Speech Pathology and Literacy Intervention

by Care Speech Pathology 
26 September 2022

Speech Pathologists are trained to assist with communication – both verbal and written. When we think of communicating, the ability to talk and understand is often the first thing that springs to mind. However, language also has a written form which helps us to communicate in day-to-day life.

When a person is having difficulty reading and writing, a Speech Pathologist can help to determine the underlying cause, as well as work closely with them to remediate and improve their skills. Speech Pathologists are trained to do this with young children, school-aged children, adolescents and adults. Speech Pathologists often work alongside other professionals, such as teachers and psychologists, to provide literacy intervention to those who need it.

What does it mean to be literate?

To be literate is to be able to read and write using the language that you speak. In Australia, the most commonly used written language is English. However, there are many skills that are required to be able to read and write successfully, and children who are having difficulties may need some more support with one or more of the following skills:

  • Phonological awareness – hearing and being aware of the sounds in words;
  • Sound-letter knowledge – recognising and recalling letters and the sounds that they make;
  • Grammar – understanding how words are manipulated to create meaning (e.g., past tense -ed);
  • Syntax – understanding how sentences are structured to convey messages;
  • Vocabulary – understanding and knowing how to use a variety of words; and
  • Social (pragmatic) awareness – understanding WHY people read and write and how we use these skills to communicate with others.

Literacy and language

Evidence shows that there is a very close interconnected relationship between language development and literacy development. It is therefore critically important that a child’s literacy skills are considered within the broader context of their overall language development.

When working with a child with literacy difficulties, a Speech Pathologist is therefore likely to conduct a thorough assessment of all of their communication skills.

Some children will present with learning difficulties in multiple areas, while other children will present with difficulties in literacy only. For more information on the latter, read Specific Learning Disorder.

Assessing literacy

A comprehensive language and literacy assessment is often the first thing a Speech Pathologist will do when someone comes in with concerns about reading and writing. This will allow them to determine which areas of literacy a child is finding most difficult and to target their interventions accordingly. This assessment is likely to take two or three sessions and may look at skills such as:

  • Expressive and receptive language skills – how well the person can understand and use spoken language;
  • Reading comprehension – how well the person can understand written language – it is important to assess this separately to verbal language, as there are significant differences between the way we listen to information and the way we read information;
  • Speech sounds – there is evidence to suggest that children who are having difficulty producing age-appropriate speech sounds are at higher risk of literacy difficulties than their peers; and
  • Decoding skills – this includes phonological awareness and sound-letter knowledge.

Literacy intervention with a Speech Pathologist

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, however there are several high-quality, evidenced-based programs that are proven to effectively improve a student’s literacy skills. According to Speech Pathology Australia, the best approach to literacy intervention for a school-aged child will vary depending on how much support they require and how well they respond to intervention. The Speech Pathologist will want to make sure that they are equipping the student with real-life literacy skills so that they are making improvements not only in the clinic, but also at school, at home and out in the community. To do this, the Speech Pathologist may provide:

  • Therapy – direct therapy will target the area of greatest support as identified in the assessment. For example, a synthetic phonics program is likely to be recommended for children with decoding difficulties, while children with language difficulties may participate in intervention to build their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.
  • Homework – Speech Pathologists know that literacy skills need to practised as often as possible (ideally, at least 5 days a week!) for best results. As it is often impractical to see your Speech Pathologist every day, they will instead provide you with home practice tasks so that you can continue to work on your literacy skills and make progress between sessions.
  • Consultation – Speech Pathologists have an important role to play in ensuring that classroom programs are adequately supporting a child’s literacy skills. This is done by providing advice and support to teachers about the literacy aspects of their curriculum and classroom instruction. This has the advantage of benefiting all children in the class, not just those with literacy difficulties. Speech Pathologists who work in schools will often do this as a part of their role, however Speech Pathologists who work with children privately can also provide the same service. They may do this by attending goal setting meetings at the school or by providing a letter of recommendation to the student’s classroom teacher.

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