Speech and Language Therapy- What It Is and Why It Matters

What is a speech and language therapist?
Frequently seen in the classroom alongside teachers, we sometimes get asked the question, “What is your role and how does it differ from a teacher?” To some, we may look like any teacher or tutor when we work with students. However, the unique knowledge and specific expertise the Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP) brings to the process plays a large role in ensuring students gain access to instruction in reading and writing.
SLPs work with people of all ages, from babies to adults. SLPs diagnose and treat many types of communication problems. People often think of speech and language as the same thing, but they have different meanings. Speech refers to the production of speech and how we say sounds and put sounds together. Problems with speech may be related to challenges with the coordination of the muscles and movements necessary to produce speech and/or with processing speech sounds.
Language, on the other hand, refers to how well we understand what we hear or read (receptive language) and how we use words to express to others what we are thinking (expressive language). Language is so critical to learning, some researchers would argue that language disorders are learning disabilities. As such, Churchill SLP’s focus primarily on the language aspect of speech and language therapy.
In addition to receptive and expressive language mentioned previously, spoken and written language can be broken down further into subsystems of language that are evaluated and treated by the SLP. Language disorders often involve any one of the following domains:
Phonology- Ability to distinguish sounds while listening/speaking and the ability to hear a sound a letter makes and associate that sound with its symbol
Semantics- Vocabulary knowledge and use in terms of the child’s ability to understand and use words to convey their intended meaning.
Syntax/Grammar- Understanding and use of correct grammar and sentence structure.
Pragmatics – The rules associated with the use language to interact with others. The focus is not so much what is said, but how it is said. This can include body language, tone of voice, volume, understanding perspective and point of view.
What is our role in a school for Language Based Learning Disabilities? Why is language so important?
Current research estimates that 10% of children entering schools in the US and Canada have language impairment. Recent research also shows the prevalence of reading disabilities in children with language impairment ranged from 25-90%. Another estimate states children with language impairment are 4-5 times more likely than typically developing children to have reading disabilities.
Once a language disorder is identified, language services are critical due to the reciprocal relationship between spoken and written language. Reading and writing depend on a wide variety of underlying language skills. The problem - if the child experiences any deficits in the foundational language areas of listening and speaking mentioned above, they will most certainly experience difficulties in the more complex areas of language which is reading and writing. Simply put, you have to understand what you hear in order to read and you have to be able to put ideas into words and organize those words into sentences in order to write. Reciprocally, reduced exposure to literate language can cause students to fall behind in developing higher level language skills (i.e. figurative language, advanced grammar/vocabulary) needed to handle the increasingly complex academic demands. On a positive note, this reciprocity is also true in terms of intervention, as growth in one domain (i.e. writing) can promote growth in another (i.e. speaking).
How do we meet student language needs at Churchill? Expanding role of SLP?
Through assessment, observation and collaboration with teachers and other related service staff, The Churchill School's speech and language therapists help identify the most effective ways to address student’s learning needs. The role of the SLP has expanded since the days of working with students in a separate location on isolated skills. In accordance with best practices, intervention choices are based on the students ongoing language and literacy problems within the context of the curriculum. In other words, therapists actively use the students’ curriculum in the therapy process. This makes the therapy process more meaningful and motivating, particularly to older students who see the benefits of language support in their academic work and grades.
Due to the reciprocal relationship between spoken and written language, speech and language therapy in the elementary school targets written as well as spoken language needs. Elementary school speech/language therapists focus on a variety of underlying language skills to provide students with a stronger foundation for literacy development. Language activities target more discrete areas in receptive language, expressive language and pragmatics such as following directions, grammar use, vocabulary development, sequencing ideas and maintaining topics more effectively. Services are provided in small group, pull-out sessions as well as collaborative push-in sessions in the classroom.
By middle and high school, the language skills that have been developed in the lower grades must translate into writing. Speech/Language therapists use their knowledge about language base disorders of reading, spelling and writing to develop appropriate goals. We implement these during writing periods to help students with work they are generating in academic classes. The focus is efficient, coherent and pragmatically appropriate writing. In addition to classroom curriculum based intervention, high school students have built-in opportunities to seek out extra 1:1 assistance outside of the classroom setting. Through ongoing collaboration, therapists and teachers work together to help students develop the skills and strategies needed to be successful in an academic setting.
Adena Kaplan
Head of Speech and Language
The Churchill School and Center

Sun, L & Wallach G (2014) Language Disorders Are Learning Disabilities: Challenges on the Divergent and Diverse Paths to Language Learning Disability. Topics in Language Disorders, Vol. 34; (1), pp 25–38.
American Speech-Language Hearing Assoication (2005). Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Langauge Pathologists With Respect to Reading and Writing in Children ad Adoloescents,
Literacy as an Outcome of Language Development and its impact on Children’s psychosocial and emotional development- Dawna DuffPHd, J. Bruce Tomblin PhD University of Pittsburgh, USA, University of Iowa USA- Child Encyclopedia, October 2018