Speech or Language Impairments


Speech and language impairment is defined as a communication disorder that adversely affects the child's ability to talk, understand, read, and write. This disability category can be divided into two groups: speech impairments and language impairments.


Speech and language impairments are considered a high-incidence disability. Approximately 20% of children receiving special education services are receiving services for speech and language disorders. This estimate does not include children who receive services for speech and language disorders that are secondary to other conditions such as deafness. More than one-half (55.2%) of all 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds with a disability receive speech and language services.


Speech Impairments

There are three basic types of speech impairments: articulation disorders, fluency disorders, and voice disorders.

Articulation disorders are errors in the production of speech sounds that may be related to anatomical or physiological limitations in the skeletal, muscular, or neuromuscular support for speech production. These disorders include:

  • Omissions: (bo for boat)
  • Substitutions: (wabbit for rabbit)
  • Distortions: (shlip for sip)

Fluency disorders are difficulties with the rhythm and timing of speech characterized by hesitations, repetitions, or prolongations of sounds, syllables, words, or phrases. Common fluency disorders include:

  • Stuttering: rapid-fire repetitions of consonant or vowel sounds especially at the beginning of words, prolongations, hesitations, interjections, and complete verbal blocks
  • Cluttering: excessively fast and jerky speech

Voice disorders are problems with the quality or use of one's voice resulting from disorders in the larynx. Voice disorders are characterized by abnormal production and/or absences of vocal quality, pitch, loudness, resonance, and/or duration.

Language Impairments

There are five basic areas of language impairments: phonological disorders, morphological disorders, semantic disorders, syntactical deficits, and pragmatic difficulties.

Phonological disorders are defined as the abnormal organization of the phonological system, or a significant deficit in speech production or perception. A child with a phonological disorder may be described as hard to understand or as not saying the sounds correctly. Apraxia of speech is a specific phonological disorder where the student may want to speak but has difficulty planning what to say and the motor movements to use.

Morphological disorders are defined as difficulties with morphological inflections (inflections on nouns, verbs, and adjectives that signal different kinds of meanings).

Semantic disorders are characterized by poor vocabulary development, inappropriate use of word meanings, and/or inability to comprehend word meanings. These students will demonstrate restrictions in word meanings, difficulty with multiple word meanings, excessive use of nonspecific terms (e.g., thing and stuff), and indefinite references (e.g., that and there).

Syntactic deficits are characterized by difficulty in acquiring the rules that govern word order and others aspects of grammar such as subject-verb agreement. Typically, these students produce shorter and less elaborate sentences with fewer cohesive conjunctions than their peers.

Pragmatic difficulties are characterized as problems in understanding and using language in different social contexts. These students may lack an understanding of the rules for making eye contact, respecting personal space, requesting information, and introducing topics.

Impact on Learning

Speech and language disorders are problems in communication and related areas such as oral motor function. Delays and disorders may range from so subtle that they have little or no impact on daily living and socialization to the inability to produce speech or to understand and use language. Fortunately, only a very small percentage of children are at the most extreme of severity. However, because of the importance of language and communication skills in a child's development even mild to moderate disorders or disturbances can have a profound effect on all aspects of life, sometimes isolating children from their peers and their educational environments.

Teaching Strategies

As with all students who receive special education services, collaboration of a multi-disciplinary team is necessary. Students with speech or language disorders will receive services from many education professionals, including general education teachers, special education teachers, and speech-language pathologists.

Speech-language pathologists provide a variety of professional services aimed at helping people develop effective communication skills. These services may include:

  • Helping children with articulation disorders to learn proper production of speech sounds
  • Helping children who stutter to speak more fluently
  • Assisting children with voice disorders to improve their voice quality
  • Helping individuals with aphasia to relearn speech and language skills
  • Assisting individuals who have difficulty swallowing as a result of illness, surgery, stroke, or injury
  • Evaluating, selecting, and developing augmentative and alternative communication systems
  • Enhancing communication effectiveness

The general education teacher should work with the speech-language pathologist to incorporate strategies to help the student generalize strategies mastered in speech therapy. This may include corrective measures, helping with speech and language exercises, and providing the student with immediate feedback when the speech-language pathologist is not present. The general education and special education teacher should both collaborate with the speech-language pathologist for interventions and teaching strategies.

Assistive Technology

For students with speech and language impairments, the major types of assistive technology can be divided into two areas.

First, students with speech and language impairments have an array of computer software packages available to develop their speech and language skills. An example is First Words, a language program that has a number of applications for teaching those who are developing or reacquiring language functions. The program uses graphic presentations combined with synthesized speech to teach high-frequency nouns, and is one of many software packages that can help develop both speech and language.

Secondly, students with speech and language impairments may use augmentative or alternative communication (AAC). AAC is the use of symbols, aids, strategies, and techniques to enhance the communication process. This includes sign language and various communication boards, both manual and electronic, that are used by individuals with impaired oral motor skills.

The most basic AAC devices are non-electronic communication boards. The boards usually are limited to a number of choices (two to four). The choices can be represented by real items, pictures of items, and symbols for items (including print). The objective of the communication board is to have the student make a choice, typically of food or activity. Electronic AAC devices range from very simple devices with few buttons (such as the Cheap Talk) to very elaborate systems that use a keyboard and synthesized speech (such as the Dyna Vox and Liberator).


Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association

In the state of Texas, there are approximately 8,000 speech-language pathologists and audiologists. The mission of this association is to empower speech-language pathologists and audiologists in the spirit of partnership with consumers and families. TSHA is committed to achieving excellence in education, professional development, and leadership through the application of the human and financial resources of the association.

918 Congress Avenue, Suite 200
Austin, TX 78701

Web: www.txsha.org

Alliance for Technology Access

The mission of the Alliance for Technology Access (ATA) is to increase the use of technology by children and adults with disabilities and functional limitations. Through public education, information and referral, capacity building in community organizations, and advocacy/policy efforts, the ATA enables millions of people to live, learn, work, define their futures, and achieve their dreams.

2175 E. Francisco Boulevard, Suite L
San Rafael, CA 94901

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association is the professional, scientific, and credentialing association for more than 130,000 members and affiliates who are speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and speech, language, and hearing scientists in the United States and internationally. Empowering and supporting speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and speech, language, and hearing scientists by: advocating on behalf of persons with communication and related disorders; advancing communication science, and promoting effective human communication

2200 Research Blvd. # 325
Rockville, MD 20852

Email: actioncenter@asha.org
Web: www.asha.org

Center for Disability and Development

Dept. of Educational Psychology
4225 Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4225

Email: cdd@tamu.edu
Web: cdd.tamu.edu

Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association of North America (CASANA)

The Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association is a 501(c)(3) non-profit publicly funded charity whose mission is to strengthen the support systems in the lives of children with apraxia so that each child is afforded their best opportunity to develop speech. The Goals of the organization include providing multimedia information on CAS to families, professionals, policy-makers and other members of the public; creating and supporting networking and partnership opportunities for parents and professionals to benefit children with CAS; facilitating better public policy and services for children affected by the disorder; providing training and educational opportunities for families and professionals; and encourage/fund research in childhood apraxia of speech and to co-sponsor a biennial scientific research symposium.

123 Eisele Road
Cheswick, PA 15024

Email: helpdesk@apraxia.org
Web: www.apraxia-kids.org

Cleft Palate Foundation

The mission of CPF is to provide the essential information and research that enhances the quality of life for individuals affected by cleft lip and palate and other facial birth defects.

104 South Estes Drive, Suite 204
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Email: info@cleftline.org
Web: www.cleftline.org

Easter Seals (National Office)

Easter Seals offers help, hope and answers to more than a million children and adults living with autism and other disabilities or special needs and their families each year. Services and support are provided through a network of more than 550 sites in the U.S. Each center provides exceptional services that are individualized, innovative, family-focused and tailored to meet specific needs of the particular community served.

230 West Monroe Street, Suite 1800
Chicago, IL 60606

Email: info@easter-seals.org
Web: www.easter-seals.org

Scottish Rite Foundation

The Scottish Rite of Freemasonry of the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States oversees a program to help children with speech and language disorders. The RiteCare clinics provide diagnostic evaluation and treatment of speech and language disorders, as well as learning disabilities. Today, there are 170 RiteCare® clinics, centers, and special programs operating or planned for children and therapists located throughout the United States. Each facility is staffed by speech-language pathologists or other trained personnel.

Southern Jurisdiction, U.S.A., Inc.
1733 Sixteenth Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20009-3199

Web: www.srmason-sj.org


Gargiulo, R.M. (2006). Special education in contemporary society: An introduction to exceptionality. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R. & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007). Exceptional lives: Special education in today's schools. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.



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