By Dr. Linda Kennedy MS SLP ND
Over 1 ½ million children in the United States alone are homeschooled, this represents 2.9% of all school-age children in the U.S. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the three main reasons parents give for homeschooling include concern about the public school environment, to provide religious and moral instruction and dissatisfaction with public school academic instruction. Choosing to homeschool is an important decision. Children and their families enjoy several distinct benefits: Homeschooled children score higher on standardized tests than children educated in public schools, by large margins. Homeschooling allows a child to learn at their own pace, rather than at the pre-determined pace that the public schools mandate. Homeschooling also minimizes the impact of negative peer influences outside of the home. Finally, recent studies show that homeschooled kids enjoy a similar number of social activities outside of the house compared to children in public schools, thereby destroying the myth that homeschooled children are socially isolated.
However, there are a few challenges that some homeschooled children and their parents must cope with. Namely, the lack of taxpayer-funded resources typically available to full-time public schooled children. For example, public schools often offer free tests for vision, hearing, and speech. Even in schools where these services are not offered, experienced teachers and nurses in public schools usually have worked with enough children to have a good idea if a child may have a learning or developmental problem, and they can make referrals to appropriate specialists for further testing.
In the homeschool setting, there are no such experts available on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, you, as the parent and teacher, must be attentive to potential learning or developmental deficits in your child. Speech-language disorders are common in children and are among the most difficult problems to detect, especially in a homeschool setting. Most parents lack formal training in this area and only have experience with teaching a few children with whom they are very familiar … so familiar in fact, that in many cases it is difficult to step back and evaluate the children accurately, objectively, and without bias.
Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following are possible symptoms of a child that may be presenting with a speech-language disorder:
- Trouble pronouncing sounds
- Trouble understanding words
- Trouble expressing thoughts in words
- Difficulty with memory, reasoning, or imagination
- Voice problems such as nasally speech, hoarseness, or excessively loud or soft voice
There are several different types of speech and language disorders, each with different symptoms. The main types of speech and language problems are briefly discussed below:
Receptive Language Disorder
Receptive language disorder is a learning disability that limits the child’s understanding of language. Common characteristics of this disorder are trouble following verbal directions and understanding word problems. Children with a receptive language disorder may also have poor listening skills, low academic performance, or behavior problems. There is no known cause for this disorder, although some believe there may be a genetic link. This disorder may be related to other conditions such as autism, attention deficit disorder, or dyslexia. Receptive language disorder does not affect intelligence since these children usually have average to above-average IQ.
Expressive Language Disorder
Children with expressive language disorder have no problems understanding language, but they have difficulty expressing themselves through speech and writing. These children often have an abnormally small vocabulary and difficulty understanding the basics of grammar. These children have the communication skills of children younger than themselves and they may not speak very often because of their impairment. This disorder may cause difficulty with schoolwork, especially writing and answering questions. As is true with receptive language disorders, there is no known cause.
Motor Speech Disorder
Motor speech disorder is caused by poor muscle control of the muscles used in speaking. This disorder makes it difficult to articulate sounds, resulting in slow, distorted or slurred speech. However, there are no problems with understanding or expression. Motor speech disorders are often a result of congenital neurological problems or from a prior stroke, traumatic injury, or infection.
A cognitive disorder describes the inability to communicate effectively because of damage to the part of the brain that controls your ability to process language. This brain damage limits a child’s ability to express themselves in speech or writing. Depending on the exact location and extent of the damage, the child may struggle to speak clearly, initiate a conversation, and/or organize and process language. In children, these disorders are usually caused by birth defects, prior infection during infancy, or traumatic brain injury.
Phonemic disorder describes a condition in which a child has difficulty articulating certain sounds. This results in common enunciation errors such as omitting sounds from words, distorting sounds, or substituting one sound for another. Phonetic disorder may be the result of a motor speech disorder or oral/dental problems.
Speech-language problems can be further described based on the cause and severity:
- The term acquired describes a problem that results from an event after birth such as illness or trauma.
- The term delayed implies that the child is developing the correct patterns of speech and language, just at a slower rate than other children of their age.
- The term disorder describes a condition where the child is not developing the correct speech and language patterns, which results in an obvious deficit compared to their age-matched peers.
If it is suspected that a child may have a speech-language disorder, professional guidance is most definitely in order. While the internet offers much information on speech-language disorders, no two cases are the same – each child and situation is unique and an evaluation from a health professional is the only way to find out for sure. If, in fact, a child has a speech-language disorder, early diagnosis and treatment result in a greater chance for long-term treatment success.
One of the challenges of homeschooling is that parents may not have access to the free health screening and treatment that is usually available in public schools. The guidelines vary from state to state. Check to see if your local school district offers free or discounted services for your homeschooled child. If the school district does not offer these services and insurance does not cover the expense, the diagnostic testing and subsequent therapy required for a child with a speech-language disorder can be a large out-of-pocket expense. Check to see if there is an audiologist or speech-language pathologist (SLP) in your area that offers discounted fees based on income earned.
The initial step in diagnosing a speech-language disorder is to visit an audiologist to rule out a hearing problem. Audiologists are trained professionals who specialize in diagnosing people with suspected hearing loss and other hearing or balance disorders. Hearing problems are commonly related to delayed speech, which is why a child’s hearing should first be tested by an audiologist whenever there is suspicion of a speech-language disorder. A child who has trouble hearing may have trouble understanding, imitating, and using language. If the audiologist detects a hearing problem, he or she will determine an appropriate course of treatment. On the other hand, if there is no hearing deficit, the next step is to visit an SLP. Speech-language pathologists are highly trained professionals with expertise in diagnosing and treating speech-language disorders. Most have a graduate or doctoral degree.
The initial visit to the SLP will consist of a series of tests lasting from 2 to 8 hours, depending on your child’s unique situation. The SLP evaluation will include an assessment of your child’s speech and language skills with standardized tests that will compare them to their expected developmental level. These tests will include language understanding, language expression, speech clarity, and identification of ways the child may compensate for lack of effective communication, such as pointing and gesturing. If a speech delay or disorder is identified as a result of the diagnostic procedure, the SLP will make a diagnosis and recommend an appropriate treatment for your child, which may include speech therapy and daily home programs. Make sure to tell the SLP that your child is homeschooled so that the SLP can be certain that you understand how to administer your part of the daily curriculum. This is where parental involvement in a homeschool situation is vital. A child’s improvement will, in part, depend on diligence in maintaining the daily therapeutic program prescribed by the SLP.
If efforts have been made for a formal evaluation and treatment plan, your SLP will periodically monitor your child to make sure that the treatment protocol is indeed effective. The SLP will collect data over subsequent therapy sessions and make changes to the treatment protocol as needed. The SLP may also choose to administer testing again, as yet another means of cross-referencing data to ensure progress for the child.
If a speech-language problem is suspected, quick and early intervention by a professional is the key to helping a child overcome this issue and ensure future scholastic success.
Dr. Linda Kennedy MS SLP ND: Has a graduate degree specializing in Communication Sciences and Disorders.
Language Impairment Links
Frequently asked questions answered about children who are slow to speak clearly, and what can be done about it.
Carol’s Speech and Language Disorders Professional Resources
These sites will give you information about specific speech and language disorders, articles you might wish to use, such as lesson plans and reference materials.