What is a Communicative Disorders Degree?

Communicative disorders are persistent disorders related to language and speech, the causes of which include hearing loss, neurological issues, brain injury, vocal cord injury, autism, intellectual disability, drug abuse, physical impairments such as cleft lip or palate, emotional or psychiatric disorders, and developmental disorders.

Language disorder is characterized by ongoing difficulties in the acquisition and use of spoken, written, or sign language due to deficits such as limited vocabulary, limited ability to form sentences, and limited capacity to use language to communicate at a level that is normal for one’s age. Social or ‘pragmatic’ communication disorder involves difficulties in the social use of verbal and nonverbal communication, in understanding normal rules of conversation and nonliteral meanings of language. Speech disorders include stuttering, problems forming and combining sounds, and difficulties with the quality, pitch, and loudness of the voice.

The foundations of degree programs in communicative disorders lie in the basic nature of human communication – its biological, physical, social, and linguistic aspects. Students of the discipline study each of these aspects, which together make up the science behind communication problems. They learn how to recognize these problems and how to treat them.

Program Options

It is important to choose communicative disorders education programs that are accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology.

Bachelor’s Degree in Communicative Disorders – Four Year Duration
The typical communicative disorders bachelor’s curriculum is composed of core courses in the major as well as classes in the natural sciences and quantitative reasoning, education and psychology, and healthcare. While holders of a bachelor’s may qualify for some assistant-level roles, undergraduate programs are essentially designed to provide students with foundational knowledge required for graduate studies in the field, which are required to work as a speech-language pathologist.

Core Curriculum

• Introduction to Communicative Disorders – introduction to normal and disordered speech, language, and hearing in children and adults
• Phonetics – the acoustic and articulatory properties of the sound systems of human languages, the International Phonetic Alphabet
• Anatomy and Physiology of Speech and Swallowing – the support structures of the respiratory, sound producing, and swallowing systems; the identification and function of muscles in these systems
• Introduction to Audiology and Hearing Science – the anatomy, physiology, and common diseases of the auditory system; types, characteristics, and impacts of hearing loss; interpretation of audiological test findings
• Hearing Science – the process of hearing, from basic acoustics to the anatomy and physiology of the auditory system
• Speech Science – the physics and psychology of human speech production and perception
• Development of Language – the sequence of language acquisition in the areas of phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics
• Neurological Basis of Communication and Swallowing – the development and anatomy and physiology of the neurological system that controls communication and swallowing
• Introduction to Clinical Methods and Observation – observations and application of knowledge in various educational and medical settings

Supporting Courses

• Concepts in Biology
• Introduction to Exceptionalities / Special Needs
• Current Issues in American Education
• Introduction to Research in Health Science
• Professional Interaction in the Healthcare Setting
• Elementary Statistics
• Introduction to Psychology
• Child Development Psychology
• Physics of Sound

Common Electives

• Human Cultural Diversity
• Genetics and Evolution
• Human Anatomy and Physiology
• Introduction to Global Health
• Community and Public Health
• Introduction to Epidemiology
• Psychology of Language
• Essentials of Neuroscience
• Poverty and Inequality in the US
• Changing Families
• Sociology of Health and Healthcare

Master’s Degree in Communicative Disorders – Two Year Duration
The master’s degree is the professional entry-level requirement for employment as a speech-language pathologist in medical, rehabilitative, education, or private practice settings. This credential satisfies the academic requirements for state licensure and professional certification by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Master’s programs in communicative disorders are often composed of coursework and a final, comprehensive examination. Some schools may offer a coursework / examination / thesis option.

Here are some examples of communicative disorders master’s level courses:

• Interviewing and Counseling in Communicative Disorders
• Research in Communicative Disorders
• Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology of Speech, Language, and Hearing
• Pediatric Audiology
• Advanced Study of Articulation and Phonological Disorders in Children
• Neurogenic Disorders of Cognition and Language
• Voice and Disorders of Voice
• Adult and Pediatric Swallowing / Feeding Disorders
• Advanced Diagnostics in Speech-Language Pathology
• Clinical Practicum in Speech Pathology
• Student Special Education Teaching in Language, Speech and Hearing, and Audiology

Doctoral Degree in Communicative Disorders – Six Year Duration
The goal of doctoral programs in communicative disorders is to develop scholars who will conduct research and teach in the field. Program components include coursework, research, teaching, comprehensive testing and exams, and the dissertation process.

While the coursework portion of the doctoral curriculum will vary depending on each individual’s research focus, there are some courses that are typically taken by all candidates. Here is a sampling:

• Statistics for the Behavioral and Social Sciences
• Data Analysis for the Behavioral and Social Sciences
• Intermediate Quantitative Methods: The General Linear Model
• Research Design and Methodology in the Behavioral Sciences
• Dissertation Proposal Seminar

Possible specialization courses might include:

• Emotional Development in Childhood: Organization and Neurobiology
• Second Language Acquisition: Theory and Research
• Physiological Basis of Behavior
• Psycholinguistics (the study of the influence of psychological factors on the development, use, and interpretation of language)
• Sociolinguistics (the study of the way language is used in society, how we speak differently in varying social contexts)

Degrees Similar to Communicative Disorders

American Sign Language
Degree programs in American Sign Language teach the vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, word/sentence order, and intonation of ASL – conveyed by hand shape, palm orientation, hand movement, hand location, and gestures. Programs also expose students to the culture of the Deaf community.

Audiology degree programs prepare students to work as audiologists, specialized doctors trained to measure hearing ability and function and provide hearing rehabilitation. Subject areas covered include hearing disorders, genetics and hearing loss, hearing conservation, speech science and perception, pediatric audiology, geriatric audiology, and forensic audiology.

Deaf Studies
The Deaf Studies curriculum is composed of courses in American Sign Language (ASL), Deaf culture, Deaf education, and Deaf history. Classes cover the linguistic structure, grammar, and vocabulary of ASL, as well as the sociocultural impacts related to being deaf or hard of hearing. Programs prepare students to work as advocates for the Deaf community in life and in the work world and introduce them to the field of ASL interpretation and translation.

Gerontology is the study of the human aging process, from the physical, mental, and sociological perspectives. Programs look at how adults change as they age, how an aging population changes society, and how this information is used to develop and implement policies and programs for older adults.

Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups. Its primary sub-areas are phonetics – the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing of speech sounds; phonology – the patterning of sounds; morphology – the structure of words; syntax – the structure of sentences; semantics – meaning; and pragmatics – language in context.

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, of the complex collection of interacting cells, known as the brain.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Special Education Teaching
Graduates with a degree in special education are qualified to teach students with physical or mental disabilities. They help students develop basic life skills and must be prepared to adapt their curriculum to do so.

Speech Language Pathology
Degree programs in speech language pathology teach students how to diagnose and treat speech and language disorders, voice disorders, and swallowing disorders. The curriculum addresses word-finding issues, social communication problems, literacy challenges, and vocal quality.

Skills You'll Learn

Attention to Detail
Communicative disorders specialists require focused attention to detail. The quality of patients’ lives is at stake.

Collaboration and Cooperation
Those who work with people with communicative disorders liaise with other health professionals to provide their patients with comprehensive healthcare.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills
Communicative disorders professionals are consistently called upon to interact, to listen, to understand, and to present possible solutions to their patients and their patients’ families.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Communicative disorders specialists have to deal with their patients’ medical, emotional, and social problems. Therefore, the ability to think critically to find solutions to issues is a significant part of this kind of work.

Cultural Awareness / Appreciation for Diversity
Communicative disorders specialists are exposed to people from different backgrounds and home environments. They must work effectively with people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender backgrounds.

Integrity and Trust Building
Working with people with various backgrounds and problems requires building trust. Clients have to feel safe and supported if they are to share their burdens and accept help.

The work of helping people with communicative disorders cope with their challenges is not easy work. And it is not fast work. The role calls for patience and an appreciation of small victories.

Research, Assessment, and Report Writing
The communicative disorders field involves conducting research and tracking, assessing, and recording client progress. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Sensitivity, Empathy, and Compassion
The capacities to be sensitive, to empathize, and to show compassion are especially needed in this field, because individuals with communicative disorders often face stressful situations.

What Can You Do with a Communicative Disorders Degree?

As noted, graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communicative Disorders do not qualify to work as speech language pathologists. They may, however, find employment in these related sectors and occupations, some of which may require additional training:

• Hearing aid dispenser
• Behavioral therapist for children with autism
• Administrative and assistant positions with non-profit organizations such as Easter Seals, Autism Society, Special Olympics, etc.
• Healthcare insurance
• Rehabilitation aide in hospitals / outpatient clinics
• Nursing home activity coordinator
• Daycare center / preschool aide

Students who earn a master’s degree typically go on to work as speech language pathologists in a variety of settings such as:

• School systems
• Healthcare – hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, acute care, outpatient, inpatient, assisted living facilities, home healthcare
• Private practice
• Early intervention – services and supports that are available to babies and young children with developmental delays and disabilities and their families
• Telepractice
• Contract work

Many doctoral graduates do not practise clinically, at all. They most often pursue careers in communicative disorders research and university teaching.


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