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Diagnosing Learning Disabilities and Language Delays

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 6/6/2012

It can be difficult to distinguish between a learning disability or a language delay, and some children present with both. Gain a better understanding of the symptoms and differences of each condition, and let readers know when a child should be tested.

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    Diagnosing a Language Delay

    To begin, let's look at what language is and what comprises language development. Language, an indicator of intelligence, refers to meanings while speech refers to sounds. All children develop language at an individual pace. A language delay occurs when a child develops language in the correct sequence, but at a slower rate than typical development. This is a common developmental problem, and is more serious than a speech problem.

    Signs of language delay in a child include:

    • Delayed receptive (or the understanding of) language;
    • Delayed use of nonverbal communication, such as pointing and other gestures
    • Delayed use of words
    • Limited vocabulary development
    • Incorrect use of words
    • Immature grammatical patterns
    • Delayed or limited social interaction

    If a parent or caregiver suspects a language delay, a child’s hearing should be tested immediately. Although hearing loss is often overlooked, most children with language delay have normal hearing. The child should then see a speech-language pathologist (SLP), who can evaluate and begin treating her immediately. A child does not even have to talk yet to begin treatment.

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    Diagnosing a Learning Disability

    A language delay is often the first sign of a language-based learning disability. Unlike a language delay, though, a language-based learning disability is not often diagnosed until a child has been in school for at least two years. A child with a learning disability does not lack intelligence. Rather, many children with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence, but they learn differently.

    Language-based learning disabilities are difficulties with age-appropriate and grade-level reading, spelling, and/or writing. Other difficulties and problems include:

    • Expressing ideas clearly;
    • Understanding questions and following directions;
    • Connecting letters and sounds;
    • Remembering and concentrating;
    • Repeating or copying information;
    • Learning the alphabet;
    • Understanding number concepts;
    • Understanding that numerals represent quantities;
    • Forming letters or remember which letters stand for which sounds;
    • Reading grade-level text;
    • Understanding what she reads;
    • Mixing up the order of letters in words while writing;
    • Mixing up the order of numbers in math calculations;
    • Spelling;
    • Telling time, and;
    • Controlling behavior.

    An SLP can evaluate spoken and/or written language for children who may have a language-based learning disability. The SLP will use diagnostic methods for preschool children and different tests for older children. For all children, the SLP will provide a complete language evaluation, including articulation and executive function, or the ability to plan, organize, and pay attention to details. This evaluation will provide a diagnosis of a learning disability versus language delay.

    If a learning disability is diagnosed, the SLP is one member of a team of teachers, special educators, and others to develop strategies and techniques for learning in the classroom. To accommodate a child’s individual comprehension needs, for instance, the SLP may work with the teacher in presenting new material to her. The SLP may also assist the child in planning and organizing written assignments.

References

  • Boyce, K. (2008). Speech and language delay and disorder. University of Michigan Health System. Retrieved November 16, 2010, from www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/speech.htm
  • Language-based learning disabilities. (2010). American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Retrieved November 16, 2010, from www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/LBLD.htm