Language impairment (LI) in children is often attributed to various factors including intellectual disability, autism and hearing loss. However, it is reported that approximately 7% of the global childhood population experiences LI in the absence of evident causative factors [1]. Children with LI are often faced with social communication, behavioural, educational and vocational difficulties. Such disorders can be complicated when children receive bilingual or multilingual exposure, the latter being a common occurrence worldwide. Bilingual exposure has particular relevance to the language-learning context of Maltese children. LI in children can often be addressed by a customised intervention programme drawn up by a professional speech-language pathologist (SLP) on the basis of assessment and regular review of the child’s speech and language skills. However, children often lose engagement when subjected to repetitive therapy activities and lengthy assessment procedures. This impinges on the effectiveness of the intervention. Moreover, speech-language sessions offered in public health clinics often take place during school hours, disrupting the child’s routine. Furthermore, with guardian(s) often being engaged in full-time work, it becomes an issue to accompany children during the sessions.

Within this context, five academics from four departments within the University of Malta and an industrial partner teamed up to design and implement a novel, multi-modal device, for which the name SPEECHIE was coined, in order to facilitate speech and language therapy for children with LI both within and beyond the clinical setting. The features of the device are aimed at improving the speech and language skills of children with LI, which in turn would reflect positively on their learning, behaviour and social interaction.  SPEECHIE will be developed as a smart educational toy that entices children to engage with the designated exercises by creating a more rewarding and motivating environment. SPEECHIE is being co-designed with children. In fact, children are being involved in the development of the toy together with the research team members. The intended outcome is an assistive product that will help children with LI engage more in their speech therapy sessions.

The project (reference number R&I-2015-042-T) is under the coordination of Dr Ing. Philip Farrugia and financed by the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) through the FUSION Technology Development Programme 2016.

Reference:

[1] Leonard, L.B. (2014) Children with Specific Language Impairment (2nd ed.) Cambridge: MIT Press.