What is a Speech-Language Pathology Degree?

Speech-language pathology (SLP) is the study and treatment of a wide range of speaking and swallowing disorders, usually caused by developmental delays, autism, traumatic brain injury, stroke, hearing loss, Parkinson’s, cleft palate, or injuries to the mouth and throat.

Speech-language pathologists are the allied health professionals who evaluate and diagnose people with these disorders and help them improve their communication skills. Their work involves creating treatment plans for conditions such as stuttering, training patients to produce certain sounds, and teaching them to use assistive communication devices.

SLP degree programs consist of coursework, research experiences, and real-world clinical experiences.

Program Options

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

Bachelor’s Degree in Speech-Language Pathology – Four Year Duration
The speech-language pathology bachelor’s degree is designed for undergraduate students who are planning to pursue a master’s or doctorate in the field. Students who do not go on to further education may qualify for some roles as a speech-language pathology aide, working under the supervision of a licensed pathologist.

Here is a snapshot of courses offered at this level:

  • Introduction to Linguistic Science – the basic concepts, scope, and methodology of language
  • Child Development – examination of the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development of children ages three through eight
  • Introduction to Psychological Science – overview of the branches of psychology and their contributions to understanding the behavior of people as they interact with their environment
  • Statistics – descriptive statistics (analysis of data that helps describe, show, or summarize data in a meaningful way) and statistics of inference (the process of drawing conclusions about an underlying population based on a sample or subset of data)
  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)– introduction to ABA, a scientific approach to understanding behavior; ABA refers to a set of principles that focus on how behaviors change or are affected by the environment, as well as how learning takes place
  • Survey of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology – introduction to speech-language pathology, audiology, and communicative disorders
  • Clinical Phonetics – study of the International Phonetic Alphabet as applied to communicative disorders; production of speech sounds in English; transcription of normal speech; relationship of transcription and analysis to communicative disorders
  • Anatomy and Physiology of Speech and Hearing – the anatomy and physiology of speech and hearing mechanisms, including respiration, phonation, articulation, resonance, hearing, and swallowing
  • Speech Sound Disorders – articulation and phonological system development; the nature of speech sound disorders; phonetic transcription and analysis of normal and disordered speech samples; standardized testing results; introduction to principles of treatment planning for remediation of speech sound disorders
  • Speech Acoustics – the physical nature of speech and its relationship to speech production and perception
  • Language and Development – over view of language and language development; phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics; theories of language acquisition; cultural diversity as related to language
  • Clinical Procedures and Observations – a methods course to prepare speech-language pathology students for clinical practice; professional, ethical, diagnostic, and therapy topics; observation of therapy
  • Introduction to Diagnosis and Appraisal – speech and language disorder diagnostic techniques; recognizing and understanding the differential diagnosis (the process of differentiating between two or more conditions which share similar signs or symptoms); practice in administration and interpretation of various tests
  • Introduction to Audiology – the anatomy and physiology of hearing, hearing disorders, hearing assessment, and hearing screening
  • Aural Rehabilitation – practical implications of various types of hearing losses and appropriate rehabilitative procedures; amplification, auditory training , speech reading, educational and vocational considerations, and psychological implications of hearing loss
  • Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology of Speech, Language, and Hearing – overview of the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, focusing on neurological mechanisms related to speech, language, and hearing
  • Child Language Disorders – the nature, cause, and treatment of language disorders in children
  • Neurogenic and Organic Speech and Language Disorders – speech and language disorders resulting from neurogenic (forming, originating in, or controlled by nervous tissue) and organic causes; topics include stroke, brain injury, dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, cleft palate, functional voice disorders, and dysphagia (swallowing difficulties)
  • Clinical Practicum – students observe and provide supervised clinical services for persons with various communicative disorders
  • Introduction to Students with Exceptional Needs – definitions, characteristics, and education of students with exceptional needs; federal and state legal bases for providing special interventions; a general introduction to the special education field

Master’s Degree in Speech-Language Pathology – Two Year Duration
A master’s degree is the minimum requirement to practice as a speech-language pathologist. At the master’s level, programs integrate classroom learning with extensive clinical education in real-world community settings and hands-on mentoring by faculty experts in various areas of SLP.

The curriculum addresses identification, prevention, and treatment of disorders across the lifespan that affect functions including speech, language, hearing, cognition, social interaction, and swallowing. Emphasis is placed on evidence-based practice, critical inquiry, and assessment. Other components of a typical SLP master’s program include an oral examination and a master’s thesis. Some schools also offer a non-thesis option, which commonly involves a written examination.

Examples of Required Courses

  • Motor Speech Disorders
  • Pediatric Audiological Rehabilitation
  • Introduction to Clinical Decision Making
  • Articulation and Phonological Disorders
  • Child Language Disorders
  • Fluency Disorders
  • Voice Disorders
  • Cleft Palate and Craniofacial Disorders
  • Dysphagia
  • Augmentative Communication (communication methods used to supplement or replace speech or writing for people with impairments in the production or comprehension of spoken or written language)
  • Research Strategies and Tactics
  • Professional Issues
  • Principles for Audiology for the Speech-Language Pathologist
  • Neurogenic Language and Cognitive Communication Disorders
  • Counseling for Communication Disorders

Clinical Practice

  • Clinical Practicum in Audiology – supervised observational and clinical experience in diagnostic and rehabilitative aspects of audiology; student clinicians assess and provide intervention to clients presented with various communicative disorders
  • Clinical Practicum in Schools – student clinicians provide clinical services to communicatively impaired students in school settings, under supervision of certified speech-language pathologists

Doctoral Degree in Speech-Language Pathology – Four to Six Year Duration
The Doctoral Degree in Speech-Language Pathology is research-focused. Coursework spanning SLP business and practice management, leadership, and clinical science provides students with opportunities to apply these principles to real-world challenges.

Here is a sample of how an SLP doctoral program might be structured:

Business Management

  • Organizational Behavior for the Speech-Language Pathologist – analysis of the organizations where speech-language pathologists work; human behavior and motivation within those organizations; how to motivate staff and develop effective teams
  • Business Principles for the Speech-Language Pathologist – building a business in the SLP field; accounting, marketing, market analysis, and finance
  • Operations and Process Improvement for the Speech-Language Pathologist – building efficient operations and improving methodologies


  • Leadership Principles for the Speech-Language Pathologist – the role of the speech-language pathologist as a leader; self-assessment of leadership skills; development of a personal growth plan
  • Education and Supervision in Speech-Language Pathology – the application of best practices in teaching and supervision
  • Policy in Health and Education – education and health policies as they apply to provision of speech-language pathology services
  • Digital Literacies for the Speech-Language Pathologist – digital tools and applications for the SLP practice that facilitate access of information, productivity, and collaboration with other healthcare practitioners

Clinical Science and Practice Principles

  • Advanced Scientific and Clinical Decision-Making – making decisions about the assessment and treatment of individuals with communicative disorders; research methodologies and research evaluation; experimental designs; implementing best evidence in clinical policy and practice

Culminating Project

  • SLP Project Design – developing the research question, project rationale, and methodology
  • SLP Project Execution – in one of these areas: business proposal, process improvement plan, clinical investigation, or teaching and learning

Degrees Similar to Speech-Language Pathology

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.

Art Therapy
Art therapists use art as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for art, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them.

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.

Communicative Disorders
This degree is closely connected to the speech-language pathology degree. A communicative disorders assistant is trained to assist a speech-language pathologist with the delivery of therapy. The curriculum focuses on communication disorders such as articulation disorders, phonological disorders, aphasia, delayed language, acquired deafness, and autism-related disorders.

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.

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.

The primary sub-areas of linguistics 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.

Music Therapy
Music therapists use music as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a patient express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

Occupational Therapy
Students of occupational therapy learn how to help patients adapt to loss of function by improving their fine motor and cognitive skills through therapeutic everyday activities.

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.

Recreation Therapy
Degree programs in recreational therapy teach students how to develop and implement recreational activities to support the health, healing, and well-being of people with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities.

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.

Skills You’ll Learn

Attention to Detail
Speech-language pathologists require focused attention to detail. The quality of patients’ lives is at stake.

Collaboration and Cooperation
Speech-language pathologists liaise with other health professionals to provide their patients with comprehensive healthcare.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills
Professionals in this field 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
Speech-language pathologists 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
Speech-language pathologists 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 speech-language 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 speech-language pathology 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 speech-language disorders often face stressful situations.

What Can You Do with a Speech-Language Pathology Degree?

Traditional career options for speech-language pathologists exist within many complex organizations and settings, including:

  • Healthcare organizations
  • Multidisciplinary clinics
  • Early intervention settings
  • School systems
  • Private practices
  • Research laboratories
  • Occupational therapy
  • Residential care / nursing homes
  • Social work

In less traditional roles, speech-language pathologists may work in the corporate and professional sector, helping individuals enhance general communication and public speaking skills and reduce or eliminate unwanted accents. They may also be called upon by the entertainment industry to work with actors who need to perfect an accent or dialect to portray a particular character.

Here are samples of job titles held by SLP professionals:

  • Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP)
  • Speech Pathologist
  • Speech and Language Specialist
  • Speech-Language Therapist
  • Speech and Hearing Handicapped Teacher
  • Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist
  • Speech and Language Clinician
  • Speech Therapist
  • Communication Therapist


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