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UC researcher seeking to improve childhood speech disorder

UC researcher seeking to improve childhood speech disorder 
December 9, 2012
A University of Canterbury (UC) study is looking at how best to improve the literacy and education achievements of New Zealand children who struggle with speech disorders.
UC senior literacy lecturer Dr Brigid McNeill is conducting a national study by following 54 children aged five to seven years with suspected childhood apraxia of speech.
Childhood apraxia of speech is a poorly understood speech disorder. There are huge gaps in knowledge about how to diagnose it properly, what aspects of communication and literacy development are likely to be affected and how best to support children with the disorder. 
``Traditionally, the disorder has been thought of as a purely ‘motor’ impairment with children’s difficulty pronouncing sounds thought to be due to difficulty planning movements for speech,’’ Dr McNeill said today.
``More recently, concerns over the language and literacy development of those affected have received attention in the literature. Such findings implicating language and literacy development in those affected have cast some doubt over whether this can be viewed as a purely ‘motor planning’ disorder. 
``My current project is the first study of its kind to explore the broad profile of children with the suspected disorder over time with a large sample. Children in the study participate in a comprehensive speech, language and literacy assessment five times during the two year study.
``Speech production, oral movements, vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension, storytelling, grammatical skill, reading and spelling are among the areas of development monitored. The study draws participants from Northland to Dunedin. Data collection for the project is nearing completion, with the participants undergoing their final assessment in the next three months.’’
Dr McNeill said initial analysis of the results showed participants were generally affected in their motoric, language and literacy development.  More than 75 percent of children in the study required support in at least one area in addition to speech production.
More work was needed to be done to enhance the literacy and educational achievement of children with the disorder in New Zealand, she said.
``Children with severe speech difficulty are usually referred for speech and language therapy support in the pre-school years. There’s a lot we could be doing to facilitate early literacy development in this group rather than waiting for difficulties to be recognised later on.
``These findings have huge implications for the selection of speech therapy approaches for the group. It seems that it is not enough to work on ‘output’ or speech movement skills alone for many children with the disorder. Such an approach is likely to ignore the broader underlying difficulty and do little to enhance early literacy development.
``The results show a need to integrate speech therapy and educational support for children with speech disorder. Such a model has the best chance of seeing children affected by such difficulties meet their communication and academic potential,’’ she said.
About five percent of New Zealand children are affected by some form of speech disorder. Dr McNeill’s project has received $300,000 from a Marsden Fund fast start research grant for excellent early career researchers.


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