Mild difficulties?

Do mild and moderate speech and language difficulties matter?

Many public services tell parents that their child is not eligible to receive speech pathology support because they have only mild or moderate difficulties. This is because services are tightly stretched and so limited resources are allocated to those with the highest need. Parents however sometimes think that this means their child does not need support. They may think their child's skills are "good enough" or that it is OK to "wait and see" how they progress in school. So what does "mild" and "moderate" mean and what impact does this have on children?

Children's speech and language skills are often measured using "standardised tests". This means that a test is developed and then given to large numbers of children in each age group. A child's score can be compared to how many other children perform on the same task at the same age. In a group of 100 children, 84 children will have skills in the average range or above. 16 of 100 children will have skills in the mild difficulties range or below and 7 in the moderate difficulties or below. Only 2% of children fall in the "severe" range of difficulties. This means that across 4 classes of approximately 25 children each, only about 2 children will receive specialised speech pathology support. We know however that many more children struggle with learning, literacy, social emotional development and behaviour, all of which are related to children's language skills.

Let's look at literacy first:

We know that literacy skills are vitally important. "The ability to read and write is fundamental to all areas of learning in the school curriculum. Literacy skills determine not only school success but also influence an individual’s chances of finding and retaining satisfying work beyond school, achieving financial stability, maintaining personal autonomy and promoting self-esteem (American Federation of Teachers, 2007; OECD, 2008)".

We also know that language skills are closely tied to literacy development and that children with poorer language skills are at risk of having difficulties developing literacy skills. Westwood writes "children may come to school lacking the vocabulary and syntactical knowledge necessary for understanding a teacher’s ‘language of instruction’ and for processing the language of books. It is known that language ability, particularly vocabulary knowledge, is one of the strongest predictors of successful entry into reading" (Westwood, ACER 2008).

"The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2007) provides data revealing that in 2006, approximately 46 per cent of the population had some difficulties with ‘prose reading’ (narrative texts, newspapers, brochures) and 47 per cent had difficulties with ‘document reading’ (forms, schedules, tables). These figures represent approximately 7 million Australians who experience problems with everyday literacy. Of these weak readers, approximately 18 percent perform at an extremely low level of competence (ABS, 2007)". "Some indication of the number of students with the most severe literacy difficulties can be seen in data from the regular Australian literacy benchmark assessments. The testing in 2006 revealed that some 12 per cent of students in Year 5, and 13 per cent in Year 7, failed to achieve even the minimum standard required in reading (MCEETYA, 2008)". It is clear that many more than 2% of children will go on to have significant difficulties with literacy. We know that both language and literacy skills affect children's learning across all other areas of schooling as well as behaviour, relationships, social skills and self esteem.

What about speech disorders?

We know that phonological awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words) is also closely tied to early literacy development. Gunn, Moran, and Cowan (2002) suggested that children with mild articulation errors may perform more poorly on phonological awareness tasks than age peers with no articulation problems.

Mild speech difficulties may also have an impact of children's relationships with their peers and their confidence and self esteem. A study which looked at the attitudes of fourth and sixth grade students to peers with and without mild speech difficulties and found "significantly more negative attitudes were found toward thepeers who exhibited articulatory errors". (Hall 1990)

So what do parents do?

Speech pathologists are specially trained to develop children's speech and language skills to help close the gap between these children and their peers and develop the skills needed to be successful at school. Clearly children with mild to moderate difficulties are at risk of a range of long term problems but there is not enough staff and funding in public services to meet the needs of all the children who need support. Making the choice to access a private speech pathology service can provide you with support to help your child and give your child therapy targeted at their specific needs. While this means a financial commitment for parents there are significant long terms benefits for their child. Click here to find out about funding options to help with the costs of private services.

If you have concerns about your child's speech or language skills Our website has information about these skills and checklists to see how your child is developing for their age. We provide individualised assessments and therapy for children with speech, language and learning difficulties and other disabilities. Our aim is to help parents help their child reach their potential. See how we can help or contact a speech pathologist in your local area.

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