Addressing Language-Based Learning Impairments

Language-based learning impairment

In special education, the ultimate goal is to provide a meaningful education to your students with disabilities in order to promote success academically, as well as in the workforce.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) outlines 13 different disabilities that qualify students for special education and related services, one of which is language impairment.

What defines a language-based learning impairment and what can we do to address a language impairment to ensure appropriate services are in place? Let’s dig in.

What is a language-based learning impairment?

A language-based learning impairment refers to difficulties with the understanding and/or use of spoken and/or written language. To break it down further, there are two different types of language: receptive and expressive language.

Receptive language skills refer to the understanding of spoken or written language. Listening and reading are both examples of receptive language.

In contract, expressive language skills refer to the use or expression of spoken or written language. Speaking and writing are two forms of expressive language.

Receptive Expressive
Spoken Listening Speaking
Written Reading Writing

A student with a language-based learning impairment can have difficulties with either receptive or expressive language, or a combination of both. And, often times, a language-based learning impairment can cause academic challenges because expressive language and communication are needed in all academic domains for comprehension. 19% of all students who receive special education services are diagnosed with speech or language impairments. 

The five domains of language

Language encompasses five different domains: phonology, semantics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics.

  • Phonology is one of the key components of linguistics and refers to the sound system of the language.
  • Semantics refers to the meaning system of language, which includes words, phrases and vocabulary.
  • Syntax refers to grammar and the formation of words and how they come together to form full thoughts and sentences.
  • Morphology refers to the way words are formed, including affixes and base words.
  • Pragmatics refers to the social use of language within a conversation, which can include interpreting the context of words that may have more than one meaning.

Students with a language-based learning impairment can experience language deficits in any of these five domains.

How can you identify language-based learning impairments in the classroom?

When it comes to identifying a language-based learning impairment in your classroom, there are a few tell-tale signs to keep an eye on.

A student may have trouble understanding what they hear. If this is the case, the student may have difficulty following directions or answering questions about text, and so on.

Some students with a language-based learning impairment may experience difficulty formulating what they want to say. A story they are trying to retell may lack detail, or the student may speak in short sentences with generalized language in favor of specific vocabulary. A student may experience challenges with finding the right words, for example “Ugh! What’s that word? It’s on the tip of my tongue!”

In addition, students with language-based learning impairments can perform especially poorly when asked to repeat sentences.

If you’ve identified any of the above, there are different ways you can help.

How to address a language-based learning impairment?

First and foremost, for school-aged students, you’ll want to consult with the school’s speech-language pathologist (SLP).

SLPs can conduct an in-depth language assessment looking at all language domains in isolation and within the context of the general education curriculum.

As an educator, there are general considerations that you can implement to help your students with language-based learning impairments, including but not limited to:

  • Always make sure you have the student’s attention
  • Simplify directions and information
  • Repeat directions and information as needed
  • Give students additional time to process information
  • Use visuals when appropriate
  • Pre-teach vocabulary and concepts that students will need for comprehension
  • Use graphic organizers
  • Provide explicit instruction
  • Allow for multisensory activities where possible and appropriate


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