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Spoken Language Problems


Learning Disabilities Association of America
Educational Services Committee


Learning and Other Disabilities

Related Articles

General Information about Speech and Language Disorders

Questions and Answers about Child Language

May 1995

The development of spoken/oral language normally occurs without formal teaching. It develops as a result of exposure to spoken language. Problems with language development may not be recognized for a long time unless the child simply fails to begin talking. Oral language is the basis for learning reading and written language and for benefitting from instruction in other areas. It is important to identify children whose language is not developing normally so that more specific stimulation and actual intervention can begin as early as possible.

Language problems, like other learning disabilities, are called by several different names including: delayed language, language disorder, language disability, specific language disability, etc. Some people distinguish between children who appear to be developing all aspects of language at a slower rate (delayed language) and those who do not appear to be developing language in the expected way or have uneven language development (language disability). Regardless of the label, language problems should be assessed. A language evaluation must include a hearing test since hearing loss is one reason for delayed language acquisition. Speech-language pathologists typically do the testing for spoken language disabilities. When children are of school age, the evaluation must include the language of instruction and reading and written language.

Like other types of learning disabilities, language disabilities differ in type and severity. In young children there are many known milestones that can be observed by parents and preschool teachers. Some of these are listed on the enclosed sheet along with some activities to encourage language development.

Even mild problems in spoken language can have an impact on learning in school. A child should enter first grade with the majority of the language needed for learning. Problems in understanding language will affect almost every aspect of school: following directions, learning vocabulary, understanding instruction, reading comprehension, etc. Problems in using language are often seen in children who do not understand. Some children understand spoken language but have difficulty expressing themselves. A common problem seen in expressive language is difficulty recalling words they know (word retrieval problems). These children understand the word, know it when they hear it, but cannot always call it up when they need it. These children may say, "you know that thing you sweep the floor with"; "I know it, but I can't think of the word"; "Umm,umm, I forget"; etc. Retrieval problems can make children unwilling to participate in class because they interfere with a child's demonstration of what he/she has learned. For example, children may have learned color or letter names, but are unable to give the names when asked. These children can point to the color or letter when the name is said to them.

Some children have difficulty with spoken grammar. They omit words or word endings or get words in the wrong order. Some have difficulty putting their ideas into words in an organized way.

Problems in pronunciation of words can be the result of mishearing sounds (Starvation Army/Salvation Army), getting sounds in the wrong order (aminal/animal), or difficulty producing specific sounds (fum/thumb). Problems with the sound system of language have been reported in many children who have difficulty learning to read. While some speech sounds are acquired later than others, children who have many sounds they cannot make and are difficult to understand may have later problems with phonics.

Language activities with young children are fun for them and can stimulate more language. Reading to children and talking about the pictures and the "story" is an important activity. Making certain new vocabulary is used in many ways and in different situations helps children learn new words.

It is important to have children's language evaluated if there is any concern. Too often, parents are told "he'll outgrow it" or "just wait, she'll talk when she's ready". This is not good advice when the child is not doing what is expected for his/her age. Speech-language pathologists can determine what the problem is, if any, and make recommendations for working with the child. Oral language is important for social development and effective communication, as well as being the foundation for school learning. Problems should not be overlooked or disregarded.

Please retain this information for continual use until updated.

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