Language-Based Learning Disabilities

Language-based learning disability is a term that may be used to cover several different types of learning disabilities in which impaired language ability is the common characteristic. 

The initial impact occurs with delays in spoken language that may affect speech, but more commonly affects the ability to understand words and select appropriate vocabulary to express ideas. Often times this early difficulty will lead to uneven development of language abilities that are critical for academic learning and higher emergent literacy skills including reading, spelling and writing. 

Children with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, are challenged outside of the classroom as well. In addition to the difficulty they have understanding “words,” they experience social language difficulties [pragmatics] when interacting with family members or classmates. These difficulties arise when children fail to learn the social implications of word choices and communication behaviors such as eye-contact, turn taking, and topic maintenance. Children may have difficulty following directions, making requests, conveying their ideas in an organized manner and sometimes appear to have difficulty retrieving a specific word even for common objects. 

Dyslexia is probably the most recognized form of language-based learning disability. Many individuals think of dyslexia as a problem that causes reversal of the letters in words [lats for last] or the transposition of words [saw and was]. In fact, this description of dyslexia may represent only a small, specific group of children. A larger number of children have difficulty understanding and formulating language—first spoken language and eventually the written form.

Any of the following difficulties may be a potential warning sign of a language-based learning disability:

  • errors in phoneme [sound] production
  • use of nonspecific language to express ideas
  • forgetting the names of familiar objects or names of family, friends or classmates
  • difficulty in properly pronouncing words
  • difficulty expressing ideas using age-appropriate vocabulary
  • difficulty in creating sentences or using very limited sentences
  • using the same words to express a variety of ideas or requests
  • difficulty organizing ideas or using a correct sequence to relay events
  • difficulties with grammar, using incorrect forms of words
  • difficulties remembering and/or retelling stories or witnessed events
  • difficulties with eye-contact, conversation exchange, or topic maintenance

Language-based learning disabilities appear to be hereditary in many cases. Research and brain function analyses have demonstrated that people with learning disabilities actually exhibit a slight difference in brain structure. This difference is thought to be a contributing factor to the individual’s difficulties. Therefore, children whose families have a history of language-based learning disabilities should be closely monitored for signs of difficulty. 

If parents or caregivers observe difficulties associated with a language-based learning disability, it is important for the child to receive a comprehensive speech, hearing and language evaluation. That evaluation should examine both receptive and expressive language skills, which include each of the following components: 

  • the sound system [phonology] 
  • grammar [morphology and syntax] 
  • vocabulary use and comprehension [semantics] 
  • the ability to create/retell stories [narrative/discourse]  
  • understanding of social language rules [pragmatics] 

Each system should be reviewed to determine the specific impact on social functioning and potential impact on academic functioning. The child should have an audiology evaluation, which may include an evaluation of hearing and listening to determine the ability to perform in different types of environments. 

Signs of language-based disabilities can be identified early and treatment begun to address both social and early academic learning needs. Early intervention can play a significant role in helping the child to function in social and early learning settings, as well as reduce the risk for later occurring academic problems that are associated with the higher level literacy skills essential for academic success.

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