What is Speech Pathology?

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has a master's degree in cancer biology and has taught high school and college biology.

Speech pathology encompasses many different aspects of not only speech, but also language and communication. This lesson will describe the field, and look at when and how the techniques of speech pathology are used.

Speech Pathology

You and a friend are sitting around and talking about the vacations you have planned for the upcoming summer. The conversation is going smoothly because you're able to communicate with each other. Every element that is needed for communication is present. When you are speaking, you are the sender and what you are saying is the message. Talking is the way you choose to deliver your message. Your friend hears the words and interprets their meaning to understand the message.

But communication only works when all parts of the process are present. Some people have difficulty sending and/or receiving messages, and therefore have difficulties with communication. This can affect their ability to communicate verbally as well as through reading and writing. Often this occurs as a result of a disease, condition, or disorder.

The study of communication and language problems due to disease, condition, or disorder is known as speech pathology. A person who studies and works in this field is known as a speech pathologist. Speech pathology focuses not only on the ability to communicate, but also on the reasons people may have difficulty swallowing, which is a condition known as dysphagia. Because of everything that falls under speech pathology, it is often called speech-language pathology, or SLP for short.

Examples and Techniques


Many children are born with disorders and conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome. Problems with communication almost go hand-in-hand with these disorders. In some instances, the child may be able to understand what is being communicated to them, but may not be able to send a message back. Other children may be able to make sounds in an attempt to speak, but the words are not clear or loud enough for someone else to understand what they are saying. This condition is known as dysarthria. In extreme cases of these disorders, children may not be able to comprehend language at all, whether it is written or spoken.

Speech pathology seeks to find out where the exact disconnect is in the process of communication, then looks for ways to fix it or work around it. The speech pathology finding could be that the problem is caused by apraxia, or an inability to control the tongue and face muscles; hearing problems; breakdown in communication from the brain to the mouth; or difficulty making the correct facial expressions.

Speech pathologists have many techniques for helping these children learn to communicate better. A speech pathologist would suggest that a child who cannot hear (or cannot hear well) learn sign language as a means to communicate. A speech pathologist may ask a child to drink through straws, blow on whistles, or push their tongue against tongue depressors to help them learn how to use their tongue and other muscles in the mouth. When a child is unable to communicate much in any manner, then the speech pathologist may play games with them in a small group in order to prompt communication. Speech pathologists will also teach children with the most severe communication problems how to use communication-assistive devices, such as picture boards or computers that can synthesize words.

The patient-operated selector mechanism (POSM) was one of the first voice generating machines used in speech pathology
Picture of voice generator

Since the other elements of communication involve another person, the treatment process will usually include those who communicate most with the child, such as parents, siblings, teachers, and friends. Speech pathologists have found that children have more success with therapy when the other people in their lives learn how to communicate best with the child.


Many adults who develop problems with communication experience this as a result of disease progression or some type of brain and/or spinal cord injury. Examples of these include strokes, concussions, brain and throat cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. Adults with these conditions may develop aphasia, which is difficulty reading, understanding, speaking, writing or using numbers. Speech pathology can also uncover apraxia, dysphagia, and dysarthria.

Communication boards use pictures and sometimes words to promote communication
Picture of a communication board

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