23 Speech and Language Impairment

Speech and Language Impairments

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, defines the term “speech or language impairment” as follows:

“(11) Speech or language impairment means a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” [34 CFR §300.8(c)(11]

(Parent Information and Resources Center, 2015)

Table of Contents

  • What is a Speech and Language Impairment?
  • Etiology
  • Characteristics of Speech or Language Impairments
  • Related Service Provider-SLP
  • A Day in the Life of an SLP
  • Assistive Technology

What is a Speech and Language Impairment?

Speech and language impairment are basic categories that might be drawn in issues of communication involve hearing, speech, language, and fluency.

A speech impairment is characterized by difficulty in articulation of words. Examples include stuttering or problems producing particular sounds. Articulation refers to the sounds, syllables, and phonology produced by the individual. Voice, however, may refer to the characteristics of the sounds produced—specifically, the pitch, quality, and intensity of the sound. Often, fluency will also be considered a category under speech, encompassing the characteristics of rhythm, rate, and emphasis of the sound produced.

A language impairment is a specific impairment in understanding and sharing thoughts and ideas, i.e. a disorder that involves the processing of linguistic information. Problems that may be experienced can involve the form of language, including grammar, morphology, syntax; and the functional aspects of language, including semantics and pragmatics.

(Wikipedia, n.d./ Speech and Language Impairment)

*It’s important to realize that a language delay isn’t the same thing as a speech or language impairment. Language delay is a very common developmental problem—in fact, the most common, affecting 5-10% of children in preschool.  With language delay, children’s language is developing in the expected sequence, only at a slower rate. In contrast, speech and language disorder refers to abnormal language development.  Distinguishing between the two is most reliably done by a certified speech-language pathologist.  (CPIR, 2015)

Characteristics of Speech or Language Impairments

The characteristics of speech or language impairments will vary depending upon the type of impairment involved. There may also be a combination of several problems.

When a child has an articulation disorder, he or she has difficulty making certain sounds. These sounds may be left off, added, changed, or distorted, which makes it hard for people to understand the child.

Leaving out or changing certain sounds is common when young children are learning to talk, of course. A good example of this is saying “wabbit” for “rabbit.” The incorrect articulation isn’t necessarily a cause for concern unless it continues past the age where children are expected to produce such sounds correctly

Fluency refers to the flow of speech. A fluency disorder means that something is disrupting the rhythmic and forward flow of speech—usually, a stutter. As a result, the child’s speech contains an “abnormal number of repetitions, hesitations, prolongations, or disturbances. Tension may also be seen in the face, neck, shoulders, or fists.”

Voice is the sound that’s produced when air from the lungs pushes through the voice box in the throat (also called the larnyx), making the vocal folds within vibrate. From there, the sound generated travels up through the spaces of the throat, nose, and mouth, and emerges as our “voice.”

A voice disorder involves problems with the pitch, loudness, resonance, or quality of the voice. The voice may be hoarse, raspy, or harsh. For some, it may sound quite nasal; others might seem as if they are “stuffed up.” People with voice problems often notice changes in pitch, loss of voice, loss of endurance, and sometimes a sharp or dull pain associated with voice use.

Language has to do with meanings, rather than sounds.  A language disorder refers to an impaired ability to understand and/or use words in context. A child may have an expressive language disorder (difficulty in expressing ideas or needs), a receptive language disorder (difficulty in understanding what others are saying), or a mixed language disorder (which involves both).

Some characteristics of language disorders include:

  • improper use of words and their meanings,
  • inability to express ideas,
  • inappropriate grammatical patterns,
  • reduced vocabulary, and
  • inability to follow directions.

Children may hear or see a word but not be able to understand its meaning. They may have trouble getting others to understand what they are trying to communicate. These symptoms can easily be mistaken for other disabilities such as autism or learning disabilities, so it’s very important to ensure that the child receives a thorough evaluation by a certified speech-language pathologist.

(CPIR, 2015)

Related Service Provider-SLP

Most, if not all, students with a speech or language impairment will need speech-language pathology services. This related service is defined by IDEA as follows:

(15) Speech-language pathology services includes—

(i) Identification of children with speech or language impairments;

(ii) Diagnosis and appraisal of specific speech or language impairments;

(iii) Referral for medical or other professional attention necessary for the habilitation of speech or language impairments;

(iv) Provision of speech and language services for the habilitation or prevention of communicative impairments; and

(v) Counseling and guidance of parents, children, and teachers regarding speech and language impairments. [34 CFR §300.34(c)(15)]

Thus, in addition to diagnosing the nature of a child’s speech-language difficulties, speech-language pathologists also provide:

  • individual therapy for the child;
  • consult with the child’s teacher about the most effective ways to facilitate the child’s communication in the class setting; and
  • work closely with the family to develop goals and techniques for effective therapy in class and at home.

Speech and/or language therapy may continue throughout a student’s school years either in the form of direct therapy or on a consultant basis.

(CPIR, 2015)

A Day in the Life of an SLP

Christina is a speech-language pathologist. She works with children and adults who have impairments in their speech, voice, or language skills. These impairments can take many forms, as her schedule today shows.

First comes Robbie. He’s a cutie pie in the first grade and has recently been diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech—or CAS. CAS is a speech disorder marked by choppy speech. Robbie also talks in a monotone, making odd pauses as he tries to form words. Sometimes she can see him struggle. It’s not that the muscles of his tongue, lips, and jaw are weak. The difficulty lies in the brain and how it communicates to the muscles involved in producing speech. The muscles need to move in precise ways for speech to be intelligible. And that’s what she and Robbie are working on.

Next, Christina goes down the hall and meets with Pearl in her third grade classroom. While the other students are reading in small groups, she works with Pearl one on one, using the same storybook. Pearl has a speech disorder, too, but hers is called dysarthria. It causes Pearl’s speech to be slurred, very soft, breathy, and slow. Here, the cause is weak muscles of the tongue, lips, palate, and jaw. So that’s what Christina and Pearl work on—strengthening the muscles used to form sounds, words, and sentences, and improving Pearl’s articulation.

One more student to see—4th grader Mario, who has a stutter. She’s helping Mario learn to slow down his speech and control his breathing as he talks. Christina already sees improvement in his fluency.

Tomorrow she’ll go to a different school, and meet with different students. But for today, her day is…Robbie, Pearl, and Mario.

(CPIR, 2015)

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology (AT) can also be very helpful to students, especially those whose physical conditions make communication difficult. Each student’s IEP team will need to consider if the student would benefit from AT such as an electronic communication system or other device. AT is often the key that helps students engage in the give and take of shared thought, complete school work, and demonstrate their learning. (CPIR, 2015)

Project IDEAL, suggests two major categories of AT computer software packages to develop the child’s speech and language skills and augmentative or alternative communication (AAC).

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) encompasses the communication methods used to supplement or replace speech or writing for those with impairments in the production or comprehension of spoken or written language. Augmentative and alternative communication may used by individuals to compensate for severe speech-language impairments in the expression or comprehension of spoken or written language. AAC can be a permanent addition to a person’s communication or a temporary aid.

(Wikipedia, (n.d. /Augmentative and alternative communication)

Go to links found within the course:

  • Disability Summary Overview for Speech and Language Impairments  for specific instructions on developing your SLI summary.
  • Disability Summary Readings by Category for additional readings needed to develop your SLI summary.


Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR)  (2015), Speech and Language Impairments, Newark, NJ, Author, Retrieved 4.1.19 from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/speechlanguage/

Wikipedia (n.d.) Augmentative and alternative communication. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmentative_and_alternative_communication 

Wikipedia, (n.d.) Speech and Language Impairment. From  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_and_language_impairment 

Updated 5.16.2022