What is speech and language therapy?
Speech and language therapists help people who have difficulties with speaking or communicating, as well as those who have problems swallowing. This life-changing support can significantly improve people’s lives, transforming their health, relationships, and careers.
According to examples from NHS Health Careers, speech and language therapists (SLTs) provide treatment for:
- people who have difficulties with eating, drinking, or swallowing
- people who have problems speaking and communicating due to physical or psychological reasons
- children whose speech is slow to develop
- older people whose ability to speak has been impaired by illness or injury.
Supporting people with problems such as these offers speech and language therapists a rewarding career, as well as a number of other benefits, such as excellent job prospects. This is because speech and language therapists are in high demand, with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) recently issuing a warning that there are “simply not enough speech and language therapists either in the public or private sector to meet current demand” and recommending urgent action to meet this challenge.
What do speech and language therapists do?
Speech and language therapists provide treatment and support by blending expertise in a number of key areas, including:
They often work alongside other healthcare professionals – such as doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, psychologists, speech and language therapy assistants, and other allied health professionals – as well as relevant stakeholders, such as parents, carers, and teachers, to develop treatment plans that are tailored to meet the individual needs of their patients.
Typical tasks include assessing clients and patients, overseeing referrals, planning therapy programmes, and supporting patients through their treatments. These treatments can vary greatly in the field of speech and language therapy, and will largely depend on the cause of the problem, as well as the patient or client’s age.
The RCSLT breaks speech and language therapy client groups down into three different age ranges: babies, children, and adults.
Newborn and infant babies who struggle with feeding or swallowing – commonly referred to as dysphagia – will usually be referred to a speech and language therapist who specialises in this area. Dysphagia is most often seen in babies who are born prematurely, or who have a neurodisability, and speech and language therapists can assist in overcoming this challenge through exercises, positioning, and other techniques.
Speech and language therapists are trained to help children who have speech or communication difficulties for a number of reasons, such as:
- Cleft palate
- language delays or disorders
- learning difficulties
- Selective mutism
- voice disorders, which are conditions that affect the larynx.
According to the RCSLT, 7% of children around five years of age have speech, language, and communication needs:
“Communication difficulties put children at greater risk of poor literacy, mental health issues and poorer employment outcomes in adulthood,” the RCSLT states. “Speech and language therapy is a vital service that improves children’s language and communication skills, and aids their personal development.”
Speech and language therapists work with adults who struggle with speech and communication due to a degenerative condition, head injury, brain injury, or neurological impairment. For example, the Stroke Association estimates that two-thirds of people who have a stroke have communication problems directly after, while around one-third will have long-term difficulties.
Other causes of speech and communication issues in adults might include:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- mental illness.
SLTs also help adults who have learning disabilities to overcome challenges with their speech and communication.
What does a career in speech and language therapy look like?
There are approximately 20,000 practising speech and language therapists working in the UK, with the majority of these SLTs employed by the NHS and NHS trusts.
Common workplaces for speech and language therapists include:
- NHS and private hospitals, on hospital wards and in intensive care units
- schools, nurseries, and with other educational providers
- community health centres and clinics
- client homes
- children's development centres, such as dedicated children’s speech and language therapy service offerings
- courtrooms, prisons, and young offenders’ institutions.
- higher education institutions where SLTs can conduct research and train speech and language therapy students.
The salary range for speech and language therapists varies according to experience, employer, and specialism. However, according to the National Careers Service in England, a new full-time speech and language therapist earns approximately £25,000 per year with the NHS, while a more experienced SLT will earn around £50,000 per year.
Requirements for working in speech and language therapy
Speech and language therapists typically take one of three routes into their career:
- a degree apprenticeship in speech and language therapy
- an undergraduate speech and language degree course, such as a BSc Speech and Language Therapy programme. Entry requirements for these degrees are typically two or three A levels and five GCSEs, with subjects including English language, maths, and science
- an accelerated postgraduate programme in speech and language therapy, such as an MSc Speech and Language Therapy, which typically takes two years to complete.
Aspiring speech and language therapists are also encouraged to complete work experience as part of their training. This might include a placement or volunteer position, and will involve shadowing working SLTs to gain real-life experience in the field.
On top of this training, speech and language therapists register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and have annual continuing professional development (CPD) check-ins.
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