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Speech and Language Disorder: A Common Learning Disability

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Learn more about speech and language disorder (LAS), including the different categories and how it's accommodated in the classroom.

Learn more about speech and language disorder (LAS), including the different categories and how it's accommodated in the classroom.

When Kids Struggle With Words

When my youngest son started school, he was immediately met with a disadvantage. He had trouble pronouncing words, especially those with the /r/ phoneme (a unit of sound), the /l/ sound, and both variations of the sounds associated with "th".

Before kindergarten, the problem was identified and designated as a specific learning disorder. Since then (he's now a second-grader), the speech and language disorder that affects him is enough to make him eligible for special education services at his school.

What Is Speech and Language Disorder?

Speech and language disorder (also known as language and speech, or LAS) is a very common learning disability found mostly among school-age children. The conditions associated with it are usually minor and can be treated with the help of a speech therapist, a special education teacher, or a reading specialist.

These conditions may not impact the students’ ability as much as other conditions. Still, they can cause delays in areas of language learning such as oral comprehension, phonemic awareness, and articulation. Also, stuttering or stammering can be a by-product of it.

Although LAS is usually clumped together under one designation—when written into a student's individual education plan (IEP)—it has several categories, and the disorders affect the students in different ways.

Speech disorders can be divided into several categories.

Types of Speech Disorders

For starters, there are some differences between the speech disorders and language disorders under the LAS umbrella. A speech disorder is when students have trouble producing fluent speech (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2012). According to ASHA’s website, examples of these conditions are:

  • Difficulties pronouncing sounds or phonemes
  • Articulation disorders
  • Stuttering

According to ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist Katie Pedersen (M.Ed CCC-SLP), speech disorders can be divided into several categories. Her blog, Let's Grow Speech, offers numerous articles on the matter. Summarized, the categories are:

  • Articulation disorders: When speech sounds are made incorrectly. For example, one may use /w/ for /r/ when pronouncing a word.
  • Phonological disorders: These contain “consistent patterns of sound errors.” The example she gave was replacing sounds usually made in the back of the mouth (/k/ and /g/) with sounds made in the front (/t/ and /d/).
  • Stuttering: A disorder affecting speech fluency that results in the repetition or prolongation of sounds or words, making speech sound bumpy or tense (Pederson, 2014).
  • Voice disorders: Vocal cords are either damaged or not working properly.
  • Apraxia of speech: Problem with speech associated with possible brain damage. According to Pederson, this results in trouble sequencing the sounds or syllables of speech.
  • Dysarthria: The muscles associated with the creation of speech are weak. Strokes or other forms of brain injury can cause this. The effect is the individual’s inability to speak clearly.

Types of Language Disorders

Language disorder, on the other hand, pertains to how students interpret others. ASHA defines language disorders as “a person having trouble understanding others or having difficulty sharing thoughts, ideas or feelings.”

Language disorders are divided into two types:

  • Receptive Language Disorder: Having trouble understanding others' speech.
  • Expressive Language: The inability to communicate thoughts or feelings to others.
From the Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences, University of Buffalo, SUNY.

From the Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences, University of Buffalo, SUNY.

Possible Causes

These conditions do not have one definitive cause. There are several. In many cases, slight deformities or slow physical development in the student’s mouth (such as the tongue or upper palette) have been responsible for childhood speech and language disorders.

Mouth deformity is very common. As a special educator, myself, I had students with this condition. Currently (as of this writing), a senior on my caseload has had several operations to fix a deformity in her upper palette. Despite her struggles, she's fully mainstreamed and is an honor roll student that will be heading to University of California in Davis (UCD) to become a veterinarian.

There is evidence that damage to the brain (apraxia)—in particular, the part that processes speech and language—is the culprit, too. Again, I've had students designated with traumatic brain injury (TBI) who needed LAS services.

The causes are not limited to genetics or biology. Accidents or diseases, in particular, those affecting the oral or neurological regions, have been known to be factors. One such cause is a stroke. While it's rare among school-age children, it's common among adults afflicted by this medical condition.

"These conditions may hinder academic growth and may place a student behind his or her peers. However, it is, in most cases, mild and treatable."

Classroom Accommodations and Therapy

Often, speech and language disorders may require a minimum amount of accommodations in the classroom. In fact, those with speech disorders will either be pulled out of class for an hour each day or each week (depending on the severity of the case) or have speech therapy services in the classroom (this is known as a “pull-in” system and is practiced in various school districts throughout the United States).

Many students with these conditions will not require speech therapy services after middle school. A small number of students will continue this service through their high school years. Part of the reason is that the students develop speech and language skills early.

Those designated with the speech and language disorder label will most likely be exited from special education services by the time they finish their formal education, unless there are other learning disabilities affecting their ability to perform academically with their peers.

These conditions may hinder academic growth and may place a student behind his or her peers. However, it is, in most cases, mild and treatable.

My Son Is Progressing Well

My son is now in the 2nd grade. Although he still has to work on certain sounds (/r/ and /th/), his speech is starting to clear and he's able to orally communicate his thoughts to others with little difficulty.

Each year, he appears to be reach the goals expressed in the IEP while still being mainstreamed in his general education classroom. His grades, and his reading skills have improved, thanks to the pull-out intervention he is given on a weekly basis.

It is likely he will be exited from LAS services by the time he reaches middle school.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Dean Traylor


Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on October 16, 2014:

Actually, it can be caused by several factors. One thing I remember from my studies is that some it is caused by deformities or delayed development within the mouth (palate, tongue, top of throat) and/or brain (processing issues). Environmental factors as you mention can be a possibility; however, it's not always the cause. I have an adopted son who had delays do to the negligence of his mother. Once he was placed in foster care and eventually with us, his speech not only improved, but surpassed his age range.

Arco Hess from Kansas City, Kansas on October 15, 2014:

I once read that many language delays are due to lack of communication between child and adult. Is there any truth to this?