What is a speech-language pathologist (speech therapist)?
A speech-language pathologist (SLP) diagnoses and treats conditions that affect your ability to communicate and swallow. SLPs work with people of all ages.
As experts in communication, these specialists assess, diagnose, treat and prevent speech, language, voice and swallowing disorders from birth through old age.
“Speech-language pathologist” is the more appropriate term for a speech therapist. Still, they’re the same provider.
What does a speech-language pathologist do?
SLPs provide education and training to address speech, language, voice and swallowing disorders. For example, they work with small children who have trouble talking or understanding what’s being communicated. They work with people struggling to communicate because of developmental disorders, brain injuries, head and neck cancers, and neurological conditions.
Working with a speech-language pathologist can:
- Improve your speech. SLPs can help you form sounds that others can understand. They can help you piece together sounds, words, phrases and sentences so speech flows smoothly.
- Improve your ability to comprehend others and express yourself.SLPs can help you better understand conversation, reading materials and gestures. They can help you express yourself using words, gestures and other tools.
- Help you communicate more effectively in social settings. SLPs can help you better understand the social cues that shape conversations, such as taking turns when speaking and not standing too close or too far away during conversations.
- Help you swallow safely. SLPs can help you to better control the muscles that allow you to swallow food and drink if you have a condition that makes swallowing difficult or feel strange.
- Open up new communication possibilities if you have limited or no speaking ability. SLPs recommend communication devices to help you communicate with others, such as electronic tablets and communication boards. They can train you to use them.
What conditions do speech-language pathologists treat?
Speech-language pathologists treat:
- Articulation disorders:People with articulation disorders struggle to form sounds with their muscles correctly when they speak.
- Cognitive-communication disorders:People with cognitive-communication disorders have trouble communicating due to impaired attention, thought organization, memory or other functions related to how their brain processes information.
- Language disorders:People with language disorders struggle to comprehend what others are saying in conversation, reading words/phrases/stories or expressing themselves in ways others understand. Selective language impairment and aphasia are common types of language disorders that speech-language pathologists treat.
- Phonological disorders:People with phonological disorders can form sounds correctly with their muscles, but what comes out breaks the rules for how speech should sound.
- Resonance disorders:People with resonance disorders have a condition that disrupts the way sound waves travel through their air cavities (throat, nose and mouth) when speaking. For example, a cleft palate causes a split in the roof of your mouth, changing how sound vibrates. It makes people sound as if they’re talking through their nose, or more nasally.
- Social communication disorders: People with a social communication disorder have trouble communicating in social situations. They may struggle to understand the social cues that allow them to effectively understand others and relate to them using speech and gestures. Appropriately taking turns to speak while in conversation is one example.
- Speech impairments: Speech impairments include various conditions that make it difficult for a person to communicate and be understood. Examples include childhood apraxia of speech, dysarthria, stuttering and tongue-tie (ankyloglossia).
- Swallowing disorders (dysphagia): People with dysphagia have trouble controlling the muscles and other structures that allow them to swallow food and drink safely.
- Voice disorders (dysphonia): Various conditions can affect your vocal cords, making it challenging to produce sounds. Voice disorders include vocal cord dysfunction, vocal cord lesions and vocal cord paralysis.
- Gender-affirming voice therapy (transgender voice therapy): This therapy can help you train your voice so it better aligns with your gender.
Although it’s not often found in speech-language pathology practice (more often with audiologists), SLPs may also work with hearing-impaired populations to help them communicate more effectively.
What education and training do you need to become a speech-language pathologist?
Becoming an SLP requires an advanced degree, clinical experience, national testing, certification and a license. To earn the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s Certificate of Clinical Competence, SLPs need:
- A Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology. The degree must come from a graduate program accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology.
- A passing score on the national exam. Candidates need to complete a national exam and earn a score that meets the standards of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
- A postgraduate fellowship. After earning their degrees, SLPs-in-training must work under an experienced, certified SLP for a minimum of 1,260 hours.
- A license. SLPs must apply for a speech-language pathology license before practicing in states that require it.
In what settings will you find speech-language pathologists?
Speech-language pathologists work with different populations, such as children with developmental disorders in schools or adults with neurological disorders in hospitals. Depending on the setting and patient population, SLPs may pursue specialty certifications. Currently, SLPs may hold specialty certification in:
- Child language disorders.
- Fluency disorders.
- Swallowing disorders.
Where do speech-language pathologists work?
Speech-language pathologists work in various settings, including:
- Assisted living facilities.
- Corporate settings.
- Military bases.
- Private practice or clinics.
- Rehabilitation centers.
- Skilled nursing/long-term care facilities.
When should I see a speech-language pathologist?
Your primary care physician may refer you to an SLP. Or you might see an SLP if you have concerns about yourself or someone else. This includes (but isn’t limited to) the ability to:
- Speak, understand and express yourself.
- Use your voice.
- Swallow food or drink.
- Take oral medications.