Speech Therapy? There’s an App for That

Have you heard a child say “wabbit” instead of “rabbit”?

Mispronouncing the “r” sound is among the most common speech errors, and is the most challenging to correct in speech therapy. For other sounds – such as “t” or “p” – speech pathologists can give clear verbal, visual, or tactile cues to help children understand how the sound is created, but “r” is difficult to show or explain. In addition, some children may have trouble hearing the difference between correct and incorrect “r” sounds, making it even more difficult for them to improve.

A growing body of evidence suggests that speech therapy incorporating visual cues — or visual biofeedback — can help. Visual biofeedback shows a someone what their speech looks like in real time. For instance, speech might be represented by dynamic waves on a screen.

The staRt app uses visual biofeedback to help with pronunciation of the “r” sound.

Research led by Tara McAllister, assistant professor of communicative sciences and disorders at NYU Steinhardt, and published in May in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, suggests that visual biofeedback can be effective in helping some people to correct the “r” sound. However, while visual biofeedback may be effective, there are barriers that could prevent widespread adoption, such as the high cost of software and lack of familiarity with technology.

McAllister came up with a cost-effective and user-friendly solution. Bringing together a team from the NYU Ability Project, NYU Langone, NYU Tandon, and NYU Steinhardt’s Music Technology program, McAllister developed an app called staRt (Speech Therapist’s App for /ɹ/ Treatment) to bring visual biofeedback to fellow speech-language pathologists. Initial pilot results published in June in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research show that using the app is a viable alternative to costlier biofeedback technologies.

The researchers are currently partnering with speech-language pathologists across the country to gather information on whether the app can help children improve their “r” sounds.

See and hear the staRt app in action: