Collaborating with Speech-Language Pathologists

11 Ways to Use Music to Improve Speech Sounds

By NAfME Members Mara E. Culp, MME, and Barbara Roberts, M.S., CCC-SLP

Near and Dear to My Heart

Teaching music to students with special needs is a subject very near and dear to my heart. As a K-12 music teacher I taught many students with special needs, including several diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). It saddens me that students with special needs may be denied access to a music education based on a lack of teacher knowledge about how to accommodate these students (Abramo, 2012). Therefore, it truly warmed my heart to learn NAfME was hosting a 2-day special learners preconference focusing on music education for students with ASD. For more information on this topic in particular, I recommend Teaching Music to Students with Autism (Hammel & Hourigan, 2013). 

– Mara E. Culp, MME


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Speech-Language Impairments


If you are K-12 music teacher, there is a high likelihood you will have students with speech-language impairments in your space. Students with speech or language impairments represent the second-most prevalent disability category among school-aged children (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2009) and most are in typical classrooms (Mullen & Schooling, 2010). Sadly, these students are at a greater risk for academic failure (Baker & McLeod, 2011; NICHCY, 2011) and hindered emotional development (Call, 1980), which could negatively impact their performance and participation in music classrooms. (See Table 1.)


Connections between Musical and Speech-Language Processes


Music teachers may be naturally equipped to serve this population due to the nature of musical and speech-language processes. Music and language share similar neural processes (Hodges & Sebald, 2011), and musical abilities have been positively connected to language abilities (Forgeard et al., 2008; Moritz, et al., 2013; Tierney & Kraus, 2013). Further, positive realizations in speech- and language-related processes have been realized from musical activities (Degé & Schwarzer, 2011; El Mogharbel, et al., 2006) and remediation (Goffi-Fynn & Carroll, 2013; Wicklund, 2010). (See Table 2.)


Better Together: Understanding Developmentally Appropriate (Music or Language) Practice


Due to intricacies of speech-language development and musical development, it may be wise to consult a professional with expertise. Each professional has been trained in developmentally appropriate practice in that domain and will be aware of a child’s particular abilities, potential goals, and means by which those goals could be reached. By combining efforts, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and music educators could create music and language activities that are developmentally appropriate and effective in both settings. In this way, the two constructs would work together optimally so that musical skills and language skills are naturally bolstered in both settings and do not detract from one another due to avoidable interference.


Similarities between Music Education and Speech-Language Pathology that Aid Collaboration


Music educators and SLPs may already share some similar practices and goals. For example, both seek to improve articulation. To achieve a goal such as this, incorporating musical elements is suggested practice for SLPs (Bauman-Wängler, 2008; Zoller, 1991) and some techniques may even be applicable in settings with wind instruments (Schade, 2007). Because SLPs also work with many of the same basic temporal elements as music educators (e.g., pitch and rhythm), it is reasonable to assume they will have more success and enjoyment engaging in collaborations that also utilize those familiar concepts and tasks (Hartas, 2004). (See Table 3.)


Starting the Collaboration


Reviewing elements that will impact the ultimate success or failure of the collaboration is vital. If the collaboration is not approached thoughtfully and respectfully, the full potential of the collaborative efforts may never be realized – or it may never get off the ground. When collaborations fail, educators lose out on new information and insights, but it is really the student who suffers.


The Collaborative Mindset


When collaborating it is important you both share the same perspective, or mindset, about the collaboration (Hartas, 2004). A child- and family-centered perspective places the needs of the child and the family first (Prelock, 2000) and can be very useful when beginning a collaboration with another educational professional. In school settings, we can find ourselves defined by our subject matter. The statements: “I teach music” or “I teach speech” may become an identity, rather than a description of the area of study. A student-centered mindset requires music teachers reformulate statements such as “I teach MUSIC to students,” to “I teach STUDENTS music.” In this way, the child’s needs are put first and all parties become more receptive to new methods, approaches, and collaborative efforts to help the whole child succeed.


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Contacting an SLP


Step 1: Locate an SLP | To discover SLPs providing services in your school or district, contact your principal and/or special education coordinator. If an SLP does not service your school, try reaching out to a university’s communication sciences and disorders (CSD) department, where speech-language pathology is housed.


Step 2: Understand and Respect the SLP’s Role | Understanding and respecting the others’ role helps professionals better recognize and appreciate what and how others may contribute. For example, Loraine (2008) developed a handout for parents describing the role of an SLP that could be useful for music educators as well.


Step 3: Establish a Conn ection | Establishing a connection allows you to lay an open, positive foundation for the collaboration. After familiarizing yourself with the specialist’s role, reach out. Demonstrate interest by sending an email or placing an introductory letter in the SLP’s school mailbox. You could include a face-to-face interaction too.


Implementing the Collaboration


Create Shared Goals

Creating shared goals helps professionals work together collectively. Meeting to discuss goals would be very effective. Begin the conversation by attempting to understand what the SLP is working on with the student and how you can help the SLP reach those goals. This will help SLPs be receptive when asked how their services may help you reach your goals.


Potential Shared Strategies: 11 Ways to Use Music to Improve Speech Sounds in Music Classes and Speech-Language Therapy Sessions. Ideas in this section were drawn from the contributing authors’ experiences working with clients or students, universal design (Hall, 2012), and other related literature regarding childhood development and/or clinical practice (Bauman-Wängler, 2008; Lim, 2012; Reynolds et al., 1998; Zoller, 1991).

  1. Instruments
    1. Play to stimulate target sounds by having students match the sound of the instruments (e.g, a maraca “sounds like” a “ch” (/tʃ/) sound)
  2. Animal, environmental, or nonsense sounds 
    1. Sounds such as the pirate “arrrr” help stimulate the ever-evasive “American r” (/ɹ/)
    2. Hissing like a snake for “s” (/s/) sounds
    3. Create nonsense words that contain target sounds
  3. Continuation (fill in the blank)
    1. Chant or sing a familiar example, allowing space for student to fill in words (e.g., “Engine, engine number _____” or “Mary Had a Little ____”
  4. Games
    1. Play games that interest the child and are musical in nature “Here We Go Looby Loo” is great for “l” sounds (light /l/)
  5. Student name
    1. Sing the student’s name on an interval such as a descending minor 3rd, chant the name, or use it in a continuation activity
  6. As a reward
    1. When a student achieves, attempts, or accomplishes a speech sound, allow him/her to choose a music activity, song, or game you are working on in music class to do
  7. Songs/Singing
    1. Choose songs in the appropriate range for the child that contain target sounds in the correct word position (e.g., at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end), contain target words, use continuation ideas, and/or reflect typical English organization (e.g., syntax)
  8. Movement (gesture)
    1. Connect gestures with specified speech sounds or words, while singing, chanting, or dancing
  9. Pictures (and picturable) words with students
    1. When singing or chanting, include pictures of the nouns. Pictures of objects can be drawn in a way that supports musical understanding, such as in the form of a listening map. (more listening maps)
  10. Student interest
    1. If the student has a favorite song or type of music, incorporate it in the classroom. The student can even help re-write lyrics to be more repetitive or include target sounds that tell stories about the student.
  11. Rhythm
    1. Sing or chant target sounds and words in rhythms. Break words into syllables (e.g., “but-ter-fly”) or into phonemes (individual sounds) (e.g. “b-u-t” (/b/ / ʌ/ /t/))


Implement Shared Goals


After determining which goals you will work toward with the students and the activities you will use, you will need to implement them in both spaces. It will be helpful to track the progress of the collaborative strategies you have implemented. Observing the other person, journaling and reflecting, and meeting to discuss what is going well and necessary changes will be helpful in this process.




Music teachers will likely encounter students with speech and language impairments. Meaningful collaborations can help both music teachers and SLPs improve music and speech-language related processes in developmentally appropriate ways. Using a collaborative model has benefits for the educators involved by learning from one another, and students could improve musical and speech-language skills in integrated, meaningful ways.


Additional presentations and information about how music educators can collaborate with SLPs is available at in the research and presentations page under the “collaboration” heading. On the resources page, additional resources for learning about music and language connections are located in the “interdisciplinary collaboration” section.




About the authors:

speech-language pathologist

Mara E. Culp is a Ph.D. candidate in music education at Penn State. She earned a Bachelor’s of Music Education from Siena Heights University in Adrian, MI and a Master’s Degree in Music Education from Penn State. She taught K-12 general, choral and instrumental music in MI for five years. Her experiences teaching elementary general music students with speech impairments led to her primary research interest in speech acquisition through vocal music experiences for young children. She has presented original research across the country at state, national, and international conferences; presented as an invited lecturer in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department at Penn State; and has published work related to improving speech sounds using music. Learn more at her website; follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Learn more by visiting: the NAfME Early Childhood Music Special Research Interest Group and the NAfME Children with Exceptionalities Special Research Interest Group.

Barbara Roberts is an Instructor and Clinical Supervisor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Penn State. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Indiana University of PA and a Master of Science degree from Penn State University. She worked for 9 years in the public schools before coming to Penn State. In the last 18 years at Penn State, she has supervised CSD graduate students who provide speech and language services at local charter schools. She has taught the undergrad Introduction to Articulation and Phonology course at Penn State and currently teaches the graduate Articulation and Phonology course.

Mara E. Culp and Yo-Jung Han co-presented a poster session, “Building Preservice Elementary Classroom Teachers’ Self-Efficacy to Use Music,” at the 2016 NAfME Music Research and Teacher Education National Conference. Session and poster proposals for the 2020 NAfME Music Research and Teacher Education National Conference, “Amplify 2020: Bringing the Future into Focus,” are being accepted through February 3, 2020.

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