Communication Disorders

What Are Communication Disorders?1

Communication disorders include disorders of speech and language. To many people, the terms communication, speech, and language mean essentially the same thing, but to special educators and speech-language therapists these are significantly different concepts that require different approaches to instruction:

  • Communication, the broadest of the three terms, includes both speech and language. Communication also includes cues such as intonation, pace of speech, and stress (emphasis), as well as nonverbal information such as gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact.
  • Language can be defined as a socially shared code or system of conventions that represents and expresses ideas through symbols and rules. All language is communication, but not all communication involves language.
  • Speech is a particular type of language. Speech refers to language that involves the coordination of oral-neuromuscular movement to produce sounds. Language can be spoken, written, or signed.

Figure 6.1 illustrates the relationships among communication, language, and speech. As you can see from the figure, communication is the broadest of the three terms, speech the narrowest.


An interesting illustration of the differences among language, speech, and communication can be seen in children with normal hearing who are born to deaf parents. A child born to parents with hearing impairments may have difficulty with speech but not with language if she starts using sign language at a young age. Infants who learn sign language can begin to communicate their needs as early as six months. Speech, however, may be delayed or different because the child has little experience with the spoken word.

Although some students have difficulty with both speech and language, the majority of identified students have either speech or language disorders. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2000), 10 percent of school students have some sort of communication disorder. The majority of these students are not in special education; 87 percent study in the regular classroom and work with a speech/language therapist.

Many children with other exceptionalities also have communication disorders. For example, children with autism or pervasive developmental disorder are likely to have language delays (see the profile later in this chapter). The special education teacher, regular education teacher, and language therapist must work together to design teaching and learning techniques for these children.

Williams Syndrome and the Gregarious Brain

Traumatic Brain Injuries and Communication Disorders

Speech Disorders

Disordered speech is significantly different from the usual speech of others, and it detracts from the communicative abilities of the speaker. It is important to point out that differences in speech such as dialects or accents are not disorders. Only when a child’s speech is significantly different from normal speech in his or her developmental context should the child be sent for a speech and language evaluation.

There are three types of speech disorders:

  1. Articulation disorders account for the majority of speech disorders. The child is unable to produce sounds appropriate for his or her age. Articulation disorders also include substitution or omission of sounds: for instance, saying “th” for “s,” or leaving out the “l” sound in words like clue (saying “coo” instead).

A Head Start on Speech: The Importance of Articulation

  1. Fluency disorders are interruptions in the flow of speech. These can include difficulties with the rate, rhythm, or repetition of sounds, syllables, words, or phrases. Examples of fluency disorders include stuttering and “cluttering,” in which the forward pace of speech is confused or full of extra sounds.
  2. Voice disorders are impairment of the voice itself, and they affect the quality, pitch, or intensity of the person’s speech. For example, students with voice disorders may sound hoarse all the time or speak too loudly.

Stuttering Overview

Cluttering Overview

Click here to read about a disorder that manifests as a speech disorder, Selective Mutism

Tracheostomies and Speech

Language Disorders

The term language disorder indicates a difficulty in understanding and using speech, the written word, or another symbol system. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), a language disorder is “the impairment or deviant development of comprehension and/or use of a spoken, written, and/or other symbol system” (Bernthal and Bankson, 1993). The disorder may involve any of the following elements of language:


1. Form

  • Phonology: the sound system of a language and the rules that cover sound combinations: in English, for instance, a short a sounds like “ahhh”; an x usually sounds like “ks”; a ph sounds like “f.”

Click here to read about how to Boost Phonological Awareness Through Paired Reading.

  • Morphology: the structural system for words and word construction in a language. For example, the verb run can become the participle running. One way to remember the meaning of morphology is to think about how words “morph” into other words when the meaning changes.
  • Syntax: the system in a given language for combining words to form sentences. English sentences typically put the subject first, then the verb, then the direct object, and so on.

2. Content

  • Semantics: the meaning of words and sentences in a language. Skill in semantics includes the ability to visualize or interpret what someone has said or what you have read and to understand it.

Analysis of Strategies That Assist Students Facing Trouble With Semantics

3. Function

  • Pragmatics: the ability to combine form and content to communicate functionally and in socially acceptable ways—for example, knowing when to say what to whom.

A student with a language disorder may be unable to understand spoken language or to produce sentences and share ideas in an age-appropriate way. The roots of these comprehension and production difficulties may reside in any of the areas of language just named.

To see how visual learning affects the development of semantics vs. phonology, check out Blindness and Semantic vs. Phonemic Fluency.

Read-Aloud Strategies for Children with Language Disorders

Auditory Processing Disorders

Some communication problems cannot be categorized strictly as speech or language disorders. Rather, they are broadly classified as auditory processing disorders.

This term describes a general deficit in processing sensory information from the ears. A child with a learning disability who has such a disorder may take longer to “process” a question or direction and can appear to be ignoring you, not attending to the class activity, or acting disobedient. Because auditory information processing takes longer for such a child, the information may never reach short- or long-term memory. A child with an auditory processing disorder needs specific techniques to attend to the important parts of language and speech.

More About Auditory Processing Disorders

Auditory Processing

Expressive Phonological Impairment (EPI)

Meeting Needs of Students with Communication Disorders

Most children with communication disorders work in the regular classroom and receive special instruction in speech and language, usually with a speech-language therapist. As the classroom teacher, you can help identify the child with a communication disorder by listening to how the child speaks and what he or she says. The key is to look for consistent differences in language use, articulation, and comprehension. When a child consistently misspeaks (saying “th” for “s,” for example), you should recommend to the parents that the child be evaluated for speech-language therapy. You must have parental permission before you have a student tested or evaluated in any way.

When you invite a speech-language therapist (or any other specialist) into your classroom, it is important to prepare your students for the visit. Letting the students know that a visitor will be observing the class can reduce their fears and curiosity. Talk with the student you are concerned about, and let him or her know that you’ve asked someone to come help you understand what is going on in the classroom. Try to make the student comfortable. Avoid giving a special lesson on that day or treating the student differently than you normally would. Allowing the specialist to observe the normal classroom routine will ensure that both you and your students receive the help you’ve asked for.

Prior to the classroom observation the specialist may ask you to fill out a checklist like the one shown in Figure 6.2. This checklist can help you organize your concerns and focus your own observation of the child. Again, it is absolutely necessary that you obtain parental permission before you have a student tested or observed.


Once a child has been identified as having a communication disorder, he or she will receive special instruction, most likely outside the regular classroom. This instruction will include techniques to help the child with specific needs: for instance, practice in understanding language rules or exercises to teach the child how to position his tongue while he says a sound. The child will spend only a small portion of total school time in speech-language therapy, so it is important to ask the specialist for techniques you can use in the classroom to reinforce what the child is learning. Be sure to share with the parents what the speech therapist is doing so they can complement this work at home.

Typical Speech Therapy Session

FAQs for a Speech and Language Pathologist

Here are some recommendations to keep in mind with regard to language and speech development for any child (with or without an identified communication disorder):

  • Modeling. When a child mispronounces a word or is not clear, restate what the child has said. That is, instead of saying “What?” or “I don’t understand you,” say, “Did you just ask me to ___?” Think of a one-year-old child you know. When he or she says, “Baa,” you might say “Ball” or “Bottle,” but you would never say “What?” to a child so young. Help the child by modeling what you think she is trying to say. It is frustrating for her to repeat herself with no feedback about what you did or did not understand.
  • Making speech clear and easy to understand. Organize your classroom and student seating so that all students can easily see and hear you. Reduce background noises as much as possible, and eliminate distractions like an open door into a noisy hallway. Make sure a student knows that you are addressing him or her before you start speaking. Be sure to speak loudly enough for your students to hear, and if you know you tend to be a fast talker, slow down!
  • Promoting language exchange. Show students you are interested in them by listening. This may sound simple, but in a typical classroom of twenty-five students we all ignore what someone is saying from time to time. Let your students know you are interested by making time every day to talk to each of them—when they arrive at school in the morning, at lunch, recess, or during a small-group activity. Be sure to encourage students to talk to you and each other and elaborate on their comments and responses. By creating an environment where all students regularly talk, you will encourage language development in all children.
  • Read to your students. At every level, students can increase their language skills by hearing text read aloud. Read a news story to your high school students, make time after lunch to read to your first graders, or read a student’s paper to the class. Although some students will be reluctant to read aloud during a lesson, all students appreciate a good story, and reading to them is a great way to model interacting with text. It also helps by differentiating between conversational speech and reading, increasing vocabulary, and providing a quiet break for everyone in the classroom.


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The Peer Relations of Preschool Children with Communication Disorders

Improving the Effectiveness of Speech Langauge Therapy

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How Teachers Can Assist

Tender Loving Care

Delay Auditory Feedback Devices

Information on Stuttering


Info on Stuttering

Communication Disorders - getting real

famous-persons-with-communication-disorders <— motivate and encourage students from the very beginning!

Communication Disorders in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

Sex and Autism

Communication and Autism

Social Anxiety Disorder

Treating Selective Mutism

Learning from an Inclusive Communication Community

Relationships and communication disorders

Constructing Language In A Deaf Community

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Spoken Language Disorder


Communication Disorder Vs. Language Proficiency