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The Relationship Between Language and Learning Disabilities

By Tonya R. Coleman, M.S., CCC-SLP,
Director of Speech Pathology Services, Bristol Regional Speech and Hearing Center

The Relationship Between Language and Learning DisabilitiesDoes your child have trouble speaking or understanding spoken language?
Because most learning takes place through spoken communication, whether in the classroom, on the playground, or at home, speech and language problems can interfere with many aspects of a child’s learning and development.  The “wait and see if he will outgrow it” approach frequently recommended by pediatricians for toddlers and preschoolers with communication delays can no longer be supported.  Problems with oral language can be an early signal that the child will struggle academically.  Evidence now clearly indicates that the language-delayed preschooler of today may be the learning-disabled student of tomorrow.  In fact, many believe that a language disorder is at the core of learning disabilities.

What is a learning disability?
A learning disability is a neurobiological disorder that affects the way that children of average to above average intelligence receive, process, and/or express information.  It lasts throughout life and impacts the child’s ability to learn basic academic skills like reading, writing, and math.  Learning disabilities are not the same as mental retardation, attention disorders, autism, or physical and emotional disorders, and are not caused by a lack of educational opportunities.  Learning disabilities may be inherited and affect girls as frequently as they do boys.

What should you look for?
As a parent, you know your child better than anyone.  If you sense that your toddler or preschooler has more difficulty than other kids his age understanding words, following directions or routines, expressing himself in words, or properly pronouncing words, schedule a comprehensive evaluation with a speech-language pathologist.  Often times, language delays lead to uneven development of language abilities that are critical for academic learning and higher level literacy skills like reading, spelling, and writing.  A speech-language pathologist can diagnose the child’s specific problems and help build needed skills.  When language disorders are identified early, treatment can play a significant role in helping the child function in early learning settings and reduce the risk for later occurring academic and behavioral problems.

On the other hand, your child’s teacher may be the first to observe that your child’s speaking and listening skills are not at a level expected for his age.  The child may use nonspecific words like “thing” or “stuff” to describe an event or object because he has trouble finding the exact word to use.  He may learn new skills and concepts at a slower rate than his peers and demonstrate difficulty making the connections between letters and sounds, blending sounds into words, or remembering and understanding what was read or spoken aloud.  Children in 5th through 8th grade may find it harder to learn reading and spelling strategies and therefore try to avoid reading and writing tasks.  They may have difficulty completing word problems in math, spelling the same word consistently in a single piece of writing, creating sentences to express a variety of ideas, organizing ideas or sequencing events, using correct grammar, remembering or retelling stories or witnessed events, and understanding social language rules.

What should I do if I suspect my child is language or learning disabled?
Early identification is the first step in determining the appropriate intervention to help your child achieve his maximum potential.  If you suspect that your child has a speech or language disorder, you should schedule a comprehensive speech, language, and hearing evaluation with a qualified speech-language pathologist.  By law, learning disabilities must be diagnosed by a multidisciplinary team of professionals.  For example, a speech-language pathologist would do speech and language testing and maybe some academic testing; a psychologist or diagnostician would complete psychological testing to determine intellectual functioning; and a physician or developmental pediatrician may evaluate overall health and development, nutrition, and sleep patterns to make sure these are not contributing to the problem.

If my child is language or learning disabled, what can be done to help him?
Children with language and learning disabilities can and do learn; however, they may need to learn in different ways.  With proper support and intervention, kids with language and learning disabilities can be successful in learning and in life.  By observing and trying to understand the reason your child struggles, you have taken an important first step.  A speech-language pathologist can lead you further down the path of pinpointing the cause and tailoring a treatment program to your child’s needs.

Call a speech-language pathologist at Bristol Regional Speech and Hearing Center at 276-669-6331 with questions or concerns about the information in this article or to schedule an evaluation.  Our speech-language pathologists are certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and licensed to diagnose and treat a variety of communication problems.

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