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 setting for learning, the type of instruction).
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 fluent language skills.
The words used to describe learning disabilities vary depending upon who is describing them. It can be very confusing for teachers, students, parents and caregivers. The term specific learning disability (SLD) is used by the federal government and schools to describe one category of students who receive special education services. It encompasses a variety of difficulties, and is described below. A language-based learning disability (LBLD) is a sub-category of specific learning disability.
The Federal Definition of Specific Learning Disability
Specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or perform mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2009, around 5% of the school-aged population received services for specific learning disabilities. This percentage represents students who have a diagnosis of one or more disorders (such as reading or written language disorders). The percentage of students who have an undiagnosed learning disability is not known, but estimates of the prevalence of learning disabilities in the general population range from 10-20%. In addition, there are many students who experience difficulty acquiring proficient language and literacy skills even though they do not meet the criteria for a learning disability diagnosis.
All students who have difficulty gaining language and literacy skills benefit from explicit, multi-sensory, skills-based instruction.
The brain works differently in people with learning disabilities. Neuroscientists and geneticists are constantly reporting new findings about how and why learning disabilities occur, but no single, definitive reason has been identified. What researchers do know is: learning disabilities have a genetic basis; certain types of learning disabilities (including dyslexia) can be predicted based on language development in early childhood; and early identification and remediation are highly successful if provided appropriately.
Advances in neuroscience have demonstrated that with proper remediation, the brain can adapt itself to approach language and literacy tasks with greatly increased efficiency.
Learning disabilities can often be identified early, even before a child starts school, if parents and teachers are aware of the signals. The earlier a child can be identified, the better. Many states have early intervention programs that start in preschool to help young children gain the oral language skills that provide the foundation for the reading and writing skills they'll learn in elementary school.
Often, the diagnosis of a learning disability does not come until much later, when students struggle with reading or writing and begin to fall behind their peers. In past years, when a learning disability was suspected, a child would be referred for a neuropsychological or educational evaluation. If a learning disability was diagnosed, a child would be eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Children often had to wait a long time between recognition of their difficulties and special education services. Today, the Response to Intervention/Tiered Instruction model ensures that children do not have to wait to fail in order to receive remedial help.
Response to Intervention/Tiered Instruction
Today, before a student is automatically referred for a special education evaluation, a tiered instructional model is used. This model ensures that students who experience difficulty in the classroom receive help from their teachers right away. This is called Tier I instruction; in it, general education teachers provide instructional supports and accommodations within the classroom. The teacher monitors progress, and makes recommendations for next steps. For some students, this level of intervention is enough to make them successful. Others need more, and are referred to Tier 2. In Tier 2 instruction, students receive instructional support and remediation more intensively and in smaller groups. Students needing even more are referred to Tier 3 which closely involves special educators. A student's progress at any one tier is monitored carefully over a period of weeks, and changes are made accordingly. If a student doesn't gain success with these general education interventions, he or she is then referred for a special education evaluation. The evidence gathered in the prior weeks or months of tiered instruction often provides excellent data to help the evaluator determine the nature of the student's educational needs and make appropriate and specific recommendations.
It is important that when teachers or parents notice a student struggling, they intervene. If the student is referred for an educational evaluation, it is often carried out by special education personnel in their school or district. An educational evaluation assesses a child's academic functioning in several areas including reading, spelling, vocabulary, written expression, and math, and it can highlight academic strengths and/or weaknesses. Assessments of cognitive ability (commonly called IQ tests) are also administered. Other assessments may be included as well, to guide the diagnosis and recommendations.
Sometimes parents/caregivers opt to schedule a child for a neuropsychological evaluation, which is far more comprehensive and done by a neuropsychologist. This type of evaluation assesses an individual's functioning across a broad range of fields (beyond cognitive potential and academic skill), and often includes gathering data from teachers, parents, and other adults who work with the individual.
All research indicates that students with learning disabilities require specialized and individualized remediation in their area(s) of difficulty. Students do not "outgrow" learning disabilities. In fact, if students do not receive appropriate remediation, the gap between their skills and others' often increases as they move through school. In addition, students with LBLD do not acquire appropriate skills by osmosis. Telling a student with LBLD to spend more time reading will not solve his or her dyslexia. A student who struggles to decode text will always do so unless s/he receives appropriate remedial instruction that retrains the brain to decode written language more efficiently. At the same time, accommodations and modifications are important for students with LBLD so they may successfully interact with grade-level curriculum and not fall behind their peers in terms of their content knowledge.
Accommodations and Modifications
Accommodations and modifications allow students with learning disabilities to participate successfully in general education/mainstream classes. Accommodations and modifications are important, but they are different from remediation. In order to develop proficient language and literacy skills, students with LBLD need remediation.
An accommodation enables students to complete a task successfully but does not change the quantity or the skill level of the work required. Common accommodations include: pencil-grips; large font or sans serif text; audio texts; special seating; use of a computer for writing; graphic organizers or writing templates; and extended time on assignments or assessments.
A modification also enables students to complete tasks successfully within a general education class, with changes made to the quantity or skill level of the work required. Common modifications include: fewer questions (or different questions) to complete; alternative assessment formats; leveled texts; shortened writing assignments; and teacher-provided notes or study guides.
Remediation generally takes place outside the general education curriculum. It means specific, individualized instruction in and practice of strategies that strengthen weak skills. Remediation may be focused on any number of skills. Students with LBLD generally require remediation in: decoding written language; spelling; reading rate; reading comprehension; study skills; and written expression. Many students with LBLD also need remedial work in oral language skills and pragmatic language skills. How students with LBLD receive remedial instruction depends upon the student, the school, and the requirements of the IEP. Settings may include pull-out sessions, self-contained classrooms, language-based programs in the school or district, or out-of-district placements.
As an introduction to best practices, we suggest reading Landmark's Six Teaching Principles™ and looking over our publications. These provide explanations and examples of both general approaches and specific teaching strategies that empower students. In short, the best practices for teaching students with language-based learning disabilities are those that identify the specific skill deficit(s) and remediate it using evidence-based strategies that contribute to the student's effective progress in mastering the skill. A piecemeal approach of strategies, or a program that is unsuited to the student's profile may lead to some progress, but effective progress is measured by whether the skills gaps can be closed in a reasonable time. Reasonable time needs to be defined on a case-by-case basis, but expectations should remain high. Constant progress monitoring is essential. If a student is not making effective progress, some aspect of the remediation must change.
Each learner is unique and will respond differently depending upon many factors. These may include: the student's learning profile; the type of remediation; the instructor's skill; the student's relationship with the instructor; the setting of instruction; the frequency of instruction; the level of success achieved; and other factors that impact learning. Examples of other factors include everything from chronic hunger or fatigue, to unidentified skill deficits that prevent progress.
In addition to information available through the special education departments within schools or districts, and from pediatricians and neuropsychologists, there are many useful books, videos and websites that focus on learning disabilities. Visit our Recommended Reading or Online Resources to view recommended resources for information on language-based learning disabilities.