Many children with literacy difficulties or a diagnosis of dyslexia have associated speech and language difficulties. These speech and language needs can be overlooked, though, as literacy skills are more noticeable and tend to become more of a priority, so that children are able to keep up with learning to spell and read. In fact, speech and language problems, such as word retrieval difficulties, limited sentence construction skills, difficulties producing sounds and overall reduced speech intelligibility, can sometimes be an indicator of dyslexia amongst younger children before they are diagnosed.
So how can speech and language therapy help a child who has weak literacy skills or who has a dyslexia diagnosis? There are several areas to consider, and language needs to be addressed directly, in addition to developing alternative, multisensory strategies that can be used to support overall language and literacy development.
The ideas summarised in this article draw from my own experiences of working with school aged children in a variety of settings. While there is no empirical data to support the methods of therapy suggested, these strategies have proved to be effective through regular progress reviews following therapy input.
Children with literacy difficulties often have associated word retrieval difficulties, which present as a weakness in finding/retrieving words from memory and then saying the word. As a consequence, children may misname words and stumble while talking, as they try to retrieve a word. This therefore affects their sentence organisation and clarity.
Improving word retrieval skills will help to develop sentence organisation and, therefore, expressive language skills. This will also help to encourage confidence in communication, and language skills will, as a result, be addressed and developed alongside classroom literacy skills. There are several strategies that can be used to support word retrieval skills:
It is essential to mix up strategies so therapy remains fresh and interesting. It is also important for a child to have a variety of different strategies to rely on.
Visualisation is an amazingly powerful and useful therapy tool. It can be used to support auditory processing skills, visual memory (for example, for shapes, patterns, and scenes), visual sequencing skills (remembering patterns) and expressive language skills. For a child with literacy difficulties or dyslexia, visualisation can help them to learn letter shapes and how to spell words, and it can also help with their vocabulary, as discussed above. Several different methods can be used to discover and develop visualisation skills, and for each child the process will be different.
Once a child can visualise, you can then move on to using visualisation to support letter learning and learning words.
Go through the alphabet and visualise the letters by writing them in the air. This technique also uses a kinaesthetic approach in its use of air writing. Therefore, the process of visualisation and movement will strengthen the overall learning process.
You can then move on to visualising easy, phonetic CVC (consonant/vowel/consonant) words, such as, “cat”, “hat” or “pig”, using the same process of seeing the letters in the air while air writing. Discuss what colour you see the letters as, or if there is a background, and always ensure that the child is picturing the object they are spelling as they spell.
Visualisation is extremely beneficial for learning how to spell complex, non-phonetic words, such as, “little” or “friend”. When visualising these complex words, the process is slightly different and also creative, as, essentially, a short story is made to help recall the letters of the word. Here is an example of how to spell the word “friend”: “Fat Richard is eating nine donuts.” You can have a lot of fun with this. Discuss what Richard looks like, such as the size of his stomach, and act out his story. He may be walking into a shop or eating nine donuts at home. Once the story is recalled, check the spelling of the target word by air writing and also writing the word on paper.
When working on spelling stories, support your student by allowing him/her to create their own visualised story spellings, as this will foster their independence in learning to spell. It will also be much easier for him/her to recall their own creations. Facilitate this by asking “what” and “where” questions, for example: “What does X look like?” “What does he want?” “Where do you see him?”
As a professional, if you are concerned about a child who has literacy difficulties, ensure that you also assess and observe the child’s language skills. Here are some key areas to look out for:
• does the child appear to forget words or mix up words?
• do sentences seem disorganised? Are ideas expressed poorly?
• do sentences lack clarity?
• does the child produce short sentences?
• does the child appear to lack confidence in communication?
If you observe any of these difficulties, it will be important to consider speech and language therapy intervention and commence with additional language support. By doing so, you will ensure that language skills are supported alongside developing literacy skills. Hence, both skills can develop and strengthen together.
I hope that the strategies highlighted here prove to be practical, engaging and functional. They should also be fun for both the student and the professional. Used in combination, I’m convinced they can make a beneficial addition to classroom based auditory and visual methods of developing literacy skills for all involved.
Priya Desai is a speech and language therapist working in schools. She has also self-published two motivational storybooks for young children aimed at instilling confidence in children who find handwriting and spelling challenging: