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👉What is the Difference Between Speech, Language, and Literacy?

 Dr. Jan Wasowicz, a speech-language pathologist, breaks down what is the difference between speech, language and literacy and overlap in the context of human learning.


What is the Difference Between Speech and Language?

Speech (articulation/the physical production of speech sounds) and oral language are two very different things, apples, and oranges. SLPs (speech-language pathologists) differentially diagnose for a speech vs. language disorder and use very different treatment methods for an individual who has an articulation disorder (a speech disorder, difficulty with physical production of a sound, such as a lisp) and one who has a phonological disorder (a language disorder). Both groups of individuals will mispronounce sounds but for very different reasons. As counter-intuitive as this will seem, the more mispronunciation errors a child makes and the more unintelligible they are, the more likely it is that they have a language disorder and not a disorder with the physical production of speech sounds. Crazy, right?!? But true!* (*I’m excluding a speech motor planning disorder called dyspraxia of speech from this discussion because it is a much less common disorder and not germane to this thread.)

A phonological disorder is a language disorder, a deficit in learning the rules of a language. Specifically, a phonological disorder is an impairment in the statistical learning of the rule-governed system of phonemes and phonemes patterns that exist within spoken, meaningful words of a language. Often, not always, individuals with an oral language disorder at the level of phonology have impairments at other levels of the language system as well: morphology, syntax, semantics. In notable contrast, an articulation (speech production) disorder does not typically impact areas of language development.


 How do Speech, Language, and Literacy Connect?

Our students with reading and writing disorders very often have deficits in oral language (including phonological deficits) but not deficits in sensory-oral motor skills. This is not surprising because reading and writing are language skills and we already know that individuals with a language disorder in one area will often have impairments in other areas of the language systems of oral language (listening and speaking) and written language (reading and writing). This is why it’s so important to address the oral language (not oral-motor physical speech production) components with our students. This is why we want a sound wall to focus on phonemes (meaningful units of language) and not on the articulation/sensory-motor aspects of the physical production of speech sounds. This is also why we want to focus instruction not on the isolated sounds (speech production) but on the phonemes that comprise meaningful words (oral language).

It’s important for students to say speech sounds as they write and read words. But no one needs to consciously know where their lips and tongue are placed during the production of speech sounds unless we are remediating a particular type of speech sound disorder (e.g., a lisp) or supporting an ELL student learning to produce and perceive a phonemic (language!) contrast of English that is absent in their native language. For these ELL students and for some non-ELL students who demonstrate a specifically identified deficit in phoneme discrimination, it may be helpful to direct a student’s attention to our mouth and/or to their mouth to support the development of phoneme discrimination, but this should be done in conjunction with using minimal pair words (e.g., “pet-pat”) in a meaningful context (e.g., “Let’s pet the dog; let’s pat the dog) to keep the student focused on the meaningful (not extraneous sensory oral motor) differences between the two speech sounds. This attention to the physical production of sounds may help but is warranted only for students who have an identified need. Even then, the sounds should be presented within the context of meaningful words (not in isolation) for the reason already mentioned and also because the information our brains need to distinguish one phoneme from another is located in the phoneme and in the transition from one phoneme to another as occurs when phonemes are strung together in spoken words. When we present sounds in isolation, the brain is not receiving all the information it needs to extract, through statistical learning, the rule-governed system of phonemes and phoneme patterns that exist within spoken, meaningful words of a language. (This is why, for example, it’s virtually impossible to perceptually distinguish / f – th / or / m – n / when these sounds are presented in isolation.)

This is why teachers of reading and spelling (not their students) should become familiar with articulatory and acoustic phonetics (speech production and speech perception) of the language of instruction, and the student’s native language/dialect, if different. When we have this understanding, we can better understand why a student may struggle and we can more effectively support and move students from less challenging to more challenging words during reading and spelling instruction.

Connecting Phonological Awareness to Speech and to Print

Our students need to develop an awareness of individual sounds of words (phonemic awareness) and the concept of the alphabetic principle (i.e. that letters in a written word represent sounds in the spoken form of the word). 

We don’t need to teach them how to say the sounds or how the sounds are produced, we just need to make them aware of the individual sounds in the words they are saying and how those sounds they say can be represented with letters. As Jeannine says, “Attention to speech production still is essential to the process.”

Calling their attention to something they already know subconsciously how to do and are already doing (i.e., saying sounds) develops their awareness of the individual phonemes that make up a word. Getting them to think about those individual sounds “coming out of your mouth” (as I like to say to my students of all ages) and “writing a letter or letter group for each sound that comes out of your mouth” (phoneme-grapheme mapping) to spell a word is powerful and meaningful.

Modeling the individual sounds, calling their attention to the individual sounds like you, and, more importantly, as they say, them, making sure they SAY the sounds as they write the corresponding letters are powerful methods of instruction. Powerful for developing PA, powerful for PG mapping, powerful for integrating multiple language systems, and creating associated motor memories for both the spoken sounds of words (language by mouth) and the written letters of words (language by hand). Powerful for immediate and functional application to writing and reading words.

👉What is the Difference Between Speech,Language and Literacy?, Brooklyn Letters

Q & A with Dr. Jan.

The Spell Talk listserv: had a lively discussion on this topic! Here are some of the questions asked by professionals: 

Question: As usual you raise interesting questions.  Compared to the role of phonological awareness and reading, the connection between articulatory awareness and reading is a relatively uncharted territory within the science of reading research.  Exceptions to this are found in the research generated by the Lindamood approach, and by the Canadian multi-sensory motor approach (Linn &Ryan, 1968)..   Given the paucity of hard data, I think it’s important to pay attention, as well, to clinical experience, and even to personal experience, at least as a useful source of questions to explore. 

Jan’s response: I think the keyword here is articulatory awareness. Yes, we want to draw students’ attention to the individual sounds of spoken words and link those sounds they are saying in spoken words to the letters they write and see in written words. I think where this idea has gone wrong is that many misinterpret awareness to mean needing to teach students about the placements of the articulators (tongue, lips, jaw…), the vibratory actions of the vocal folds, the vibrations of the nose, etc. Students are subconsciously aware of how they are saying the sounds of spoken words and there’s no research (none that I’m aware of) that they need this to be explicitly taught.  Why hold on to an idea (i.e., teaching students about how sounds are produced and teaching reading as a motor-sensory skill) from over 50 years ago with a “paucity of hard data” when we have a large body of collective research conducted across current and recent decades and across multiple disciplines, all supporting the critical role of proficient phonological (i.e., language) processing and phonemic (i.e., language) awareness (a meta-linguistic skill). 

Question: This reminds me of a four-year-old named Elizabeth who was quite indignant when her day-care teacher mispronounced her name.  teasingly copying the child’s own difficulty with the notoriously difficult /l/ sound.  The child explained, “She calls me “E yiz abeth.  And my name’s not E yiz a beth.  It’s E yiz a beth!”   Clearly, Elizabeth could hear the distinction between /l/ and /y/, although she could not reproduce it, and was not aware that she could not reproduce it. Apparently, she heard, not what she actually said, but what she meant to say.  

Jan’s response: I’m so glad you brought up this scenario with this four-year-old; it’s a common observation in very young children who are still in the process of developing their phonological (language) system and in older children with a phonological (language, not speech) delay/disorder. It does not mean the student didn’t “hear” (i.e., perceive) what she actually said. Acoustic analyses of these sorts of substitutions show that many of these children are, in fact, consistently producing physically different sounds for the two different phonemes (in this example,  / y / and / l /). These physically different sounds as spoken by the child are recognized by the child as different but cannot be perceived as different by the adult listener because they don’t align with the categorical phoneme perception of the adult listener who has a fully developed phonological system. Elizabeth is producing two very different phonemes – / y / and / l / – as she speaks, properly using the / l / phoneme and not the / y / phoneme in her name. That’s why she gets indignant and annoyed when the adult says the wrong phoneme. Since a student like Elizabeth has established two separate phonemes, two phoneme “buckets” – albeit not yet matching the adult phonological system – she could learn to correctly spell words like “yet and “let” if provided phoneme-grapheme mapping instruction that links the initial phonemes of these words with their corresponding graphemes. In fact, this mapping process, the introduction of orthography, can help to refine her phonological buckets for these two phonemes and advance the development of her phonological system.

The scenario with Elizabeth is a good example of how phonemes (units of language) and the physical articulation of speech sounds are apples and oranges. It also emphasizes the importance of engaging students in a functional, meaningful task – directly linking the phonological code to the orthographic code through the writing of spoken words – and that we don’t need conscious articulatory knowledge or even correct articulation to establish a phoneme category and link a phoneme with a grapheme.

In Elizabeth’s case, her excellent phonemic awareness was sufficient to ensure that she became an outstanding reader (although the fact that her reading programme emphasized both phonological and articulatory awareness may also have made a difference.)  

Question: However, there are also children whose situation is the opposite of Elizabeth’s: children who have little or no difficulty with articulation but have trouble with explicit phonemic awareness.  I think it is precisely these children for whom articulatory awareness can be most helpful, because it allows us to draw on an area of strength to support an area of relative weakness. 

Jan’s response:The keyword again is articulatory awareness. Yes, we want to draw students’ attention to the individual sounds of words and link those sounds they are saying in spoken words to the letters they write in written words (linking the phonological and orthographic codes). That’s very different from teaching students how sounds are produced. (btw, Isn’t the Linn & Ryan, 1968 method a phoneme-grapheme mapping method? I only have access to the first page of this article you mentioned, but that seems to be the case. The “multi-sensory motor method” is described on p1, and appears to involve students saying sounds out loud as they simultaneously trace letters and then using the phoneme-grapheme relationship knowledge they have acquired through this process to decode (and maybe spell?) words. Can you privately share access to the full article?)

Question: Teaching articulatory awareness does not require us to belabor every anatomical articulatory detail of every single phoneme in the way one might have to do to support a child who has articulatory difficulties. However, there is also an analogy to be drawn between articulatory and phonemic awareness. We know without a doubt that even for children who are perfectly able to hear all the sounds in words, learning to read is facilitated by explicit, phoneme-level awareness.

Jan’s response:100% Agreed, completely and absolutely. But this does not logically support an argument for teaching how sounds are produced, nor is there research to support this argument. As you say, “learning to read is facilitated by explicit, phoneme-level awareness”.  Teaching articulation, the physical production of sounds, is not teaching phonemes (language) and phoneme-level awareness, a meta-linguistic skill.

Question: If children are aware of the salient articulatory features of each sound, they are able to form automatic associations between the articulation of the sound, the phoneme itself, and the grapheme used to represent it.

Jan response: Why do students need to be consciously aware of the salient articulatory features to form an association between a phoneme and grapheme? There’s plenty of research (decades and decades) that says they can form these associations without conscious awareness of articulatory features of sounds, and none to say they benefit from being taught about salient articulatory features. Motor and sensory associations occur automatically, subconsciously when we use the different modalities to transmit language through reading, writing, speaking, and listening and these neural connections (motor memories, sensory feedback, etc.) will be established and integrated with the developing reading and writing neural network if they occur simultaneously with the functional reading and writing of words, not during isolated tasks. 

But all of the research I’m familiar with talks only about phonological processing (which is automatic and subconscious), not conscious articulatory knowledge. 


Phonemic Awareness Instruction: Contribution of Articulatory Segmentation to Novice Beginners’ Reading and Spelling, Castiglioni and Ehri, January 2003, Scientific Studies of Reading 


Castiglioni-Spalten, M. L., & Ehri, L. C. (2003). Phonemic awareness instruction: Contribution of articulatory segmentation to novice beginners’ reading and spelling. Scientific Studies of Reading, 7(1), 25-52.


Boyer, N., & Ehri, L. C. (2011). Contribution of phonemic segmentation instruction with letters and articulation pictures to word reading and spelling in beginners. Scientific Studies of Reading, 15(5), 440-470.


  1. Lafontaine et al. Role and activation time course of phonological and orthographic information during phoneme judgments. Neuropsychologia 50 (2012) 2897–2906
👉What is the Difference Between Speech,Language and Literacy?, Brooklyn Letters

Dr. Jan Wasowicz

Dr. Jan Wasowicz has 35+ years of experience as a language, literacy and learning specialist working with students who have language-based reading, writing, and spelling disorders in a variety of educational settings, including public schools, Head Start programs, and private practice.

Dr. Wasowicz has taught numerous university-level courses and is frequently invited to speak about best practices in literacy assessment and instruction at professional conferences.

She is the inventor of the Earobics® software, author of SPELL-Links to Reading & Writing, and lead moderator of the SPELLTalk professional listserv — the FREE professional discussion group dedicated to improving literacy through discussion of research and evidence-based best practices.

Dr. Wasowicz is an ASHA-certified, IL-licensed, and FL-licensed speech-language pathologist and ASHA Board Certified Specialist in Child Language. She holds a professional educator license with multiple endorsements from the State Teacher Certification Board of Illinois. She is also the founder and CEO of Learning By Design, Inc. www.learningbydesign.com.

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What is the Difference Between Speech Language and Literacy, Brooklyn Letters
Craig Selinger is a NY State licensed speech-language therapist (pathologist) and learning specialist with over 18 years of experience working professionally in New York City. Check out his interviews with top-notch professionals in education, therapy, and the medical fields who work with children on his podcast. He also blogs on Medium. Looking forward to hearing from you!

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The following two tabs change content below.
What is the Difference Between Speech Language and Literacy, Brooklyn Letters
Craig Selinger is a NY State licensed speech-language therapist (pathologist) and learning specialist with over 18 years of experience working professionally in New York City. Check out his interviews with top-notch professionals in education, therapy, and the medical fields who work with children on his podcast. He also blogs on Medium. Looking forward to hearing from you!
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