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Speech, Language and Literacy

babyAbout a year ago, a friend of mine, a literacy specialist who has been teaching children how to read for over thirty years, approached me with questions about one of her students. He was a young teenager with whom she had been working for over a year, and despite her best efforts to help, he simply wasn’t making any significant gains in reading or writing. In her frustration she told me that he exhibited very poor literacy skills and suspected that his poor speaking and language comprehension might have something to do with it. Did I think that difficulties with language might contribute to delayed literacy outcomes?


Speech, language and literacy are closely intertwined. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA, 2001; 2002), reading and writing problems may be rooted in a child’s difficulty with language. For example, a young child’s awareness of sounds and how those sounds go together directly impacts his or her later ability to segment and blend sounds into words. Difficulties with auditory or short-term memory and retrieval of words can make a process like learning how to read extremely taxing. Written language skills, including spelling, may be delayed if a child struggles with spoken language.

Many parents have asked me how they can bolster their child’s literacy skills at home as well as prepare him or her for the rigorous reading and writing expectations in school. It can be difficult to squeeze reading into our busy lives, but even a few minutes of literacy here and there can make a world of difference. I often make the following recommendations:

  • Read to your child every day, even if for just a few minutes. A friend of mine with two toddlers spends twenty minutes one-on-one with each child every evening after dinner. One pediatrician I spoke with a few months ago suggested taking a favorite book with you everywhere you go so it is on hand when you have a spare moment to read. I’m not suggesting that these are the only ways (or even the best ways) to incorporate reading into your everyday lives; find something that works for you and your family and stick with it.
  • If your child is older, encourage him to visit your local public library and check out a book pertaining to his personal interests. Help him fill out the necessary paperwork so he can have his own personal library card.
  • The world around us is chalk full of words. Opportunities to promote literacy abound! Point out street signs, business names, menus in restaurants, even letters on pet collars to your child. Everyday activities such as driving and grocery shopping can become rich literacy-enhancing experiences.

Read wherever, whenever. Read early and often. You may find that increasing the amount of time you spend reading with your child may improve not only his or her literacy skills, but overall language skills as well.

A few months after our initial conversation, I followed up with my literacy specialist friend about the student who didn’t appear to be making progress. She told me that she consulted with the student’s parents, who agreed to enroll him in a speech-language therapy program. Within weeks, small gains in language gave way to progress in reading and writing. “It was like magic,” she told me, “and it all happened so fast!” Not all gains in literacy or language will be quick, but work in one area will inevitably benefit the other.

Elizabeth Perry, M.S., CF-SLP


ASHA. (2001). Role and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists with Respect to Reading and Writing in Children and Adolescents (Technical Report). Rockville, MD: Author.

ASHA. (2002). Knowledge and Skills Needed by Speech-Language Pathologists with Respect to Reading and Writing in Children and Adolescents, Rockville, MD: Author