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Language Related Learning Disabilities in Children and Adolescents

Posted by on Nov. 3, 2009 at 11:41 AM
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By Lisa Schoenbrodt, Ed.D., CCC-SLP
Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology
Loyola College in Maryland

In a fifth grade classroom, the two children are talking to their teacher before going to the cafeteria for lunch. The one child, who is in the school play this evening, tells the teacher enthusiastically about her part in the play as the other child listens attentively. As the conversation closes, the teacher tells the child, "Break a leg tonight!" The other child, who has been listening closely to the conversation, looks at the teacher with a horrified look. The teacher asks the student why he appears to be upset. The student responds, "I can't believe you really want her to break her leg when she has to be in the play tonight!"

This scenario is one that is repeated often in classrooms everywhere. The second child, while listening attentively, has failed to understand the underlying meaning or the figurative language in the idiom, "break a leg." For many children with language related learning disabilities, this lack of comprehension is common.

Communication is the framework for all human interaction, and language is the tool that enables it to work. Language is described as a code whereby ideas about the world are represented through a conventional system or arbitrary symbols used for communication. These symbols, which can be auditory, visual, and kinesthetic, allow the child entry into social and academic cultures. The degree to which the child develops language depends on the amount of success the child achieves in both of the above cultures.

Spoken language is the earliest tool that children use to enter the social culture. The child must learn the sounds, words, and word sequences of his or her language in order for communication to occur. In addition, the child must master the rhythm, intonation, and the pauses that define the beginnings and endings of word groupings. Much of this mastery takes place prior to the commencement of formal schooling. When the child enters school, spoken language continues to be the tool for social communication, but now the emphasis is placed on the use of language for academic learning. After this transition to school, academic problems may begin to suggest the presence of a learning disability. An earlier diagnosis of a language deficit is often a reflection of the preschool curriculum, whereas the later diagnosis of a learning disability reflects the more complex demands of the academic curriculum.

Researchers have documented the characteristics of younger children with language disorders and found that they typically: (a) have more difficulty with sentence repetition and completion, (b) have more difficulty understanding and using prepositions (in, on, under, etc.) and other grammatical markers, (c) produce their first words later and acquire words more slowly, (d) have trouble remembering and repeating information presented orally, (e) have difficulty untangling relationships in complex sentences, and (f) have poor spelling and problems with comprehension and decoding words for reading. Adolescents demonstrate the above language problems with additional difficulties in understanding basic classroom vocabulary and comprehending and using figurative language as in idioms, metaphors, etc. This difficulty with figurative language is also evident in the way adolescents use language - otherwise known as problems with pragmatics. Teachers often note that these students often do not "get the joke" in typical adolescent banter. This situation brings about problems of being accepted by peers, which is often critical during adolescence.

The above description is only a generalized list of characteristics of children and adolescents with language-based learning disabilities. However, as a parent, if you suspect that your child is having difficulty in comprehending and/or using language, you should pursue an evaluation of your child's language functioning. Your child can be evaluated through your local school system at no cost. The school speech language pathologist can provide an in-depth evaluation of your child's language abilities. It is important that language functioning not only be evaluated orally, but in other modalities such as reading and writing as well. Many times children will show difficulty in mathematics and language problems are not suspect. However, if the child is having problems with word problems, for example, the language implied in the mathematics problem may be the reason why the child is having difficulty. If you choose not to pursue an evaluation through your local school system, you may contact a private practitioner. You can contact your state speech language and hearing association who may provide you with a list of qualified evaluators in your area.

If your child is identified with a language-based learning disability, there are many ways for you to reinforce your child's language learning abilities. These suggestions would need to be modified according to your child's chronological age and ability level:

1. When new vocabulary is introduced, whether it is orally, or spelling words, or for vocabulary for science class, etc., it is important to bombard your child as much as possible with this vocabulary. Children who have difficulty with language need to see it, hear it, say it, etc. as much as possible in order to internalize the meaning. It is also important that you help your child define new vocabulary and understand in terms he or she understands and not just what the dictionary says. Along that line, try to link new vocabulary or concepts to ones your child already knows or experiences he or she has had. For example, if your younger child is learning about animal habitats, you can help him to visualize a recent trip to a farm by asking him to recall the places he saw the animals.

2. In presenting new concepts or ideas, you may need to be very concrete in introducing these ideas. Some children may actually need to see the object representing the concept, or a picture, so they can internalize the concept. When introducing figurative language such as idioms, your child should understand both the literal and abstract meanings. One strategy is to have your child draw both the literal and abstract meanings of these phrases in order to visualize the differences in meaning.

3. Read to your child as much as possible. Read from a variety of genres including stories, poems and plays. When introducing the book, show your child the cover and discuss who the author is, what the title is, and ask your child what she thinks is the plot of the story. Read the same story several nights in a row so that your child has the opportunity to hear the vocabulary and process the story many times. Ask your child questions periodically while you are reading the story to be sure he or she understands the overall meaning of the story and the characters involved. After you have read the story many times, ask your child if she can tell you the story. Be sure you discuss any vocabulary she may not be familiar with in the story.

4. Include your child in as many "hands on" activities as possible. Cooking activities, for example, are an excellent source for language development in many areas. It is important that as the facilitator of language, that you engage the child in the activity with language and not talk at the child - as if you are pouring information into the child. The idea is that these activities provide the natural scenario for a give and take of information and offer a more realistic exchange of conversational information. The activities can be as simple as making a sandwich to actually cooking or baking. Mathematical concepts can be introduced during these activities through measuring, chopping or cutting ingredients. These hands on experiences provide a meaningful way for your child to link information to what is learned in school.

5. For very young children, you can facilitate language development during play activities. While playing with your child, describe what he or she is doing. Be careful to only use short phrases in describing the actions, for example, if your child is pushing a car, say "You are pushing a car - pushing a car." You can also label the objects, again, using shorter phrases as opposed to lengthy ones that are difficult to process and comprehend. The idea behind these indirect language facilitation approaches is for you as the adult to provide a good model for your child to follow. Many times, parents bombard their child with too much information. Children with language deficits need to hear a model with the important information repeated frequently and then be allowed to have the opportunity to repeat or respond to the information presented.

There is a wealth of information about language related learning disabilities available. This brief article highlights information that is important for parents to be cognizant of if a disability in this area is suspected. There are many interventions that are available on the market, depending on the type of language related problems your child may exhibit. The list of suggestions presented here is brief but relevant to most children. The activities may need to be adapted to your child's level of interest and ability to understand and integrate language. An important fact to remember is that children with language related learning disabilities struggle around the clock because language is such an integral part of our lives. Language learning needs to be reinforced at home as well as at school. Parents, caregivers, and others play an important part in the mastery of these skills.

by on Nov. 3, 2009 at 11:41 AM
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