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Strategies to Improve Teaching Students with Speech and Language Impairments During a Mask Mandate

Updated: Jan 4

By Toby Tomlinson Baker, PhD

Teaching students with Speech and Language Impairments (SLI) was challenging enough before the pandemic. Since then, many students with SLI have returned to in-person learning at their designated school sites. This means that students must participate in the mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing, utilize daily authorized screening passes and apps, and wear cloth and/or medical masks, such as N95 masks, that cover their mouths eight hours a day, except when eating or drinking.

For safety, teachers are also required to wear these masks over their noses and mouths during instruction, including speech and language instruction. As a result, students are unable to access the full curriculum. Cloth and medical masks, such as N95 masks, can impede the appropriate learning of speech and language since they create a visual barrier and obscure a student’s receptive language (understanding). Furthermore, these masks can block communication such as facial expressions, smiles, and the reading of lips. Yet, what is even more noticeable is the student’s inability to explore expressive language or to convey information, imitate sounds, and model appropriate sound production. How do you teach the /th/ sound and the placement of your tongue when a mask is covering your mouth?

Although students with SLI have complied with their school’s COVID mandates, it is unfortunate that wearing traditional masks impedes their learning progress. In addition, many students with SLI are receiving limited academic information during direct instruction due to their disability. This restriction to equal access is magnified by teachers wearing masks.

Students with disabilities, including those with speech and language impairments, are often placed in settings where they were able to rehearse appropriate speech and appropriate peer talk. As youth with SLI often require additional services to speech and language instruction, wearing a mask during informal language peer interactions can be even more challenging. Teachers are tasked with teaching conversational skills, life skills, and components of meaningful interaction. These exercises are significantly less effective with the use of masks.

All students in school are impacted by wearing a cloth mask in a classroom setting during the day. Students with speech and language impairments are especially impacted by the academic and social ramifications of wearing a mask.

Some strategies that may be employed to improve communication and learning include:

1. Wearing a transparent mask to increase visual ability,

2. Wearing a microphone to amplify the sound, and

3. Encouraging students to repeat information and directions upon receiving them.

Teachers and speech-language pathologists must continue to monitor students’ speech delays and proceed with precautionary measures for this population.

But having daily or even weekly quality speech and language instruction with students with SLI may be unmanageable. As a result of moving from 100% virtual settings to in-person school settings, speech-language pathologists are inundated with referrals and assessments, particularly in elementary schools. Moreover, retaining a licensed and qualified speech and language pathologist is becoming increasingly difficult because so many are leaving the profession.

As United States schools are still operating in a pandemic, obviously the safety and health of all students and staff must take precedence over the speech and language needs of students. Yet, it is still worth recognizing that one of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is that students with SLI tend to be behind their grade-level non-disabled peers, but each child is different depending on their exact speech or language disorder. Still, according to many speech and language pathologists, students with SLI who receive services in-person have produced better language results than they had during a Zoom session. To continue making progress with students, speech and language pathologists, special educators, and family members must continue raising awareness of this often-neglected issue impacting their children and students with speech and language impairments.

Toby Tomlinson Baker has earned her Ph.D. at Pepperdine University and is a lecturer at California State University-Los Angeles (CSULA). She teaches special education with the Los Angeles Unified School District and is a district trainer. Dr. Baker was recognized by the award-winning magazine, Exceptional Needs Today as the Top Education Policy Writer. She has also been awarded the Harrison Sylvester Award for her research by the Learning Disability Association (LDA) and has been CHADD’s 2018 Educator of the Year.

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