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Issues involving spoken language

What’s the Difference Between Speech Disorders and Language-Based Learning Disabilities?

By Ellen Koslo

What’s the difference between a speech disorder or impairment and a language-based learning disability?

Ellen Koslo

Associate Professor of Otolaryngology, Columbia University Medical Center

A speech disorder or impairment usually means a child has difficulty producing certain sounds. This makes it difficult for people to understand what he says. Talking involves precise movements of the tongue, lips, jaw and vocal tract. There are a few different kinds of speech impairments:

  • Articulation disorder is difficulty producing sounds correctly. A child with this type of speech impairment may substitute one speech sound for another, such as saying wabbit instead of rabbit.
  • Voice disorder is difficulty controlling the volume, pitch and quality of the voice. A child with this type of speech impairment may sound hoarse or breathy or lose his voice.
  • Fluency disorder is disruption in the flow of speech, often by repeating, prolonging or avoiding certain sounds or words. A child with this type of speech impairment may hesitate or stutter or have blocks of silence when speaking.

Language-based learning disabilities (LBLD) are very different from speech impairments. LBLD refers to a whole spectrum of difficulties associated with young children’s understanding and use of spoken and written language.

LBLD can affect a wide variety of communication and academic skills. These include listening, speaking, reading, writing and doing math calculations. Some children with LBLD can’t learn the alphabet in the correct order or can’t “sound out” a spelling word. They may be able to read through a story but can’t tell you what it was about. Children with LBLD find it hard to express ideas well even though most kids with this diagnosis have average to superior intelligence.

One place where parents are likely to encounter the term LBLD is in their child’s IEP. But school professionals may refer instead to “dyslexia” or “dysgraphia.” These are more specific and easier to describe to parents.

Unlike speech impairments, LBLD are caused by a difference in brain structure. This difference is present at birth and is often hereditary. LBLD can affect some children more severely than others. For example, one student may have difficulty sounding out words for reading or spelling, but no difficulty with oral expression or listening comprehension. Another child may struggle in all of those areas.

LBLD isn’t usually identified until a child reaches school age. Typically it takes a team of professionals—a speech-language pathologist (SLP), psychologist, and a special educator—to find the proper diagnosis for children with LBLD. The team evaluates speaking, listening, reading and written language.

Learning problems should be addressed as early as possible. If left untreated, they can lead to a decrease in confidence, lack of motivation and sometimes even depression. Seeking treatment for your child can help significantly. Most kids with LBLD can succeed with the right services and supports.

About the Author

Portrait of Ellen Kolso

Ellen Koslo

Ellen Koslo, Au.D., is an associate professor of otolaryngology at Columbia University Medical Center, where she is the audiology section chief in the speech and hearing department.

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