Speech and literacy: The connection and the relevance to clinical populations

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4 Scopus citations


Both speech production and literacy skills are of significant concern to educators and early interventionists. Longitudinal research has shown that children with speech and/or literacy problems remain at significant risk for limited academic, social, and occupational achievement. While these two behavioral domains have often been studied separately (as speech-language disorders and as reading disabilities), the co-occurrence of speech and literacy problems is well-documented, with deficits in one domain often accompanied by (sometimes subtle) deficits in the other. The theoretical link between speech and literacy-related skills in children is reviewed in this chapter, with emphasis on the phonological components of reading. Research is summarized on two main topics: the identification of individuals who are at risk for literacy problems through speech assessment, and the literacy-related skills of children with speech sound disorders. Data are then presented that demonstrate how short-term phonological memory may play an important connecting role between speech and literacy in children with speech sound disorders. Finally, the implications for assessment and intervention for children with speech sound disorders are summarized in an effort to provide a more comprehensive framework for translating research on the speech-literacy link into clinical practice. Literacy skills, which must be explicitly taught, have their foundations in speech-related skills, which are often learned quite naturally. Alphabetic writing systems take advantage of the fact that there are discernable categories of speech sounds (phonemes) that are produced by speakers of the language. Thus, proficient literacy skills, particularly in an alphabetic orthography, are aided by one's facility with the phonology of the language. That is, successful reading of an alphabetic system involves mapping print to the speech signal, while spelling requires mapping speech to print. The goals of this chapter are to briefly review the well-established connection between speech and literacy, discuss the theoretical and empirical link (based primarily in phonological processing), and extend the discussion of speech and literacy skills to shed light on two clinical populations: children who do not have facility with literacy skills, and children who do not have facility with the productive phonology of their language. It will become apparent that children with literacy problems have been found to have subtle problems with productive phonological skills, and children with speech sound disorders often have problems with literacy-related skills. The implications for clinical research will be addressed throughout the chapter to highlight why the speech-literacy connection is of importance. Phonological short-term memory will be discussed as an important skill in literacy development, and data will be presented to demonstrate how this skill could be assessed in children with poor intelligibility. The term speech sound disorder (SSD) will be used to refer to those children who have difficulty producing or using the sounds of their language, but for whom there is no obvious cause (such as hearing impairment, cleft palate, developmental disorder, etc.); other terminology, such as articulation impairment, phonological disorder, or expressive phonological impairment, have been used in the literature. The terms dyslexia or reading difficulties will be used to refer to children who demonstrate low performance on reading and/or spelling tasks in the absence of an obvious cause (cognitive problems, developmental disabilities, etc.). It should be noted that nearly every study reviewed here uses its own criteria for determining these categories (SSD or dyslexia), and many studies use different terms to refer to the same populations. In addition, both speech production and literacy skills are immensely complex and cannot be thoroughly reviewed here. Both rely on cognitive-behavioral skills that include attention, memory, perception, etc., all of which are the byproduct of genetic and environmental influences; thus, the relationships that will be discussed exist within the context of many other complex neural, psychological, and biological relationships. Accurately measuring the essential parameters of speech and reading is still a challenge even to the most experienced researchers and clinicians Approximately 50-75% of children with SSD have been found to have long-term academic problems (see Lewis et al., 2006), and approximately 28% of children identified as "at-risk" for literacy problems are referred for speech therapy (Pennington & Lefly, 2001). Thus, the overlap among speech and reading problems is not negligible. Reading educators often lack sufficient knowledge of phonology (Brady et al., 2009), and some speech-language pathologists judge that they lack sufficient knowledge of reading (e.g., a series of editorials in the ASHA Leader 2007-2008). Although this may be a limitation in our professional training programs, research demonstrates a robust relationship between phonological and literacy skills that should be of concern to both professions. Ultimately, we wish to understand speech and reading at the level both of the individual (a particular client or student, etc.) and in populations (persons with SSD, dyslexia, etc.). Thus, beginning with the simple notion that speech skills are a foundation for literacy, it is important to discuss how and why these skills should be considered together. From a systems-based perspective, both SSD and reading problems have been discussed as arising from weaknesses in the auditory processing or perception of speech, skill automization, and timing mechanisms. For example, individuals with SSD (Jamieson & Rvachew, 1992; Ohde & Sharf, 1988) as well as those with reading problems (Lieberman, Meskill, Chatillon, & Schupack, 1985) have been reported to show below-average identification of synthesized speech, and difficulty encoding the temporal order of perceived speech sounds (Bridgeman & Snowling, 1988; Joanisse, Manis, Keating, & Seidenberg, 2000; Mody, Studdert-Kennedy, & Brady, 1997; Watson & Miller, 1993). Both clinical populations have been shown to struggle with speech-and non-speech rhythmic tasks and motor coordination tasks (Bradford & Dodd, 1996; Fawcett, Nicolson, & Maclagan, 2001; Peter & Stoel-Gammon, 2008). Given that reading skills rely heavily on oral language, it is not surprising that many of the same neural regions needed for speech perception and production are also required for reading and spelling (Constable et al., 2004; Fulbright, et al., 1999; Nicolson, Fawcett, & Dean, 2001; Pugh, et al., 2000). From an etiological perspective, similar causes have been put forth as contributing to both speech and reading problems. Genetic influences and family histories of the respective disorders likely contribute to the manifestation of both speech and reading problems in children (Campbell, et al., 2003; Lewis, et al., 2006; McGrath, et al., 2007; Shriberg et al., 2005). Additionally, impoverished language environments, often associated with low socioeconomic status or low parental education, likely plays a role in some cases of speech and reading difficulty (Campbell, et al., 2003; McDowell, Lonigan, & Goldstein, 2007).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSpeech Disorders
Subtitle of host publicationCauses, Treatment and Social Effects
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages31
ISBN (Print)9781608762132
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Health Professions
  • General Medicine


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