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Speech, language skills vital to educational success

Every school year, lots of parents have high hopes that their children are spending their days learning to read and becoming literate, acquiring knowledge that will stead them well their entire lives.

Such hopes are often realized, too. Johnny and Susie learn to read and continue to move up the educational track. But for every Johnny and Susie, a fair number of students become stalled because they have communication disorders, problems with speech and language that can hamper their ability to acquire critical reading skills.

The Department of Education's 2005 Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act found that nearly 1.1 million children ages 6 to 21 received services under IDEA programs for speech and language impairments in 2001-02. Considerable distress lies behind such statistics. Think about it: Kept by a communication disorder from gaining an educational foothold, a child's long-term prospects for success become far less promising.

The downward spiral starts early. For these students, each day at school can be like a day in isolation. Due to their communication limitations, they sit in their classroom seats removed, in effect, while other students are engaged in lessons, developing their reading abilities.

The good news? Communication disorders are treatable by a speech-language pathologist, often in conjunction with an interdisciplinary team of professionals and parents. Indeed, parental involvement is very important. Indications that a child may have communication disorders include poor classroom performance, talking at a later age than expected, difficulty learning to read, trouble expressing thoughts and ideas, problems understanding others and following directions and failure to pick up on social cues.

As soon as parents see such signs, they should report their concerns to their child's teachers. Before long, their child could be headed off to a speech-language pathologist for an assessment.

Typically, the assessment involves interviewing parents and teachers, reviewing students' work samples, observing them in class and at play, and taking tests to determine how they communicate. Sometimes, interventions can be mounted at this point that prove effective. Also, provided they qualify, children can be educated under individualized educational plans, approaches in which they receive close attention and tailored interventions.

As the plan is followed, the speech-language pathologist may monitor a child's progress and compare notes with fellow members of the interdisciplinary IEP team about the most effective way to help. But they may take other steps, too. They include providing small group or individualized sessions, or conducting "speech classrooms" where they are the teacher, mixing academic instruction with speech-language services.

Yet nothing substitutes for involvement by parents. As the school year progresses, it is imperative that they support their child and the therapy program.

Dolores E. Battle, PhD, a professor at Buffalo State College, is president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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