The Role of the Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) in Education

Historically speaking.....The field of speech-language pathology has been in existence for more than 100 years.  Early on, practitioners worked primarily on speech difficulties, such as stuttering and lisping.  The profession has evolved tremendously since its beginnings and now SLPs are trained to work on a variety of areas relevant to communication.

What is meant by “communication?”
  Communication encompasses a wide variety of areas, including the following:

  • Speech (correct sound production, intelligibility in connected speech, fluency of speech/stuttering, etc.)
  • Comprehension of language (receptive language)
  • Expression of language (expressive language)
  • Pragmatics (the use of language in everyday contexts)
  • Literacy (reading and writing)

About SLPs:  All SLPs hold Master’s degrees and are trained to work with a variety of age groups and communication challenges.  All SLPs are required to be licensed by a professional order and are bound to a code of ethics.  SLPs practice their profession in many different contexts, including schools, clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and in private practice. 

About school SLPs:
 School-based SLPs typically work with elementary students, but some also work with high school students.  In Quebec, SLPs are mandated to prioritize students with severe receptive-expressive language disorders in their case loads.  These students are validated by the MELS and assigned a handicapped code (Code 34).  The ministry allocates funding so that school boards may allocate resources for these students (2 to 3 hours per week of a combination of SLP support and other school-based resources).  Students coded 34 present with the following communication profile:

  • Moderate to severe receptive language delay; severe expressive language delay
  • Moderate to severe receptive language delay; severe verbal dyspraxia (a specific type of speech disorder)

Some students coded 34 also present with speech disorders, and most present with literacy disorders.  Students with oral language difficulties can be expected to exhibit difficulty with reading comprehension and written expression.

Why focus on students code 34?  The MELS recognizes that students with this learning profile are at significant risk for academic failure.  However, if they receive appropriate instructional interventions focused on building their communication skills and using compensatory strategies to get around their difficulties, these students have a good chance of acquiring the necessary credits to graduate from high school. 

What about students who do not present with severe language disorders?
  Frequently, school SLPs receive referrals for students with speech disorders, literacy disorders, autism and other developmental disorders.  It is necessary for SLPs to prioritize their caseloads based on many criteria, including (but not limited to):

  • Severity of the disorder
  • Effect of the disorder on the student’s academic and social functioning
  • Prognosis
  • Scheduling and caseload considerations

How can school SLPs best service the needs of students with communication challenges?  The options for providing service delivery to school-age clientele are the following:

  • Pull-out intervention (individual or small group)
  • In-class intervention (individual or small group)
  • Flexible service delivery

Many parents and educators believe that the traditional pull-out model of service delivery is the most effective.  This is largely true for formal evaluation and in cases where highly specialized and focused intervention is required to work on specific communication goals.  However, experts in the field now advocate a more flexible model whereby the location of service delivery is determined by the needs of the client at every stage of his/her intervention process, whether for evaluation or intervention. 

Who decides?
 When it comes to speech and language intervention, the SLP alone has the expertise to identify the conditions that will optimize the student’s response to intervention.  The client (if developmentally ready to participate in the decision-making process) should also have direct input into the decision.   

Communication development is not a location, but a process
.  Effective communication skills are most frequently required in the classroom, not in an office with an SLP.  Teachers spend much more time in direct contact with students than do SLPs.  Therefore, it is essential that educators and SLPs work collaboratively to identify goals, as well as to craft instructional methods and interventions, that will ensure that students are developing and using their communication skills where they are most likely to need it...in the classroom.   


Vocabulary….what’s in a word?

What is vocabulary?  “The range of words in an individual or group” (www.etymonline.com)

Why is it an important consideration for educators?

  • Learning is dependent on vocabulary because learning is a language-based activity.  During the school years, students must understand and produce both the common everyday words used in conversation, and the sophisticated, academic words they come across in their readings and in classroom lectures.
  • The size and depth of a student’s vocabulary has a direct impact on reading outcomes and performance in academic tasks.  Vocabulary facilitates comprehension and expression of thought.

Typical vocabulary development:
By the age of 5, a typically developing child has an estimated expressive vocabulary of 2,100 – 2,200 words, and a receptive vocabulary of 4 times this amount.  Through the school years, most researchers agree that students learn 3,000 words per year, or 7 words per day. 

How does vocabulary develop in typical individuals?

In general, acquiring word meaning is a slow and gradual process, requiring multiple exposures for deeper understanding of word meanings.  Everyday oral language experiences are important at all stages of development.  During the school years, other pathways to vocabulary learning include:

  • Wide reading, which occurs once students become skilled readers
  • Educators’ incidental and explicit teaching of individual word meanings
  • Independent word-learning strategies.

Improving vocabulary in school age children (elementary and secondary):
Two types of instruction can provide rich and varied word learning experiences for students, incidental and explicit

Incidental instruction
techniques include: formal and informal activities, centered on teacher talk and student interactions (dialogue, discussions, read-alouds/guided reading, and structured independent reading).   The teachers who create a “talking” classroom that provides plenty of opportunities for interacting with more sophisticated words, allow their students to acquire and enrich their vocabulary naturally and seamlessly.
Skilled educators intermingle rare, more mature and/or academic words in the context of classroom discussion and in one-to-one exchanges.  They also prompt students to think about and use these words.  This could be accomplished via:

  • Informal one-on-one conversation with students about everyday topics or about topics linked to reading materials
  • Guided reading, a powerful technique that may be used with both younger and older students to facilitate their comprehension of words in text
  • Independent reading: Wide reading that is done on a regular basis is a major source of vocabulary growth.  Book choice is critically important.  Books chosen for independent reading must be neither too easy, nor too difficult.  Students should be encouraged to read varied genres associated with grade-level themes and academic content.  Students who have not yet acquired automatic word-reading skills (i.e. dysfluent readers), should be offered audiobooks, iPads, www.audible.com, CELA (Centre for Equitable Library Access, public library services for Canadians with print disabilities),or other technologies that assist with access to print.

Explicit instructional methods include the following methods:

  • Teaching individual words by:
  • Engaging students in discussions about definitional and contextual information
  • Providing multiple exposures to targeted words
  • Engaging in deep processing of words, by associating them with known words, as well as extended discussion, categorization and semantic mapping (a language specialist may be consulted for a variety of specific techniques)
  • Teaching word-learning strategies:
  • Dictionaries: This strategy works best if the student already has some sense of the word’s meaning.  Otherwise, it is generally not effective due to dictionaries’ short and multiple definitions and lack of contextual information.  For this reason, word learning from dictionaries should be considered a suboptimal strategy for all students, but especially for students who struggle with language-based learning difficulties.
  • Context:  Contextual clues to meaning may be linguistic or nonlinguistic.  Word-learning from contextual information needs to be taught explicitly.  Again, students with language-based learning difficulties are less successful at using linguistic cues to infer meaning, for obvious reasons.  Nonlingustic cues, such as illustrations, are much more supportive of word learning for those with language challenges.
  • Morphology: This method involves identifying word meaning units, such as word roots, bases, prefixes and suffixes.  It is extremely facilitative of word learning because English is considered to be a “morphophonemic language;” that is, both sounds and meaning drive the print representation of the word.  The website: www.WordWorksKingston.com is an excellent source of information for teachers about the implementation of this approach, also known as “structured word inquiry.”
  • Fostering word consciousness, and invoking an excitement and eagerness for learning new words, may be accomplished with word games that focus on figures of speech, word games (tongue twisters) and word formations (acronyms, affixes), as well as many others, can be incorporated into classroom instruction.

Which words should a teacher target for explicit teaching?  The following criteria are suggested:

  • Importance and utility: Are the words characteristic of mature language users?
  • Instructional potential: Are the words useful to the students within and across domains; can the words be associated to other words and concepts that are useful to the students?
  • Conceptual understanding: Do the words allow the students to express general concepts that they already understand with greater precision?


Listening Comprehension:
Hearing and processing spoken information

Signs of difficulty with listening comprehension:

• Minimal responding, off-topic responding and/or no responding
• Acting out behaviours/withdrawn behaviours
• Frequent production of incomplete work or incorrectly-completed work
• Frequent requests for repetition
• Frequent complaints of unusual levels of fatigue at the end of the day
• Student inattention, particularly during listening situations (differentiate listening comprehension from attention-related problems)
• Student can only listen attentively for short periods of time (due to the effort associated with sustained listening)

Conditions associated with diminished listening comprehension:

• Hearing impairment (even mild hearing impairment)
• Receptive Language Disorder (moderate to severe in students coded 34)
• Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)
• Autism (impaired auditory processing is a hallmark of this neuro-developmental disorder)
• Intellectual Impairment (receptive language delay co-morbid with cognitive delay)
• Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD); Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
• Closed Head Injury
• Stroke/Focal Brain Damage
• Dyslexia (adequate or better general listening comprehension, but may exhibit difficulties with perceiving at the individual sound level)

Implications of difficulties with listening comprehension:

• The student will miss important information and instructions. The ultimate result will be deterioration in academic learning and increased risk of social isolation.
• The student will feel frustrated; the student will suffer from fatigue.
Instructional strategies:
• Monitor comprehension at all times (e.g. request feedback from student; request that student repeat what he/she has heard; listen for on-topic and off-topic responding)
• Encourage students to request teacher repetition if they need it
• Adjust rate and rhythm of speech (rapid, staccato and monotone speech creates a suboptimal listening context for the student)
• Use shorter units of presentation: be clear, concrete and precise
• Provide visual supports whenever possible (e.g. modeling/demonstration, 3D objects, pictures, videos, etc.) Spoken/verbal information is transient (once it’s gone, it’s gone); visual information is static (i.e., it can be referred to as needed).
• Be prepared to repeat instructions, emphasizing key points
• Pre-teach new vocabulary and concepts
• Review previously taught information before presenting new information
• Link concepts explicitly for the student
• Give the student a few seconds to process information before responding to instructions or questions
• Model and make explicit what effective listening looks like (e.g. looking with the eyes, body orientation, responding on topic, etc.)
• Consistently utilize an FM System if it has been recommended for a student with CAPD
• Eliminate or reduce the sources of extraneous noise
• Assign the student to a location where noise-related distractions are minimized
• Ensure that the student’s hearing has been evaluated by an audiologist -- even mild hearing loss can have a significant impact on the student’s ability to perceive speech sounds
Teachers make the difference!!!