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Speech or Language Impairments

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Prevalence, Definitions, and Characteristics

Individuals classified with speech or language impairments make up 18.6% of all students ages 6–21 served under IDEA, and represent 1.65% of the school-age population. Speech is the system of forming and producing sounds that are the basis of language, while language is considered the system of communicating ideas. Most students receiving speech and language therapy work individually or in small groups with a specialist for brief sessions several times a week and usually spend the remainder of their day in general education classes. In some schools, speech and language teachers may conduct therapy sessions in the general education classroom (Owens, Metz, & Haas, 2003).

Some students with speech and language disorders may have another primary disability area, such as a learning disability, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, or other severe disabilities. The latter groups are more likely to be using Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) devices to help them communicate.

Examples and Characteristics of Speech Disorders

Speech disorders may exist as voice, articulation, or fluency disorders. Voice disorders affect volume, pitch, flexibility, and quality of voice and affect about 3% to 6% of school-age children (Owens, Metz, & Haas, 2003). Examples of voice disorders include speech that is chronically strained, hoarse, breathy, or nasal. In the most severe instances, voice is not present at all.

Articulation disorders represent the largest subgroup of communication disorders (about 75%), and include difficulty pronouncing words, including omissions (“libary” for “library”), additions (“terribubble” for “terrible”), distortions (such as lisping), and substitutions (e.g., “tram” for “clam”). A child with articulation problems might say, “wabbits aw fuwwy animals.”

Fluency disorders are interruptions in the natural flow or rhythm of speech. A common fluency disorder is stuttering, “an involuntary repetition, prolongation or blockage of a word or part of a word that a person is trying to say” (Curlee, 1989, p. 8). Most people who stutter begin stuttering before age 5, but only after they have begun to speak in sentences (Curlee, 1989).

Examples and Characteristics of Language Disorders

Language disorders are problems in using or comprehending language, either expressive (using language) or receptive (understanding language of others). Language disorders may involve difficulties with phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, or pragmatics. Phonology involves the ability to blend and segment the sounds that individual letters or groups of letters make to form words. For example, it may be difficult for students to identify the final sound in the words cap and cat if they have a phonological problem. Morphology involves the meaningful structure of words, as expressed in morphemes, the smallest units of language that carry meaning or function. For example, the word swimmer contains two morphemes: a free morpheme (can stand alone as a word) (swim), and a bound morpheme (depends on other words) (-er). Syntax is the grammatical structure of language and is concerned with such things as word order and noun-verb agreement. Semantics refers to the meanings of words used in language. For example, the sentence, ”Walk can I take?” may convey a semantic meaning but is not syntactically correct. Pragmatics refers to the use of language in the context of social situations. For example, students typically speak to teachers in a different manner than they would speak to classmates (Owens, Metz, & Haas, 2003).

One of the most severe language disorders is aphasia, which refers to difficulties speaking (expressive aphasia) or comprehending (receptive aphasia) language. Aphasia often accompanies brain injuries, and individuals may experience difficulty retrieving words that they knew before the injury (Owens, Metz, & Haas, 2003).

In the most severe communication disorders, individuals cannot speak and must learn to rely on alternative and augmentative communication devices (Lloyd, Fuller, & Arvidson, 1997).

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