Dyslexia and Speech Therapy

I used to think that dyslexia was just when people reversed letters in words when they were reading. I’m not sure how this misconception got so popular but it’s important to know that dyslexia is much more than that and that letter reversal is not even the most common characteristic of dyslexia. It’s also important to know that speech therapists can do a lot to help a student with dyslexia.

What is Dyslexia?

The term dyslexia is used to describe a person’s difficulty reading printed words even though he/she has normal intelligence and received appropriate reading instruction.

This word-reading difficulty is often caused by a deficit in the phonological component of language. That means, the student has difficulty understanding how sounds go together to create words. This makes it difficult for the student to decode a printed word (sound out the letters and put them together to form a word) as well as to spell words. Also, the student with dyslexia has average or above average intelligence so the disability is not due to lack of intelligence.

Since the child with dyslexia has difficulty reading printed words, he or she may also have difficulty understanding what was read, even if he does manage to eventually read the words. This is because fluent reading (or reading without unnecessary pauses and gaps) increases comprehension and understanding of what is read.

You may notice that a child with dyslexia understands text when it is read out loud to him but he has trouble understanding it if he reads it himself. For example, the child would be able to answer comprehension questions about a grade-level story read aloud but not if he only read the story to himself.

You may also notice that children with dyslexia do not develop phonological awareness skills as quickly as their peers. These would be skills like rhyming, segmenting, blending, etc. For more information on phonological awareness, click the link below:

Carrie’s Ultimate Guide to Phonological Awareness

(Lyon et. al. 2003)

How Does Speech Therapy Help Students with Dyslexia?

As speech-language pathologists, we have extensive training and knowledge about phonological skills. Many students with speech sound errors have phonological errors. This means they have trouble understanding which sounds should be put together to form words. They may use phonological processes where they replace one class of sounds with another (such as replacing all long sounds like “s” with short sounds like “t”). These same children with phonological speech errors may have phonological reading problems as well (a.k.a. dyslexia).

For more information about phonological processes (speech errors), click here!

That means that speech therapists should be an integral part of a student’s reading intervention team, even if the child is only having difficulty with reading and not speech. We can help these students improve their overall phonological systems and understand how sounds go together to make words.

Also, some children with dyslexia also have language learning problems which should be addressed by a speech therapist as well.

What Type of Speech Therapy Should be Provided for Children with Dyslexia

The speech therapist should first conduct a full assessment to determine which areas are in need of therapy. The following skill areas should be assessed by a speech-language pathologist:

  • Speech Sound Errors/Skills: Is the child using any phonological processes in his speech?
  • Phonological Awareness Skills: How does the child do with phonological awareness tasks like rhyming, segmenting, blending, etc.?
  • Overall Language Skills: How does the child score on expressive and receptive language tests?

Based on the results of this evaluation, therapy should be provided to address the areas with concerns. No one area should be targeted first but rather all areas should be addressed in therapy together to help the child make changes to his entire phonological system. However, if a student is unable to focus on multiple tasks at once, the most severe limitations should be addressed first with other skills be added as possible.

Below are explanations of what type of therapy should be provided based on which areas the child is having trouble:

Speech Sound Errors

A child who is having trouble with speech sounds due to phonological problems will have trouble with entire groups of sounds. You will see patterns in the child’s speech. For example, all long sounds (sounds that can be held out like “s”) may be replaced with shorter sounds (like “t”). Or, all sounds at the ends or beginnings of words will be deleted. A child may have just one phonological process (sound error pattern) or she may have many going on at one time. This can make a child’s speech very difficult to understand.

It is normal for children to use certain phonological processes when they are very young (ending between the ages of 3-5 years) but if a child continues to use these patterns beyond the ages at which they should stop, he may have a phonological disorder.

Phonological disorders should be treated by showing the child the difference between the correct productions and his incorrect productions. For more information about treating phonological disorders, click the link below:

For more information about phonological processes (speech errors), click here!

Phonological Awareness Skills:

Phonological awareness skills are the pre-reading skills that are so crucial to reading printed words and spelling them. These are skills that allow us to manipulate sounds and put them together to form words. Or, they allow us to take words apart and understand which sounds make up that word. Here are some examples of phonological awareness skills:

  • Rhyming (What rhymes with cat? Do cow and how rhyme?)
  • Ability to segment words into syllables (How many syllables in umbrella? Um…bre…lla)
  • Syllable Blending (I’m going to say some syllables, you put them together and tell me what word they make: um…bre…lla
  • Ability to identify words with the same beginning sound (Do cat and cow start with the same sound? What else starts with the same sound as book?)
  • Ability to identify words with the same final sound (Do book and take end with the same sound? What else ends with the same sound as boat?)
  • Ability to segment words into individual sounds: consonant-vowel (CV), vowel-consonant (VC), and consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) (How many sounds are in cup? c…u..p.  3!  What sounds are in off?  O…ff)
  • Ability to segment words into individual sounds: CCVC, CVCC, CCVCC (What sounds do you hear in plate? p..l…a…te)
  • Sound Blending: (I’m going to say some sounds, you put them together and tell me what word they make: “d…o…g.” Dog!)
  • Ability to manipulate sounds in words (what word do you have if you take the “p” off of “pan”?)
  • Letter-sound correspondences: (What sound does the letter “b” make? What letter makes the “buh” sound?)

As you have read above, dyslexia is a problem that is typically caused by trouble with these underlying pre-reading skills. If a child has trouble with these skills, he will have trouble with decoding and spelling words.

Therapy for children with phonological awareness difficulties should target increasing their ability to participate in activities that include these skills. For activity ideas for increasing phonological awareness skills (and a free worksheets download), click the link below:

How to do Phonological Awareness Therapy and Improve Phonological Awareness Skills

Language Skill Deficits:

If a child with reading difficulties also scores low on expressive and receptive language tests, there may be other problems going on aside from dyslexia. Other language problems, such as problems with comprehension or problems putting together grammatically correct sentences, should be addressed alongside phonological awareness therapy in order to help the child make the greatest gains possible.

For more information about expressive and receptive language delays along with articles on how to treat specific language deficits, click the links below:

Expressive Language Delay Resource Page

Receptive Language Delay Resource Page

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Lyon, G. R., Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, B. A. (2003). Defining dyslexia, comorbidity, teachers’ knowledge of language and reading. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 1‐14.

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