Speech and Language Disorders

By Jennifer Oden, Loyola Marymount Los Angeles, Masters in School Psychology
Image of boy on phone; possibly with speech disorder

Can you hear me now, or is there some sort of disorder?

In the U.S., the first book ever published on speech and language disorders was in 1802. Medical professionals performed much of the early work in this field. The first training program for speech and language pathologists was in the 1930s. After WWII the emphasis was lifted from “speech pronunciation” and being focused on the ability to use language to communicate.

Speech and Language Disorders is a classification that may also be referred to as “communication disorders.” The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) uses the term speech or language impairment as a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, or voice impairment.

Concepts to Describe Speech and Language Disorders

Communication is a little bit like a volleyball match! It requires a message, a sender, and a receiver. It also requires a channel for the communication to happen and involves information getting passed back and forth!

Key Elements of Language

  • Expressive Language- the ability to produce language.
  • Receptive Language- the ability to comprehend language.
  • Not all languages require speaking (American Sign Language)

When language is spoken it has five components, any of which can be the source of problems for a student with a disability:

  1. Phonology- is the ability to hear sounds used in language and use them correctly in words.
  2. Morphology- is the ability to form words using one or more morphemes within the rules of the language.
  3. Syntax- is the ability to properly understand the order in which words are used in a sentence (written or spoken),
  4. Semantics- presents a more accurate description that clearly communicates what was meant.
  5. Pragmatics- the function or use of a langue in a social setting.

    Language Disorders

    When students have language disorder that cannot be explained by physical disabilities, intellectual abilities, hearing loss or other disabilities, they are referred to as having Specific Language Impairments (SLI). This might include but is not limited to:

    • Language Delay
    • Aphasia- refers to the loss of language after it has developed.
    • Central Auditory Processing Disorder- these are people who do not have hearing loss at all, but for some reason, the brain does not effectively interpret the auditory information that comes in the ears.

    Elements of Speech

    Speech is the oral channel of communication! It includes your voice (pitch, intensity and quality), your resonance, articulation and fluency. And each of these, when problematic, can be considered its own disorder.

    • Voice Disorders- occur when students have difficulty with pitch, intensity, vocal quality, or resonance. For example- a child might not be speaking in a voice that ever exceeds a whisper.
    • Articulation Disorders- including omissions, substitutions, or additions using in speech. Sometimes distortions are considered articulation disorders as well.
    • Fluency Disorders- stuttering is the most common of these types of speech disorders. Stuttering occurs when a person’s speech is broken by sound repetitions. Another fluency disorder is cluttering, which occurs when an individual speaks in bursts or pauses in unexpected places during speech.
    • Apraxia of Speech- a very serious and complex level speech disorder in which the mouth and vocal chords are not working together with the brain so that the proper speech can be formed.

    Prevalence and Causes of Speech and Language Disorders

    • Students who have speech and language disorders make up 19% of students ages 6 to 12 years old who are receiving special education services.
    • Generally boys are more likely than girls to be identified with a speech and language disorder at the rate of about 2:1
    • Causes of Speech and Language Disorders:
      • Biological Causes- some disorders are the result of problems related to the central nervous system or to the structure and functioning of other systems within the body. Many of these causes can be easily identified. Sometimes these causes are also related to heredity.
        • Cleft lip and/or Palate- a congenital disorder which is present at birth. It is the most common birth defect in the U.S.
      • Environmental Causes- Some disorders appear because of repeated ear infections, some students abuse their voices by screaming or yelling to frequently, and some students might not have been properly nourished while they were growing and developing.

      Characteristics of Individuals with Speech and Language Disorders

      • Cognitive and Academic Characteristics- These disorders often have a profound impact on the student’s ability to learn. Academically, children who have speech and language disabilities have a harder time in their classes from an early age. Students with such disabilities are at high risk for reading difficulties. For example, it might be difficult for such students to learn how to sound out words or how to add prefixes and suffixes to words or recognize compound words.
      • Emotional and Social Characteristics- Many times, students with Speech and Language Disorders also struggle emotionally while dealing with there own self-concept and their perceptions of how others act with them.
      • Behavior Characteristics- If a child cannot express themselves using their words; it is often easy for them to act out inappropriately to get what they want/need.

        How are Speech and Language Disorders Diagnosed and Identified?

        • Speech Assessments- It is important to identify students with speech disorders using a wide spectrum of information including:
          • Formal Assessments
          • Gathering Data from students’ spontaneous conversations
          • Contributions from teachers and parents
        • Language Assessments- It is important to use formal and informal measures during the assessment process. Students should be observed as sitting in multiple environments, and parents and teachers should be interviewed.
        • Eligibility is based on the joint conclusion of teachers, parents, and specialists in their responses to these questions:
          • Given the students age, does the student have a significant delay or difference in speech or language that would be considered a speech or language impairment?
          • Does the student’s speech or language impairment adversely affect educational performance?
          • Can the student benefit from special education intervention?

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