Speech and phonological disorders are the focus of this article by Michael Farrel, who considers provision for those pupils dealing with communication difficulties

Thompson (2003, p10) defines speech as ‘the mechanical aspect of communication… the ability to produce the sounds, words and phrases.’ Speech difficulties occur when communication is impaired by the child’s capacity for speech. Speech may be unintelligible owing to: physical difficulties with articulation; and/or difficulties making sound contrasts that convey meaning; and/or problems in controlling pitch. Phonological disorders, the focus of much of this article, relate to differences in speech sounds that carry meaning. Assessment draws on the shared observations of parents, teachers, speech and language therapists and others.

Curriculum and assessment
As well as providing structured sessions focusing on improving phonological skills and knowledge, curriculum planning will ensure that phonological development is supported in all aspects of the curriculum. More time may be spent on developing phonology across the curriculum, including special programmes such as Metaphon. Assessment of phonological development may be in small steps to provide the opportunity to recognise progress.

Raising phonological awareness
Raising phonological awareness lends itself to whole-class and small group teaching and can be interesting for all pupils. Where new vocabulary is introduced, the teacher will encourage a keen interest in the word or phrase. She will explicitly teach various aspects of the vocabulary including:

  • Phonological – how do the sounds of the word break up and blend back together? Do the pupils know any words that sound similar? What are the syllables of the word?
  • Grammatical – how is the word used in sentences?
  • Semantic – what does the word mean? Does it have interesting origins?

Encouraging phonological change
Among the programmes that encourage phonological change is the Children’s Phonology Sourcebook (Flynn and Lancaster, 1997). Intended for speech and language therapists, it provides ideas and resources that can be copied for parents and teachers. Coverage includes auditory input, first words, speech perception, and phonological representations and there is an emphasis on the auditory processing of speech (see www.speechmark.net).

‘Metaphon’ also uses activities designed to bring about phonological change (Howell and Dean, 1994).

Alternative and augmentative communication
Where alternative and augmentative communication is used for children with speech problems the problems tend to be severe. With symbolic communication, symbols are used for example a word or a picture is used to stand for something.

‘Non aided’ communication involves the child making a movement or vocalisation not requiring a physical aid or other device. Examples are oral language, manual sign languages or individualised communication (eg one blink for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’). Signing may be used as means of communication other than speech or accompanying developing speech.

‘Aided’ augmentative communication involves using a device or item other than one’s own body such as communication boards, eye gaze boards and electronic systems.

Where a child has severe communication difficulties a communication board might be used. Another non-electronic device is a communication notebook. This can include photographs, symbols and words, enabling a pupil to find a symbol and show the particular page to someone who may not know the symbol so they can see the intended word.

Dedicated communication devices are electronic communication systems that speak programmed messages when the user activates locations marked by symbols. Computer aided communication may involve the pupil having a voice production device with a computer based bank of words and sentences that can be produced by pressing the keyboard keys.

Communication grids in which several graphic symbols are set out in a specified order can enable a pupil to participate in a group sessions; for example, to support retelling a story.

Where speech problems are severe or where there are many communication problems, signing may be used. If so, classroom organisation can ensure that all pupils are able to see the communications as well as hear the accompanying words. Where a child’s speech intelligibility is developing, in group and class settings it will be important that the acoustics are good so the teacher and other children can hear what the child is saying. It is also helpful to provide the correct model of the word. For example, a child who says ‘gog’ for ‘dog’ would be helped by hearing the teacher say, ‘You’ve got a new dog’ rather than simply hearing the teacher correct the wrong word.

Speech and language therapy
The role and contribution of the speech therapist is important for children with phonological difficulties, whether it involves the therapist working directly with the child or taking a more advisory or supervisory role. For example, individual task based programmes may be developed jointly with the teacher and speech therapist. Or the speech therapist might work with a teaching assistant who continues the planned work when the therapist is not present.

Key text
Farrell, M (2005) The Effective Teacher’s Guide to Autism and Communication Difficulties, New York and London, Routledge


  • Flynn, L and Lancaster, G (1997) Children’s Phonology Sourcebook Brackley, Speechmark Publishing
  • Howell, J and Dean, E (1994) (2nd Edition) Treating Phonological Disorders in Children: Metaphon – Theory to Practice London, Whurr Publishers
  • Thompson, G (2003) Supporting Children with Communication Disorders: A Handbook for Teachers and Teaching Assistants London, David Fulton Publishers

Dr. Michael Farrell is a special education consultant