Understanding Language Problems
Language is a system of symbols that we use to communicate feelings, thoughts, desires, and actions. Language is the message contained in speech. Language can exist without speech, such as sign language for people who are deaf, and speech without language, such as birds that are trained to talk (Hardman et al., 2005). Students who have language problems have trouble with either or both of two key parts of language: receptive language and expressive language. Receptive language involves understanding what people mean when they speak to you. Expressive language concerns speaking in such a way that others understand you. Receptive language problems occur when students are unable to understand what their teachers and peers are saying. For example, students with receptive language difficulties may not understand questions, may have trouble following directions, and may not be able to retain information presented verbally. Students with expressive language problems are unable to communicate clearly; their spoken language may include incorrect grammar, a limited use of vocabulary, and frequent hesitations.
Students with language problems may also have difficulty using language in social situations. For example, they may be unable to vary their conversation to match the person with whom they are talking or the context in which it is occurring. Students with language problems may also have difficulty taking turns while speaking during a conversation, recognizing when a listener is not understanding the message and taking action to clarify, and in general being a considerate speaker and listener (Bos & Vaughn, 2005). As with problems in communicating clearly, problems in using language appropriately can seriously impede students' social development and peer relationships. General education teachers can intervene in the classroom to help such students socially.
Early language development forms the underpinning for much of the academic learning that comes when students go to school. It is not surprising then that students with speech and language disorders are likely to have trouble with academics as well (Catts & Kamhi, 2005). Problems with sounds can result in students' having difficulties acquiring word analysis and spelling skills. Receptive language problems can make comprehension very difficult and can result in trouble understanding mathematical terms such as minus, regroup, and addend and confusion in sorting out words with multiple meanings, such as carry and times (Mercer & Pullen, 2005). Furthermore, language disabilities can seriously impede the content-area learning stressed in middle, junior high, and high school. In these settings, much information is provided orally using lecture formats, the vocabulary and concepts covered are much more abstract, and students are expected to learn with less support from the teacher. These demands are difficult for students with language disorders.
Another part of learning independently is solving problems. Students with language disorders may have difficulty verbalizing the steps to solve a problem. For example, when Veronica, a language-proficient student, solves story problems, she talks to herself as follows: "First I need to read the whole problem. Then I need to decide what the problem is asking for and whether I need to add, subtract, multiply, or divide. Okay, the problem is asking how much Alex weighs. It says that Alex is 3 pounds heavier than Dominique and that Dominique weighs 125 pounds. So if Alex weighs 3 pounds more, his weight will be a bigger number than Dominique's, so I need to add." A student with language problems cannot talk herself through such problems.
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