continuum is by no means linear, but will generally go from simple and most dependent to complex and independent. They follow the behavioral branches that may be used in clinic therapy logs. They are separated on my behavior grid in 3 categories: Clinician Assisted Cues, Clinician prompting (or reminding the client to use a strategy) and Self Correcting. This approach requires that the client learn about his strengths and how to implement them to improve what we would consider weaknesses. By identifying which cues are more dependent, we can be cognizant of allowing the client to work at a documented realistic level achieve the objective.

It is well documented that there is enough plasticity in almost any brain to stimulate, heal and renew brain function after a stroke or TBI. For cognitive loss during normal aging, the dementias and the progressive dementias, there is less clear documentation for which approaches are the most effective and pragmatic for our clients. However, similar principles can be used to establish functional objectives along with the family and caregivers.

How to develop skills? How to develop strategies for short and long-term functional success?  Sometimes, we spend the therapy session working on comprehension, word finding, writing and reading using a variety of materials.  But, if we don’t address what they are learning outside the therapy room, which they may visit one or two times a week, how will compensatory skills, adaptive skills and  new connections be utilized?   That will be the topic for next month’s post.

Betsy C. Schreiber, MMS, CCC-SLP, received a BA in Psychology and MMS Master of Medical Science in Speech Pathology from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her CCC was earned during the 3 years she worked at Hitchcock Rehabilitation Center in Aiken, South Carolina where she had the opportunity to learn about NDT and Sensory Integration with the original, Jane Ayres, working with LD and CP children and neurologically impaired adults. She is currently a clinical supervisor at Ladge Speech and Hearing Clinic at LIU/Post on Long Island, and a partner at Hope 4 Speech Associates, P.C. She has also served as an ASHA Mentor and hopes to participate in ASHA’s  Political Action Committee in the coming year. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 2, Neurophysiology and Neurogenic Speech and Language Disorders, and 18, Telepractice.


  1. says

    Thank you so much for this helpful therapy tool. Its a great way to document and allow for well-graded presentation of cues. I can see it as very enlightening for caregivers as they attempt to support their loved ones.

  2. LOUIse says

    Wow this really opened my eyes – I have been working with adults for about a year and feel comfortable with the ‘typical’ hierarchy, but this makes so much sense and is something completely FUNCTIONAL for carryover. I love this approach so much, I will begin using this phrasing in goals in the future.

  3. Morgan Olenski says

    Using graduated cueing hierarchies to help to develop new links with a behavioral model is definitely a possible and useful therapy. It’s very interesting because up until the late 1960’s, neuroscientists were under the impression that an adult’s brain was fixed for life. It is known now that the brain is actually sculpted by experience. The brain possesses an ability to change function and structure, known as neuroplasticity, or just plasticity. The form of plasticity that this type of therapy applies to is known as structural plasticity, the brain’s ability to physically change it’s structure in response to learning, active practice, or environmental stimulation. It’s very interesting the way the brain can change. As seen in Bogdan Draganski’s experiment in 2004, there is compelling evidence showing that learning a new skill produces structural changes in the human brain. Draganski tested 24 young adults who were assigned to a “jugglers” or “non jugglers” group. An MRI was taken at the beginning of the experiment and there was no significant differences between the two groups. After a couple months of training for the “juggler” group, an MRI was done again on both groups. Results showed that the “juggler” group had a 3-4 percent increase of the size of grey matter in two brain regions. The “non juggler” group showed no increase of grey matter. This was due to the fact that the number and shapes of neural dendrites and axon terminals increased during the training time for the jugglers.

    The brain is truly an amazing thing.

  4. Jessica says

    I would love to use this document in my practice…is there a link to a PDF or clean copy of the cueing hierarchy for printable use? Thanks!