At the heart of all human communication is speech. It’s a part of nearly every human interaction, from making a friend to giving directions to a stranger to making a simple business transaction. And it’s the basis for written communication as well.
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In school, speech production is a core component of the learning process. Students who participate vocally learn more than those who remain silent; and speaking aloud helps them process both thoughts and written material, as well as provide feedback to teachers in a two-way educational process.
Thus, young students who have speech disabilities tend to have problems in classroom activities, with acquiring literacy and learning, and in their social development. Consequently, the Individuals with Educational Disabilities Act (IDEA) provide speech language services for these students. Primary support comes through the speech language pathologist (often informally called the speech therapist).
Certified speech language pathologists (SLPs) work in schools to assist children with communication disorders that affect their school and social performance, and help them develop the communication skills they need to succeed in their environment. This includes such problems as language, voice, fluency and articulation disorders.
Certification establishes that a speech language pathologist has completed the necessary training to understand and treat speech disorders. The certification protects the integrity of the field, ensuring that those in need of speech therapy will receive a minimum level of expertise from therapists, and establishing who is qualified for employment.
Currently, most certification for speech language pathologists goes through the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), which has been monitoring the profession since 1926 and certifying professionals since 1952.
In early-elementary school education, speech is the primary vehicle for education. Written text does not become primary until students have reached a certain level of literacy—and students need to practice their speech skills to reach that level. Additionally, speech is also the primary means of social interaction; therefore, people with difficulties producing speech find themselves also having great difficulties forming relationships and developing social skills. Without help in overcoming such obstacles, students with speech disorders find both their educational and their social development impeded.
When a student with a speech difficulty is not treated, problems begin to compound. Such students tend to participate less in the classroom, which begins to slow their learning. Additionally, they tend to be hesitant in relationships, or have difficulty developing and maintaining them; so they begin to fall behind in the cognitive and emotional growth that comes from interacting in social situations.
These drawbacks tend to multiply whatever difficulties students already have in understanding and learning (such as being unable to learn new written words by sounding them out). Consequently, it’s imperative to recognize and treat speech issues early, before they further develop and compound other problems. Therefore, having an educator with the necessary training on-hand to assess and treat speech issues—that is, a certified SLP—is critical to these students’ success.
SLP certification is not simply an additional endorsement one can add to any other teacher preparation program. It’s a rather involved process, involving completion of a graduate program of study devoted specifically to the subject matter. Candidates for certification must:
Exact requirements regarding the scope of the master’s program and the length of the clinical fellowship vary according to state. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) provides more specific information concerning teacher requirements in your state.
Training as a speech language pathologist will enable you to address a variety of different difficulties and disabilities in children’s speech development, and apply the right treatment to each case. Communication disabilities can be based in language cognition, voice control, fluency, or articulation; and thus, each kind of difficulty will require a different approach to treatment and correction. Your assessment training will enable you to reach each student at his or her point of need, and develop an effective plan.
Voice disorders result in students being incapable of producing the right sounds for speech. Perhaps they only produce sounds at a high volume (or only at a low one); perhaps their speech is hoarse, breathy, or nasal. Perhaps they have no control over pitch. A trained speech language pathologist’s knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the throat, and particularly the vocal chords, helps them to train students how to properly develop their voice, and correct harmful vocal habits.
Articulation disorders involve how children use their tongue, lips, palate, and whole mouth to produce specific sounds. Common articulation problems involve forming the wrong sounds or in omitting difficult-to-produce sounds. As a trained speech language pathologist, you’ll be able to identify how students are producing the sounds they make, and how they need to change the position of their tongues, lips, etc., in order to make the correct sounds. You’ll be able to increase students’ awareness of their own control in speech production, and hone their ability to use audio feedback to improve their speech.
In some cases, students may also have a hearing disability or a physical problem (such as a cleft palate) that makes it difficult for them to produce standard speech. A speech language pathologist is specifically trained to assist children to deal with such obstacles, including through the use of assistive technology.
When students’ speech disorders have an impact upon their literacy development, speech language pathologists can apply their training to help students develop better phonemic awareness (awareness of the basic sounds that make up a particular language). They can employ different tools for developing spoken and written language together, so that students can catch up to their grade level in reading, and develop the tools they need to continue developing their reading skills.
Speech language pathologists fulfill a number of different roles in their districts. They not only assess students’ communication skills, but identify both those students with disorders and those who could be at risk for problems later on. In addition, speech language pathologists develop and implement individual education plans (IEPs) for students, so they can be taught and evaluated according to a more helpful standard than the one-size-fits-all standard they might otherwise be subjected to.
SLPs also keep extensive documentation of student outcomes, and evaluates the results of comprehensive school assessments. They use this information to adjust programs and practices as needed, to keep schools on track in their goals, and to provide advocacy for the most effective teaching practices (and for more attention to neglected needs). In short, the speech language pathologist collaborates with teachers to ensure students’ success, and to guarantee that effective teaching practices are being employed.
Certified SLPs may also supervise assistants, including graduate students and clinical fellows, to help them develop their careers. Additionally, they may participate in research to further knowledge about effective treatment of communication disorders.
The ability to treat and prevent communication disorders improves students’ vocal speech, and also improves their social environment and their reading development. Therefore, speech language pathologists not only make an important contribution to schools’ literacy goals, but to their individual students’ well-being.
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