Speech, language and communication

Strong language skills underpin classroom learning in all subject areas, from preschool to high school. Speech, language and communication skills are crucial for student wellbeing, behaviour and social relationships.

Researchers reported by Speech Pathology Australia state that up to 17% of four year old Australian children have language and early literacy difficulties. Researchers also say that around 13% of high school students have communication difficulties. It is important that these students are supported so their difficulties don’t prevent them from learning and participating fully at school. This support may need to be ongoing.

Speech Pathology Australia and the NSW Department of Education recognise the importance of schools, families, and speech pathologists working collaboratively to support the speech, language and communication skills of students. We developed this information to assist school staff, parents, teachers, students and speech pathologists to tackle the challenge of speech, language and communications difficulties.

Four smiling students sitting around a small circular table with school work on it.

Why speech, language and communication skills are so important

Speech, language and communication skills are:

● building blocks for the basic skills of literacy and numeracy

● necessary for students to understand class content, express ideas and work together with others at school

● closely linked to behaviour, social skills and building friendships. We use communication to convey how we are feeling and to ask for help when we need it.

Stronger together: family, school and speech pathologist

The best outcomes are achieved when everyone involved with supporting the student’s speech, language and communication works together as a team.

Visit the Stronger together: family, school and speech pathologist page for more information.

What you need to know about speech, language and communication

Understanding the following information will help you work with speech pathologists.

What is a speech pathologist?

University trained allied health professionals who work with children and adults who have speech, language and communication problems and/or difficulties swallowing. Speech Pathology Australia has information about finding a speech pathologist in your area.

What do speech pathologists do?

Speech pathologists help people of all ages with communication disorders and swallowing difficulties. They also undertake diagnosis and research. Speech pathologists often work with interpreters when the family or student speech another language or dialect other than English.

Communication disorders can include difficulties with:

○ speaking

○ listening

○ understanding language

○ reading

○ writing

○ social skills

○ stuttering

○ voice.

Swallowing difficulties can include difficulties with:

○ feeding

○ positioning for feeding, eating and drinking

○ swallowing food

○ drinking safely.

Speech, language and communication: How they work and why they matter


  • saying the sounds in words so that people can understand what is being said


  • putting ideas into words and sentences (expressive language)
  • understanding what people say or write (receptive language)


  • how we use language to interact with others

As well as using spoken words, language and communication also includes the use of written words, pictures, symbols, gestures, signing, objects, computers and electronic devices.

How and when speech, language and communication skills usually develop

Parents and carers are the first teachers in a child’s life. Find out what speech, language and communication skills are expected at certain ages.

Two students reading books outside and one student jumping in air

Terms to describe speech, language and communication difficulties

● Speech sound disorder (SSD):

difficulty in the development of a person’s speech so they have trouble saying sounds clearly. It can include articulation disorder, phonological disorder and childhood apraxia of speech. It may also be called speech difficulties, speech delay or speech impairment.

● Stuttering (fluency disorder):

when the flow of speech is stopped or interrupted.

● Voice disorder:

any change in the voice which effects the sound of the voice and ability to communicate. It can include sounding hoarse, husky, soft or strained.

● Developmental language disorder (DLD):

when children have ongoing difficulties understanding or using spoken language and there is no clear reason for these difficulties. In the past, DLD was called Specific Language Impairment (SLI).

● Language disorder associated with:

difficulties understanding or using spoken language together with other disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autistic spectrum disorder or hearing loss.

● Language difficulties:

when a baby, infant or child may be slow in reaching the expected stages for talking and listening. At this stage it is unknown if the difficulties will be ongoing.


● Social communication disorder (SCD):

difficulties with the rules of spoken language that help people connect. This includes trouble following the rules of conversation, such as taking turns and staying on topic. In the past it may have been called pragmatic language disorder or semantic pragmatic disorder.

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