The Computer's Role in Speech Therapy

Corinne F. Walker, Vice President, Micro Video Corporation


Computer-based speech therapy aids are gaining increasing acceptance as valuable clinical tools, and several are currently available. Some devices are simple, providing a single type of speech display, while others are more complex, with a variety of display formats that can be used for training multiple aspects of speech. Some focus on measurement and assessment, while others are more oriented toward therapy activities. Some have scoring mechanisms that attempt to make reasonable decisions about speech, while others provide only a visual display, leaving interpretation up to the therapist. Virtually all will run under Windows, and a few may also be used on Macintosh computers.

Therapists using visual speech displays generally report finding them helpful in a number of ways. They offer new modalities for understanding sounds, help develop perception of basic speech concepts such as pitch, volume or even voicing itself, and assist in improved breath control or fluency. People of all ages typically respond to the displays with increased motivation and desire to improve, so the visual feedback can accelerate therapy progress. For older individuals (teenagers in particular!) who have already had years of therapy, a visual display can "legitimize" the process. While they may feel bored or self-conscious about doing repetitive articulation drill work face-to-face with the therapist, they’re willing to work for long periods of time with the computer.

Visual pictures of voicing or other responses to speech let individuals with speech problems participate more fully in the therapy process. The computer’s independent, non-threatening feedback transfers responsibility for their speech back onto their shoulders and gives them more involvement in judging their own speech productions. Being able to give concrete form to sounds, transient and intangible by nature, offers opportunities to explain production errors and quickly elicit changes. It’s no longer a case of what the therapist says is right or wrong, but what both see happening on the screen. They’re also less likely to argue with the computer about what it heard or to challenge the results!

Some displays are good for stimulating vocal play. Individuals can experiment and explore their voices, learn what happens when they change tongue or other articulator position, vocal tension, pitch or volume, and discover the kinesthetics of correct production. Other displays and games make the tedious repetition of targets necessary to develop automaticity a fun and rewarding process. With any of the visual display tools, though, the therapist is still an integral part of the process. Feedback on how to modify productions is important, and students, patients or clients find that as they apply the therapist’s instructions, the results are evident in the screen displays.

~ Great Expectations ~

No visual display is the "be all and end all" for speech therapy.  Speech is an extremely complex process, and the ear is an amazing instrument, capable of detecting and interpreting even minor variations in pitch, intensity, and frequency changes that make up words and blend them in connected speech. This allows us to be able to communicate with one another, even when there are significant differences is dialect, rate of speech, intonation or pronunciation.   Computers, however, do not have the innate cognitive skills necessary to make connotative judgements and detect errors, especially in connected speech.  They can only examine and respond to selected aspects of words, phrases or sentences.  They still require human intervention for successful detection and interpretation of errors.

Each of the available computer-based tools has strengths and deficiencies. A therapist who expects the computer to replace her in the therapy process will be disappointed. Those who accept what it can do and use it to supplement other techniques can achieve great results. In evaluating and using any tool, we encourage you to be realistic about what it can do and to welcome the assistance it offers. The motivational benefits of the computer are unquestionable. If nothing else, it helps keep individuals interested and involved in the process, often the greatest challenge a speech-language pathologist faces!

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Updated 02/19/2018