Understanding Language-Based Learning Disabilities

Your questions about managing language-based learning disabilities.


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While every student has trouble from time to time, if a certain area of learning is consistently problematic, it might indicate a language-based learning disability.

Aimee Picon, Assistant Head of Junior High and Lower School and Wilson Credentialed Trainer at of Noble Academy, offered tips and answered questions on language-based learning disabilities in a recent live Facebook chat. Following are questions from Facebook users and live answers from Dr. O'Connor. (This transcript has been edited for clarity and grammar.)


What is a language-based learning disability?

Aimee Picon: A language-based learning disability affects a child’s ability to use language and can impact reading, writing and/or spelling. In short terms, a language-based learning disability is trouble with listening, reading, speaking, writing, etc.


How do I know if my child's learning disability is language-based?

Aimee Picon: The only true way to tell if a learning disability is language-based is with assessment through a qualified professional. However, warning signs include general difficulty with language-based tasks. Speaking, listening, retrieving words, difficulty with reading and spelling. It can present differently depending on the age of the child and the specific area of deficit.


What’s the difference between a speech disorder or impairment and a language-based learning disability?

Aimee Picon: The easiest way to answer this question is to refer you to an article posted on Understood.org by Ellen Koslo. The Q and A article, “What’s the Difference Between Speech Disorders and Language-Based Learning Disabilities” clearly defines the differences between the types of speech impairments and then the difference between a speech impairment and a language-based learning disability. Understood.org is an excellent resource for parents of children will all different types of learning challenges.


What are some signs or symptoms of a language-based learning disability? And, at what age are these disabilities typically diagnosed?

Aimee Picon: Children who experience speech delays are at risk for developing language-based learning disabilities, however these types of disabilities are generally diagnosed in school aged children who are showing a deficit in reading, spelling or understanding academic material in school. These are students who don’t understand how to attack new words based on previously learned words by applying familiar sound patterns to new words. They tend to be slow and labored readers. In milder cases, they are sometimes not identified until students prove unsuccessful on end of grade assessments beginning in third grade.

Aimee Picon: For others, this disability may not be addressed at all if the student independently develops coping mechanisms for the deficit. Language-based learning disabilities can sometimes be difficult to diagnose in very young children and are generally noted once they start school.


Do language-based learning disabilities also affect a child's ability to learn other subjects beyond reading/writing/spelling, like math and science, for example?

Aimee Picon: Yes, unfortunately, difficulty with reading, comprehension, vocabulary or a combination of those things seeps into other academic areas. For example, improper decoding of math word problems, or difficulty with understanding a science text, can impact a student’s overall academic performance. Intervention in reading can help support the student in other academic areas.


Do you have any tips on how parents can boost their child’s oral language skills at home?

Aimee Picon: Read, read, read to your child. No matter the age of the child, reading at a higher level will boost his/her vocabulary and oral language skills. It will allow your child to hear your reading prosody, and inflection. These are oral skills that can be generalized to communication.


What causes language-based learning disabilities?

Aimee Picon: There is much research that has been done on the brain and how brain functions differ in people with learning disabilities. The research of Sally Shaywitz et al. (2002) shows us that those who struggle with language lack a phonological coding system in the left hemisphere of the brain. People who show this deficit try to access frontal lobe processes to compensate by memorizing whole words which is a much less efficient way to process language as it is impossible to memorize all words. A genetic component has been proven, and language-based learning disabilities occur in all cultures throughout the world.


I am assuming there are different levels for different children, but can they be overcome or will they always be challenged?

Aimee Picon: Yes, appropriate intervention to address the specific needs of the child can help a person overcome a language-based learning disability. Some of the research on the brain done by Sally Shaywitz shows that with intervention there are actually changes in brain processes and a person who receives appropriate intervention will begin to access the parts of the brain that allow them to decode more efficiently.


How is a language-based learning disability diagnosed?

Aimee Picon: The diagnosis is based on standardized assessments that measure the child’s ability to decode, encode, use and interpret language. However, it is typically a parent or teacher who has noticed the child’s difficulty and attempted to intervene with limited positive results that sparks the family to seek out a professional who could provide a diagnosis.


What type of professional is qualified to identify a language-based learning disability, and what type of testing is used?

Aimee Picon: A language-based learning disability can be diagnosed by a psychologist or a team of professionals. To obtain an official diagnosis, a full battery of tests including IQ and academic achievement tests are usually done. The IQ test helps professionals determine how the child’s verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory and processing speed may impact their academic achievement.


How might having a language-based learning disability affect a child’s academic performance?

Aimee Picon: They may present as students who are slow and labored readers who may or may not understand what they read, or they may decode beautifully and not understand what they are reading at all. Often these students have difficulty with word retrieval (knowing what they want to say, but can’t find the words). They may present as students who have difficulty with oral or written receptive language (listening and reading), and/or oral or written expressive language (speaking and writing) . All of these are closely related language processes. Students with a language-based learning disability can struggle with decoding and encoding (reading and writing), comprehension, or both.


How does a language-based learning disability impact a child’s social life and communication skills?

Aimee Picon: Language-based learning disabilities can indirectly impact a person’s social life. When you consider how quickly the brain processes, interprets and formulates a response to spoken language, people with language-based learning disabilities, even those whom are highly intelligent, may need more time to process and respond appropriately in social situations. Some people with these types of disabilities are not affected at all socially.

Aimee Picon: Communication skills such as interpreting text and responding in writing can be more challenging. It may take people with language-based learning disabilities more time to copy items off a board; their understanding of the material may be impacted simply by how taxing it is on the brain to complete a task like copying.

Aimee Picon: Responding in written form for students with dyslexia and dysgraphia can be extremely difficult. Formulating complete sentences, with correct spelling and grammar for some may seem like a daunting task. This impacts their social communication skills with regard to writing papers, sending emails, even text messaging!


What treatments are available for students with a language-based learning disability and how effective are they?

Aimee Picon: The earlier that this type of disability is identified and effectively treated the higher the outcomes. Spending time and money on treatment that has not been studied may not be in the best interest of the person with the disability. For students with decoding and encoding difficulties, an Orton-Gillingham based reading program would likely yield the best results.

Aimee Picon: There are a variety of treatments depending on the person’s specific area of need. However, our recommendation is for treatments to have a research base and proven effectiveness using evidence based practices.

Aimee Picon: The goal is reading for understanding, so the treatment must teach phonemic awareness and phonics, language structure, speedy word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. For more information on this topic, see the Florida Center for Reading Research website

Aimee Picon: For some of these students certain accommodations and modification of the curriculum or classroom can be very helpful also. Speech to text applications, copies of classroom notes, etc., can all aid a student’s academic performance if they are struggling with language.


What does a speech-language pathologist do when working with individuals with a language-based learning disability?

Aimee Picon: Debbie Vance, a contracted speech-language pathologist from One Step At A Time Therapy Services for Noble Academy, says that when working with individuals with language-based learning disabilities, you first begin by determining what difficulties the student has.

Aimee Picon:  A speech-language pathologist will then conduct a screening and evaluation to determine the specific area(s) of need. A speech-language pathologist would provide services through a written goal-oriented plan. A resource teacher would also be integrated into the plan in order to address not only language deficits but academic concerns.


How does Noble Academy help teachers and parents who want to learn more about how to teach students with language-based learning disabilities?

Aimee Picon:  Noble Academy offers free reading screenings each month to assist families in the community in determining if additional or more in depth assessment is needed. Noble Academy believes in the implementation of evidence based practices with fidelity and is dedicated to providing appropriate professional development to its staff in best practices for students with learning disabilities and ADHD.

Aimee Picon: In order to have a greater impact on the community at large, Noble Academy has identified Wilson Reading System®, an Orton-Gillingham based program, as the best fit for our staff and students. We require all of our Lower School teachers and our junior high reading teachers receive certification in the Wilson Reading System®. We also provide public Wilson® professional learning programs in order to educate teachers and parents to widen the scope of the students positively impacted by Wilson Reading System® programs.


How can I learn more about Wilson Reading System® programs?

Aimee Picon: Noble Academy is a Wilson® partner and offers some Wilson Reading System® professional learning workshops and certification programs. Wilson Language Training® has a website with many resources and support.


Are there any games, activities or apps that parents can provide at home to help a language-based learning disability student?

Aimee Picon: There are many apps and websites available that target different areas of reading. One factor that heavily impacts students with language-based learning disabilities is a weakness in vocabulary. Most new words are learned through reading. If a person struggles with reading, it is difficult to develop vocabulary at the pace of others.

Aimee Picon: Here are some apps and programs that we find helpful: Knowji - for visual vocabulary, the following websites are good also: http://visuwords.com/ , https://wordsift.org/, http://www.hearbuilder.com /- can be extremely effective in assisting students with language processing difficulties while developing phonemic awareness. Apps for Latin and Greek root words can be very helpful, and noredink.com for grammar and written language. For younger children struggling with beginning phonemic awareness, abcya.com is also a great resource.


What are your thoughts on the popular fidget spinners kids are using in school to help aid in concentration. Are they allowed at Noble Academy?

Aimee Picon: Fidgets are a hot topic in schools right now. While many schools ban them completely due to the disruption they are causing in the classrooms, there is a time and a place for a fidget. First, there is a specific way that a fidget needs to be used in order for it to actually be ‘a fidget.’ At Noble Academy, we educate our students on the proper use of fidgets. They should be out of the sight line of the student using it and others, they should not be noisy and should not be used as toys. As soon as the fidget spinner, cube or thinking putty appears above the desk or out of the lap, it becomes a distractor for that student and the children around him and the student is asked to put it away.

Aimee Picon: Second, not everyone needs a fidget. Fidgets should be reserved for those students who actually have trouble sitting still, or focusing. These are students who will find something to do with their hands, feet, desk, chair, etc. if they don’t have something to keep their hands and bodies busy. It’s easy for kids to get caught up in the fidget craze, and deem it unfair if one student gets to use one while another cannot. As part of our self-advocacy teaching at Noble Academy, we teach all of our students that everyone has different strengths and needs. Just because Judy has (and needs) a fidget, does not mean that Jason does.

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