by Patricia W. Newhall M.A., M.S.Ed., Associate Director of the Landmark School Outreach Program
Language-based learning disability (LBLD) refers to a spectrum of difficulties related to the understanding and use of spoken and written language. LBLD is a common cause of students’ academic struggles because weak language skills impede comprehension and communication, which are the basis for most school activity.
Like all learning disabilities, LBLD results from a combination of neurobiological differences (variations in the way an individual’s brain functions) and environmental factors (e.g., the learning setting, the type of instruction). The key to supporting students with LBLD is to know how to adjust curriculum and instruction to ensure they develop proficient language and literacy skills.
LBLD can manifest as a wide variety of language difficulties with different levels of severity. One student may have difficulty sounding out words for reading or spelling, but no difficulty with oral expression or listening comprehension. Another may struggle with all three. The spectrum of LBLD ranges from students who experience minor interferences that may be addressed in class to students who need specialized, individualized attention throughout the school day in order to develop proficient language and literacy skills.
Academic proficiency develops in relation to students’ increasing skills and abilities. Its three interrelated elements, shown in Figure 1, are coordinated by the individual’s executive function. Executive function enables students to maintain focus, progress, and motivation; make connections with existing knowledge; recognize when comprehension falters; and apply strategies to modulate frustration and resolve lapses in understanding.
Language and literacy skills include listening, speaking, reading and writing. Study skills include flexible and appropriate use of strategies for managing materials, time, and language. Self-efficacy (the belief that one’s actions are related to outcomes) includes skills in self-awareness, self-assessment, and self-advocacy. All these skills are coordinated by executive function. Executive function, the brain’s super-manager, empowers students to set goals, marshal the various internal and external resources needed to meet them, and make adjustments to ensure accomplishment.
Most students with LBLD develop academic proficiency only when they are taught skills within a supportive environment of curriculum and instruction designed to meet their specific needs. When teachers know how to celebrate students’ strong skills and remediate their weak ones using skills-based curriculum and instruction, students’ lives can change. The first step to empowering students with LBLD is to understand how LBLD can impact their school experience and why language-based teaching works.
LBLD Impacts Language and Literacy Skills
Listening and Speaking
While reading and writing must be explicitly taught to all children, oral language skills (listening and speaking) generally develop naturally and in relatively predictable patterns as infants and young children are exposed to them.
Receptive language skills enable us to comprehend spoken and written words and sentences, as well as nonverbal communication. Underdeveloped skills in this area make it difficult to process and remember spoken and written language in spite of intact hearing and visual acuity. Students may misunderstand words, sentences, and more complex information, as well as nonverbal information from body language or pictures and diagrams. As a result, both classroom learning and social interaction pose tremendous challenges.
Expressive language skills enable us to speak and write clearly, meaningfully, and efficiently. Because these skills depend on receptive language skills, students with receptive difficulties also exhibit expressive difficulties. Students with underdeveloped expressive language skills may comprehend language but have difficulty using it. Limited speech, lack of specific language, word-finding difficulty, talking too little or too much, difficulty making a point, omissions of critical parts of sentences, and unusual syntax are examples of expressive language difficulty. Often, students who struggle with expressive language skills cannot express what they know unless they learn specific strategies for producing effective communication.
As with reading and writing, some students will not exhibit significant weaknesses until the increasing language demands of school exceed the strategies they developed to get by in previous years. Students with a language-based learning disability that involves receptive or expressive language skills require early, direct, intensive, and individualized remediation. Because reading and writing skills develop in relation to listening and speaking skills, difficulty developing any one skill area can impede a student’s progress in others. Interventions need to address the full range of a student’s difficulties.
Reading consists of two related but discrete components: decoding automaticity and comprehension. Decoding automaticity is the ability to recognize and read words quickly and accurately. Comprehension is the ability to make meaning from the words. Reading fluency is the combined effect of automaticity and comprehension. It is the ability to read written language quickly, accurately, and with appropriate phrasing and expression (prosody) in order to grasp meaning (comprehend).
The most prevalent LBLD is a reading disorder, commonly called dyslexia. It is diagnosed when the student’s primary difficulty is decoding automaticity. Most students with dyslexia have difficulty processing language at the phonemic and morphemic levels. Their hearing acuity is fine, but they process sounds differently, which makes speedy, accurate decoding difficult. Often, these students are diagnosed with a phonological processing disorder. Other students’ poorly developed reading skills result from differences in visual processing, which can also interfere with developing decoding automaticity. These students may be diagnosed with a visual processing disorder. Both phonological and visual processing differences impede spelling skills and often cause secondary difficulties with reading comprehension and writing skills.
Reading comprehension difficulties are generally secondary to other challenges with language. Some students have difficulty decoding written text and may misread important words and misunderstand information. Other students may read so slowly or work so hard at sounding out words that the meaning gets lost. Either group probably could comprehend the text were it read aloud. On the other hand, students with limited vocabulary or a diminished understanding of syntax (the case for students diagnosed with mixed receptive-expressive language disorder) may have no difficulty decoding text quickly and accurately, but tremendous difficulty comprehending what they read or what has been read to them.
While many students with LBLD develop neither automaticity nor fluency without direct, intensive intervention, some manage to develop enough reading skill to get to middle and even high school without parents or teachers becoming aware of their weak skills. The difficulty is revealed when the volume and complexity of the reading become too challenging for students to keep up without help.
Writing involves both fine motor skills and two discrete yet related language skills: spelling (orthography) and expressive language. A proficient writer can both spell and write coherently about an idea. Fluent spelling reflects mastery of the phonemic, morphemic, and semantic facets of language. Fluent written expression reflects spelling skill plus mastery of syntax within an appropriate discourse structure. Difficulty with any facet of language, from phonemes to discourse, can impede the development of writing proficiency.
Language-based writing difficulties generally coincide with challenges in other areas of language. Students who struggle with decoding may also struggle with spelling. Students who struggle with spoken language are likely to produce writing with limited vocabulary, confused sentence structure, too much or too little information, or a disorganized argument or narrative. These difficulties may result from an expressive language disorder (characterized by difficulty producing learned language) or a mixed receptive-expressive language disorder (characterized by difficulty acquiring and producing language). Listening to and observing students as they speak and write can highlight the locus of a particular student’s difficulty, especially in conjunction with formal evaluations.
Most students with LBLD need explicit, intensive, individualized instruction to develop spelling and writing skills. As with reading, however, some develop enough skills to get by until they become overwhelmed by the intensive demands of writing as they move through middle school and into high school.
It is also important to note that some students have difficulty writing because of poorly developed fine motor and/or visual-spatial skills. They have difficulty writing neatly, typing quickly, and organizing words on a page clearly. Though such difficulties frequently coexist with a language-based difficulty, they are not language-based in themselves and require different interventions.
Math proficiency requires more than calculating answers. Many mathematical skills depend upon oral and written language skills. Students with LBLD may have difficulty processing oral directions, decoding written directions or word problems, reading or writing equations, or explaining their problem-solving process in words. While their number sense, arithmetic, and even mathematical thinking may be solid, their weaknesses in language can interfere with their ability to learn and demonstrate mathematical knowledge.
Some students who demonstrate proficient language skills but struggle with math may have a math disorder, commonly called dyscalculia. Mathematics difficulties can occur for a variety of reasons and can emerge at any time during a student’s schooling. It is important to identify the causes of a student’s mathematics difficulties early on so that appropriate interventions may be implemented before the student develops math avoidance.
LBLD Impacts Study Skills and Self-Efficacy
In addition to interfering with language and literacy skill development, LBLD also interferes with other facets of academic proficiency. Students with LBLD rarely develop robust study skills without explicit instruction and guided practice. The development of academic proficiency is slowed significantly when students lack the how-to knowledge of and routines for managing materials, time, and language. Finally, many students with LBLD lack a strong sense of self-efficacy as a result of their academic difficulties. Because self-efficacy is essential to academic achievement, unremediated LBLD can create a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.
Patricia W. Newhall is the author of “Study Skills: Research-Based Teaching Strategies, Teaching Independent Minds, and Language-Based Learning Disabilities.” This article is adapted from Language-Based Learning Disabilities.