Proficient language development is key for children to succeed in multiple domains: making friends, completing homework, writing their names, listening to instructions, and so on. For some kiddos, learning how to communicate with others and comprehending written or verbal language does not come as easily due to developmental delay or disability. This is where language therapy comes into play, carried out by experts who can break down the details and help children get on track with their typically developing peers. In this post, we’ll define what language therapy is, show several examples of how language therapy helps children develop communication skills, and how customized interventions can help children overcome language-based disabilities.
What is language therapy?
Language therapy refers to a very broad category of interventions used to help children develop the skills to express and understand communication in written and verbal forms. If a child’s language development is disrupted by disability or delay, a highly trained expert such as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) would evaluate the child in great detail and develop a customized language therapy intervention plan. Take a look at the following case scenario:
Joshua is a 7-year-old child with an autism spectrum disorder. His mother decides to schedule a consultation with a local SLP named Mary. According to his mom, Joshua can understand and accurately carry out most directions at home, such as instructions to clean up his toys, go to the bathroom, and put his shoes on to go out. However, Joshua expresses very few words and usually gestures or points at objects and people to communicate his needs. Mary conducts a series of language tests to get a better understanding of why Joshua struggles to produce verbal language. She also observes and asks questions about Joshua’s favorite activities and interests to develop a good relationship and to captivate his interest during therapy sessions. For example, Joshua loves his superhero action figures, and Mary uses his toys to tell stories and to teach him to have conversations with her and others.
What are the pieces involved in language therapy?
For many individuals, language production is just another automatic part of their daily routine. We don’t put much thought into what factors or skills make up language unless there’s a problem. Language production can be broken down into two main categories: expressive language and receptive language.
Expressive language is a child’s ability to verbally communicate their needs and wants to others. It involves the skills needed to transform thoughts into understandable words and sentences. Expressive language is crucial for children to perform the following:
- Asking questions
- Verbally identifying objects, ideas, and people
- Providing others with instructions
- Making comments
- Communicating when they hurt or don’t feel well
- Sharing opinions
- Singing lyrics
- Reciprocating conversation
Receptive language is a child’s ability to comprehend or understand language. They possess the skills to take expressive or verbal input from others, analyze it, and create an appropriate response based on what’s been said to them. With healthy receptive language skills, children can:
- Understand verbal or written directions or instructions from others
- Understand gestures
- Read and comprehend a book
- Identify pictures, objects, and people
- Appropriately answer questions
- Understand a story
Expressive and receptive language work hand in hand to create effective communication. Of course, language development takes time and experience. SLPs and other language therapy experts develop intervention plans that are age-appropriate so children with language delays can meet their goals according to what is relevant to their age group. Take a look at the next case scenario:
Tina is a 13-year-old with Down syndrome and a language processing disorder. Although Tina can efficiently express her wants and needs, she struggles with understanding written and verbal language. Whenever she has conversations with her classmates, she assumes that any comment is an insult and she reacts poorly. For example, her friend Shelby told her that she looked beautiful in her new dress. Tina did not understand the compliment and told the teacher that Shelby was being mean to her. Tina’s SLP has been working with her to improve her receptive language skills appropriate for teenage students by providing social stories during therapy sessions.
Why is language therapy important?
Language therapy is a vital tool that may not always be considered during a child’s early development. Many parents intuitively understand that language skills develop over time, and sometimes it’s challenging to notice delays without a trained eye. Language assessments and intervention can help parents identify problems early so that their children can excel in many areas of their life:
Children learn to interact with each other through play, even at its earliest stages when verbal communication is limited. Sharing toys turn into imaginative play which turns into structured games that rely on effective communication. Playtime initiates the first signs of reciprocal communication and allows for the foundations of language to begin.
Once kids have grown past the younger play stage, language is used to communicate for the purpose of developing long-lasting relationships or friendships. Talking or texting on the phone or going on dates/outings requires understanding each other and communicating both thoughts and feelings.
Academics not only relies on language but also foster and further develop the skills necessary to improve communication for adulthood. Reading, writing, grammar, and spelling are just some of the few building blocks needed to succeed in a school setting.
Sports, music groups, gaming clubs, and other extracurricular activities flourish when groups work as a team. Without language and reciprocal communication, teamwork falls apart and so does the success of the group as a whole.
Family time, chores, and leisure time at home are all heavily influenced by language. Parents or guardians should be constantly communicating with their children to aid in their development, and that becomes dramatically impaired if the child lacks the skills.
Without language, children of all ages would be unable to communicate their frustrations, sadness, anger, and joy. Children with language processing disorders commonly display aggressive, maladaptive behavior simply because they don’t know how to verbalize their feelings to others and receive the proper care or validation.
Higher-level cognitive skills
The building blocks for language help build the foundation for other higher cognitive processes: decision making, time management, organization, impulse control, critical thinking, shifting attention, and so on. Limited language skills affect the entire brain and all of its associated processes that help kids function and understand the world around them.
Who needs language therapy?
Language therapy can be used for anyone across the age span who demonstrates delayed language development or a disability that impedes their ability to learn language skills. Language processing issues, expressive or receptive, generally stem from neurological, developmental, or psychiatric conditions that impact the centers of the brain responsible for language production. Here are some examples of conditions that may benefit from language therapy:
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Down syndrome
- Angelman syndrome
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Traumatic brain injury
- Cerebral palsy
- Fragile X syndrome
- Global developmental delay
- Visual-perceptual disorders
- Intellectual disability
- Learning disability
- Hearing loss
Of course, this list is not all-inclusive and many children with these disorders may not actually present with a language-based disorder. That’s why it’s important for parents to seek an SLP consultation early so that if language deficits are present then their children can get the right interventions as soon as possible.
What is the difference between speech therapy and language therapy?
Since SLPs provide interventions in both speech therapy and language therapy, there is much room for overlap. If a child has a cleft palate, there is limited speech production which automatically limits language development. If a child has an expressive language disorder, speech production is also automatically limited because no words are coming out. However, there are a few distinctions between the two types of therapies:
Speech therapy focuses on the anatomical elements involved in speech, sound, and articulation production. Interventions may address issues in the vocal cords, jaw, tongue, teeth, lips, and the soft/hard palates of the mouth. An SLP would use a wide variety of exercises to improve speech production, such as oral motor placement, as well as refer the child to other disciplines if needed (i.e. dentistry, general surgeon, orthodontist, etc.).
Language therapy targets improvements in vocabulary so that a child can improve their abilities to form and understand words as well as sentences. Although language therapy results in improved speech production, the focus is less anatomical and more focused on making the brain connections for typical expressive and receptive communication.
Examples of Language therapy
SLPS and other experts trained in performing language therapy interventions utilize activities that fit a child’s interest and their age group. The goal of these activities presents a child with a safe, comfortable atmosphere to practice and eventually develop their language skills so that they can effectively communicate at the same level as their typically-developing peers. Here are a few examples of language therapy activities:
Present a story to your child where they are one of the characters. Use pictures to help present the story better. Readout loud the interactions the child has with other characters in the story. There are many free social stories available online for multiple age groups.
Video-record your child or a sibling communicating or playing with someone else. Allow for your child to watch the video as many times as they’d like. Pause and repeat certain words if your child needs to work on specific segments. Help your child pronounce words that are said in the video.
Playing dolls, superheroes, house, grocery store, school, and other imaginative games at home allows for a copious amount of opportunity for language development. Help the child create their own stories and to take charge of their own imaginative play. Guide them and cue them as needed.
Take pictures of familiar places, objects, and people and create little cards that the child can shuffle and look through. Make sure you label each picture so that the child can read, point, and say what the picture is.
Sing simple songs or nursery rhymes with your child repeatedly. Clap your hands and make other hand gestures to capture their attention and to get them to follow along with you.
Sit down and read a book with your child every night. Go slowly and trace the words with your fingers while your child follows along. Talk about the book and help the child make connections to the characters and the plotline.
Using picture cards, help your child categorize favorite things in their lives. Examples may include favorite people, toys, food, places, and activities. Help the child pronounce and identify each card as they organize each category.
Grocery shopping trip
Going grocery shopping allows for additional language-development outside the comforts and predictability of home. Involve your child in the grocery process: picking meals for the week, reading and writing the grocery list, locating items in the store, pointing at price tags, pointing at other objects in the store while naming them out loud, etc.
How can parents successfully carry out these language activities at home?
If you want to see success come from your language therapy activities with your child at home while minimizing frustration, there are several steps you can take:
- Eliminate distractions: put the phone away, turn off the music, turn off the TV, and limit the number of people in the room. Make sure it’s only one parent or guardian who is taking the lead on the language activity. If instructions come from more than one person, the inconsistency and split attention could make things worse.
- Have fun together: Pick an activity that you and your child will both enjoy. If you don’t look like you’re having fun, your child will sense that and mimic your disinterest.
- Go slow: Do not expect results immediately. Point at words, objects, or pictures, and identify each in a slow manner. Recite stories or sentences slowly so your child has the chance to absorb the information.
- Give your child processing time: One of the real challenges with language processing disorders is that the environment doesn’t allow the child enough time to process information. Recite a story, read a word, read a sentence, and then follow it up with complete silence. Allow your child to work through the language and process it.
- Repeat repeat repeat: Combined with the slow approach to allow for processing, repeat words as often as possible so that your child can mimic the language and dedicate it to memory.
- Copy and build on what they say: If your child is reciting words, build on it to expand their vocabulary. For example, if your child says, “Bus” say, “Yes, it’s a big yellow bus.”
- Show them the right way: If your child is mispronouncing a word or mislabeling an object, gently correct them without advertently telling them they are wrong.
- Get help if needed: If you are not an SLP or an expert in language learning, you are not expected to know everything about carrying out language-based interventions. Consult with an expert if needed.
Language therapy is a series of beneficial interventions performed by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) used to improve receptive and expressive language. Many children would benefit from participating in language therapy services, especially if they demonstrate a delay in language development spurred on by a neurological, psychiatric, or developmental disability. If you are concerned that your child may have a language impairment or language processing disorder, research SLPs in your area and seek a referral from your pediatrician. Visit The Therapy Place for more educational information and resources.
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