How Speech and Language Deficits Can Affect a Child’s Academic Success

By: Leanne Sherred

Language is the foundation of all communication. It affects how we express ourselves, experience the world around us, and analyze, process, decode, and understand information.

This is precisely why a strong command of language is essential to a child’s classroom and academic success. Language itself is not just another school subject; it’s the cornerstone of how all subjects are learned. It impacts how children communicate ideas, retain and recall information, remain active and participatory at school, and interact with peers and teachers in an educational setting.

Unfortunately, nearly 8% of all children in the United States between the ages of 3-17 have disorders related to their speech, language, and voice. These children not only are more likely to struggle academically and receive poor grades but are also more prone to experiencing poor confidence, low self esteem, and lack of socialization.

Fortunately, in many cases, these speech and language issues can be corrected with professional help and intervention. Let’s begin by covering some common deficits that can affect a child’s classroom performance.

Common Speech and Language Impairments

Before remediating these issues, it’s important that parents and educators have a thorough understanding of the types of communication disorders that commonly affect children and their ability to succeed in school. These issues include (but are not limited to):

  • Expressive Language Disorders: The signs of language disorders often present at early ages, yet they can become more apparent as children use more complex forms of language. Expressive language disorders affect how children communicate their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Commonly, children know exactly what they’d like to say, but struggle to form intelligible phrases or sentences through verbal communication. They may, for example, use words in sentences out of order, repeat words, mix up word tenses, or omit words altogether. In a classroom setting, this affects how children hold conversations, ask or answer questions, tell stories, and express their feelings.
  • Receptive Language Disorder: Children with receptive language disorders may use words correctly, however, they struggle with “decoding” language. In other words, they have trouble with extracting and interpreting meaning from the words they hear and read. Within a classroom setting, this can impact their comprehension of new lessons or concepts, their ability to listen attentively and follow instructions, and their understanding of new vocabulary.
  • Speech Disorders: Speech disorders encompass a wide range of conditions that can make it difficult for a child to create and form sounds needed to communicate. Therefore, children with speech disorders are often difficult to understand. Examples can include stuttering and fluency, in which a child prolongs or repeats certain sounds and words, or experiences sudden stoppages to their speech. Another common example is an articulation disorder, where children have trouble pronouncing certain sounds and letters, such as /s/ or /z/ or /th/, often due to incorrect tongue placement or a lisp.
  • Cognitive-Communication Disorders: These disorders are often biological in nature and caused by abnormalities in brain development. They can also be caused by genetic factors, brain injury, or certain neurological conditions. Cognitive-communication disorders can affect a child’s working memory, reasoning and judgment abilities, problem-solving skills, ability to stay organized, and more.

The Link Between Language and Literacy

Many studies have shown that a young child’s ability to verbally communicate is highly correlated to their literary skills. In fact, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), which is the professional and credentialing body for speech-language pathologists, there is a high correlation between communication problems and reading and writing.

This is largely because reading and writing are language-based activities. Learning to read requires two main skills: recognizing words and comprehension. Children must be able to isolate, pronounce, and manipulate the sounds and letters that comprise words in written text, and then derive meaning from those words to understand what they read.

Let’s start with sounds. The ability to recognize and differentiate speech sounds is called phonological awareness. For example, the word “mall” is comprised of three different sounds: “m-aw-l.” Phonological awareness is so important because as children learn to master speech sounds, they begin to map these onto printed letters of books. This forms the basis for the emerging reading and writing skills.

Additionally, children must be able to interpret the meaning of the printed text. One misperception is that kids that are proficient readers are also master comprehenders. To the contrary, it’s very common for children to read fluently but struggle when it comes to recalling what happened in a story, applying critical thinking, understanding fact vs. fiction, or making predictions about what will happen next.

This is because language comprehension isn’t necessarily just one skill, but a backset of several skills that must be collectively improved in order for children to demonstrate progress. They include a child’s language abilities, working memory and cognitive abilities, their attention and ability to focus, and the speed at which they process information. While phonological awareness and comprehension are technically different skills, their development is highly bidirectional.

How Speech and Language Disorders Affect Children’s Emotional Health

Try to remember your experience as a young child first entering school. Yes, it may have been a few decades ago, but it’s also the time when suddenly you were surrounded by children your own age. Did you find yourself more aware of your environment? Increasingly insecure about your own skill level? Focused on that one standout student who seemed to correctly answer every question?

For many children, entering school is a welcome experience. However, this interaction and socialization with peers also means that children increasingly start comparing themselves. Speech and language problems become noticeable, and children become much more self-conscious about how they’re perceived by others. Will they be teased or ostracized because of their stutter, or lisp, or mispronunciation of sounds and words? Will they become frustrated by their inability to “keep up” with their classmates? Will they struggle to verbalize their thoughts and create coherent sentences?

This fear of rejection can affect a child’s mental health and social well-being. The more time and energy is being spent focused on their self-image, the less is focused on literacy and academic skills. Additionally, their confidence and self-esteem can suffer, which affects their willingness to participate in class, their interpersonal relationships, and can lead to a cycle of self-doubt.

One of the most comprehensive studies done in this area sought to better understand whether children with receptive language delays were at increased risk for developing social, emotional, and behavioral problems as adults. The researchers used standardized tests to measure language skills for 7,000 children at age five. They followed up with these children nearly three decades later, when the children were 34 years old, and found that they were more likely to experience mental health problems versus those without developmental language delays.

Signs that a Speech-Language Disorder Could be Affecting Your Child’s Learning

Sometimes children that have trouble interpreting verbal information or following instructions are seen as less intelligent than their peers. This is not the case. In most instances, these children simply aren’t able to process information the same way as other children their age. All children develop at their own timeline, and there is a wide range of communication development across age groups and grades. Comparing a child’s speech and language abilities to their peers doesn’t necessarily mean they have a problem – but it can.

There are many signs that you may notice at home or hear from your child’s teacher or school administrator, that could signal they have a speech or language disorder. These include:

  • Not reading at the skill level expected for their grade
  • Learning or remembering the names of letters or new vocabulary words
  • Difficulty understanding what their teacher is saying
  • Trouble expressing their thoughts, ideas, and feelings through both verbal and written language
  • Difficulty with speech production at the sound, syllable, word, phrase, sentence, or conversational level
  • Not being able to interpret or correctly respond to social cues
  • Difficulty with problem solving, time management, and organization
  • Lack of attention and focus

For younger children, their speech and language may naturally improve over time. After all, it’s common for late talkers to suddenly find the gift of speech and catch up with other children their age. However, once children are older and enter school, there’s a higher chance that these issues will persist or be magnified over time without professional treatment. They run the risk of being held back in school, which can be demoralizing for children. Additionally, the root cause of behavioral issues can be because a child doesn’t have the skills or mechanisms to adequately express themselves. This may come off as laziness or defiance to their teachers, with any possible punishment dissuading future learning.

How a Speech-Language Pathologist can Help

Speech-language therapy services can help children with a wide range of communication issues. They work with children and their families directly, as well as teachers, counselors, and other providers, to develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to each child’s needs. This can help children reach their communication goals in order to have a successful and satisfying academic experience.

Speech therapy begins with a comprehensive evaluation of a child’s needs. They ask questions, perform tests, engage your child in activities, and learn more about your child’s medical history to diagnose speech and language issues.

Much like classroom learning, the skills that children practice in speech therapy must be incorporated at home and throughout your child’s daily life to see the most progress. That’s why it’s imperative that families have a strong working relationship with their speech-language pathologist, and remain involved and participatory in their care.

Many children can receive speech therapy in their schools, which is often provided in a group setting. However, for parents that desire more personalized, 1-on-1 instruction, or seek increased communication with their speech-language pathologist, many receive therapy at a private practice. Increasingly there has also been a growing trend towards online speech therapy, which allows families to receive the same high-quality care, but generally at a more affordable price point and from the comfort of their own home.

For more, see:

Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University and has a Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services.

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