Language-based learning disabilities are problems with age-appropriate reading, spelling, and/or writing. This disorder is not about how smart a person is. Most people diagnosed with learning disabilities have average to superior intelligence.

Dyslexia has been used to refer to the specific learning problem of reading. The term language-based learning disability, or just learning disabilities, is better because of the relationship between spoken and written language. Many children with reading problems have spoken language problems.

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The child with dyslexia has trouble almost exclusively with the written (or printed) word. The child who has dyslexia as part of a larger language learning disability has trouble with both the spoken and the written word. These problems may include difficulty with the following:

• Expressing ideas clearly, as if the words needed are on the tip of the tongue but won’t come out. What the child says can be vague and difficult to understand (e.g., using unspecific vocabulary, such as “thing” or “stuff” to replace words that cannot be remembered). Filler words like “um” may be used to take up time while the child tries to remember a word.
• Learning new vocabulary that the child hears (e.g., taught in lectures/lessons) and/or sees (e.g., in books)
• Understanding questions and following directions that are heard and/or read
• Recalling numbers in sequence (e.g., telephone numbers and addresses)
• Understanding and retaining the details of a story’s plot or a classroom lecture
• Reading and comprehending material
• Learning words to songs and rhymes
• Telling left from right, making it hard to read and write since both skills require this directionality
• Letters and numbers
• Learning the alphabet
• Identifying the sounds that correspond to letters, making learning to read difficult
• Mixing up the order of letters in words while writing
• Mixing up the order of numbers that are a part of math calculations
• Spelling
• Memorizing the times tables
• Telling time

How is a language-based learning disability diagnosed?

A speech-language pathologist (SLP) is part of a team consisting of the parents/caregivers and educational professionals (i.e., teacher(s), special educators, psychologist). The SLP will evaluate spoken (speaking and listening) and written (reading and writing) language for children who have been identified by their teachers and parents as having difficulty.

For preschool students, the SLP may do any or all of the following:
• Gather information about literacy experiences in the home. For example, are there books and other types of reading material around the home? How frequently does the child see family members writing letters, notes, lists, etc.? How often do family members read stories to the child?
• Observe the child during classroom activities.
• Evaluate the child’s ability to understand verbal and written directions and to pay attention to written information on the blackboard, daily plans, etc.
• Look for awareness of print.
• See if the child recognizes familiar signs and logos.
• Watch to see if a child holds a book correctly and turns the pages.
• Determine if the child recognizes and/or writes name.
• Evaluate whether the child demonstrates pretend writing (writing that resembles letters and numbers).
• See if the child recognizes and/or writes letters.
• Have the child tap or clap out the different syllables in words.
• Evaluate if the child can tell whether two words rhyme or give a list of words that rhyme with a specified word.
For the older child, the SLP may also do any or all of the following:
• Observe whether the child can read and understand information on handouts and in textbooks.
• Assess the student’s ability to hear and “play with” sounds in words (phonological awareness skills).
• Have the child put together syllables and sounds to make a word.
• See if the child can break up a word into its syllables and/or sounds (e.g., “cat” has one syllable but three sounds c-a-t).
• Assess the older child’s phonological memory by having him or her repeat strings of words, numbers, letters, and sounds of increasing length.
• For all children, the SLP will also provide a complete language evaluation and also look at articulation and executive function.
• Executive functioning is the ability to plan, organize, and attend to details (e.g., does he or she plan/organize his or her writing? Is he or she able to keep track of assignments and school materials?).