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A graduate student showing a boy how to shape his mouth as the boy looks away at the camera

Hard work deserves a short break--a camper takes a moment's rest from working on his sounds.

Summer language camp makes speech therapy fun

The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences helps preschool-aged children improve their communication

By Dana Setterholm

July 21, 2006

Almost every parent can fondly recall a time when their child had difficulty articulating a letter or sound and a humorous sentence ensued. These verbal foibles are a part of growing up and learning a complex language, and most children outgrow them naturally.

For some children, however, articulating certain letters and sounds can be more difficult and require extra help--and that's where the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences' summer language camp comes in.

The camp, run by graduate students working toward degrees in Speech-Language Pathology and supervised by licensed and certified Speech-Language Pathologists, is designed to help preschool-aged children who have difficulty speaking or being understood. These children often have phonological or articulation disorders that make their speech unclear, says Mark DeRuiter, a speech-language pathologist who supervises the camp. Being unable to speak clearly and be understood can be frustrating for children, says DeRuiter, since "they are not able to easily make their wants, needs, or emotions known." This can lead to acting out or behavior issues. The camp aims at improving the children's speech to an age- and developmentally appropriate level, which is especially helpful for children about to start kindergarten.

Articulation disorders

The speech of a child who has an articulation disorder will feature distortion, substitution, or omission of sounds. Take the word "soup," for example. A child who distorts sounds might say "thoup." A child who substitutes sounds might say "toup." And a child who omits sounds might say "oup."

The camp starts with the basics: the children work on sounds and how to shape their mouths, then move on to words, phrases, sentences, and, eventually, conversation. All of this is done through games, art, toys, and songs, in order to make the camp fun for the children. "You have to use a play-based approach to refine articulation," says Marilyn Fairchild, a speech-language pathologist who also supervises the camp. She calls it "intensive therapy in a playful setting," and adds, "the kids don't realize how hard they're working."

The camp meets for two hours twice a week, and the sessions are split between time with the group (which consists of four children, four graduate students, and two supervisors) and time in pairs. Group time focuses on basic sounds and words pertaining to the theme of the week, while the time spent paired with a graduate student is a chance for individualized help. The graduate students, whom the children call their "special buddies," work with the same child all summer and have goals tailored to the child's needs. Parents are also an essential part of the camp's mission--parents can observe the sessions, and Fairchild sends home flashcards and games they can use to reinforce the day's lessons.

This is the camp's second year, and enrollment has benefited from last year's parents recommending it to family and friends. DeRuiter says that one parent even showed him a flyer another parent had made promoting the camp. Mary-Lynn Ryan, whose son Donovan participated in the camp last summer, says it was "a great experience." Donovan had an articulation disorder, making only about 40 percent of his speech understandable. After the camp, Ryan says he made "an amazing improvement"--up to 90 percent of his speech is now understandable. Ryan also appreciated the atmosphere of the camp, which she says was "very inviting, not threatening. We didn't feel like we had a handicapped child." Donovan also had a good time at the camp and liked his "special buddy." "He thought she was the best--she really got right down on his level, and he really enjoyed her," Ryan says. "He loved it."

The camp is also beneficial for the graduate students, who need 400 hours of clinical experience (along with their Master's coursework) in order to be certified as speech-language pathologists. To learn more about the camp, contact the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences.