What Teachers Should Know about Language Disorders

Whitney P. Gordon
Whitney P. Gordon
Special Education and English Teacher; Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership, Thomas University, GA
Speech therapist working with a young girl at a table.

 Teaching can be a challenging balancing act. Each day educators walk into classrooms that house an array of abilities and deficits, and it is the teacher’s job to cultivate an environment where every student can learn and grow. While some students present deficits that are borne from a lack of quality or consistent past instruction, we also have many students who are fighting each day with one hand behind their backs due to disorders that are often beyond environmental influence. Students with language disorders, even when cognitively commensurate with their peers, face challenges while learning. It is important for every teacher to understand what language disorders are and how to support these students in the classroom.

What is a Language Disorder?

According to Psychology Today, a language disorder, also known as a communication disorder, occurs when an individual presents difficulties with understanding and producing language that isn’t explicable by developmental age. Students with language disorders may have trouble speaking clearly, forming grammatically correct oral or written language, or understanding and processing speech from others. As communication and listening are both crucial to academic success, students with language disorders need classroom and sometimes outside interventional support.

Types of Language Disorders

Beyond the blanket indicators of difficulties communicating and understanding language, there are three specific types of language disorders in children. The type of language disorder that a student has will determine their abilities and needs. Below is an explanation of each type.

Expressive Language Disorder

Students with expressive language disorder struggle to express themselves through language. It is difficult for these students to connect words into coherent ideas and sentences. This is often frustrating for students as they have the intelligence to understand concepts and form opinions and ideas, but they aren’t always able to express the complex thoughts they possess. This type of language disorder is evident in both writing and speaking.

Receptive Language Disorder

Students with receptive language disorder struggle to understand language presented from others. As such, they often misunderstand questions and statements, prompting them to respond with language that is incoherent. Because the student’s limited understanding produces incoherent responses, these students can appear to have expressive language disorder. Although this disorder can appear to be similar to its expressive counterpart, the root of receptive language disorder is the student’s inability to comprehend language.

Expressive-Receptive Language Disorder

As its name suggests, students with expressive-receptive language disorder have a mixture of the aforementioned types. These students struggle to comprehend and produce language. This makes learning difficult and can often be misconstrued as a cognitive learning disability.

How Language Disorders Present

In order to help these students reach their full potential in the classroom, it is important for teachers to recognize the signs and symptoms of language disorders. Here are some signs that can indicate a language disorder:

  • Limited vocabulary not due to developmental age
  • Speaks in fragments, or unable to express full sentences
  • Omitting words when speaking or writing
  • Difficulty playing and communicating with peers
  • Interchanging verb tenses
  • Saying words in the incorrect order
  • Slurred or slow rate of speech
  • Task avoidance behaviors (disruption, elopement, disengagement, etc.)
  • Straining to speak
  • A hoarse or breathy voice
  • Stuttering
  • Consistently pronounces specific sounds incorrectly
  • Trouble with decoding and reading comprehension
  • Difficulty producing writing at an age-appropriate level
  • Difficulty following instructions

In order to understand the scope of what language disorders are, it is important to also understand what they are not. Students with limited English proficiency, for example, may present some of the symptoms above as they are learning the English language. Although English Language Learners can also have a language disorder, language barriers while learning English should not be diagnosed or treated as a language disorder. Furthermore, language disorders are neither learning nor intellectual disabilities, and although they can come with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the two are not synonymous. Students with language disorders can be cognitively proficient and still face challenges in the classroom relating to language. It’s important to understand that these students still need to be challenged and stimulated at a level that matches their ability.

How to Support Students with Language Disorders

Once you realize that a student has symptoms of a language disorder, there are ways to support this student in the classroom. Understanding the student’s type of disorder and unique needs will be key. Here are some ways to set students with language disorders up for academic success.

Refer the Student for Evaluation 

When you notice that a student is presenting signs of a language disorder, referring this student for evaluation by your school’s speech and language pathologist (SLP) is an important initial step. It is important to include the student’s parent in this process every step of the way. The evaluation will be a series of tests administered by the SLP to determine if the student qualifies for special education services under the category of speech/language impairment. If the student qualifies, he/she can receive direct support form an SLP and documented classroom and testing accommodations and modifications.

Have a Plan for Missed Class Time

While a student is being evaluated and receiving direct support from an SLP, the student will have to miss class time. This is inevitable and necessary to ensure that the student receives the support needed. Be proactive and have a system in place so that the student can receive adequate instruction and make up missed assignments.

Alternate Forms of Student Expression

Students with language disorders often find speaking and writing difficult. While eliminating these forms of expression is not feasible or advisable, offering alternate forms of student expression can help build confidence and provide an accurate picture of the student’s ability. Assigning students to draw a comic strip as opposed to writing a story is a good example.

Be Cognizant of Your Rate of Speech

Knowing that students with speech disorders often struggle to understand speech, be cognizant of how fast you speak. When presenting instructions to the class, for example, talk at a rate that is easy for students to follow and understand. While monitoring your rate of speech, please be mindful of maintaining a tone that is not condescending.

Give Clear Steps for Directions

Directions should always be given orally and in written format. Students should be able to refer to directions frequently throughout any task. Also, break directions down into manageable steps, and make sure that each step is articulated clearly. Whenever possible, including pictures in directions is helpful especially for young learners.

Use Visual Aids

Speaking of pictures, visual aids are crucial to comprehension for students with language disorders. Anchor charts, videos, diagrams, etc. are all great resources. This way, students don’t have to rely on words only in order to comprehend information.

Take Time to Listen and Understand 

This tip is simple yet important. Years ago, a student with a language disorder expressed to me that the most difficult part of his experience was the people who ignored or made no attempt to understand him because of his speech. These students may face social and learning difficulties, but teachers can demonstrate kindness and acceptance by simply being patient and listening. Showing these students that their voices matter is half the journey toward their academic success.

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