Speech and Language Impairments in Your Classroom: 8 Tips for Teachers

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by Kori Hamilton
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)

There are many types of speech and language disorders that can affect children. Over one million students are being served in our schools under the speech or language impairment category of IDEA, the law that authorizes special education.

Do you have a student in your classroom who struggles with articulation, fluency, voice, or language? Is the student’s academic performance being negatively affected? This blog will give you 8 tips to help support students in your class who have speech or language impairments.

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About Speech-Language Impairments

There are four major areas in which speech and language impairments occur:

(1) Articulation impairment is where the child produces sounds incorrectly or has difficulty making particular sounds. The sounds may be changed, added, left off, or distorted, which makes it hard for people to understand the child.

(2) Fluency disorder is when a child displays disruption in the rhythm and flow of speech. A stutter is a common fluency disorder in which sounds, syllables, and words are repeated, prolonged, or avoided.

(3) Voice disorder refers to an abnormal quality to pitch, resonance, or loudness in speech. People who have voice problems often notice changes in pitch, loss of voice, loss of endurance, and sometimes a sharp or dull pain connected with voice use.

(4) Language disorder describes an impaired ability to express needs, ideas, or information, and/or understand what others say. Improper use of words and their meaning, inability to express ideas, inappropriate grammatical patterns, reduced vocabulary, and inability to follow directions are all characteristics of language disorders.

More detail about each of these impairments is available in NICHCY’s fact sheet on speech and language impairments.

Note: If you suspect that a student in your class has an undiagnosed speech or language impairment, follow your school’s policies for referring a student for an evaluation under IDEA. Also recommend that the child’s hearing be checked. The child may not have a speech or language impairment at all but, rather, a hearing impairment that is interfering with his or her development of language.

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Addressing Speech and Language Impairments in School

Because all communication disorders carry the potential to isolate individuals from their social and educational surroundings, it is essential that teachers provide students with help and support. Many students with speech and/or language impairments will be eligible under IDEA to receive special education and related services. Most, if not all, will need speech-language pathology services. Assistive technology (AT) can also be very helpful to students, especially those whose physical conditions make communication difficult.

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Practical Tips

There are many powerful things that a general education teacher can do in class to support the learning of students with speech and language impairments.

1. Get informed. Learn more about speech and language impairments and how they affect individuals’ learning. Speech and language impairments differ considerably from one another, so it’s important to know the specific impairment and how it affects your student’s communication abilities. The more you know, the better you can serve and support the student in your classroom. We’ve already mentioned NICHCY’s fact sheet—that’s a great place to start.

2. Consider language learners. Do you have English Language Learners in your class? They, too, can have speech or language impairments, although it may be difficult to distinguish the impairment from the language learning. If you suspect that one of your ELLs has a speech or language impairment, refer the student for assessment by a bilingual speech pathologist. Otherwise, the student’s speech or language impairment may be attributed to cultural or linguistic differences.

3. Get familiar with the student’s individualized education program (IEP). If you are not part of the student’s IEP team, ask for a copy of his or her IEP. The student’s educational goals will be listed there, as well as the services and classroom accommodations he or she is to receive.

4. Make sure that needed accommodations are provided. The student’s IEP will list the accommodations the student needs for classwork, homework, and testing. It’s important that these are provided—they will help the student learn and demonstrate his or her learning. Also find out if your state or school district has materials or resources available to help educators address the learning needs of children with speech or language impairments. It’s amazing how many do!

5. Make adjustments in the classroom. Small adjustments can really help a student with a speech or language impairment. For example, seat the student near you, which will help with questions and instructions. Perhaps have a system of signals that lets the student ask for help or indicate confusion without causing undue disruption. Visual aids and clear, written instructions help, too. So does talking privately with the student and getting his or her input on what’s helpful and what’s not.

6. Don’t go it alone—consult with others! Work closely with the speech pathologist and special educators in your school to get tips and strategies for supporting the student, including ways to adapt the curriculum and how to address the student’s IEP goals in your classroom.

7. Collaborate with parents. Work together with the student’s parents to create and implement an educational plan tailored to meet the student’s needs. Parents can also tell you a great deal about the student’s interests, difficulties, and skill areas. Regularly exchange information with parents about how the student is doing at home and at school.

8. Be patient and mindful of etiquette. Not being able to communicate effectively can be frustrating for everyone, but most especially for the student with the speech or language impairment. It’s important to be patient—for example, let the student finish his or her own sentences. If you don’t understand something the student says indicate what you did understand. It’s also okay to ask questions in a way that lets the student give a short answer, or to substitute written work for oral presentations. What you model for the class in terms of etiquette and patience creates a positive, encouraging environment for all.

As a teacher, you have the power to make an enormous difference in learning and school experience of a student with a speech or language impairment. We hope that these resource organizations help you do just that!

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Resource Organizations

ASHA | American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
NIDCD | National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
Cleft Palate Foundation
CASANA | Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association of North America
National Stuttering Foundation
Stuttering Foundation


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NOTICE: NICHCY is going away, but its resources are not. Find hundreds of legacy NICHCY publications, as well as our training curriculum on IDEA 2004, in the Center for Parent Information and Resources' Library at http://www.parentcenterhub.org/resources. This website will remain available until September 30, 2014. After that date, web visitors will be automatically redirected to http://www.parentcenterhub.org.