Speech is an integral part of being human, and while it comes naturally and easily to the majority of the population, language is not so effortless for some. Luckily, when speech disorders are caught early in childhood, it is much easier to make improvements than when neglected with the hopes that the child will "grow out of it".
The majority of elementary teachers are aware that they should be on the lookout for children who might benefit from speech services, but it is not always obvious what to look for. Especially with the range of different speech pathologies, one student’s problem may look nothing like another’s, though both may be suffering from a speech disorder. There are, however, some common signs, so watch for them. This increases the chances you’ll get a kid to a speech therapist in plenty of time to help.
Common Speech Development Issues
Numerous speech and language disorders exist, stemming from physical conditions to learning and behavioral problems. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, speech problems can be broadly categorized into speech disorders, language disorders, and medical and developmental conditions.
An example of a speech disorder include childhood apraxia of speech (CAS). This is where the brain has trouble planning out the movements required to form the sounds of language, or stuttering, which is produced by “disfluencies” in the brain and results in broken, repetitive words and prolonged speech sounds.
Language disorders affect children differently. Rather than having trouble producing specific sounds or words, they typically have trouble comprehending and producing speech as a whole. With a preschool language disorder (which may still be present in Kindergarten), a child may not be able to follow directions well or understand gestures, and can also have trouble identifying objects or images. A language-based learning disability may mean a child can communicate verbally fairly well, but struggles to read and form words by sounding them out phonologically. Selective mutism is when a child can speaks quite well, but does not do it in some situations.
Possible medical and developmental conditions include autism, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and brain injury. Medical problems such as a cleft palate can also impact speech.
Signs of a Speech Disorder
Normal speech development in children follows a predictable course. Signs that your student may have a speech disorder, therefore, vary by age. Although as an elementary school teacher you won’t be diagnosing children younger than 5 years old, you should still know the signs of normal speech development in the case parents ask and so you can gauge the severity of development.
According to the Center for Parent Information and Resources, problems with the following four categories may indicate a speech disorder in any age:
- Voice: The child’s voice is abnormally high or loud
- Language: The child has trouble conveying ideas and understanding the ideas or instructions conveyed by others
- Articulation: The child produces sounds incorrectly, like subbing “w” in for “l” and “r” or lisping
- Fluency: The child has trouble mastering the normal “flow” of language, stopping and starting, repeating, prolonging, or inhaling and exhaling inappropriately
Speech disorders may fall into one or more of these categories, so look for signs such as:
- Parents can understand the child, but you cannot
- Trouble putting words together into phrases and sentences, even if the student can say them clearly
- Inability to express ideas or understand the ideas of adults, peers, books, videos, or other sources of speech
- Trouble retaining new vocabulary words and routinely dropping ones that were already learned
- Smaller vocabulary than is age-appropriate
- Inappropriate use of grammar
- Routinely using words incorrectly (though some incorrect word usage is developmentally appropriate)
- Trouble using an “inside voice”
- Hearing or seeing a word but not understanding the meaning
- Confusion or inappropriate responses to questions or directions
- Poor social interaction
- Trouble reading
Signs will vary with age, but if you notice a student whose language comprehension and use of speech is significantly behind his/her peers, it may be time to refer him/her to speech therapy.
When to Schedule an Appointment
Err on the side of caution when it comes to scheduling an appointment with a speech pathologist and set up a meeting. Children benefit hugely from speech therapy if they have a disorder, and the earlier you can catch the problem the better for lifelong communication and learning. At most, the speech pathologist will assess the child and determine that he/she doesn’t need help, so it’s always best to suggest an appointment if you have any doubts.
Remember that each child is different. As the teacher, you have the most contact (aside from parents) with that child throughout the day and the year, and are in the best position to notice irregular patterns that may indicate a problem. For best results, keep a log of symptoms, involve the parents, and trust your instincts. Someday a child may thank you.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.