We develop our speech skills from a very young age, starting to develop sounds and mimic things we hear as early as a few months old! It may feel strange or silly, but talking to your baby often and in full sentences can really help to foster strong communication skills and encourage their exploration of sound and noise. Narrating your day and speaking your thoughts out loud can give your child the tools to start their journey learning to talk, even though they cannot yet understand what is being said.
Delays and difficulties with speech can be noticed in very young children because of how quickly babies start to form sounds. However, there can of course be more subtle challenges that might not be identifiable until later on, once they have started school and are learning to read aloud and there are increasing expectations on their level of communication with peers and adults.
Speech therapy focuses on supporting communication; improving a child’s ability to understand and express language.
This involves two components: “1) Coordinating the mouth to produce sounds to form words and sentences (to address articulation, fluency, and voice volume regulation); and 2) understanding and expressing language (to address the use of language through written, pictorial, body, and sign forms, and the use of language through alternative communication systems such as social media, computers, and iPads).”
(Barbara Smith, ‘What is Speech Therapy’)
The disorders that speech therapists are able to support are numerous, and while they can be the result of a brain injury or stroke, can also simply involve difficulties with the processing or expressing of information. A few areas of communication speech pathologists can support are:
Receptive Language: This refers to understanding and processing of what others say. Children who struggle with this can often seem like they are not listening when being spoken to or are disinterested in the conversations. They may find it challenging to follow directions or have a limited vocabulary. Diagnoses like autism often include challenges with receptive language skills.
Expressive Language: This refers to conveying and expressing information. Children who struggle with this may show difficulty forming accurate sentences (particularly tenses).
Fluency and articulation: Forming sounds and the flow, speech and rhythm of those sounds. Children struggling to articulate may find specific sounds difficult to say, leading them to swap and distort certain words. They can also add in extra sounds, or drop some sounds out of their sentences entirely.
Strengthening Communication: Helping the child to find their voice through exercises or if needed, an alternative communication avenue. It may seem unexpected, but speech therapists can work on non-verbal communication as well! Through exercises focused on strengthening the muscle groups needed for speech, speech therapists are able to decrease the frustrations children feel when communicating is a challenge.
Social Skills: Speech therapy often involves role playing activities, sound exercises and social storytelling to help develop children’s social skills and abilities.
Reading Ability: Issues with speech impact listening, reading and writing skills… which can really impact your child’s time at school! Focusing on improving literacy skills and spelling can really improve a child’s confidence in their ability to communicate, when their speech may be a source of anxiety for them.
It can be tricky to know when to seek out an assessment with a speech therapist and the areas they provide support with can often overlap with other specialisations. Sometimes its best to start with an appointment with an educational psychologist or even a Paediatric GP to help get to the bottom of a gap in learning or a possible developmental delay to help match the ‘symptom’ with the cause and determine the best course of action moving forward.