Speech disorders have potentially lifelong implications for students in modern societies. They may affect social and emotional well-being and result in unemployment and underemployment and reduced earning potential.
A recent study in Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools found that there was a higher prevalence of speech disorders in males, that identified students were more likely to be in higher socioeconomic groups, and that there was difference between the perceived and actual level of support provided to these students.
The study is based on teacher identification of speech disorders in a large population of 10,425 students in Australia. Teachers identified 1.51% of students as having speech disorders, lower than the percentages identified by speech-language pathologists, but similar to methods using parent report.
The prevalence of teacher-identified speech disorders was as follows:
• 0.33% students had stuttering;
• 0.12% had a voice disorder (hoarseness, nodules); and
• 1.06% had a speech-sound disorder.
Other studies have found the prevalence of stuttering to be 0.72%, voice disorders 6%, voice nodules 30% and speech-sound disorders from 6.4-43.9%.
Fewer speech disorders after kindergarten
One reason for the lower prevalence in their study, the researchers believe, is that they relied on teacher reports of disorders rather than other screening or diagnostic techniques. Another reason for the lower prevalence figures is the age range of the cohort. A number of studies have found that the incidence of communication disorders decreases with age and the present study confirms that finding: More kindergartners had speech-sound disorders in this study than all other grades.
There were 5,016 males and 5,319 females from kindergarten through grade 6 in this study population. The children attended 36 primary schools in one Catholic diocese in Sydney, Australia. Most school systems in this region do not have speech-language pathologists (SLPs).
Teachers were provided with the following descriptions for the purpose of identification:
Stuttering: Students produce a repetition or prolongation of syllables or sounds.
Articulation: Students distort, omit or substitute speech sounds.
Verbal dyspraxia: Students have difficulty controlling voluntary movements of muscles involved in speech e.g. mispronunciation of words, poor saliva control and muscle coordination.
To identify speech disorders, special needs advisors met with every principal and learning support teacher within the school district to train them in data collection. Next, the principals and learning support teachers trained all the teachers in their districts and gave them a booklet with the descriptions above. Teachers were supplied with class survey sheets and asked to identify all students in their classes within one week. Data for this study were from a special needs survey conducted by the diocese in 2001
More boys had speech disorders
The ratio of males to females identified with speech disorders was 2.85:1. Other studies have found a higher incidence of speech disorders in males. While the gender difference could be due to a difference in development between boys and girls, the researchers note that the finding raises other questions:
“For example, could teachers’ reporting of stuttering be biased by gender; that is, could teachers be more likely to report stuttering in male rather than female students? Were the boys in these schools less likely to seek previous stuttering intervention than girls?”
The study also found that students who were identified with a speech disorder were more likely to come from schools with higher socioeconomic status (SES) rankings.
“A number of explanations are possible for this, including that high SES environments have higher expectations of communicative competence, less need to focus on more basic needs, greater infrastructure, and more strategies to access grants and other support mechanisms for their schools,” the authors note.
Teachers in the schools were asked about the level of support provided to the students with identified speech disorders. The teachers felt that most of the students received no (33.5%) or minimal (22%) learning support. No curriculum adaptation was made for 38.5% of the students, and only minor curriculum adaptations were made for 46.2% of the students with speech disorders, the researchers report.
In response to the findings, classroom teachers in the diocese now work in consultation with learning support teachers and education officers to identify students before employing a consultant SLP to collaborate in the assessment and to develop an intervention strategy.
“The Prevalence of Stuttering, Voice, and Speech-Sound Disorders in Primary School Students in Australia”, by David McKinnon, Sharynne McLeod and Sheena Reilly. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, January 2007 Volume 38 pp. 5-15.
Published in ERN February 2007 Volume 20 Number 2