A great working relationship with with the school speech therapist is critical to the success of your elementary students – both socially and academically.
Many children enter our elementary schools with speech issues. While some children will grow out of them, I see far too many children moving on to the intermediate grades with their speech impediment still unaddressed – even when resources are available in the school.
If a child has a speaking issue of any sort by fourth grade, then it is potentially permanent unless it is given professional attention.
What does this mean for the intermediate teacher? If you hear a child with a speech issue, it is extremely important for you to work on providing access to a speech-language pathologist (another name for a school speech therapist).
Video tips: working with the speech therapist
Proper pronunciation is critical for reading and writing
The inability to properly pronounce words can have a dramatic effect on a child's ability to sound out words when they are reading, or to properly construct them when they are writing. We all speak inside our heads and sound things out to ourselves; if we are switching Ws for Rs, we're simply going to have a difficult time with both our decoding of words and our encoding of ideas.
Detecting and addressing speech issues
When a child has difficulty with reading or writing, speech issues are one of the first things I listen for with my “teacher ear.” Sometimes the problems are overt and easy to identify. Sometimes they are subtle – except for their effect inside the heads of the children!
If you notice an issue with pronunciation, the first step is to check the school records to see if a speech-language pathology evaluation has been done in the past. If so, you can follow up with your school or district therapist for additional guidance.
Keep in mind that kids' complete records don't always follow them from school-to-school or district-to-district (let alone state-to-state!).
If an evaluation is not in the file, the first step is always to talk to the parents. Ask them if the child has ever been evaluated for speech issues and advise them of what you are noticing. Ask what they notice at home. Then raise the subject of having the school speech therapist listen informally and possibly do an assessment.
Sometimes a speech therapist will just do an informal listen to the child before deciding whether they should pursue formal testing and an IEP. Formal testing often involves the teacher filling out forms to support the testing process.
Speech issues in K-3
This focus on intermediate grades doesn't mean that a teacher shouldn't be seeking professional help during kindergarten, first, second or third grades; it just depends upon the severity of the issue. It’s very common for children to have problems with Rs and Ws, or to have lisps when they are young, but a school speech therapist will often take a “wait and see” approach unless the issue is severe.
As always, if in doubt, have a discussion with the parents and involve a professional. There's no harm done and we don't want kids to go a year or more without the specific help they may need.
Maximizing classroom improvement
Once a child has a speech IEP and is set up to work with a speech-language pathologist, it’s very important for teachers to ask what they can do in the classroom to help out and reinforce what is being taught. With consistent attention and effort, a classroom teacher can really multiply the impact of speech therapy.
In my experience in working with kids in therapy, I have I found that I spend a lot of time modeling exactly how to say words and enunciate them clearly, then patiently working with them to duplicate my example. If you are aware of the techniques being taught by the therapist, then you can remind the students to apply what they have learned.
The social aspect
It's also important to understand that not all speech impediments are cute, and it's quite common for kids to get teased. Of course, this should never be allowed, but we cannot control what happens on the playground or outside of school – another reason for getting the issue addressed.
As with any student who leaves the room to work on an IEP, set an expectation that they will be cheerfully welcomed back into the class activity by all students when they return. This ensures that they never feel self-conscious about leaving to get this critical assistance from your school speech therapist.
You can find more information about Special Education inclusion here.